I had a 2003 Honda Civic coupe, and it was a reliable but boring daily driver. I replaced it with a 2016 Ford Fiesta ST, which is a lot of fun, but has required the most work I’ve ever had to do for a daily driver.

I’ll cut to the chase: outside of maybe the front axles, my Fiesta ST no longer has anything in the drivetrain that it originally left the factory with.

Replacing the trans, clutch, and flywheel.

As I paid my shop over 3 grand to replace the transmission and all of the engine mounts, I caught myself wondering how I had gotten to that point. Why was spending so much money to keep this car around when it would make a lot more sense to simply dump the thing and move on to something else? I kept telling myself that the car was so worthless that I might as well keep it around, but was that really the case?

It’s been nearly two months since the car returned to the fleet. I’ve only put a few tanks of gas through the car since — I’m still working from home during the pandemic, so I don’t drive the car much — but the few times I’ve driven it around have only reaffirmed my affinity for this car.

In fact, I concluded that the Fiesta ST may very well be one of my favorite cars, ever.

Yes, you can hardly call a car that has had so much stuff under the hood replaced reliable. Yes, if you catch the car off boost (like starting from a near stop in second hear), the car is agonizingly slow. Yes, the car is very prone to two-wheeling — I managed to get the car so far over twice over a 20 minute period — basically on back-to-back autocross runs! — that the car shut itself down and dialed 9-1-1 each time.

So the car is definitely flawed. Very flawed.

Still, I like it, and like it a lot. Maybe even love it.

I had a Focus ST before but didn’t love it in the same way that I do its little brother. I’ve driven other sport compact cars — the VW GTI, the Honda Civic Si, both cars that would be competitive in Solo competition — but always came away uninspired.

The Fiesta ST is spunky in a way the bigger sport compact cars aren’t. It’s the first word that comes to mind when describing this car. It’s playful. It’s easy to rotate. And the little motor, once it gets going, fills my heart with glee, like a pack of puppies chasing after a thrown ball. The car is so much more fun than the Focus ST I had before it, despite the similarities between the two.

I’m certain the size and weight of the Fiesta ST plays an important part. It’s only about 300 pounds heavier than my NC Miata, and occupies about the same footprint, except that it can carry a full set of tires (and then some), something the Miata could never dream of doing.

And while we’re at it, if we’re comparing stock to stock, the Fiesta ST is way better and way more fun in stock form than the NC Miata. Dare I say I like the Fiesta ST better than a stock ND Miata.

It occurs to me that this bite size fun came in many forms in the past and was also lauded back then: the early VW GTIs, the ensuing hot hatch wars of the 80s, extending into the sport compact scene in the 90s. These cars sold in huge numbers back in the day.

And now… good condition examples 80s and 90s fun size greatness is hard to find. Which leads me to the other, perhaps darker half of the equation.

I realized that half of the joy I derive from my Fiesta ST lies in the fact that it is disposable.

It’s a cheap car. While the price of the average car these days approaches 35 grand, this car cost me 20. If I completely destroy my car, I can replace it with an equivalent used example for 12 grand. There’s a freedom that comes with cheap cars that don’t come with more expensive ones. It invites the prospect of using every ounce of utility out of a car because it’s comparatively easy to replace.

And so it is with this car. I’ve taken this Fiesta ST to autocrosses and run it on race tracks, which outside of cooked brakes doesn’t really inflict serious wear and tear. What does inflict serious wear and tear is all of the rallycrossing I’ve been doing with the car.

I love rallycrossing this car. The car feels like a little supercar in the dirt. Running in Detroit Region rallycrosses in Stock Front, I’m usually the car packing the most horsepower in the class, competing against lower horsepower (but lighter weight) older cars for bragging rights. The car is easy to slide, and there’s enough power on tap to quickly achieve ill-advised speeds on loose surfaces but no so much as to be useless in putting down power when over eagerness gets the best of me and I floor the accelerator pedal.

