Fast, Not Furious
by Kirsten Dell
(First appeared in the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course Runoffs® Souvenir Program, September, 2001)
In my humble opinion (or "IMHO," for you Internet surfers), two movies were released this past summer, unfortunately on the heals of the death of Dale Earnhardt, that probably did more damage to the general public's perception of auto racing than anything else ever could. First, we suffered through the abominable, choppy, nonsensical Driven with Sylvester Stallone, and then there was the hype surrounding The Fast and The Furious, with the media automatically assuming that anybody who watched the movie would leave the theaters and head straight to the nearest back roads and start drag racing at 100-plus miles per hour, placing life, limb, and the safety of others in great jeopardy.
So, I'm here to tell you about some drivers who are definitely fast, but far from being furious. In fact, they're some of the happiest people you'll find, because they're doing what they love, and that's racing, the way racing was meant to be done!
Chances are there are not too many weekends between January 1 and December 31 each year that there's not some sort of a Sports Car Club of America ("SCCA") event going on somewhere in this country, whether it's an autocross (timed, precision driving through pylons), a rally (driver and navigator following a set course of instructions within a predetermined period of time), or road racing (all out wheel-to-wheel competition).
Active participation within the SCCA is not limited to driving competition. The SCCA provides volunteer workers at race tracks and street courses all across the country no matter what sanctioning body is conducting a race (be it CART, IRL, SCCA, ALMS... ), chances are the workers you see on television are proud members of the SCCA.
But, for this week here at Mid-Ohio, we celebrate the amateur road racer. Sure, there may be a few competitors in the SCCA who are competing at this level as a stepping stone to more well-known professional racing series. After all, the SCCA was a starting ground for the likes of Elliot Forbes Robinson, Bobby Rahal, Scott Pruitt, Michael Andretti, Al Unser, Jr., Jimmy Vassar, Scott Sharp, and Paul Newman.
Runoffs® competitors are the cream of the crop in SCCA amateur road racing. Nationally, the SCCA is divided into eight divisions, and the top ten drivers from each division, in each of the 24 available classes, are invited to compete in the Runoffs®. (This could, by the way, theoretically mean a total Runoffs® entry of 1920 cars! Put that up against your little 40-plus car NASCAR field!) To be eligible for the Runoffs®, drivers must have four starts and three finishes, as well.
The 24 classes available to the SCCA national road racer offer possibilities for many different types of cars, from new model street cars straight off the dealers' showroom floor (with safety equipment added, of course), to tubs, to tube-frames, to the formula car open-wheeled classes. The 24 classes available also make it possible for a racer to conform his or her personal racing program to a reasonable (or not so reasonable) budget.
The majority of the drivers you'll see here this week aren't planning on moving to other racing series, and most don't even plan on moving up to one of the fine Pro racing series offered by the SCCA. They aren't here racing for money or even for manufacturers' contingencies. The competitors here this week are on that track simply because they love to race. A few of them will take home a trophy, but only 24 drivers out of the over 600 in competition this week will take home national championships.
I'd like to take a moment to tell you about just a few of the many local SCCA competitors from the Ohio Valley Region ("OVR") that you'll see competing here this week. Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course has not been kind to many of our OVR members with crashes, mechanical failures, and other gremlins many of OVR's best drivers have no finishes here at their home track this year. Despite their season's disappointments, they all still enjoy this sport, and they keep coming back, and they zealously endeavor to qualify for the honor of competing for the national championship.
Not everyone has heard of the SCCA — within our own club, we sometimes joke that we are really the Secret Car Club of America. Dave Roush, who has been trying to qualify not one, but two showroom stock cars for Runoffs® this year (a Mazda Miata in SSB and a Mazda Protegé in SSC), grew up 15 minutes from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, but didn't know a thing about the SCCA until after he met some Porsche Club people. After a few Porsche Club events, some autocrosses, and a few Tracktime Schools, Dave wanted to take it up to the next level. Then, and only then, did he learn about SCCA racing.
Dave knew he wanted to go racing, and he researched the SCCA classes and the potential costs of running each. "Showroom Stock looked most affordable to me then, and it still does now. It's a great beginning for people who want to do Nationals," Dave says. He had his heart set on a Mazda Miata, and he found a wrecked one that he fixed so that it was "streetable." At about the same time, Gary Fratiane, another Mazda afficionado, totaled his car, so he contacted Dave and suggested he bring his Miata up to Cleveland to make one viable race car. They worked hard on the car and its set-up, and worked out an agreement that Gary would compete in Nationals, and Dave would compete in Regionals. Dave got started with an SCCA driver's school, and his second school requirement was waived, and he was off and racing.
He met another Showroom Stock pal, Juergen Baumann at his first regional race at Indianapolis Raceway Park ("IRP"). Dave and Juergen and his wife Lori Baumann, all became such good friends that they now co-own two cars together, one of which is a Mazda Protegé. "Jurgen is an iron man," Dave says. "On Thursday before the [July] National at Nelson, he decided to race the Protegé at Nelson, and he had it ready to go that Friday."
