Monday, September 5, 2011

You Always Remember....

It's so cliche. "You always remember your first." But, more so than the D Stock Ladies National Championship, more so than the E Street Prepared Ladies National Championship, I will remember my first open class trophy at the SCCA Solo National Championships as being one of the most incredible times in my autocrossing career.

It was only seventh in ESP. It was the last trophy position in the class. But, to me, it finally validates my driving in a way two ladies class championships and too many times on the bubble never could. 

trophy and picture (picture from Rupert Berrington Photography)
Let's rewind to the Friday after the Packwood ProSolo. I'd left my car at IAG Performance because the timing belt was about to fail -- talk about excellent timing! -- and so my departure to the Northeast Divisional Championships was being delayed. A couple of my west coast friends, especially Kevin Dietz and Mike Lillejord, had encouraged me to at least ask my principal about taking off time for the SCCA Solo Nationals. I was skeptical, because he hadn't seemed very keen on my going out last year, but I told them I'd at least ask.

I emailed my resource teacher first, to see if she had a feel for whether he'd approve it or not. I knew she'd let me go, but she wasn't the one who had to give final approval. Her response was, "If you're going to ask, you'd better ask today, since he'll be on vacation all next week." Crap. The last day for "early" registration (ie., $150 vs. $300) was that day, and I really wasn't prepared to ask. This was worse than asking Joel Fehrman about codriving Stompy, and that took an entire six-pack. Feeling sick to my stomach with nervousness, I crafted an email (which included a link to the "Why We Go" post on SoloMatters) and sent it. About an hour later, I got a response asking me to clarify which days I was actually asking for, and I emailed back, "Just Thursday and Friday." Shortly thereafter, he said, "Then I support your time off. Good luck."

I was incredulous, and so needed to find a sub, someone to take my car out, a flight, and a rental car, ASAP. When I got to NEDivs, I mentioned the need for a driver, and both Dan Shalkowski and Jeff Hurst said they might be able to do it. In the end, Dan's the one who took the car out.

Wednesday, August 31, I left work at 2:30, got home to finish up a few domestic duties and then drove the green terror to the airport to catch my flight. As usual, I was in and through security in about 15 minutes, and so proceeded to kill time on my phone until the flight. Having the inflight WiFi was pretty cool and got me another FourSquare badge.
about 40000 feet, on the way to Milwaukee
the "mile high" badge on foursquare :)

We landed in Milwaukee ahead of schedule, and I checked in with the gate attendant to find out that the second part of my journey was on a "regional jet." This would be a plane that would test my ability to deal with confined spaces. Fortunately, it was only half full, so everyone had their seat and space next to them. I slept for about 30 minutes, and as usual, the descent woke me up. I staggered into Omaha Eppley's terminal, blinking furiously to clear off my contact lenses, and encountered Mark Davis and Brian Larose, who were fresh from Lincoln. Evidently, Mark's girlfriend was on the same flight I had been.

I grabbed my craptastic rental car (a Hyundai Accent with rock-like seats), and headed to Lincoln and blessed sleep. While Pat had tracked down where Dan paddocked the WRX and changed the tires, the car still needed to be teched, and I needed to register and walk the course. I went to sleep probably around 1AM local time (after being up at 5AM Eastern time), and the alarm went off waaaay too early at 5AM.

Got the numbers on the car, and crap cleared out and into the rental, then took it to a nearby gas station to get the fuel level up to where it needed to be. Instead of going for the 95 octane at the Harley dealer, I just went for close and cheap and, yeah, sucked it up with 91 octane. Anxiety was setting in, and I wanted to make sure I got two course walks. I was happy to see Nancy and Mari at the registration area at 6:50, so got checked in, then waited 10 minutes at tech before anyone could look at the car. I took it straight to grid and walked twice.

We were on the West Course (designed by Kevin Youngers) first, and even though I'd been in town less than 12 hours, I'd already heard unflattering things about it. Sure enough, the first half of the course was comprised of fairly tight slaloms (wall-loms) and offsets before it opened up into a "regular" course. I'd been warned by a couple of people to recognize that the start lights were pretty far from the staging line, and if I gave it up a little bit before the lights, I wouldn't push out too much into the first slalom.