It also helps that, after a decade of really sucking at driving on loose surfaces, I now sorta know what I’m doing and can at least look fast, even as I know full well that the top folks in Detroit Region could hand me my ass any day of the week.

But it does make the “great cars need to be preserved” side of me uneasy. How do you reconcile that you will completely use up — kill, basically — a car that you love?

The other side of me says it’s better to have a life well lived than to have never lived a life to the fullest. The ultimate value that little hot hatches like the Fiesta ST (and the 80s and 90s Hondas and Volkwagens that preceded it) lie in the experiences they give, not in their longevity.

In the end, I realized that I was willing to dump money into keeping my Fiesta ST alive because the only reasonable replacement for the car was another Fiesta ST.

It’s not a great autocross car. It’s not a great track car. But it’s a damn good daily driver, and makes my drive to work or to the grocery store a pleasurable experience instead of a drag, and more pleasurable than a lot of cars aimed at enthusiasts’ hearts. The Fiesta ST is currently the longest standing member of the fleet, which for someone who used to routinely get bored of my daily drivers and swap them out every two years, hitting the 4-year mark of ownership is really something.

So yeah, I love this car. I’d take my Fiesta ST over a stock ND Miata, and over a stock C5 Z06 Corvette. It’s better than the Focus ST, the VW GTI, and the Honda Civic Si. I think, in 20 years, history will look back on this car and realize it was one of the greatest little cars to ever appear in the 2010s. It’ll just be too bad that the Fiesta ST will be nearly extinct by then, much in the same way that the great hot hatches of the 80s and 90s are nearly extinct now.

I fell into a long-winded back-and-forth in one of my Facebook chats where we discussed whether or not it was possible for mere mortals to challenge the driving gods. One friend took the stance that innate talent is what separated the driving aliens from the rest of us, while I argued that it was hard work and focused practice that led to their amazing driving skills.

Obviously, the truth falls somewhere in between those two extremes. But I’d like to present my case, in long form, for speed being 95% hard work.

This friend is a car enthusiast and enjoys watching motorsports, but doesn’t participate in motorsports himself. I can totally understand his point of view, as it appears that the fast drivers are doing the impossible.

I, on the other hand, do participate in motorsports, and from my perspective, the fast drivers aren’t doing the impossible. What I see is that I could do what they did… if I knew what they knew and prepared in the same manner they prepared.

Perhaps this perspective comes from spending years in intense competition. Most of my time has been spent in National Solo (autocross) competition, but I’ve observed similar patterns and am inclined to believe that these ideas hold true, no matter what motorsports discipline you’re looking at. If you want to be a truly fast driver, you have to dive headfirst into the deep end of competition. Your reward: a better understanding of your true skill as a driver than someone who has never attempted to compare oneself against the best.

Racers are naturally optimistic, can-do types — you wouldn’t be competing if you didn’t think you could beat someone else! — but when pride and arrogance tries to blind oneself from the truth, the cold hard facts of racing make perfectly clear where things stand. A stopwatch will tell you exactly how much slower you were than the fastest driver. Your finishing position tells you exactly how well you ran a race.

When you’re really far behind the leaders, it may look like at first that you’ll never be able to catch up with them.

But a funny thing happens when you stick with it and “get serious.” You get faster.

I’ve talked to a lot of the fast people in National Solo scene and asked them how they got so fast. I never heard, “oh, it just came to me.” Their speed origin story was always very long and always very interesting.

One driver was adamant that he really sucked when he first started out, but after putting together dozens of practice events that took place immediately after local autocross competitions, he and several other folks became very fast simply by running many hours of what were essentially driving practice drills — the automotive equivalent of practicing scales on a musical instrument. Another driver that I thought was naturally fast in fact honed his driving skills by working at a karting place and racing karts whenever he was off the clock. Another extremely fast driver spent hours practicing outside of the car using driving simulators.

