This past weekend was the season opening autocross for my home Des Moines Valley Region. The event was held on the midway of the Iowa State Fairgrounds. This is a great location because it offers plenty of viewing areas all around the course as well as plenty of foot traffic. A gun show in one of the fairground buildings provided plenty of people in the area checking out the competition and inquiring about the event.
Despite dreary conditions while I was getting ready that morning, I arrived at the fairgrounds and began to unpack the car without any rain threatening my gear. Because it had been raining throughout the night, I had left my race tires at home and opted instead, to run on my all-seasons. That allowed me to promptly get in the line for tech inspection. Since this was the first event of the season, I needed the inspection in order to get my “annual tech” sticker for the season. Annual tech allows me to bypass tech inspection for the rest of 2011 as long as I don’t make any major changes to the car. It costs a little bit to get, but I receive a nifty sticker for the car. Tech went smoothly, except for some concern with my helmet. I had purchased it several years ago for when I was riding my motorcycle and the tech inspector couldn’t remember which rating it needed to be legal for competition this year. The helmet was still certified so I was able to use it during competition.
After tech, I wandered over to the still damp course to familiarize myself with the layout. When I got to the starting line, one of my fellow my G-Stock competitors walked over. Thomas edged me out last season and took first place with his 1991 Volkswagen Corrado. He is a good driver and a very nice guy. We walked the course together, discussing strategy and the best lines through various corners. On a fairly high speed slalom section that transitioned from the front of the course to the back, we noticed that a low concrete barrier seemed a little ominous. Of course, the barrier was a fairly safe distance off the racing line, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was a little close for comfort. I discussed this with Thomas as we finished walking the course. I walked the course a few more times after that with some of my fellow Subaru owners before the driver’s meeting.
Following the driver’s meeting, I headed to a worker station to help monitor the course. Because the groups usually split at car numbers in the 70’s or 80’s, I chose my racing number (116) high on purpose. Being in the second split allows me to work the course and identify potential problem areas on the course before getting into the driver’s seat. Driving later also gave the pavement more time to dry out a bit. After watching the first group’s runs and going though my plan of attack in my head, it was time for my group to get on the course.
As the first runs were made by my run group, I sat quietly in my car, driving the course in my head. I have always tried to visualize a “perfect run” while waiting for my turn to get on the course. The line hadn’t moved for a while so I looked towards the starting line to see what the hold-up was. I saw Thomas’ Corrado sitting there with its hood up and people looking under the hood. They eventually pushed his car out of the way and cleaned up a puddle that had formed under the car. It turned out to be engine coolant, so his car was set aside to cool down before moving it further. As I got closer to the starting line he walked by and I offered him my car for the remainder of the event. The great thing about the group of people that I race with is that even though we are competitors, we still help each other out. Even though my Impreza would be vastly different than driving his Corrado, some points are better than no points. Thomas accepted my offer as I prepared for my first run.
During the first run, I typically push a little bit, but my main goal is to get a feel for the course and see how it flows. I ran a fairly quick first run and felt good about how the course flowed and started focusing on the problem areas I had identified. When I got back to the pits, I quickly got out of the car and helped Thomas get the numbers swapped so he could drive my car. Luckily, our numbers were far enough apart that we had plenty of time to swap numbers and get the car situated during our driver changes. As he got in line to stage, I walked over to the starting line to watch his run. It was a little weird watching someone else drive my car on the course, but it was neat to see.
After swapping back into the car, my second run was a little slower than my first. I pushed harder and had some understeer problems in a couple key corners. A lot of time was wasted trying to power through instead of taking smoother lines. My third run was a bit quicker than my first, but I managed to clip a cone that negated that time. I knew where I was losing time so I did a few “mental runs” after parking back in the pits. While the rest of the group was finishing, I chatted about the course with my friends a bit, offering some advice on where and how to shave some time off.
Once the second run group had concluded their runs, I headed back out to help work the course. The course was drying out and cars were getting better traction. They were pushing harder and the times were reflecting that. I started regretting the fact that I had left my racing tires at home. As I walked by the timing and scoring trailer, I saw they had posted preliminary times from the morning runs. A Honda Civic Si was ahead of me by 2/3 of a second. With the pavement almost dry, my all-wheel drive advantage would be lessened and her higher horsepower would definitely come into play.
Thomas ran before me so he got to test out the dry pavement before me. Surprisingly, his first run was better than my best from the morning session. Vowing not to be beaten in my own car, we swapped as I prepared for my first afternoon run. On the run, I made a few minor mistakes, but ran a better time than the Honda that had the fastest morning time in my class. I was still nervous about seeing what the driver would do once her car hit the course. I again let Thomas in my car as I headed up to the starting line to see how she did. Sadly, I wouldn’t get that chance.
While waiting for her to run, I was chatting with a fellow Subaru driver about how our runs had gone so far. As we were talking, we heard a solid “boom” and we turned to see what had caused the noise. As we did, we noticed a few people start running towards the concrete barrier that Thomas and I had discussed on our course walk. At the center of the attention was a yellow Lotus Elise with deployed airbags and a crunched front end. Corner workers, event chairs, the safety steward, and a nurse from the crowd took off towards the car.
After a while, I headed over to see if I could offer any assistance. Luckily, the driver and passenger were both fine. The car, on the other hand, was not. Based on what the corner workers observed, the car hit the concrete barrier at around 30 miles per hour. Because the Lotus is such a light car, the barrier obviously won and pieces of the composite bumper were scattered at the impact site. I have heard accounts from many people and, to my knowledge, it is still uncertain how the car ended up at the wall. If the car had been sliding sideways, it would have stopped before the wall, but it went head on into the barrier. Hopefully, it gets figured out and we don’t lose the site.
Sadly, the event was ended after that incident as the car had to be moved out of the way and the fluids that had leaked out of the damaged car had to be cleaned up. A somber mood hung over everyone as we picked up the cones and cleaned up the area. It is unfortunate that something like this had to happen at the first event of the season and to such a nice car. However, we all know that there is some risk involved when pushing cars to their limits. For most people, it is a good rule of thumb to only push at 90% of your car’s threshold. It is when people are pushing at 100% and go a little bit past that when accidents happen. Safety is always first and foremost at SCCA events, but these incidents can still happen.
On the brighter side, my single afternoon run pushed me into first place in G-Stock and Thomas ended up getting third. In looking at the final results, it appears I finished 36th out of 64 total cars based on raw times. When using PAX calculations to statistically even the playing field between classes, I managed 21st out of 64. I am pretty happy with the results and excited I came out of the first event with maximum championship points in my class. I can’t wait for the next DMVR autocross as I am really hoping for a good championship run this season.