Oscoda under night skies.

What to do about the 2022 Oscoda Pro Solo?

The National Office has emailed me asking if Detroit Region was up for putting on the Oscoda Pro Solo for 2022. Things will be different this year, I’m told. Their proposed date for the Oscoda Pro Solo is no longer a back-to-back weekend with the Toledo Pro Solo — it’s instead two weeks after. The 2022 Pro Solo season is also a points qualifying season too, which should incentivize folks to come out to the less popular Pro Solos in order to earn championship points and qualify for the Pro Finale. And finally, they did an informal survey of folks and suggested that there’d be a lot of interest in an Oscoda Pro for next year.

All great stuff. However…

Putting on the Oscoda Pro Solo really sucks.

Granted, every year that I’ve been Solo Director, there’s been a pandemic going on, which I know doesn’t help matters much and probably skews the experience of putting on the event, uh, a great deal. But I look back at the past two years and can’t really muster all that much enthusiasm for going through the same agony.

Back in 2020, when the pandemic first hit, the Pro Solo series quickly abandoned the qualifying and points requirements for the season. No longer did you have to hit a minimum number of events to qualify for the Pro Finale, and there were no points to win at each Pro Solo, as the Pro Finale was going to be a one-and-done winner-take-all event in the same style as Solo Nationals. Made a lot of sense, since you couldn’t really guarantee a Solo or Pro schedule in 2020 — there were simply too many unknowns. Including the biggest unknown: whether or not there’d even be a Solo Nationals or a Pro Finale, which ultimately didn’t end up happening.

Suffice to say, with all of the “motivation” for going to the Oscoda Pro removed, the Oscoda Pro didn’t meet the minimum entry requirements and the National Office pulled the Pro Solo. We still had some 80-odd people that had made plans to be in Oscoda for that weekend, and those plans are hard to cancel when folks have arranged for rides, flights, and most importantly, accommodations in the area that are simply uncancelable or nonrefundable.

Marcus Meredith, the event chair for the 2020 Oscoda Pro Solo, scrambled to put together a replacement event, something that we called the Test, Tune, and Drive. It was basically a tour-style Solo event on Saturday with a Test and Tune on Sunday.

We pulled off the event, but afterwards, Marcus came to me and mentioned that his days of chairing events were over. In any case, he wouldn’t be around in Michigan for much longer, since Rivian was moving him and all the other engineering staff from the Detroit engineering office back to their home base in California.

Fast forward things to 2021. I couldn’t find anyone else to chair the Oscoda Pro Solo, and so took it upon myself to chair the event. This year’s Pro Solo series had qualifying, sort of. If you won during the 2020/2021 combined seasons, or if you had competed in a number of events (I think it was five?), you could qualify for the 2021 Pro Finale.

Even then, we couldn’t make great numbers. Everything pointed towards another canceled Pro Solo; we barely had some 70-odd entrants, with many of our own Detroit Region members missing from the entry list. I was pretty sure that we were going to be told to table the event, and put together an alternative event budget for the DRSCCA BoD that I had cheekily titled the “Oscoda Not-Pro.” And yet… no word from the National Office came that the event was going to be canceled, even as the minimum entry deadline came and went. The most concrete acknowledgement I got from the National Office was a Facebook post, of all things, stating that the Oscoda Pro was going to happen one way or another. Such a statement was never sent directly to me, either by phone or by email!

So I’m scrambling last minute to get volunteers, and of course, there’s not enough Detroit Region attendees to staff a full roster of critical chiefs and volunteers. I begged SVR for volunteer help and they delivered, but in the end, that wasn’t enough either, as we were still short and the poor National staff assigned to the Oscoda Pro had to pull double duty as chiefs in certain roles.

I’m still trying to figure out what came of the finances for that event right now.

So yeah, I’m not really excited about putting on another Oscoda Pro Solo.

It is a perverse satisfaction to have the option of saying “no” and shutting down an event that is beloved by some (though not beloved by a critical mass of people, natch).

But those thoughts are not productive. What would it take for me to say “yes” to the Oscoda Pro? I think it comes down to four problems.