All of those folks are National Champions.

Just like how entrepreneurs and creatives joke about the 10 years it takes to become an “overnight success,” so it is with driving ability too.

I can see this in myself. I started autocrossing in college, and like a lot of young drivers, I thought I knew it all. All of the folks who were faster than me must have had some sort of deal with the devil — it was the only explanation! Not surprisingly, I was very slow.

Gradually, I started getting deeper and deeper into Solo. By the time I moved to Michigan, I had started competing in National Solo events, and eventually started making the trip out to Lincoln for Solo Nationals. I ate a lot of humble pie for the first several years of National competition. It’s hard to tell yourself you’re hot shit when you’re firmly midpack in a murderously deep class like Street Touring Roadster.

While I haven’t improved as much as I would have liked to over the past decade (though I’m sure every driver wishes they get better faster!), there’s no denying now that I’m a very different driver than the college me over a decade ago. I don’t feel like I’m a great driver at all, but that’s likely because I’m now comparing myself to the folks who would travel across the US to prove themselves the best in the entire nation. I have long since matched or surpassed my earlier benchmarks, and have kept moving the goal posts to tackle harder and harder challenges.

If I were to go back in time and give my younger self a ride along on an autocross run, he would think of me as an alien and assume I made a pact with the devil to get magically faster, while the older me knows just how many hours of seat time he spent to get to his current level of skill.

And with the magic of data and video analysis, it’s no mystery as to why the fast drivers are faster. A driver beat me because she took a better line through a single element and carried more speed out of it. Or maybe the data shows that my car doesn’t have enough power to chase the time trials leader down the back straight of Road Atlanta. I can be faster, if I know what they know and prepared in the same manner they prepared.

So how does talent play into all this? I do not deny that someone who has more innate talen will win if all other conditions are equal. I suggest that this difference really only comes into play at the very extremes.

It’s a riff on the Paradox of Skill, which says that as the competitors become more skilled with less of a gap between the best and the worst, luck begins to play a more important role in determining the winner. If hard work, dedicated practice, and careful set up is 95% of a person’s success, I’d like to propose the rest is made up of 3% luck and 2% innate talent. If two drivers are well matched with identically prepared cars, then it’s a near toss up between talent and luck in determining the winner of a contest.

We’ve all seen this play out both ways. Sometimes the talented driver wins the contest. Sometimes other guy gets really lucky and manages to finish first.

The good news is that nearly anyone can get to that high level of performance, it’s just a matter of putting in the work. Are you improving the Driver Mod? Are you setting up your car to give yourself the best chance of success?

The bad news is that you have to put in the work. It’s okay if you don’t — not everyone is geared to make a run at the pointy end of the pack — but don’t kid yourself otherwise that talent can make up for a missing work ethic.

So while you may not be able to be the fastest person ever, you can get 95-98% of the way there, which is pretty damn good. It may be a bit demoralizing when 2% slower means you’re seconds behind the top driver, which feels like an eternity in motorsports, but be kind to yourself and remember that being just a little bit behind the fastest drivers means you’re already among the driving 1%.

Not too long ago, there was an H Production VW Scirocco for sale on Bring a Trailer. I briefly flirted with the idea of bringing it home and scrapping most of my motorsports plans for the year to make a bid for the Runoffs at Indy. The day that the auction was set to end, I did a bunch of “research” by pestering a friend who was building a Production class VW race car with questions and watching videos from last year’s Runoffs at Road America.

But in the end, I decided not to buy the car.

In small (very small) pockets of the internet, there were discussions about the ultimate hammer price of the car — a seemingly cheap 12 grand for a car that finished 4th at the Runoffs last year. Did the seller take a bath on the sale of the car? Did no one want a competitive H Production race car that had tens of thousands of dollars of development work put into it?

