Friday, September 18, 2009

Ten Long Years (Part 1)

This month marks a pair of ten-year anniversaries in my life. Later this month will mark ten years since I was sworn in as a member of the West Virginia bar (yeah, there'll be a post about that when the time comes). But tomorrow it will be ten years since I ran my first autocross. So let's take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

I started autocrossing about a month after my brother, Scott, finally bit the bullet and started himself. I was living in Beckley at the time, which meant driving an hour or so to Charleston to actually get to an event. I've since driven much farther to autocross (and do other things), but looking back on it, I'm kind of surprised I mustered up the enthusiasm to make the trek.

It's not as if I had the perfect autocross car sitting in the parking lot of my apartment complex. While I was in law school, I got my first car (actually in my name and everything), a Ford Escort LX. It was a fine piece of basic transportation, but it wasn't exactly what I'd call a "sporty" car. I was a 5-speed, at least, so that sort of made me feel like I was doing something.

That first event was in a parking lot attached to the Capitol Complex in Charleston, across the street from then Laidley Field. It's a small lot, even by our standards (we don't run there anymore), but it was big enough. I didn't finish DFL (54th out of 59, but still!) and, more importantly, I was hooked on autocross. How much? I was back a couple of weeks later for a benefit event and have been a regular ever since. Legal Eagle Racing was born!

I tried to make the Escort a little more appropriate for autocross, installing a low budget set of dampers and getting my first set of "stickies" (DOT approved R compound tires), which lived in my dining room between events. They confounded my local tire installers in Beckley - they wondered if I paid full price for tires with such little tread! Here's a picture of the Escort in max autocross prep:

Here's another one, more of a close up. As you can see, from early on, I've used magnets and such to at least try and make things look "racy." For all its faults, the Escort did deliver me my first win:

Hooked on the sport, and saddled with an Escort, I started looking around for a more suitable car. This would become a theme in my life - I tend to get a wandering automotive eye after I've lived with a car for a couple of years. The answer, at least at that time, was to get a second car to use for autocross.

I found a Honda CRX on the local dealer's used lot (I'd moved back to Charleston by this time) that I ran for a while. CRXes are great cars - small, nimble, only two seats - but I got wrong variant. I was hopelessly outgunned in terms of horsepower. Still, it was fun to build a car up, to a certain extent:

Eventually, the two car thing got too difficult to manage (another recurring theme) and I traded both the Escort and the CRX in on a Nissan Sentra SE. It was a great double duty car. It started out prepped for SCCA's "Stock" class, complete with a set of those sticky tires:

In that configuration, the Sentra won me my first class championship in 2003.

The urge to tinker got the better of me, so I modded the car a little more and went chasing after my brother in STS. Here's a pic of that configuration from an event in Virginia:

And another from Riverside High School, our current regular venue:

Again, I had the wrong tool for the job, as the Sentra was just too hefty for that class (weight is a killer in autocross). That meant I went back to looking for a second car, something autocross specific. I wound up with a red Dodge Neon that I bought from one of the other guys in my region.

It was rough, raw, and unrefined compared to the Sentra (I named it "Cletis," both in honor of the Slacked Jawed Yokel and Clint Mathis) and I never really took to it.

After a little more than a year, I sold it to yet another guy in the region, who then again sold it on to somebody from the Carolinas. It blew up in the middle of its first event down there, IIRC.

Back to a one car family, I was driving down the highway and saw this, propped up on a corner display at a local dealership:

I had really liked this version of the Civic Si when I bought the Sentra, but I couldn't afford a new one at the time. But used? Hey, why not? It was only gently used, to boot, with about 1300 miles on it. The story I was told, anyway, was that I guy bought it new on a whim, brought it home, and the wife threw a fit, so he had to sell it right away.

Yes, it looks an awful lot like Honda's Odyssey minivan of the same era. Thus, it was dubbed by my competitors "The Minivan (tm)." Fair enough, but once it was prepped . . .

. . . it was quite a car. In "Stock" trim, that car took me to four trophies in 2006 - a class championship, the SWVR's overall index championship, and two SWVR trophies handed out every year to the region's "best" driver (based on some very esoteric mathematics, I have to admit).

For all that success, I was also deeply humbled that year. I took the car to a SCCA Solo National Tour event in Peru, Indiana, one of the dozen or so events leading up to the Solo Nationals every year. On a much bigger course than I was used to, I got absolutely spanked, finishing last in class (although not DFL, thankfully). Things were bound to be tough when I had trouble getting the Tire Rack windshield banner on right:

The next year, my automotive eye started to wander, again. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do - go back to a two-car setup, get something completely different, etc. - until I was killing time before a Marshall-WVU football game and spied this on a local lot:

I was curious about Mazdaspeed3s, having read the rave reviews. A quick test drive (and I mean quick!) and I had such a big-assed smile on my face I knew I had to have it. It's been my ride and race car ever since, in basically dead stock form:

Even like that, it helped me capture the Street Tire Challenge class in the Steel Cities Region last year. And it does look good at speed:

So what have I learned over ten years of autocross? That I'm a pretty good local driver, but that I've neither the technical know how nor commitment to compete at a higher level. I'll go back to a National Tour event, and hopefully to Nationals, at some point, but not with any real hope of winning anything. And even locally, there are lots of people who I'll be chasing for a very long time.

The more important thing, though, is that I've had a lot of fun over the last decade doing this. Generally, the people involved in this sport are great, friendly, helpful people. It's a tight knit community, both locally and nationally, that I'm proud to be a part of. Big thanks to everyone who's ever helped me out and freely provided some advice on how to be a quicker driver.

Plus, where else can you go out and screech around in your car like a loon?

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