  1. Oscoda-Wurtsmith is far away from everything. It’s far enough from Detroit that most Detroit Region locals don’t really view it as a “local” site. It’s hard to call a site “local” when it requires a weekend away from family and a hotel room (or at least the willingness to camp on pavement). Oscoda has few lodging options, and accommodations must be booked well in advance in order to avoid competing with the stampede of seasonal tourists, and these bookings are hard to cancel or change.
  2. People would rather go to the Toledo Pro. It’s a larger site, it’s easier to get to, and the competition there is always good. Is it any wonder, if Detroit Region members had to choose between the Toledo Pro and the Oscoda Pro, that they’d always choose Toledo? For that matter, anyone else traveling in from out of town will also choose Toledo over Oscoda. Having both events on back-to-back weekends means most are forced to choose one or the other, as being away from work and family on successive weekends is not an option for most. I’m still on the fence as to whether or not having the two events separated by a week helps matters that much more for the out-of-towners.
  3. It’s hard to find volunteers. Take #1 and #2 above, and it’s always a crap shoot as to whether or not Detroit Region can muster up enough manpower for running the event. And that’s before we even get to the question of “who is going to chair the event?”
  4. It’s hard to commit to competing in the Oscoda Pro. It’s the chicken-and-the-egg problem. You may want to go to the Oscoda Pro, but you’re not willing to commit to booking lodging, taking vacation time, and steeling up for the long drive unless you’re certain that the event will hit its minimum entry limit and will be a lock to take place. But because everyone is waiting for everyone else to sign up first, the entry limit never gets met, or it does get met and by that time, all of the vacationers have hoovered up what little lakeside lodging options there are, and you can’t attend anyway unless you camp.

You can’t really do anything about #1 and #2, so I’ll disregard those for now. But perhaps we can do something for #3 and #4.

If Detroit Region is incapable of supporting the Oscoda Pro by itself, perhaps we could team up with SVR. They filled essentially half of the volunteer roles this year, we could simply make it official and split half of any revenue earned with them. I’m not sure which region would take the lead on finances, and what we’d do regarding equipment, but maybe this Pro Solo could happen with two regions supporting it.

Finally, I’d like to kill any uncertainty about the Oscoda Pro. I’d like to suggest that the event be guaranteed to take place, with no minimum entry limit. Oscoda is one of the cheapest sites on the Pro Solo schedule, so I’m sure that we could make the finances work for an event with less than 120 entrants. Sure, competition might be a bit wonky with so few competitors. But this could help persuade more people to sign up if they could be confident that their hard-to-change-plans-because-it’s-Oscoda-and-they-have-never-heard-of-booking-things-via-websites plans will not rendered useless due to an event cancellation.

Basically, what I’d like to avoid is a repeat of the last two years, where I prepared two budgets for the DRSCCA Board, one for the Oscoda Pro and one a replacement event for the Pro’s possible cancellation, trying to convince event volunteers and local members that they should sign up for a Pro that appears to be destined to be canceled until it is (2020) or isn’t (2021), while trying to keep the folks who have made vacation plans, lodging bookings that can’t be canceled, or made the effort to come from out of town happy with some sort of replacement Not-Pro (2020) or the tiniest Pro Solo you’ve ever seen (2021). That is a lot of hassle for an event that the majority of National competitors wouldn’t miss if it disappeared off the schedule. (I’m sure most would prefer having two Toledo Pros instead!)

So if we want to make this Pro Solo happen in Oscoda, I think those are my demands. I myself cannot guarantee that I’ll be able to chair the Pro Solo, and my edict for the 2022 season is that I’m not chairing a single event. I will scale our local season to the number of event chairs we can sign up, and if I can’t sign someone up to chair the Oscoda Pro Solo — either from the Detroit Region or SVR camps — well, I’m not putting myself through hell again to put this event on.

This was originally posted on my personal blog on June 19, 2015. Someone on Facebook asked me where the post went, so I’m reposting this on one of my current blogs.

It’s interesting to see how things changed over the past six years. In the time since I wrote this, Ido has continued to run National events, fell into a friend group of serious competitors that kept pushing him and truly is a much faster driver than I am now. Adam Deffenbaugh now runs a FSP Mazda3 and has developed that car into a formidable threat on course, and is now regularly competing for the top spot in National competition.

Myself, I’ve improved too, though not nearly as much as Ido and Adam have.