Dave's had a busy 2001 season, helped along with sponsorship from Mazda, Redline Oil, Hawk Brakes, and Kumho Tire, and the support of friends like the Baumanns. By mid-July, he had already competed in ten races, six in the Miata, and four in the Protegé. He's had a few disappointments this season. He crashed here at Mid-Ohio in June, after getting the pole in qualifying, and he hit the wall at IRP in July, finishing his race weekend there. Dave is not daunted by such minimal disappointments, though. His goal is to win the Central Division in the SSB car, and he also hopes to qualify the Protegé in SSC. "I feel like I'm going to Runoffs® to have a blast. I'm out there to go out and have fun on the track."
"Juergen and Lori are the greatest." Dave speaks of them quite enthusiastically. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be racing two cars." But racing's not the only reason Dave's a part of the SCCA. When he talks about racing and the friendships he's made, especially with Juergen, he says, "If I gain nothing else from SCCA, I've gained a lifelong friend, and that's great."
Jack Smith, a Formula 500 competitor, first became involved in the SCCA when J.R. Thomas made him "volunteer" as a worker for the first Columbus 500. "I'm still a licensed course worker," he says. He then got involved crewing for 24-hour endurance racing teams. He and his wife, Andrea, crewed at The Glen and the last Firehawk Race here at Mid-Ohio. Jack fulfilled his SCCA school requirements by taking schools at IRP and probably one of the last SCCA schools held at Mid-Ohio.
By mid-July, Jack had not yet qualified for Runoffs®, sitting in 13th spot in the Central Division, calculating the points necessary and the events needed to move into the top ten and qualify for an invitation to the big show. "I'm hopeful," he said. "Rain has been the worst problem" for him this year. He got in only a few laps at IRP, and he had starter/electrical problems, so he didn't get in the kind of testing he had hoped for there. He did manage a fourth place finish at Nelson Ledges in May, and finished 11th at IRP, but ended up with a DNF ("did not finish") at Mid-Ohio, his home track.
"He has been in the gravel so much this year, he has a get-out-of-gravel-free card," his wife, Andrea says. Jack laughs, "Yeah, we had to do a lot of work after IRP. This has been the year of fiberglass."
When asked about the best thing about this year's season, Jack doesn't hesitate when he responds, "entering Ron's world," referring to his crew chief, Ron Dick. Ron has put a lot of effort into the car. The car has improved, and the whole set-up is different, but "I've gotten slower, not faster," says Jack. "I'm apprehensive," he says, "I just want to finish I had no finish last year." (A rear suspension piece broke, putting him in the gravel at Turn 11, but they didn't know the actual problem until two weeks after Runoffs® when they tore down the car.)
Jack has consistently found himself impressed by the people in the SCCA. "The people always help if you need it," he says. "All you have to do is ask," but he also says that, if you ask four different people what they love best about the SCCA, you'll get four different answers.
John Schmitt, a tall, lanky fellow, is what I would call a "drive-a-holic." He first became involved in SCCA racing back in 1984, building a Sports Renault, which he helped a friend maintain so the friend could drive. "I'd always wanted to drive," John says, and then he started working for Honda, hoping for a chance at one of their racing teams. (They have a professional and a club racing team.) John's current car, a Honda Prelude (sponsored by Hoosier Tire, Redline Oil, and DC Sports) that he runs in E-Production, was one of Honda's Firehawk cars. Michael Galati bought it, and then John bought it from him. He had previously budgeted a racing program for two Honda Civics, which he co-drove with Kevin Adams.
John's addictive behavior (racing history) proves that he would drive anything, anywhere. He ran Performance Ford Club autocrosses at Powell and Columbus Motor Speedways, and he even has a trophy for the most cones knocked down, which he won in a Ford Mustang Turbo. John did one SCCA driver's school and his second school was waived, due to his driver training at Honda, which has performance driving courses for its engineers (car control, slaloms, etc.). "Roger Schroer and Pete Cunningham were wonderful instructors," John says.
John possibly stretches himself a bit too thin on the driving thing. He not only competes in SCCA nationals, but by mid-July, he had already run eight races in the GrandAm Series, finished his MBA in June, had three races (and three wins) in the E-Prod Honda, and an eighth place finish at Mid-Ohio and a third-place finish at Nelson Ledges in an SSB Integra rented from Juergen and Lori Baumann. "The worst thing this year has been fitting in the schedule."
Apparently immune to the OVR Mid-Ohio driver curse, John says the best thing about his season was his race at the CD-ROC National here in June. "I just got out, got a good lead, and had a good race." And he's "semi-confident" about Runoffs®. He doesn't feel he has the best car in dry racing conditions, and feels "there are so many other good drivers and good cars out there," that he'll just keep working at it. "I learned a long time ago how to be a good sportsman and just go ahead and have fun," John says.
And when asked whether he prefers amateur or Pro racing, John doesn't hesitate when he responds, "I like the club racing better than pro racing. People are just it's the people. They're all like family to me. Big, big, big family. That's the big thing to me."