I’m inclined to believe that the car really did sell for what it was worth. I suspect the low selling price was low for the same reason why I decided not to pull the trigger on the car. As much as I love the idea of racing a Production class race car, the overwhelming majority of the cars are old and the competition, outside of the big race weekends, is pretty thin.

A street car can be used as transportation, so anything that runs and can be legally licensed for road use has intrinsic value that few people would deny. A race car doesn’t have that — its value is purely a social construct. A race car’s value is defined strictly by the social capital bestowed upon it via the rule book and the size of the of the social circle that supports it — its fellow competitors. A car from an unpopular race class is inherently worth less.

So you can buy a Runoffs Top 5 H Production race car for 12 grand, but that amount of money wouldn’t come close to buying a Runoffs Top 5 Spec Miata.

In the end, it just made more sense for me to stick with one of the popular classes if I were to buy a race car. If the goal is to do lots of close racing, I’d rather have a slow Spec Miata than a fast H Production race car. Even if it means that I’d never have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it to the top 10 at the Runoffs, let alone the podium.

At the end of the auction, I scrolled through the comments to see who had won the car. The new owner didn’t have plans to compete in SCCA racing; instead, he planned to take the car vintage racing. (Insert joke here about how Production class racing is vintage racing.) How ironic, I thought. The ultimate value of the car lay not in its modern day capability as a championship winner, but its symbolism as a relic of a bygone age.

I appreciate everyone’s patience with the 2021 DRSCCA Solo schedule. There are a lot of moving parts, perhaps more so than in past years, that we’re working with, but I’m hopeful that this work will pay dividends for the program in the years to come.

New sites and potential event partnerships

We are still running at Michigan International Speedway (MIS), Schoolcraft Public Safety and Training Complex (PSTC), and Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport.

One of the big goals for the 2021 season is to find new sites for us to run. We have been approaching sites with the offer to put on a community event, something that would benefit them in more ways than simply handing them a check for the site rental.

This is what we’re currently working towards:

FSAE Showcase @ Oakland University

Taking place at the beginning of the school year, the idea is to put on an autocross to showcase SE Michigan FSAE teams and their cars in their natural habitat. This one is tentatively set for September 12, 2021, and I’m pretty confident this will take place.

Tire Rack Street Survival + Driver Assist Tech Demo @ American Center for Mobility (ACM)

We’re looking to get two dates at ACM to fill in the gap in the Schoolcraft PSTC availability during the middle of summer. ACM has a mission to improve driver safety, so the current proposal is to put on a Tire Rack Street Survival School for the teens, run by DRSCCA, and a Driver Assist Tech Demo for the parents, run by ACM. Such a partnership may make it possible for us, both financially and logistically, to run autocross events at ACM. This site is currently a toss up, but I’m optimistic that we can get at least one event in here.

VETMotorsports @ Willow Run Airport

We’re working with Nick Aranda, our regional rep for VETMotorsports, to put on an event in support of the vets that the organization is bringing into the sport. This would be an event with a lot of public visibility, and the hope is that by making it a very public facing community event — with possibilities for a car show and food trucks — we might be able to get a foot in the door at a very nice concrete autocross site.

This one is, admittedly, a long shot. But we’re working on it.

 

Ambitious, isn’t it? If you’re interested in helping out with any of the above events — and we’re going to need it — please attend the Solo Planning Meeting or let me know directly.

Updates on Junior Karts

If you attended the Junior Driving Program (JDP) town hall during the online SCCA convention, you know that there are new rules and new roles for junior kart programs.

As one of the regions that has a history of encouraging junior kart participation, I’d very much like Detroit Region to participate in the SCCA’s pilot relaunch of the junior kart programs. However, participating in the pilot will require someone to lead the region’s junior kart program — a new responsibility all its own. This needs to be someone above and beyond Solo Director, the Event Chairs, or even the Junior Kart Steward, so I will be courting potential volunteers for this at the Solo Planning Meeting.

If you’re interested, please attend the Solo Planning Meeting or let me know directly.