I have no idea where the moth came from, but it wasn't in the car when I left it with Dan.

ESP was in the second heat, and I was the fourth car off. It was funny that after me, in quick succession, was the rest of the DC area crowd -- Adam George (codriving with "Big" Mike Snyder in Strano's Mustang) was fifth, Pat was sixth and Brian Burdette was ninth. Some people like to play the numbers game and run as close to 99 as possible, especially at Nationals, but with the exception of Adam (because he was codriving this time), we all stuck with our usual numbers (me = 34, Snyder = 41 (141), Pat = 59 and Burdette = 75).

So, my first run was less than awe-inspiring. I was literally winded after making it through the wall-loms and into the five-cone slalom that marked the beginning of the "fun" part of the course. I did exactly what Strano told me not to do in the showcase sweeper, and turned in too early because of the trick cone, but the rest of the course (the last fourth?) was okay. I knew several places I could improve, and my 71.7 was quite poor in the big scheme. Pat was sitting pretty with a run that was 3rd quickest. Lots of people had cones, though my time was slow enough that several of those with cones were still beating me.

I tried to give it up a little more through the start lights on my second run, but I was carrying more speed due to a harder launch, and I still pushed out a little bit. I tried to be tighter on the cones through the first section, because I wasn't going to gain anything significant on speed, just on minimizing real estate. I saw the trick cone in the showcase, and wasn't fooled, gave up a bit too much at the bottom of what some people called the "banana", and came in with a 1.3s improvement. Back to the bubble.

So, third runs come up, and I launch hard, and push out into the opening slalom. Gahhh! I rein it back in and try to recover. The showcase feels good; I don't get fooled this time either. I dive harder into the end part of the banana, and then I see it, like Launcelot finding the Holy Grail.

Downed cone. Corner worker backing away frantically, knowing she can't get it before I get there.

I stop briefly and yell, "Thank you!!" while pointing at the cone, then take off again at about 80-85% so that I don't give Adam a rerun. Everyone in grid knows I just got the bonus round, and as I pop the hood, Courtney Cormier (ASP National Champ!!) is bringing Pat's spray bottle over and checking my tires. He sprays the fronts as I pull a psi or two out, Jay Storm is keeping tabs on the hood, and then I get the call to go to the line.

A photo from the West Course.
I correct my understeer from the start, and drive a little harder into the banana, while checking up just before tagging the outside cone at the end of the element. I manage to look a little further ahead into the final two sections, and make it even smoother than before, and the final time... 69.328, another 1.1s improvement. I know I left a lot on the table, but when the results come out and show me in 7th and final trophy spot, I'm kind of happy. Madarash, of course, is leading.

"Kind of" because it's the same damned spot I seem to be in when I run open class every year. "Kind of" because less than 1 minute after I look at those results, all of a sudden, "revised" results come out, and I'm in 8th.

I'm confused, and then I see Mark Walker has moved up to fourth, because where there had been two cones on his third run, now there are none. I am not happy, since I stopped for one of those cones, and I tell him as much. He seems a little less sure that his third run was clean after I say something to him, but he doesn't talk to the chief steward to tell this, and many people in the class aren't aware of the revision, much less why there was a change. I'm hoping for integrity to prevail, since he did seem a bit less sure his run was clean after I talked to him, and I can't believe the fates would let me be behind someone who knowingly hit a cone again (after Dale Klein knowingly coned his dry run on the South Course and I finished behind him, one out of the trophies), so I don't pursue the issue.

Our nemesis, class leading car owned by Mark Madarash.
Jason Kolk and Dave Heinrich aren't so nice though. After seeing the corner logs clearly displaying two cones (one of which was the one I stopped for), and no ambiguity in who hit the cones, they track down the girl who was backing away from the cone when I had to stop, as well as the corner chief, and in the end, the cones are added back to Walker's final run, putting him back in 9th position for the start of the second day. Not everyone knew that the cones had been put back on, including me.

Thursday night festivities included beer (of course), some of Shuman's carne asada at the ATL... uh, SEDiv tent, foursquare and just chilling with friends old and new. The new divisional tent idea was kind of cool, except that the Great Lakes and Southwest tents were so far away from the Southeast tent that it was difficult to interact with multiple people. Many went over to the SWdiv area for Bigwheel ProSolo, while others were at GLDiv for a cookout there.