Last, but not least, we have to visit with the aforementioned Juergen and Lori Baumann. Juergen watched racing when he was a kid and especially like the big, bunched up fields of the VW Cup. About five years or so ago, a friend of his purchased an SCCA car, and Juergen decided he had to get one too. "I'd always wanted to race, and I got addicted." So, he got an ITB Rabbit, which his wife Lori says was pretty well rusted out. Juergen went all the way to Florida to pick it up, and he got a speeding ticket on the way home. When he explained to the kind police officer that he was bringing it home to turn it into a race car, the officer asked only one question, "why"?
Juergen did SCCA schools to get his competition license, including the regional at IRP where he met his friend, Dave Roush. He eventually graduated from the Rabbit to Dodge Neons. "I always go overboard," he says. "Since 1996, I've probably had 50 to 60 Neons I fixed as street cars," but he only has 15 to 20 of them right now, "for parts cars." He really wanted a Miata, but he ended up with Acura Integras. He and his wife, Lori, rent out Showroom Stock cars, providing support and technical advice to their customers.
Lori, in the meantime, did all the leg work, and she crewed, and she liked it, but she desperately wanted to be in the car. So she did her SCCA schools, one of which was at Nelson Ledges, and she, too, got her competition license. She drove the Neons ("they're squirrely") and drove an ITB Golf ("it was Heaven"), and she's even a several-time member of the 360-degree club, including a clip up/ nose drop on the hatch, and almost a flip. She's hit walls too, and she still comes back saying "it's fun."
Lori's concerned about qualifying for Runoffs®. At the time of our interview, she was feeling a little concerned about points. "We've already been out nine times this year, and I'm still sixth in points." She says she started out driving slower this year than last year. "Juergen says it's because we got married. I think it's because I turned 30." The highlight of her season was out-qualifying and beating Juergen at Savannah. Looking towards Runoffs®, she says, "I'm always looking for a good time, but I'm worried about qualifying. I hope to do better next year. I have four weekends of track time coming up before Runoffs®, so I hope to do better. I think the guys don't worry about stuff as much. I'm kinda nervous, kinda excited, kinda worried. If we were in a different division, I could run four races and be done."
Juergen hasn't been bitten by the OVR Mid-Ohio curse, but he feels he's just plain had a "bad luck season." (Lori says his season "sucked.") He had a 25-second lead at Road Atlanta earlier this year, and a wheel bearing went out without warning. At Gingerman in April, he forgot to go to Impound at the end of his race (the top three finishers generally go to Impound for the 30-minute protest period after each race group). At the Sprints at Road America in June, he had qualified second, but he only got in one lap. In May, he was leading the race at Nelson Ledges, and another driver took him out. "I'm tired of being the bridesmaid, never a bride," he says.
But, by mid-July, the Baumanns had already been out to nine events, and Juergen had qualified for Runoffs® in both SSB and SSC. "I'm ready for Runoffs®," he said. "I think I will do better in B than C. I started 43rd last year, but I finished 11th, and I've got a good car if it rains!"
Juergen's not kidding himself that it's going to be easy, and he doesn't expect anything to be handed to him. "Very seldom do you get a race given to you in B or C," he says. "You've gotta work for it." He says that the best races are "SSB and SSC, and the 'spec wreckers' (Spec Racers), those classes that stay together, bunched up, that's good racing, because there's a monkey on your back the whole time." His wife Lori agrees. "In CenDiv, there's so many people competing, if you do decent in CenDiv, you're a good driver the level when you're in the top ten here, you're a damned good driver."
And these two know what they're talking about. Of the 24 national champions at the 2000 Runoffs®, 13 of them were from the Central Division (nine of them from Ohio SCCA regions), and in 1999, ten of the 24 national champions came from CenDiv (half of them from Ohio)!
So these are just a few of the OVR members you'll see competing for national championships. We left out Rusty Bell, Mid-Ohio track announcer, in his GT4 Toyota Tercel, who hasn't gotten a finish during the regular racing season at his home track of Mid-Ohio for the last two years; or, Sue Rupp, one of the first female racers in OVR, in her G-Prod Nissan 510, who's also been bitten by the Mid-Ohio curse this year; or, Brian Culbertson, also a Mid-Ohio track announcer, who's vying for his very first shot at Runoffs® in a VW GTi in G-Prod; or, Phil Alspach, who's been racing since the cave men invented the wheel, competing in his D-Sports Racer; or, Jeremy Swank, who was OVR's Novice Driver of the Year in 2000, who's competing in F500 on his way to his first Runoffs®. There are so many others out there with great stories to tell — the wonderful people who make the SCCA a true family of racers.
How do we convince people that SCCA racing really is the best racing in the country? Dave Roush says "I would encourage people to come to a race with me. I've met people you've gotta get them there, you can't just tell them I think we've got a pretty good thing going." But, Lori Baumann probably sums it all up the best: "It's really fun. It's a big high that's legal, because you can't go to jail for it. The people are really great. The friends that you make they're just kind of neat. I think it's the combination of the high and the people, but you gotta remember that nice little buzz..."
Either way, a lot of the high of SCCA racing comes down to the people.