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1994 Valvoline Runoffs (tm)

copyright (c) 1994 by Terry Coates

The harbingers were wrong. The Runoffs' move to Mid-Ohio did not signal the end of the earth. I have heard two "reports" of how badly the competitors were treated and how the spirit and tradition of the event were totally absent. But those who attended are probably wondering what planet those folks were from.

I won't dwell on this, because it really isn't important. But I was pleasantly surprised at how the whole thing came off at its new, if temporary, home. There were problems, but the only one I had was with the Mid-Ohio paddock person who really wasn't reasonable. It all turned out, however, as there was more paddock space available than anyone imagined. And because the area is more square than the wandering river of paddock at Road Atlanta, we must've walked only half as far as we did last year.

And the weather will probably never be that good during that week again.

But on to our exploits. We tested the Tuesday before Runoffs, courtesy of Kumho tires, and found a setup that worked great. The car felt better than it ever had. The track was good that day, for sure, but we turned a personal fastest and felt good about our chances.

Monday's early morning practice session was short because the SSB and SSC cars were too numerous to share the track. Though it was only a ten minute session, we looked good. Though the magic setup, which we began referring to as "the Tuesday", was not altogether there, we posted the fastest time of the group.

Tuesday's practice was a full twenty minutes. This session was in the afternoon, the sun was out, and it was considerably warmer than it had been during our previous test day and Monday morning. We spent much of the session in the pits working on pressures because "the Tuesday" was not just absent, the car felt terrible. Still, we ended up third fastest, but made no progress on getting the car dialed-in.

Wednesday was the first qualifying session. This was again shortened to ten minutes due to overpopulation and the car still didn't feel right. Because the session was so short, we didn't make any effort to change the setup mid-session. Instead we hoped to maximize whatever was there in case the rain forecast for Thursday should materialize. We ended up third fastest again, which was a little surprising because of our problems. OVR's Tony Suever had the provisional pole, about two-tenths ahead of us. Our own Rob Jones also managed a top-ten time, landing seventh--only about six-tenths off Tony's mark.

After the session, we discovered a ticking sound coming from the left-rear wheel. It was thought to be a wheel bearing, though we hoped it wasn't that serious. Tony came to the rescue, providing a hub the next morning. We took our spare bearing and the hub to Stephens Racing, a Spec Racer prep team. They used their press and, for the appropriate amount of beer, assembled a new knuckle for us. We got it installed with minutes to spare before Thursday's qualifier.

The session did turn out to be dry. It was cooler and overcast, which we thought would work in our favor, since "the Tuesday" was found on a cool, overcast day. It was not to be. The car didn't feel right and was definitely lacking grip. Three other drivers didn't have that problem and we were bumped from third to sixth on the grid. Tony Suever was edged for the final pole by a tenth of a second. Rob Jones suffered the same fate as us. Unable to better his time from the previous day, he slipped to ninth.

If it seems like I've buzzed through the week's activities quickly, it's because the race is the thing. Well, impound is sometimes the thing, too, but I don't want to give too much away just yet.

Starting from sixth, I figured, wasn't such a bad thing as long as two "if's" went in our favor: We would be okay IF the horsepower cars didn't get tangled up with me on the start and IF the setup came around. I was the caboose of a six-car MR2 train whose engine was on the pole. Behind me was a string of Nissans that had far superior straight-line speed. IF they got past me at the start, I'd have a heck of a time getting back past them and I'd lose the front-runners for sure. After that, IF the car was hooked-up, I felt sure we could stay with the front-runners and battle for the lead.

The start went more-or-less as expected. There was a Mazda MX3 that seemed to hit a lot of folks early and eventually had a furled black flag shaken at him. He bumped me a couple of times, but he faded back and we were fifth after the first lap. One more lap and we moved into fourth and things settled down. Tony Suever was in third, a short distance ahead. He had battled an overheating problem all week and after a few more laps I began to smell coolant. I could see the water escaping from Tony's car and some was settling on my windshield. I knew that would give him problems, but still he kept the car up there.