Updates on Event Procedures

We will do a thorough review of our event procedures, including the COVID-19 supps, during the Solo Planning Meeting. I’d also like to discuss what worked well last year, and what didn’t.

For now, I’m assuming that the pandemic will present a challenging environment for the rest of the year, and that there may be some sort of state order dictating how we run events. All feedback is welcome.

Solo Planning Meeting

The Solo Planning Meeting will be held on February 17th at 7:00pm EST on Zoom. Like before, the Zoom meeting link will not be publicly posted; please sign up for the meeting with this Google Form. I will send the Zoom meeting details to all those who sign up next week.

We will need all the help that we can get this year. If you have any interest in helping out, even if you’re new — perhaps especially if you’re new — I’d like to see you in the Solo Planning Meeting!

The Tentative 2021 Solo Schedule… so far

  1. April 25 — Season Opener Solo, MIS
  2. May 29-30 — Solo School and Memorial Day Solo, Schoolcraft PSTC
  3. July 3 — Summer Heat Solo, Schoolcraft PSTC
  4. July 30-August 1 — Oscoda Pro Solo, Oscoda
  5. September 12 — Formula SAE Showcase Solo, Oakland University
  6. September 26 — Fall into Autumn Solo, Schoolcraft PSTC
  7. October 17 — Season Ender Solo, MIS

Note that we’re still working on the DRSCCA/SVR local Oscoda event dates. Same goes for potential dates at new sites. I’m hoping to coalesce on a firmer schedule by March, with an emphasis on the Oscoda dates as I know people book vacation time and lodging well in advance for those events.

And, once again, thanks all for your patience.

Well, this is a good a story as any, and a nice capstone on the year’s time trials season.

I’ve been splitting my motorsports attention between autocross and time trials. My original plans at the beginning of the year were to go to all of the National Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) autocross events in the Midwest and tackle a few National SCCA Time Trials (TT) events at the tracks that I really wanted to run, but the pandemic had other ideas and flipped my schedule on its head. I ended up not being able to attend a single National autocross event — I even paid for the Pro Solo pass and never got to use it! — and instead went to a bunch of time trials events.

One of those time trials events was the SCCA TT at Road America, originally scheduled for the spring and to be run in conjunction with Global Time Attack (GTA). However, thanks to the pandemic, the event was binned and a rescheduled event was promised. Entry fee refunds were offered for those that wanted them, but I kept my entry in the books for the reschedule, which wouldn’t come to light until the month of October. Eventually, the date of the rescheduled TT was announced: it was to run alongside the American Road Race of Champions (ARRC) on the first weekend of November. (more…)

We were on our way back home from a win at Lake Superior Performance Rally (LSPR). I had just attended my very first stage rally, and did so as a crew member for my friends. Kevin, the owner and driver of a thoroughly used 80’s FC Mazda RX-7 had just driven to a convincing win in the Regional Open 2WD class, with Jay as his codriver. Most notably, Kevin’s naturally aspirated rotary engined car topped another 80’s FC Mazda RX-7 running in the same class, one that had traded its original rotary for a V8.

Kevin has had his rally car for years. For me, he is inextricably linked to this car; he’s had it as long as I’ve known him. I didn’t realize how many years he’s spent with this car until I was hanging out with his folks at a bar (they had come up from Chicago to spectate the rally) and they reminisced about when Kevin brought the car home for the first time… in high school. Damn, how many people these days can claim that they still own (and regularly drive!) their high school car?

So the idea that Kevin wouldn’t rally this car forever and ever and ever was something I couldn’t fathom. (more…)

For a brief while on Facebook, motorsports friends were doing the “10 Year Challenge,” posting a picture of what they were driving 10 years ago compared to what they are driving now. Almost everyone I know is driving something different from what they were driving back then — makes sense, as can someone really run the same car in the same motorsport for a whole decade?

