From October 3 to October 11, seven hundred of the top sports car racers in the United States gathered at Road America, a 4-mile-long racetrack laid amid the rolling hills and brightly colored Fall trees of Sheboygan County Wisconsin. The state park like setting of Road America hides the challenge of 26 sprint races that crown the sports car racing National Champions at one of the world’s most famous racetracks. It’s win or lose on race day, no points system.
The history of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) National Championship Runoffs dates back to 1964 and has been held at numerous racetracks including Riverside, Daytona, Indianapolis, Road Atlanta, Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Road America, and more. The event has helped launch the racing careers of Roger Penske, Paul Newman, Bobby and Graham Rahal, Jimmy Vasser, Michael Andretti, and Randy Pobst.
The event is invitation only and consists of three qualifying sessions for each of the 26 types of race cars from Tuesday to Thursday and then a 52 mile sprint race to determine each champion.
Our preparation began in late June when we started testing development parts specific for this race. Our class has very few rules, so creativity tends to be rewarded. We worked on a new engine concept that included numerous new components. A lot of them worked, some didn’t. We also spent a lot of time working on the aerodynamic efficiency of the car. We added a wing and front “splitter” that will increase cornering speeds, but it must be balanced against a loss of straight-line speed. Once we tested and locked down the engine and chassis upgrades, the car was completely taken apart and every component was cleaned, checked, and replaced as needed.
Qualifying Session #1
Under a surprisingly warm sun, the top small “GT” car drivers took to the track for the first round of qualifying. The 20-minute session resulted in us taking the top spot with a 2:33.377 lap. The second-place qualifier was Peter Shadowen, a very quick prior National Champion. He was well off the pace at 2:38.993 with a significant engine problem.
Drama was quick to follow. After the session, as the fastest qualifier we were called into Impound, which is a quick check against a selection of the rules to ensure compliance. For example, they will check weight, wing height, and other items like the chemical makeup of the fuel used. In our class, the most important rule is the limitation of engine air by a mandated air restrictor, like NASCAR’s restrictor plate. We failed this test as the bolt that hold the clutch slave cylinder wore a tiny pin sized hole in the air intake tube after the restrictor, allowing a small amount of air into the engine.
Our times were disqualified, and we would have to try again the next day.
Qualifying Session #2
With fresh motivation from Impound the day before, we blistered the second qualifying session with a new lap record at 2:32.185. The next fastest car was Peter Shadowen at a 2:36, faster but still well off his normal pace as he was breaking in a new engine.
We were called into Impound to check the car after the failure of the prior day. The car passed Impound with flying colors. However, it was Peter’s day for Impound trouble and his times were eliminated for the day.
We were comfortably in Pole Position heading into the last day of qualifying, but we knew a number of drivers could improve their times. We would have to use the session to be certain that we would secure Pole and deal a final psychological blow to the rest of the field before the race.
It worked and we smashed the lap record again, this time turning a 2:31.943. The car felt great. It communicated well and was hyper responsive without being nervous or edgy. Shadowen’s mechanical issues arrived once more.
Once the final grid was determined, I would be starting on Pole. Along side me would be 9 time National Champion Joe Huffaker Jr. The second row would be Lans Stout and Graham Fuller with Peter Shadowen starting fifth after a week of headaches.
One of the challenges of the Runoffs is the amount of time spent waiting. Processing 700+ cars and 26 championship races takes time. Our final qualifying session ended at 1:30 Thursday and our race didn’t start until 3:00 on Sunday. It’s good to have an abundance of time to prepare the car, but it gives the driver too much time to think.
I knew I needed to get a good start and put distance between me and Shadowen while he was still buried in 5th place. I watched the start of the other races to see if the Starter has a “tell” just before he throws the Green Flag like a bad poker player. I researched the engine performance profiles of the cars starting around me to set a pace that plays into the strengths of my engine and weaknesses of theirs. The things that idle minds do to reduce anxiety.
Friday night we planned a special event at our pit area. My parents both passed away recently and were highly visible in the sports car racing business. They met at Road America in the early 1960’s, began organizing and producing events, raised us kids at various racetracks, and Dad later become Chairman of SCCA and most recently on the Board at Road America. We hosted a casual gathering for our racing friends on Friday night, and we were able to share family memorabilia and photos from nearly 6 decades in motorsports.
