The 1993 Runoffs
copyright (c) 1993 by Terry Coates
Over the years I've written a fair number of "first" articles. My first PRO Rally. My first road race. My first crash. My first win, etc. I was looking forward to my first Runoffs appearance since last year when I started running Nationals. The event is history now and my article covers three firsts: first visit to Road Atlanta; first trip to the National Championship; first Runoffs podium finish.
Due to bad planning, I managed to schedule an out-of-town engagement the week before Runoffs. I was gone from the day after WOR Games qualifying (where we shook down the car) until the very evening I was to leave for Road Atlanta. Not good. Essentially, I had to be packed and ready to go on two trips before I left for WOR Games on Friday. I was home just four hours between the two trips.
My wife's new job prevented her from making the trip so it was just crew-guy Pat Breakey and me for the long haul that began Thursday at midnight--one-half hour after I got caught up on work stuff and was able to leave.
The drive was uneventful except that it took us longer than we thought. We arrived at the track late Friday morning. We had missed half the Nissan test day. That was precious time, too, since I'd never seen the track before. I started to wish I'd run one of the races earlier in the season.
We used the lunch break to get things unloaded and began construction of the tent-town that would be home for the next ten days. In no time, we headed out for the first afternoon session.
I felt like an orange barrel out there. I was about ten seconds(!) off the pace, but at least there was a Spec Racer that I lapped two times in the first half-hour session. On the other end of the scale, the GT-something cars were sneaking up on me and blasting by regularly. But before too long, I at least knew what was around each corner.
Brake usage and tire wear seemed reasonable. We just kept pouring "the good-stuff" into the tank (for the price, it really ought to be green) and worked on getting times down. Road Atlanta is the best track layout that I've ever run. It is very fast and rather dangerous, but it is challenging and fun. By the end of the day, we were less than two seconds from the track record--about where we thought we would be after that much track time.
Saturday and Sunday were, technically, days of rest. We didn't do any more practice sessions, figuring that they would be of little value with the congestion out there. Instead, we secured our rental motor home and put the finishing touches on the paddock. The Buckeye Nissan Sentra SE-R was flanked by Harry Manning's Sentra and Tony Suever's MR-2. Our three canopies were lashed together. The motor home and my van were behind this and the others' service vehicles were on either end. It was a far better use of the space than each person squeezing into their own slot.
Monday brought the first practice session. We turned a 1:45.5 which was fifth fastest of the session. There was some time to be found still, but that was as good as we expected to do all week. It would be a battle to stay in the top five as others found more speed.
Tuesday's practice was combined with the SSC cars, making for a field of 72 cars. It was tough get a clear lap. Well into the session, a Mazda MX-3 got caught up in another car's spin down the big hill onto the front straight. He hit the tire wall and went airborne before falling from a height of about 20 feet (more or less, depending on who tells it) onto its roof. The front bar of the cage (and therefore, the roof) collapsed on the driver. The last we heard, he was paralyzed below the waist, but with no apparent cause. He should regain the use of his legs in a few months.
We went back out for the last five minutes of the session, having not yet clocked a good lap. There was only one full lap between warm-up and checkered flag, but that was all we needed. The Sentra pulled a 1:44.5 and ended up fastest of the day! I knew that was largely because of the traffic, but it sure roused some attention!
This was very good indeed, but I still thought it would be a battle to stay in the top five. I proved myself right during Wednesday's qualifying. It was not a good session. I was caught up in traffic most of the time and when a clean lap presented itself, the car understeered badly. There was no time to get a pressure adjustment by then so I hung back to make space for one last clean lap. As I crested the bridge turn, the checker came out early. A disappointing 1:45.9 was the best I could do in the first qualifying session. It landed us seventh on the grid.
The second qualifying session was Thursday morning. We were to be sent out with the SSC cars again, but because of Tuesday's carnage, we were to get half a session each, alone. As we sat on the grid it began to sprinkle, then rain. No times would be improved, but it was a good chance to learn the track in the rain, so we went out and dabbled a bit in the slickness.