Another day, another beat down in STR. I had respectable times at the Toledo Pro Solo, but respectable times don’t get you anywhere close to the trophies when the class is stacked so deep with talented drivers and extremely well developed cars.

While I ended up pretty much where I thought I’d be, considering the poor driving I did (no one to blame but myself for consistently blowing one of the only two braking zones on the entire damn course), it was with minor anguish and slight bemusement that I watched my friend Ido struggle with car and his driving at the Pro. I felt sorry for him because I’ve been in his shoes before; slight bemusement because I knew that what happened to me would also happen to him.

However, if he doesn’t throw in the towel after these initial setbacks, he will be in a better spot than I was two years ago.

You don’t know what fast is until you’ve competed against fast

I still remember it like it was only yesterday. I had somehow managed to put Mike “Junior” Johnson in my car as my Pro Solo codriver at the DC Pro. I placed 22nd out of 29 drivers in STR. Junior took my car all the way to 2nd place, and if the car had been properly tuned, he probably would have taken 1st. Nothing like driving slow at a big event and knowing that it’s you, not the car, because the proof is standing there on the podium and taking your own car into the Super Challenge.

The shock of realizing what fast driving really was is something that has stuck with me for quite a long time. The upper East Coast of the US is a hotbed of STR competition, something that really doesn’t exist en masse in the Midwest. I wasn’t expecting to get demolished that badly, but in hindsight, it makes sense: I had never competed against full-tilt STR cars up until that point.

It’s the degree of competition on the East Coast that draws me in. I was sad that this year I couldn’t make the NJ Pro. I’m hoping I can put the DC Pro next year back onto my calendar. Good competition, a bunch of STR friends, and awful karaoke is always a combination I’ll try to strive for.

Having missed out on the NJ Pro, my best hope for seeing the East Coast competition rested on the Ohio events. Having missed the first Wilmington Pro due to travel overseas, the Toledo Pro was the first time this year that I’ve faced off against the familiar faces from the New England Region (NER) and Washington DC Region (WDCR).

Having known quite a few of the drivers, I was fully expecting the beat-down that commenced at Toledo once the course was dry and we were all on equal terms. I suspect Ido wasn’t quite ready for how fast the competition proved to be.

That’s because in the Street Touring classes, you have to have two ingredients in equal amounts: a car that is well set up for the driver and the conditions you are facing that day, and a driver with the skill and ability to execute. Both ingredients aren’t easy to come by.

Ido did have the benefit of James Yom as his codriver for the day, so on the driver part, Ido had that covered, as James is a very good wheel from the West Coast. Unfortunately, I suspect the Ido’s Miata hasn’t seen any setup changes since it was under the ownership of Joe Calder and John Ma took the car into the trophies at the 2013 Nationals. I also suspect that the car had never seen a Pro Solo, which meant that issues with launching the car (the same issues I faced last year) never surfaced until this weekend, frustrating both James and Ido.

As a result, Ido’s Miata had the bogging-at-launch issues that an EcuTek tune with launch control (even when not activated) had. Also, a car that was set up for Dunlop Dirreza ZIIs (not even talking about the latest Star Spec here) probably needs a serious redevelopment effort as street tire grip (not to mention the changes in tire handling characteristics) has jumped by leaps and bounds. This weekend was the first weekend that Ido bolted on the brand-new set of the latest and greatest Bridgestones. James was quite vocal about his unhappiness with the car.

In STR this weekend, the trophy positions, 1st through 6th, are covered in the span of a single second. Then you’ve got the rest of the “quick” drivers, covering the span of just another half a second back, covering positions 7th through 13th. Depending on where you compete locally, a difference of 1.5 seconds might not be much of a gulf between different drivers. When the competition is stiff, being 1.5 seconds behind the leader (like me, sitting in 12th in class) is a damn eternity.

The fast drivers were once slow, too

It’s all too easy to forget that some of the fastest drivers in the sport of autocross are fast because the tremendous amount of work they put into their cars and their own driving. I think a lot of newer drivers jump into the deep end of competition, see what they’re up against, and lose all hope of ever being as fast as the fast guys, dropping out before they give themselves a chance to improve.

I was nearly there myself. Last year was supposed to be my last year running STR, after which this year the plan was to turn the Miata in a track day car. But thanks to the incredible support of my friends in the WDCR, I stuck through things long enough to start seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. My finish at last year’s Nationals was good enough to compel me to give STR one more shot.

