From the GRM Vault: Cruisin' USA

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Written by Andy Hollis

From the May 2012 issue

Posted in Features

Sitting in the race car just minutes from go time, terror fills the cockpit. We are on hallowed ground, the hot pits of Road America, one of racing’s most storied road courses.

It’s a beautiful place, but its reputation for separating the men from the boys weighs heavily on our minds. The track contains a number of fast, blind turns along with three very long straights where our speeds are expected to exceed 130 mph.

This is unknown territory for us and our car. Our Civic has barely ever broken 100 mph and has zero aerodynamic development. Plus, conditions are cold and slightly damp. Oh yeah, and our total “practice” consisted of two laps that morning on a kid’s single-speed bicycle.

Sensing our trepidation, up walks Brock Yates Jr. for a little chat. As the ringleader of this traveling circus, he’s a logistical and promotional wizard, for sure. However, he’s also a great coach and friend for all involved, constantly taking the pulse of the event and its participants to ensure a fun and safe experience.

“Lap pups” like us stand out like sore thumbs—you can tell by our brand-new driver suits and wide-eyed looks. Brock calms us down with some relaxed conversation about nothing in particular.

Moments later we’re out on the track, assessing the grip levels and feeling the speed build. Our focus is intense as we press harder each lap—brake a little deeper here, carry more speed there, closer and closer to the edge—until the checker flies, ending the three-lap time trial.

Heading back to the pits, incredible feelings of exhilaration had replaced our earlier terror. In this instant, we understand why One Lappers return year after year.

Insert Coins

The Tire Rack One Lap of America was always on our short list of events to attend; the only question was when. The deal was sealed when we watched our friends Peter Lier and Ian Stewart run one stage of the event in 2008. Despite the horrific downpours pummeling the field, the participants’ excitement was palpable. We wanted to play.

Today’s One Lap of America is a refined version of those early outlaw Cannonball events glamorized by Hollywood. Participants still cover similar distances compared to a coast-to-coast trip—more than 3500 street miles—but the high-speed action takes place on some of the nation’s premier road courses over the span of a week. The route is different each year, which keeps veterans coming back for more. For extra incentive, some of the tracks on the trip typically don’t grant access to club-level racers.

Participants follow a simple time trial format at each track: one recon lap followed by a series of three timed laps and a cooldown. Two sessions per track is the norm, and participants accrue points based on their finishing positions in each. Bookending the week of track runs are a pair of skidpad challenges—one wet, one dry—at the headquarters of the event sponsor, Tire Rack. To spice things up even more, organizers like to throw in an unusual stop each year—maybe a visit to a drag strip, circle track or autocross.

Cars are divided into a variety of classes based on vehicle type and original cost. Modifications are essentially unlimited—One Lappers don’t need no stinking rules. The sole restriction: Each car shall run only one set of 140-treadwear, full-tread street tires purchased from Tire Rack.

Vehicle prep craziness is also limited by the long highway transit stages the teams must negotiate. Fancy, low-hanging front splitters can be demolished by road debris. Loud exhausts are deafening over the course of a week. A stiff suspension will destroy your kidneys.

Teams are made up of at least two people, primarily to ensure that drivers maintain some level of sanity during the transit stages. Some teams assign the track duties to one driver and the transit duties to the other. Others divvy up the track driving according to who has the most familiarity with each course, then tag-team the transits.

Speaking of transits, how fast do you go on those stretches? Well, do you feel lucky? The faster you get to the next track, the more time you have to sleep in a hotel that evening. But highway driving “outside the box” puts teams more at risk for lost time thanks to the gendarmes—and commensurate hits to the wallet.

Going into our first event—the 2010 running—our overall team goal was simple: Get the full One Lap experience. That meant finishing in one piece and having fun.

Sure, a podium finish in class was on our minds, but top 10 overall was just a pipe dream. And, in the end, we got it all: the highs, the lows, and even a happy ending.

Checkpoint!

In order to attack the One Lap, we needed the right set of wheels. Enter Sneaky, our K20-swapped 1988 Civic DX track toy.

Sneaky was designed to be disposable, yet fast and reliable. Almost everything on the car is OE Honda, so a trip to the local AutoZone can solve almost any problem that emerges.

Our many years of experience autocrossing Hondas also means we know the cars intimately and can make roadside repairs quickly. To make transit stages a little less grueling, we did round off a few rough edges as we exited the track each day. We swapped in OE seats, choked down the exhaust and softened the shocks. We even had cruise control.

We didn’t have a ton of experience at the tracks on the 2010 One Lap schedule, so we had to rely on autocross experience to quickly learn new layouts. Our strategy for analyzing the courses and visualizing our track time: taking a couple laps on a bicycle. Years of “go fast right now” driving had also given us a keen sense of dynamic grip levels.

Our experience paid off right away as we came to grips with that first session at Road America. We ended up blazing through the track’s short course later that day, which seeded us well in the grid order for the rest of the week. Leaving early each day was the key to relaxed transit speeds and some decent sleep.

Mid America Motorplex was a huge confidence booster, as we ran well into the top 10 during both sessions there. Because the track was flat, we could see all of the corner exits and judge entry speeds accordingly. “Hmm,” we thought, “maybe we can run with the big dogs after all.” Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, full of blind turns and elevation changes, then served up a much-needed ego check: We succumbed to Turn 9—aka The Bitch—with an off-course excursion.

Tulsa drag night buoyed our spirits again as we made a surprising low-13-second pass in a front-wheel-drive car on street tires. A pivotal moment came next at Gateway, when we overcame our fear of the high-banked walls to again score a pair of top-10 finishes. We were back in the game.

Mid-Ohio’s bevy of blind turns played with our heads, and we only started to feel the rhythm of the place near the end of the day. Still, we headed to New Jersey Motorsports Park in 12th overall, now harboring a sleep-deprived dream of a coveted top-10 overall trophy. That fire was stoked some more at NJMP: Our little Honda was flying with sixth- and 11th-place finishes, and we moved up another place overall.

Reality sunk in at Nelson Ledges, though, as we again went agricultural during the recon lap due to brand-new, unbedded brakes. We decided to dial it back for safety’s sake, and as a result we headed to Tire Rack in 11th overall. We were thrilled with our position, but it was disappointing to be only one step away from the big trophies.

And then the wheels fell off the cart. During a huge downpour just 40 miles outside of Tire Rack’s home base in South Bend, Indiana, the car started to misfire. Finally, it just quit. After some roadside brainstorming with Jason Saini and Brock, we got the thing barely running again and nursed it back to Tire Rack.

In the morning, we ran the car’s heater for 2 hours in an attempt to dry out the works. It seemed to help, as the Civic ran flawlessly and pulled 1.02g on the skidpad. This earned us sixth place for the day, putting us in—drum roll, please—10th overall. Hooray! We had cracked the top 10 in our debut while running a lowly Econo Car class entry.

Would You Like to Play Again?

Every car nut should do the One Lap at least once, even if it’s just in a rental car. The mix of people is incredible, the tracks are amazing, and the camaraderie is unmatched.

Enthusiasts from all around the world and all walks of life gather once a year to share a common love of fast cars, wide-open throttles and the open road. If the smell of internal combustion and the feel of wind in your hair gets your blood flowing, this event is for you.

We decided to head back for 2011, but with a new, refined plan. Since the One Lap would visit Daytona, we’d look at our aero package. The biggest change would involve our platform. Out with the Civic, in with a CRX.

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