So we were seventh on the grid. Despite SportsCar magazine's warning of the Sentra SE-R not having the "legs" for this fast course, there wsre three of them in the top seven. The Nissan NX-2000 (a Sentra in a mini-skirt) of David Daughtery was on the pole with Ken Payson's Mitsubishi Mirage second, followed by Harry Manning's Sentra, Fred Fiala's Mirage, Peter Tonelli's MR-2 and Rob Jones' Sentra. Pretty heady company in front of me, but my best practice time would have put me third on the grid, so I wasn't out of it yet.
Friday, race day, dawned overcast and cool. This would work in favor of the Mirages because of the turbo. There was little chance of rain. The morning warm-up was uneventful, mostly because I wasn't willing to go full guns and lose the car before the race. We weren't fast, but the car's balance felt good and we were ready.
Rumor had it that the start was jumped by Payson, forcing Daughtery to hit the go-button to prevent losing ground early. Whatever the reason, it was a classic "flying start" and we were well on the gas just over the hill leading onto the front straight. It was probably just as well. The longer full-throttle run allowed me to run up on Tonelli's MR-2, which lacks straight-line speed. Shortly before turn one, he cut to the inside and I streamed up outside of him.
We all made it through turn one with no carnage. I picked up another position when Rob Jones got caught outside. I was in fifth by turn two with a fair gap fore and aft. I was sure I could run down the two guys in front of me.
I did. In a couple of laps I was pressing Manning. Shortly after, I drafted him down the back straight and passed him under the bridge. I was instantly on Fiala's Mirage. I could out-power him down the back straight until the very end. Then the Mirage would pull even with me. Side-by-side under the bridge with Fiala inside, I had to let him go. This happened two laps in a row while Daughtery and Payson eased away, drawing out of reach.
The third time around, I had to try something else. I had a good run on him out of the turn onto the back straight and I pulled slightly ahead just as before. This time, however, I stayed mid-track and squeezed him inside heading toward the bridge. I allowed him room enough, but not so much that he could make the turn while carrying any real speed. He backed out and tucked in behind me. It was my best pass ever. And I was in third place!
But the race was only half over. It was some battle staying in third. I made a hundred little mistakes that kept me within reach of those behind. I was driving quite poorly, overheating my tires, and using up my brakes. I took defensive lines several times, aggravating the situation. Manning eventually battled back to fourth and closed near the end. On the last lap, he misjudged his braking and slammed me in the rear at turn three. I almost lost it. The car went sideways (and it was already loose by then) but I saved it. He backed out of the throttle to give me a chance, indicating he hadn't intended to contact me. I stretched it out a little as the battle behind me for fourth grew more dense. I crossed the line in third place.
On the cool-down lap, I waved to anyone with a hand; gave "thumbs-up" to anyone with a thumb. I could barely stand when I got out of the car. I was tired and thrilled, shaking from both. I will long remember the celebration in victory circle: third place in my first Road Atlanta appearance, let alone the Runoffs! There was champagne, the PA interview (which I didn't blow this time), and magazine interviews afterwards. It was some thrill.
Afterwards, I headed to the tech barn for the car's major surgery. I hadn't counted on this. Fortunately, Pat's brother Mike and two other friends of ours, Ryan Hark and Bryan Larick started removing the organs of the Sentra. We continued the destruction, spewing pieces I had never seen before, until the motor was naked and ready to come out of the car. It was six hours after the race, but it was over. Daughtery was declared the winner. The second place car was booted. We inherited second place. It was time to put the car back together.
We worked until midnight. Many thanks to David Downey and the OVR folk who supplied eats while we tried to re-assemble the car. Thanks also for the lone celebratory beer I had that night. The car is back together now, at Buckeye Nissan. Hopefully they can get it to start.
So I guess I'm the Runner-up National Champion in SSB. It still hasn't sunk in yet, which is good, because I can't afford a new helmet. I wish to extend many thanks to my wife, Pat, BFGoodrich, Buckeye Nissan, Dave Wenger at The North End Wrench, Hightech Graphics, OVR, and everyone else who had a hand in a the best summer in memory.
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