So I’m seeing some progress. It’s still slow and painful, always seemingly two steps forward but one step back. It was during Spring Nationals when shooting the shit with STR drivers that I typically don’t compete against that some perspective on driver improvement was drilled into my head.

At Spring Nationals this year were two Texas competitors that I typically don’t see at Midwest or Great Lakes Region events. One such competitor was Ricky Crow, a fellow I met back in Central Illinois when he codrove Clark Walker’s STR BMW Z3 Roadster while on a temporary work location assignment.

I had just finished my third run on the first day of the Champ Tour. The Miata was parked in grid, and I was cursing myself for messing up the run that would have kept me solidly in the trophies.

Ricky, one of the hot shots in contention for the event win, asked me how long I had been autocrossing.

“Seven to eight years, I guess,” I said.

“Seventeen years,” he replied, pointing to himself.

Ricky would expand on that comment the next day, when we were sitting in grid waiting for the start of runs for Day 2. Once Ricky had gotten reasonably good locally, he started giving National competition a go. At his first Nationals, he came in at the bottom of his class. The next year, he improved to mid-pack. Hmm, sounds suspiciously like my Nationals experience so far…

Bottom line was this: Ricky had a period of time at the beginning where he wasn’t very good. But he kept at it, and now he’s currently one of the people to beat in STR. I don’t think my driver path will follow Ricky’s, but it’s nice to know that it could possibly happen to me if I work hard enough.

I was also talking to David Whitener, another driver fighting for the top spot in STR at the Tour at Spring Nationals. I met him at Blytheville, where he proceeded to put a can of whoop-ass on STF and gave me a couple of things to think about regarding whether or not it was necessary to make major setup changes to account for the new crop of much-grippier street tires. I was picking his brain about test and tunes, when he noted that there was another benefit to test and tunes: seat time. He has done “test and tunes,” which ended up being more of a practice session in which drivers essentially hot-lapped the course, after regular autocross events down in Texas, with some friends, thereby getting loads and loads of seat time. The key, he said, was to get several magnitudes more seat time than what a typical casual autocrosser would be able to get in a single season of autocross.

He also shared with me that he too was terrible for a long time. It took him several years to break into the top PAX locally. But he kept at it, and now he’s shaking things up in STF, and nearly took the STR Tour win at Spring Nationals in an NB Miata.

I also spent a lot of time chatting with Jason Rhoades at Spring Nationals, the man behind the much-admired STX 1967 Camaro. (I may or may not have spotted his Nissan 370Z in the paddock, and then proceeded to park right next to him…) The Nissan 370Z is a bit of a newcomer to the STR class, and an unusual wild card at that. Jason has one of the most developed 370Zs for the class.
While he is quick to downplay his driving skill — he is absolutely a top-notch driver — he most well known in autocross circles for attempting and successfully making cars competitive that most people would think otherwise.

He’s an earnest, down-to-earth guy, and his methods of car setup are, quite frankly, not at all earth-shattering. He just has a solid and extensive understanding about how systems work and work together in a car, has access to experts who can fill in the gaps, and is methodical in how he tests and makes changes. He just seems like a normal dude who is able to start from nothing and get to a good setup, even for relatively unknown cars, and be able to win, and it gives me hope that I, as also a seemingly normal dude, can do the same thing, even as I currently fumble about in trying to understand how much compression needs to be dialed into my shocks.

A path foretold

I’m partially to blame for Ido’s purchase of an STR Miata. Last year, I let him take my STR Miata out for a drive, as he was considering buying one for himself. He liked my car, and I spoke well of Joe Calder’s car, so he went ahead and purchased that car.

From the very beginning, however, I worried that he was setting himself up for disappointment. My initial advice to him was to keep his NB Miata, return it back to stock, and run it in E Street class. That option waived, my next suggestion was to buy a stock Honda S2000 and run it in B Street class, the reasoning being that with fewer things to fiddle with on the car, the more attention can be focused on learning how to drive. (It also helped that S2000s are sweet cars, Ido has always wanted one, and they are holding their value very well.)