Then I realized that I did basically just that. (more…)

At this moment, my 1966 Mustang is on a slow boat ride to the southern coast of France. I sold the car during the waning days of fall, eager to get some cash and clear some garage space, thinking that the car would end up with someone local, or at least somewhere in the Midwest. I definitely was not expecting the car to go across an ocean. (more…)

Two new electric vehicles were just revealed. One had a brief flash of media coverage and then faded away from the limelight, while the other one is literally one of the hottest topics in pop culture, and will continue to be weeks after its reveal.

The Ford Mustang Mach-E is pretty unremarkable. The only thing people seem to talk about when the vehicle comes up in conversation is the name, which appears pretty blatant as an attempt to hitch a family crossover onto the name of some famous and aspirational. Save your talk of “it drives like a Mustang,” because no one can drive it yet — we can only listen to what the marketers say, and in this jaded era, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a lot of people are cynical.

On the other hand, the Tesla Cybertruck is very remarkable in the literal definition of the word: it’s worth remarking about. It’s in memes, it’s all over the news, no one (myself finally included) can shut up about the damn thing. It’s a masterstroke of attention, something that Ford desperately wants but simply can’t figure out how to get.

The difference in approach has never been more striking. Ford: here’s an electric Ford Edge that you can imagine your Boomer dad driving. Telsa: here’s a truck that 8 year old you desperately wanted, and you too can live out your childish fantasies while looking like nothing else on the road today.

You will never find a Mustang Mach-E in a rap video, but you definitely would see a Cybertruck. It has been one of my longest running conundrums: someone out there had to eventually come out with something that is the equivalent of an electric Land Rover, something tall and boxy, capable of going off-road, but most importantly of all, be a status statement piece that a ovoid egg simply can’t be. With the flexibility of electric car design, why are we still stuck in the same old design paradigms? Why not something, pardon the pun, electricifying?

And then Tesla drops the Cybertruck. It’s polarizing, it’s edgy (both literally and figuratively), and it has captured people’s imaginations like nothing else in the past few years. This is a truck that even the brodozers would want to drive. (I can’t wait for the future videos of redneck Brodozer Cybertrucks griefing Telsas. Maybe instead of rolling coal, you could roll lightning? I’m imagining a Red Alert-style tesla coil hanging off the truck bed that could zap something on command.)

Ultimately, this is the difference between the Mustang Mach-E and the Cybertruck: the Tesla is an assertion, while the Ford is not. An assertion is something that can be disagreed with, it is a statement that can be attacked, and it is point of view not every one will share. But in a world where everyone is trying to please the masses by being as vanilla and palatable as possible, bold assertions stand out. The Mustang Mach-E is trying to be all things to all people, and it shows. The Cybertruck is for some people but not all, much in the same way that the new Corvette is not “the regular kind.”

I, for one, love the truck. Not only that, it’s exciting. When was the last time you were genuinely excited for a future automobile? As someone who wishes he was present in the crazy concept car days of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the Cybertruck reveal feels like a small sliver of what true automotive wonder might have been like back then.

Car is sold, and is in fact on its way to France!

Up for sale is my 1966 Ford Mustang. I have literally driven this car all over the United States, making a trip down to the Carolinas for the Mustang 50th Anniversary celebration, a round trip to the West Coast and back, and a trip out to Alaska and back. Between me and several friends, I’m pretty certain that we’ve put approximately 30k miles on the car in the past seven years that I’ve owned it.

The car was built to be a highway cruiser and a comfortable road trip car. I wouldn’t hesitate to hop in this car and drive it to, well, Alaska and back. That said, it is a bit rough around the edges, and is probably best thought of as a driving project car. Hopefully, I will pass this on to someone who will have the time and effort to make this car the “nice car” that I had always hoped it could be, since I don’t have the time and effort to do that myself. Otherwise, you could just buy the car and drive it as-is, and simply do the basics in order to keep the car streetable. (more…)