Each driver has a plan and they are all garbage the second the green flag flies. I’ve learned its best to stay loose. Either you’re leading or you’re not, so just remember your strengths and weaknesses to increase your lead or to get into the lead. Keep your mind uncluttered, take it one step at a time, and exploit every opportunity.
That said, the pressure is intense. The entire season rests on the next 45 minutes. We are not a big operation, so we rely on the passion and commitment of a core group of friends. It’s not just people we’re paying to do a job, it’s friends that we’re asking to work for a result that is far from guaranteed.
Road America has a large hill leading up to the start/finish line, and the Starter’s stand is not visible until you are close to it. As we crested the hill to see the Starter, with the other car’s engines buzzing and bouncing off the concrete walls that surround us, I was concentrating on the right RPM in the right gear for maximum torque. The start is critical…
I hit the throttle at the right moment, a fraction of a second before the Starter brought the flag up above is head. We lead into Turn 1
cleanly with the entire field fighting behind us. Don’t over slow the car for Turn 1, step by step. Leading into Turn 3 and the long straight to the downhill, hard left of Turn 5. The straights are a risk as our advantage is the corners, not top speed. We can control the race if we lead out of Turn 5 as the rest of the lap has more corners and fewer straights.
We do just that. Turn 6 was slippery and the rest of the field struggled. We quickly built an 6.5 second lead. The bad news was Peter Shadowen was already in second place. However, the race had settled a bit and now we had enough of a lead to manage tire use.
I’ve raced against Shadowen a lot and figured he could turn a 2:33 or maybe a high 2:32. He immediately tried to put the pressure on me by turning low 2:32’s and high 2:31’s eating into my lead. I picked up the pace and was exchanging fastest laps with him after my lead dropped to 5 seconds.
Even if I conserved my tires a bit for the end of the race and lost a couple of tenths per lap to Shadowen, I would go into the last laps with a stronger car and still retain a 4 second lead. This would work out just fine.
The Carousel is a signature corner at Road America. It’s a flat out, nearly 100mph, 180-degree right hander that drops about 50 feet in elevation. In the middle of the Carousel, about halfway through the race, the engine cuts out for a fraction of a second. My pulse rate jumps immediately, and our lead is cut in half.
I radio the crew to report a possible fuel pickup or electrical issue, but there is not much we can do to fix anything in a 45-minute race that’s half over.
Going up the front straight, it happened again. Then again in the Carousel, and in the middle of Turn 11. Coming out of Turn 12 the engine is down to 2 cylinders. It refires after what seems like an eternity. I pull over towards pit lane and we only have 2 cylinders again, barely enough power to get up the front straight hill. Shadowen is solidly in the lead now and our championship challenge is done.
Analysis suggests that two of the three engine mounts broke, and the engine rocked back under acceleration so much that it smashed into the ignition coil packs. One of the two coil packs was smashed to pieces, leaving us with only 2 cylinders firing.
There’s nothing better than when we win, and nothing worse than when we don’t. After an emotionally charged week where we seemed so dominate, nothing would have felt better than throwing my helmet through the side of the trailer.
However, sitting alone in the car in pit lane, listening to my competitors speed past on their way to a checkered flag that I would never see, I was reminded of why we started racing back in 1993. Racing was always meant to be a family bonding adventure. We would tow the car to the races together and I would learn both racecraft and responsibility under the watchful eyes of family. It was a unique opportunity to spend time together as a family with my Mom, sister, and our closest friends.
We never thought we would earn an invitation to compete for a championship and winning three was unimaginable. The idea of a sponsor was a long-shot dream on par with winning Powerball. It was never about achievement; it was about having fun with family and friends.
While we did not get the result that I think we earned, it was still a success.
To watch the race, please click here
• Hart Marx Advisors
• Goodyear Racing
• Schroth Safety
• Andrea Bovis
• Jim Dentici
• Bob Clark
• Carl Raglin
Special thanks to all of our families for their endless patience and understanding.
Photos by Austin Bradshaw