In the end, Ido came home with an NC Miata that trophied at the first Nationals I ever attended. After an initial shock to the system when Ido took his Miata out to his first “local” event (in Rantoul, Illinois) and compared his times against mine, he’s rebounded quite nicely and is steadily improving. In all honesty, for such a new driver, he’s actually very decent.

But STR cars are fast cars, and sometimes hard to drive fast. When the calculator racing PAX tells you that a 160 horsepower roadster on fat street tires should be faster than a stock Corvette Z06 on street tires — yeah, we’re talking about some serious speed here. Add in all of the variables that are difficult to get right, a minute error in car setup or driving line is enough to throw you into a wide time gulf between you and first place.

Ido was understandably confused as to how he was so slow. I’d come through the finish thinking that that run was for sure faster, but the time board would never reflect that, he said. (Been there, done that, many times.) Where exactly is all the extra speed coming from?

If it’s anything like my experience with Junior at the wheel years ago when I asked the same question, the answer is everywhere. The fast drivers are able to keep the car on the limit of traction while, and this is hugely important, maintaining the correct line through the course for their car. The fast drivers drive way harder while being, at the exact same time, much more precise than your average driver. It’s much easier said than done.

At the top level of competition, differences in inches for where two different drivers apex could result in time differences of tenths of a second. Blowing a braking zone by 2 feet could effectively regulate your run time to mid-pack. So yeah, welcome to the top tiers of competition. It’s pretty ruthless out there.

Get beat on the National stage, beat others everywhere else

Adam Deffenbaugh is a friend from Central Illinois whom I met years ago at Rantoul, where I first started autocrossing. He has a very busy autocross schedule, with him running St. Louis Region events as well as Champaign County Sports Car Club events as his local schedule in addition to his National schedule of events. I pretty much see him at all of the National events I’ve been running so far and will continue to do so, and will probably see him some more after Nationals is done and we both go back to Rantoul to keep autocrossing into November.

We were having lunch at Spring Nationals when the conversation turned to how we stacked up as drivers against the fast guys in National competition and against the local friends back home. In terms of speed, Adam and I squarely average among the National drivers, and frequently are reminded of this fact when we see the results sheets in impound.

However, at our local events, we’re regarded as fast drivers, which is a weird disconnect between where we want to be in terms of speed and how many others regard our driving. I cringe a bit when someone else describes me as “fast”; the most charitable descriptor I’m willing to give myself is “quick.” Maybe if I want to impress someone, I’ll add the words “pretty” in front.

But the hedonic treadmill is a very real thing. And from the perspective of a local driver at Rantoul, yes, I am fast when I’m fighting for top PAX and my little Miata on street tires is jockeying with an E Sreet Prepared Mustang on race tires for fastest time of the day.

All the while, I’m there cursing myself for driving too conservatively. It’s a serious problem that I’m fighting right now, as I’m driving totally within my own comfort zone and not attacking a course like I should be. I’m too scared to approach the limits in my car and keep it there — I lift too frequently when I get frightened — which means my runs are safe but slow.

But no one likes a Debbie Downer, and I’d feel like a tremendous asshole bitching about my poor performance when almost everyone else would love to have my “problem.” So I’ll smile and not complain about my driving, congratulate the driver on her first FTD and remind her husband that his collection of purses will grow by one more.

Back in my early years of autocrossing, before competing Nationally was ever a thought in my head, I was autocrossing in Central Illinois when the Borowski brothers showed up to our Rantoul event in an E Stock Mazda Miata. Now those who know the “Polish sisters,” as some folks jokingly call them, know that they are fucking fast as hell.

How fast? Well, Bartek brought the hammer down, putting down the fastest time of the day. No one could touch him, including the E Street Prepared and Super Stock cars that were running big fat race tires. His brother, Hubert, was nearly as fast.

I managed to convince Hubert to let me ride along with him during one of his runs. Holy fucking shit. It felt like, to my young and inexperienced brain, Hubert was doing a continuous four wheel drift throughout the entire course, the car moving and squirming for traction beneath our seats for 60 seconds. And Hubert was the slower Polish sister. I can’t imagine how insane Bartek’s driving must be.

