copyright (c) 1993 by Terry Coates
Practice Session: Never seen the track before. Qualifying Session 1: Second in class. Qualifying Session 2: Pole in class. Race: Won June Sprints. I hate to give the ending away so early, but I can't help myself. You needn't read on--the rest of the article is just fluff.
A ten-hour tow brought us to the entrance of Road America. Precisely two days before I had finished a twelve-hour drive from vacation. Even with my crew-guy, Pat Breakey, taking the last tank of driving duties, I was tired. And grumpy. My throat was sore from the summer cold I had imported from North Carolina. The line for registration was two hundred feet long and registration didn't open for another hour!
We dropped the car from the dolly and went in search of camping. Directly across the street from the track is a house with a "campground" for a yard. We pulled in. The driveway is littered with signs reading "No Loitering", "Don't Ask--The Answer is No!", "Bring the Money to the House", and "$7 per person per weekend" among others. That's $28 rent for some grass, a few garbage cans, and two portable toilets. For some reason, we decided to leave. The people in the house stared menacingly from the windows.
After stopping for directions two or three times we finally arrived at the county's "Marsh Park". It is what it sounds like, and there was a constant breeze from the mosquito flight paths. On the plus side, however, it was only $6 per night and had showers. Pat and his wife, Jodi, would endure the tent while my trusty wife and I would sleep in the trusty van.
But before sleep there was dinner (Potato Pancakes and Brats at the Marsh Park Lodge), registration, and tech inspection. By the time we got back to the track, there was no line. We registered and I took the car through tech while the others set up our paddock. We were done by dark and reasonably prepared for the morning session, though I still hadn't seen the track. Walking a four-mile track is debatable. At dusk it is out of the question.
A persistent cough kept me up half the night but I rose at dawn anyway. We hadn't discovered the showers yet, so we picked up some coffee and ambled off to the track.
For the size of the event, it didn't seem overly crowded or busy. Sure the paddock area was packed, but that's no different from any other race. There were more spectator-types than usual, especially for a day of practice and qualifying.
The Friday morning practice was typical for me on a new track: Slow down on the flat-out corners, muff the decreasing radius turns, and brake too early everywhere else. Nevertheless, by the end of the session we were about three seconds off the track record and knew where most of the missing time should come from. There was little to do before the afternoon qualifying session and about five hours in which to do it. Every session brought new brake pads. The Sentra SE-R possesses incredible stopping power, but it can really eat through front brake pads under the extreme heat of a fast track like Road America. There was little hope of making a set of pads last the full race distance.
Two laps into the first qualifying session the car got very noisy. Exhaust leak. I brought the car into the pits and Pat diagnosed that the Oxygen sensor had blown out of the exhaust manifold. The car would run okay without the sensor, though it would be a bit loud and very illegal. I came in after two more hot laps and ducked behind the wall to avoid impound.
I managed to knock 1.5 seconds off my practice time, but half the session was wasted on cool-down laps and time in the pits. As long as the track conditions didn't deteriorate greatly by morning, we could get somewhat faster. As it was, we were second on the grid in SSB. A fellow Nissan driver lent us an Oxygen sensor and we left the track with hopes intact.
That night my gang and Tony Suever ate at one of the many "Supper Clubs" in the area. It appears that dining out is one of the few activities in mid-east Wisconsin. There are more eateries than bars and gas stations combined. This particular joint had average prices for a "nice" restaurant, but supplied entirely too much food. Ask Tony about his appetizer of Clam Fritters: five or six fritters, each larger than a White Castle hamburger. The food only got bigger after that.
The night was cooler, "the cough" less intrusive, and I was slightly better rested for the second qualifying session, the morning of race day. We finally got a shower before heading back to the track.
Most folks who had raced at Road America before didn't better the previous day's times. The track was definitely not faster. Many, including myself, came up with faster times and changed the order quite a bit. I got the pole and wedged an SSGT Mustang between my SE-R and the next SSB car. Barely 0.6 seconds separated the first five SSB cars. A lone SSA car separated the next three "B" cars, OVR's Tony Suever rounding out that pack and gridding eighth. It looked to be very interesting.
The race was late Saturday afternoon. The skies were clear but it was windy. On the warm-up lap I could see a lot of SSB cars in my mirrors. I hoped they would stay there.
The start began with surprising control considering the elapsed distance since the pace car pulled off the track. The green finally came out very near the starter's platform. I did my best to draft the faster cars in front of me. By the end of the straight I had a small lead. The next few turns were clean and bunched up cars enough for me to catch a great draft from a 300ZX down one of the long straights. I had opened up a decent lead now. A Camaro spun off, causing a moment of uncertainty, but he stayed wide and I had a clear track ahead.
I ran the first few laps at a pace about 1 second slower than qualifying. This was my "the brakes must last" pace yet I still eased away from the next SSB cars, battling amongst themselves. On the fifth lap (of 12) an SSA car blew the kink at probably over 100 mph and tagged the wall hard. Naturally, a yellow flag came out and we slowed to a safe pace through the kink. Lap times became another one to two seconds slower.
At this point, barring the unforeseen, I felt I could easily maintain my lead and win. The brakes were holding up well and my cushion was some ten seconds. Then, the unforeseen came un-barred.
The driver of the crashed 300 was being cut from his car. There were three or four safety vehicles on the scene, but the race was not stopped. The workers weren't happy with the speed of the cars racing through the area, so the yellow was extended back two corners. This had no effect on speeds after the first time, though, because we had all been through there and knew where the trouble was. We slowed for the problem as before: no more and no sooner.
Meanwhile, the fourth-place SSB car had charged to second and was catching me. I was still saving my brakes and wasn't too worried, but I caught a back-marker at the leading edge of the extended yellow and had to follow him through it before I could pass. By the finish, my lead had dwindled to just 5 seconds. But I still had brakes!
Stopping the race would have removed all of my lead, but I think that is what should have been done. If it was too dangerous for the yellow flag, the answer was not more yellow flags.
So I won. My wife, Cheryl, grabbed the huge checkered flag and we took the long, slow victory lap. It was great. There were spectators at every corner. We drove the car into impound only to be whisked off via golf cart to the winner's circle for photos and champagne. And while I'm rarely at a loss for words, I sure bungled the P.A. interview.
The usual protests delayed results until Sunday morning so we camped over one more night. After a shower and a big breakfast we picked up the results, trophy, and a handful of car-cleaning products before heading home. It couldn't have worked out better. Except for the P.A. interview.
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