My car didn't feel like I knew it must to run for the lead, but I did my best to stay with the leaders. They drew away very slowly--we weren't losing much ground to them. I held on to fourth until lap 10 when I went wide into the grass coming out of Thunder Valley. Another MR2 slotted in front of me, but I lost little ground. Over the next few laps, the gap to fourth place stayed about the same while the gap to the leaders grew very slowly. Then the call came over the radio: Five laps to go!

The car's handling had deteriorated to the point where oversteer was the norm. I had even gotten used to going through the carousel sideways, because that's what the car wanted to do. My plan was to run down fourth place slowly, so as not to abuse the tires any more than necessary. Realistically, third was out of reach.

With about three laps to go, Tony and the second place car got together and slowed. Suddenly, second place was a possibility! Tony's car was overheating so badly it was losing power and he dropped back to fifth. Now, at least, passing the car in front of me meant finishing third. I figured that fourth was as good as fifth, sixth, or tenth . . . I had to try for the podium. With two laps to go, I picked up the pace and starting taking a few chances, especially given the sore state of my handling at this point. But any progress made from charging one corner was lost when the car would get loose coming out of the next. One lap to go.

I could only close on the car ahead of me at the end of the back-straight, but I needed to get close enough to make a real try at it. That meant maximizing my speed from turn one through the Keyhole. I went into turn one as fast as I thought I could. Unfortunately, I was slightly mistaken, and the back of the car started to come around. I corrected (as I had been doing six or seven times each lap now) and had the spin mostly saved when the right-rear tire caught a curb. The resulting spin was instant and violent. I slid into the grass and nearly hit the wall.

But I didn't stall it! Tony went back by. I jammed the car in first gear and pulled back onto the track just after another MR2 and Rob Jones' 240SX had also gone by. Rob's car wasn't sticking very well now, either, and I was able to pull alongside of him into what we usually call "nine" (the right-hander at the bottom of the hill in Madness). I expected he would slide out into me on the exit, and he did. I got a little sideways, but we continued side-by-side to the entrance to Thunder Valley.

Coming over the hill, we touched and I got sideways again. I saved the car from spinning once again, but lost enough time that Rob was able to power past me up Thunder Valley and lead into the Carousel. I caught right back up to him, but with only a few hundred feet to go, we crossed the finish line nose-to-tail. I ended up a disappointing seventh.

There was some consolation in that I had given it all I had. Those who spoke to me afterwards seemed aware of the problems I was having and could recognize that I did everything I could. I made only two significant mistakes in my driving, far less than the number of miscues in last year's Runoffs. This time, however, I had those mistakes to blame for the loss of four positions.

I couldn't have known that four of the top five cars would be booted in post-race tech. If I thought even one of the top four was illegal, I could easily have stayed fourth on the track and inherited a podium finish (which, as it turns out, would have been first), but hindsight is 20/20 and I couldn't possibly give up in a race thinking I'd claim the checker in impound.

Those who were found illegal maintain their innocence, as they are expected to do. While there may be some question as to the significance of the impropriety, one of the tossed persons I talked to mentioned that "what people have done for years, we can't get away with anymore." Sounds a little like a left-handed admission of guilt, doesn't it? Whatever the four MR2's were thrown out for, Tony's passed. There's some justification in that.

So the final result was something I'd hoped for, an all-Ohio Valley Region sweep. Tony Suever is our 1994 SSB National Champion with Rob Jones the runner-up and yours truly the bronze medalist. It can't be very often that a region sweeps a class at the Runoffs. It is also a rare thing that none of us can credit our success to engine builders. None of us have one. Imagine that, showroom stock cars on the podium of a showroom stock race.

After finishing second last year, I wanted to win this one. But twice in the top three in two attempts is not at all bad and there's always next year. Sharing the podium with two friends and two of the fastest, cleanest racers I know was the next best thing. We'll stay with the MR2 for 1995 and take on the Neon Coupe, with all its horsepower. It's not going to be easy defending the CenDiv crown, but we'll give it our best. Kumho tires will be on board again and we hope to assist them in making an already great tire even better.

A final 1994 thanks to The Observer's Stand for allowing me space to ramble endlessly (and a special salute to anyone who actually reads this far into the articles). Thanks to my wife and timer, Cheryl, my crew chief, Pat Breakey, Toyota, Kumho, and HighTech Signs for another fantastic year.

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