That ride left an indelible impression on me. I would like to someday be good enough that I can roll into a small local autocross and absolutely demolish all comers with a Miata. That’s probably at least a decade off, but it’s something I can shoot for…

Don’t quit

I was at Steve’s house not too long ago, admiring the latest purchase to grace his garage: a purple Neon prepared for Spec Neon racing. He was tired of getting so soundly beat by the likes of Junior in A Street, and unwilling to bear the cost of keeping his Corvette competitive, especially when it came to the tire bill. The plan is to run the Neon as often as possible at Waterford Hills this year in preparation for a season of local time trials next year.

While I’ll always support the move from having a very expensive competition car that leaves little headroom in the budget for prep and support to having a very cheap competition car that leaves lots of headroom in the budget for prep and support, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Steve roughed it out and stuck to it. I’m pretty sure he’s hit the same plateau that I hit last year in terms of driver improvement, the no man’s land of “I think I’m doing things right, so why don’t the timing boards reflect that?” Of course, all of this motorsports stuff is supposed to be fun, so I can totally understand when someone like Steve decides to take a break and go try something else.

But I’ll admit to my own biases against local-only competition. I don’t know how steep the competition is at Waterford Hills when it comes to Spec Neon, but at first glance, Spec Neon appears to be limited to this little corner of Michigan. The best people at anything, whether it be autocross, road racing, swing dancing, basketball, chess, competitive hot dog eating, etc. are the people that travel about to find the toughest avenues of competition. And while I do motorsports for fun, just as critical for me is the drive to improve, a tangible goal for me to shoot for, and when the drive for improvement diminishes, so does my enthusiasm. Unless the local competition also just happens to be the best competition in the entire nation, I would never be able to bear just competing locally. There’s just too many good drivers to meet and compete against, make friends with, and eat Mexican food with and shoot the shit with after events.

Which is why, if Ido doesn’t let this setback — one that pretty much every single fast autocrosser experiences when they first jump into stiff competition, mind you — hold him back, he could (and probably will) become a faster driver than me in the future. He will know, early on, just how fast fast really is, and can build towards that. He’s got the benefit of youth on his side. He listens to feedback and does his best to act upon it, which is refreshing to see when a lot of newer drivers typically begin with the attitude “I know everything.”

Because most of the folks I’ve talked to in the autocross circles never got truly fast until they started driving the National circuit. Rarely do you see someone get super fast locally, then jump into the National circuit, and blow everyone’s shorts away. Most of the fast “overnight successes” have been working on their success stories over the course of years, sometimes even decades. Ido’s got a head start, basically jumping into the deep end on his second or third year of autocrossing.

If I could go back in time and change one thing, it would be this: I’d tell myself after my very first National Tour to keep going to National Tours. I would be a much better driver today if I had started seriously competing on the National circuit in 2010 or 2011 instead of “waiting” until 2013 to have a go at it.

There are many reasons that people do motorsports. Having fun surely ranks as number one, but if improving as a driver is also a high priority, then I suggest that it would be in your best interest to find the toughest competition you can. People talk about “competition improving the breed” when it comes to cars and technology, but that also applies to people.

Seth Godin summarizes this thought quite succinctly:

But the real reason is mental, not based on physics. Drafting works because, right in front of you is proof that you can go faster.

Without knowing it, you do this at work every day. We set our pace based on what competitors or co-workers are doing. One secret to making more of an impact, then, is figuring out who you intend to follow. Don’t ‘pace yourself,’ instead, find someone to unknowningly pace you.

Now go out there and get your ass beat by the competition. We can commiserate together after the event with Mexican food or bad karaoke.

All I needed was a flat concrete floor.

The SCCA VIR Time Trials were just a week and a half away, and I was debating whether or not I wanted to throw my new suspension on the car and realign everything, or if I was just going to do another alignment on the current suspension setup. Aligning the car at home meant putting the car on the most level slab in my garage, which itself wasn’t very level, resulting in a 3-hour leveling exercise the last time I aligned the car.

Steve proposed that I bring the car over to his garage and work on it there. I wouldn’t be able to use his lift, but the garage was heated, he had some Quickjacks, and one section of his garage was level enough that I could just put the car on my alignment stands and get to work. Sure, why not?

Before I brought the Miata over, I brought my new-to-me MR2 Spyder over to Steve’s house last Wednesday so he could check it out. We drove it out to get dinner only to realize that one of the rear brake calipers was stuck, and had been stuck for so long that it nearly wore through to the backing plates on the brake pads. The MR2 ended up in Steve’s garage, and I borrowed his RX8 for the drive back home.

