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First Overall

copyright (c) 1995 by Terry Coates

Ah, life is full of firsts. The first driver's school, first race, first pole, first win (oh sure, there are first loves, and all that junk, too, but I'm talking about racing here). I'm still waiting for that first National Championship, but while I wait, I'll be content with my first First Overall.

The setting was Road America, July 29-30, 1995. As is typical for late-season races, the turnout was light. During practice, Brian Kelm, driver of an SSGT Firebird, came up behind me. I let him go by, but the BMW's power allowed me to stay with him and even gain a little down the long straights that comprise much of the track.

I talked with Kelm after the session and we laughed about how much power the M3 has. He runs an old motor all year in an effort to drive harder against guys with horsepower. For Runoffs, he puts in the regular motor. That explains why I can close on him down the straights.

Brian's wife, Cathy, keeps a very good stopwatch and had times on the limited competition. Despite the presence of two other SSGT and two other SSA cars, Kelm reasoned that I was second fastest of the field (the A-Sedans were not grouped with us this weekend). He figured he'd have the pole and I'd have outside pole, second on the grid.

He figured correctly, posting a time about a second faster than my best effort, a 2:48.2. That was about half a second faster than our June Sprints race record set five weeks before and a touch better than our Sprints qualifying record. I was pretty happy to have set another record, but the real news was behind us: The next-best SSGT car slotted in about three seconds adrift of my BMW; the next SSA car was four-and-a-half seconds back.

Um, it looked as though we would win this one.

Kelm was concerned that the next SSGT car, a Mustang (nearly extinct in these parts for the past few years) would get the jump on us down the long straight after the start. Of course we should easily get back by and run away, barring any nastiness. Kelm didn't think his Firebird would be able to pull away from me much, but I figured a second a lap was pulling away plenty fast enough and I'd be racing all alone again, just like IRP.

Once again, he was right, or mostly right. At the start, the Mustang pulled around Kelm's Firebird and got completely in front of him. The beauty was that the pace of the pace lap was perfectly in my power band of second gear. When that green came out, the car scooted me out of there. Far enough ahead that the Mustang could only pull partially alongside. I easily out-braked him and established a small, but important lead coming out of turn one. I was leading the race!

By turn two, Kelm was past the Mustang and coming after me. Through the first lap, there were a few places where the Firebird would make up a lot of time on me, but I always pulled away down the straights. At the end of the first lap, I still led with the Firebird close behind, falling away as we zoomed down the front straight. The rest of the field was already fading in our mirrors.

Turn one was my best corner. The car really hooked up through there and allowed me to build a pretty significant margin. I could maintain most of that lead until the Carousel. There, the Firebird's wider tires allowed Kelm to be nearly flat on the gas. I had to work the car around there some and if I messed up at all, he was all over me on the exit. Worse yet, the kink follows that turn and he was flat through there also. I was not (but probably could have been had it been important enough) and it allowed him to stay close through the last few turns. Then down the front straight I would pull away again and we're back to where we started, heading into turn one.

I was ecstatic to have led the second lap. I knew my best efforts would eventually not be good enough to hold him off, but I was keen to see how long I could stay in front.

By the third or fourth lap we were still leading and I thought I heard my wife, Cheryl, giving me times over the radio that sounded suspiciously like "forty-six point mumble-mumble-something." The radio wasn't quite loud enough for me to make it all out, but after two or three of those I started thinking, "Geez, we must be flying!"

We were. The Firebird was pushing me harder than I thought and I was driving the wheels off the BMW. This was the exact same car that won the June Sprints--I hadn't even re-aligned it since then--and on lap eight, we turned a 2:46.386; a time two-and-a-half seconds faster than the best race lap five weeks before. The Firebird's best was just three tenths better than mine. Needless to say, we set a lap record on that lap.

With three laps to go, something got in Kelm's eye. He thought it was a fluid, like gasoline, that came from my car. Whatever it was, it bothered him to the point where he dropped back and we easily held him off to the end. We won. Not just first in class, but first overall.

Okay, so it was first overall of a less-than-full field. Sure, Kelm could have passed me if he really wanted to--or needed to, but neither of us was interested in doing anything risky. I gave him a lot of room and he didn't take any questionable opportunities. Even if the overall victory wasn't completely earned, the time that we set was. And I raced with someone for a change.

Having that SSGT car behind we was the best thing that could have happened that day. Had he led from the start, I might well have dropped back and ended up racing alone (if you call that racing). Instead, he pushed me to my most impressive drive ever. Thanks, Brian.

With three races to go, we're making big progress toward getting fast enough to be the fastest. I don't think we're there yet, but we're leading Central Division SSA points already and we haven't had one single test day to try and optimize brakes, alignment, or tire pressures. With any luck and any progress, though, perhaps we'll get that final, elusive "first" this October.

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