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Bill Benham Memorial National

copyright (c) 1992 by Terry Coates

The National race at Nelson Ledges earlier this year had been a huge disappointment for me. Blown motor aside, things had been looking up since that fiasco. The car had shed about 150 pounds, thanks to four less tires in the trunk and six fewer gallons of gas in the tank. I had been driving better, and I was still riding the high from my best finish of the year at Grattan. I was ready to attack this dragon anew.

Besides, I had nothing to lose and nothing to gain. Three first-place finishes would leave me about two points short of a Runoff's invitation. So, technically, the '92 season was over for me. I chose to attend this race because I was driving better than I ever had . . . and I "owed" Nelson Ledges one.

Nelson's was a pit, as usual. The remnants of Hurricane Andrew had flooded the area and made a mess of the paddock. On the bright side, it never would dry out enough to get dusty. And despite the nasty conditions, the people there were great. The atmosphere was relaxed and enjoyable, as always.

The forecast looked free of rain for the rest of the weekend. On this speculation I had founded a plan: To make the left-front tire last through the race, I would heat-cycle a tire during Saturday morning practice. A quick double-take at the schedule informed me that "practice" was actually the first of two qualifying sessions. Preparing a tire would cost me qualifying time.

I decided to stick with the plan anyway. I theorized that the rain had left the track cold and green. By the afternoon session there would be more rubber on the track and it would be warmer. If those qualifying times were faster, time lost this morning wouldn't matter. I also concluded that I had made up this plan and I wasn't going to change my mind simply because the facts indicated that I should.

Pat Breakey, best-man to-be, would do the duty in the pits. Rob Jones and I took the twin Buckeye Nissan Sentras to the grid for morning practice in numerical order. I pitted after four laps and we began changing the tire. I shouldn't say "we" began changing the tire. Pat jacked the car up, took off the old tire, put the new one on, and let the car down. I sat there, all buckled in, watching the dashboard clock.

Shortly before I was ready to go, cars streamed into the pits. Lots of cars. All of the cars, in fact, except Rob's Sentra. The session was red-flagged when he spun off and had to be pulled free of the muck that shouldered most of the course. Rob generally uses more of the track than most guys. This time he used substantially more.

Fortunately the red flag didn't shorten our session. I ticked off two consecutive laps in the low 1:23's. That was good enough for second in class with Rob a tick behind me. OVR member T.C. Kline managed only fifth in SSB but we knew he could not be counted out yet.

The tire that I had spent so much effort to cycle turned out to be unusable--at least for the left-front. Something on the track had carved a substantial slice of rubber from the inner-most tread-block.

To make matters worse, the second qualifying session would not be faster as I had guessed. Kline was one of the few to improve his time. He managed to put an SSA car between himself and me. Rob and I were bumped to fourth and third, respectively. More importantly, the lead SSB car had managed to put three SSGT cars between himself and Kline! Forrest Granlund was the best non-Miata SSC car, qualifying fourth. In SSGT, OVR's Ken McVicker qualified third.

Sunday morning Rob went out for emergency practice. He was trying to find out why his car had been so uncontrollable through turn one. Afterwards he would discover a blown rear strut. It was so bad that the tire was cutting itself on the fender. He swapped the strut for a bent one he had replaced the week before. The tire wouldn't be rubbing anymore, but positive camber on that corner of the car would terrorize him throughout the race.

Fantastic weather entertained the first race groups early in the day, but gradually it grew overcast and breezy. During the lunch break the clouds opened up. The Formula Vee group was scheduled to race after lunch, before Showroom Stock. I suppose it was wise that they were held up until the rain subsided but it was not good for us. Rob and I like the rain and figured a wet track was our only chance to catch the leader, some seven positions ahead on the grid. If the FV race had started on time we would have had a wet track throughout the race.

It was still wet when we hit the track, leading to a predictably messy start. The formation was poor coming down to the green, but the flag flew anyway. My line didn't get the best start and Rob, among others, got in front of me. The slick track made this the most heart-pounding session I've ever had. By the middle of the third lap I was right on Rob's tail, fourth in class. I was just starting to imagine the Sentras hooking up and running down the SSB leader when the race was red-flagged. Bob Strange had gone off at the end of the front straight. His Camaro was mired in mud, surrounded by three feet of water.

During the stop the track continued to dry. On the re-start, sections of the track were already completely dry, others only a little greasy. The greasy bits were just enough to keep Rob and I dicing with a Camaro and a Mustang, both SSGT. This waste of time was just enough to let T.C. Kline and the leader slip away, hopelessly out of reach.

A few laps later, Rob lost the battle with his positive camber. He went wide in turn one and the left-rear slipped off the track. The car bounded into the grass and Rob kept it there. I continued on, battling the slower SSGT cars. I passed the Camaro and put some distance on him but the best I could do with the Mustang was get inside of him in a couple of turns. When the track dried enough for them to resume brave racing, they ran away.

By this time the SSB leader was coming down the back straight as I was entering Oak Tree (for those unfamiliar with Nelson Ledges, that's nearly half a lap). T.C. was somewhere in between, out of sight, locked in second place. Once alone, I ticked off nine consecutive laps in the 1:24's. As the race leaders approached from behind the checker came out--for them, not for me. I proceeded to the finish, alone, on my fastest lap of the race.

Rob had taken his time getting back on the track. The spin put him out of contention for the third or second he needed to gain points. He finished sixth in SSB. Forrest Granlund worked his way past all of the Miatas save one, earning second place. Ken McVicker was fourth in SSGT rounding out OVR's participation. That marks the end of my National season. It was interesting. There will be another season next year and I'm certain the results will be better. I've already got a list of "Things to Do, Buy, or Find Out About" before next season. I'll have more time to prepare since I won't be stuffing a cage in the car come mid-April (as far as I know). From here it's a couple of regional races to get some track time and then a long winter of planning, saving money, and getting married

Now if I can just convince my better half that Bondurant is a remote desert hideaway . . .

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