Steve and a buddy of his went ahead and replaced the rear brake caliper on the MR2 and adjusted the parking brake. The MR2 was driveable on Friday.

On Saturday, the cascade of problems began. I brought the Miata over to the garage and began working on it. Over the course of five hours, I had the old suspension off the car and three of the four new coilovers on the car. I took the spring off the remaining coilover so I could test wheel and tire fitment, discovering that the 255 width Falken that I had mounted on my 17×10 didn’t fit underneath the rear fenders.

Meanwhile, Steve had dragged home a needy 60s Cadillac back home with another friend, and jokes started flying around that because the Miata was in the garage taking up space, Steve couldn’t use his own garage to wrench on the Caddy if needed. Mindful of this dilemma, I quickly threw the remaining corner of the Miata back together and bolted on the street wheels and tires, which would allow the car to at least be moved into the driveway if the garage was needed for wrenching on the Cadillac.

I drove the MR2 back home with the plan of returning on Sunday to test fit the 255 Bridgestone I was planning to use for the VIR Time Trials on the Miata before finalizing my alignment.

Sunday morning, I decided I’d take the RX8 back up to Steve’s. I couldn’t get the engine to turn over. I left the RX8 parked in the street and hopped in the Fiesta ST instead, bringing my 255 Bridgestone in the hatch.

I spent another eight hours in Steve’s garage on Sunday. The Bridgestone fit — it turned out to be narrower than the 245 Yoko and the 255 Falken mounted on the same 17×10 inch wheel — and I continued on with the ride heights and the alignment. It took me forever to get the ride heights adjusted to where I wanted them, and I quickly threw together the new alignment and tightened everything down.

As the sun set, I drove the Miata back to my house. I tried jumping the RX8 with my jump box, but was unable to get it to start. I hopped back in the MR2 and drove it back to Steve’s house, dropping it off and bringing my Fiesta ST back home. With the drive between our houses sitting neatly at 45 minutes one way, I ended up spending 3 hours just shuffling cars back and forth on Sunday.

I had jumper cables in the Fiesta ST, so I jumped the RX8 and moved it off the street into my driveway for my neighborhood’s Monday trash pickup day.

Monday afternoon, I tried starting the RX8, and it refused to start. I jumped the car one more time and drove it straight to Steve’s house, swapping it for my MR2 and bringing it back home.

Today, Steve finally pinpointed the issue with the RX8: the terminal connections on the battery were iffy and needed cleaning. Still, he was disappointed that he wasn’t able to drive the MR2 this week, as our informal agreement was that he’d get to drive the MR2 around while I hung on to the RX8 for a bit. Instead, I delivered a malfunctioning RX8 right back to him because I didn’t want the thing to live immobile in my driveway or in front of the house.

Long story short: Steve fixed my MR2, let me use his garage to wrench on and align the Miata, preventing him from wrenching on his Cadillac in the comfort of his own garage, and all I did was give him back an RX8 that wasn’t working correctly that he then had to scramble to fix. He gave me a ton of shit over the course of the weekend, and all of the hand wringing I got was definitely justified.

And while we talked on the phone today and he assures me that we’re all cool now, I don’t believe him one bit. All throughout the weekend, there was an exasperation in his voice, sharp in his comments while I was working on the Miata, a white noise of disparagement on my wrenching speed, the way I positioned the car in his garage, and the way I left the garage as my burned out mind struggled to pack the Miata and the Fiesta ST.

The tone of voice persisted in today’s phone conversation. It is clear that, between the use of his garage and the troubles that beset his RX8 while it was under my watch, I’ve incurred an unforgivable indebtedness that will never go away. In my quest for ease and convenience — which turned out to not be all that convenient in the end — I hung a Sword of Damocles over my friendship, and I now wish that I had had the foresight to prevent the past five days from ever happening in the first place. All of the work should have been done in my own garage, where the inconveniences imposed are imposed only on myself and not on others.

So ends my tale of woe. Borrowing a friend’s garage for lengthy wrenching sessions falls in line with the likes of borrowing money from friends and family. DON’T DO IT. Just don’t.

I Am The Asshole. And as a result, I’ve permanently scarred a friendship that I had valued so much.

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 gear), 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…)