I was pretty tired after an extremely long day on Wednesday, and so we headed back to the hotel "early." Granted, I still didn't go to sleep until close to 1AM, and I'd only done one course walk on Andy Hollis's East Course, so I wanted to be there early to walk at least twice again, which meant another day of 4-5 hours of sleep.
Brad Owen's '06 WRX.
PJ Corrales had warned me about the "boxes" on this course, and not to be greedy with them, while Matthew Braun came over to tell me his ideas on making it through this course's showcase sweeper. I was trying to internalize all of this when the start of the second heat came, all too soon.

My first run was, again, less than awe-inspiring; a 66.3 just wasn't going to get it done. I'd launched way too softly, was way too tentative in too many places, and just left a ton on the table. It was as if I was trying to sabotage myself and my attempt to get into the trophies. I picked a couple of spots to try to maximize my improvements (including the start, which Sammy yelled at me about, transmission be damned), and set out on run #2 to get it done.

A 1.3s improvement after charging harder from the get-go. The 65.082 didn't make me happy, especially knowing I'd left time everywhere, and in fact, my Facebook status reflected that I wanted even more time on my third run. I was still on the cusp of a trophy, and I knew there was still time out there that could be mine.

The Merideth Mustang and Heinrich's Boss (codriven by Jason Kolk)
My third run, I gave it everything, and I pushed out in the showcase sweeper, almost tagged a cone in the boxes, and then everything went to hell. As I made the right hand turn toward the finish run, I heard something in the rear, and just wondered. Then, on the brakes and tossing the car into the finish "bus stop," I heard it again, and got scared. When the car stepped out on me, I didn't even fight it to keep it off the cones, as I was more worried that I had an axle that had given up the ghost, like Martin Kriz at the Atlanta Tour. In fact, I had Andrew Howe listening to the rear end as I came back to my grid spot, but he pronounced it "okay." The time wasn't there anyway, as much as it felt like it, and while some people were already congratulating me on a trophy position, there were still two people behind me that had more than enough on me after the first day, they were very likely to get by me on their last runs.
bumper covers don't like hitting four cones in quick succession at 50+ mph.
So, it was with extreme apprehension that I watched Mike Snyder (who was sitting in 6th after the first day) and Kent Kroll (who was third after the first day) take their last runs. Sean O'Gorman was standing with me, letting me know that Snyder needed a "mid 65" run to get by me, but he didn't tell me what Kent needed. Both Mike and Kent were on the course at the same time, and my eyes are scanning back and forth to watch both of them so rapidly that I probably looked like I was experiencing vertigo. Snyder crossed with a 65.7.... enough for 8th, as Heyward announced, and twenty seconds later, Kent and his broken shock crossed with a 65.9... and when Heyward said that I had won my first open class trophy and Sean congratulated me, I told him, "No. I want to see the final results. And then I'll wait another 30 minutes until they are final."

And that's what I told everyone, because I didn't believe it. And when the finals came out, and they were final -- no weird revisions moments after I saw them -- that's when the tears of happiness started to fall. Heyward wanted me to come over to the announce vehicle to talk, so I pulled myself together enough to sound coherent on the mic, and thank Burdette and Snyder and Adam and Pat for the competition to make me better all year. And then Heyward turned the mic over to Raleigh Boreen (who was happy for me, but wished I'd done it in Pat's purple Camaro), and he cried too. He knows how hard it is to get a trophy, especially when it's "expected" of you, and he was honored to be the one who got to present me with that trophy later on at the awards banquet.

Parking in between BSP Champ Corey Ridgick and SMF Champ Brian Karwan had to help, right?
Ten tries in open class, and I finally did it. Thank you to everyone who helped make it happen. I still find it sort of surreal. :)
I pinched my arm, and the trophy was still there.

And now... what to do to make the car better for next year? For one... maybe I'll get new tires just before Nationals instead of "making do" with last year's tires. As for the rest... well, there are more suspension bushings, and I guess I should do a lightweight battery. And maybe get rid of the rear wing? It's a street prepared car... it's always a work in progress, right?

I'm gonna need more than a snarky magnet to stay ahead of the DC guys in the future.

Final results are up on