Many Cars, One Lap
Written by Alan Cesar
From the Aug. 2012 issue
Posted in Features
Finish a triathlon. Climb Mount Everest. Compete in the Tire Rack One Lap of America. These are the bucket-list items of only the most hardcore challenge-seekers. They’re all grueling tests on one’s body, mind and equipment, and it’s an accomplishment just to survive them. There’s no prize money involved, only the reward of inner satisfaction.
It takes a special breed of car enthusiast to subject himself and a friend to a weeklong slog across great swaths of the country, with hair-raising track events to complete in between. This legal, long-running event is the spiritual successor to the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, itself an homage to Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker’s high-speed coast-to-coast drive in 1933.
The rules are simple: There are (almost) no rules. Modifications are unlimited. You can run any DOT-approved tires you want, provided they’re available through Tire Rack. Each car can carry only two spare tires—a real limitation considering the miles traveled. Support vehicles are not allowed, but a trailer full of parts is okay.
Thanks to all this freedom, the One Lap experience can be about as plush or extreme as you want it to be. Some competitors arrive in race cars (which typically bear license plates and questionable street legality) while wearing earplugs destined to be jostled out by highway expansion joints. Others come in nearly stock vehicles, ready to spend a week cruising the country in comfort while turning slower—but still exhilarating—lap times on track.
This was our first year of serious involvement in the event, and we went the more brutal route: We joined GRM contributor Andy Hollis for his third One Lap effort in a compact Honda. Could we help him bang out another top-10 finish against an ever-increasing mob of Nissan GT-Rs?
A regular slate of veterans...
...have been attending One Lap for years—some even decades—but plenty of newcomers take on the challenge as well. Eric Winsor, a military veteran and Minnesota native, was preparing for a season of time trial events and figured this would be a good shakedown for his car. It’s a 1999 Corvette Fixed Roof Coupe he bought on eBay Motors for less than $10,000, which he had tweaked and driven for three seasons of competition.
Eric and his father, Bob, had just picked up the car from Boos Performance the night before registration. “We took out a cat with the splitter when we left the builder’s shop,” Eric said. That splitter—which they remove between events—decimated the feline at 60 mph. It was a sign of things to come.
The Corvette is a pretty aggressive build, which means air conditioning is out and earplugs are in. Its heavy clutch was difficult to modulate while pulling a trailer in Chicago traffic on the way to the event. “You gotta wait for about five car lengths to clear up, then vrrrrr woop woop woop woop woop woop your way up the line,” Eric said.
Unfortunately, Eric’s skill on track was hurt by his strong pursuit of the edge: He went off course a few times, and the low, sharp front splitter acted as a lawnmower blade, slicing up grass and spewing it onto the car’s front air intakes. The car quickly overheated after each excursion. Luckily, the engine wasn’t damaged.
Eric’s skill and the car’s capabilities came through at his local track, Brainerd International Raceway, where he came in second on the morning run, behind champion driver Leh Keen in a GT-R. The Winsors went on to finish fifth overall in the One Lap.
...many cars quickly go from innocuous everyday machines to police magnets with the simple application of many, many stickers.
Nissan GT-Rs appear to be the easy way to win the event overall.
Leh Keen said a topnotch driver is crucial, too, but that’s no surprise: He’s a championship-winning hotshoe in the Rolex GT series. He contends that his TopSpeed Motorsports-modified car is still very comfortable inside. We counted no fewer than seven of these GT-Rs, but Bob Knoerzer and Derek Heim clearly had a sense of humor about their car. They stuck a miniature Godzilla on the deck lid of their Godzilla. The lizard does not significantly affect rear downforce.
A hose is available at the Tire Rack headquarters and at most race tracks.
Some teams let their cars get filthy during the event; others wash them at every opportunity. Since a lot of teams drive their cars to the starting line, it’s a good idea for them to clean off the grime before applying stickers. Your stinky teammate could probably use a good hosing, too.
Staying awake on the long transit stages is crucial to staying alive and making it to the next event.
Inside the gutted door of what is very nearly a Spec Miata, Mike Hedin and Chris Lewis mounted a metal, magnetic-base cup perfectly sized to hold a handful of 5-hour Energy shots. With comfort first in mind, they also glued gel-filled wrist support pads—like the ones you’d use with a computer mouse—throughout the cabin wherever knees and elbows might land for long periods.
Brock Yates Jr., in the orange hat, is the ringleader for this circus of fools...
...but despite his no-BS demeanor, he’s an incredibly friendly guy. Brock takes time to patrol the paddock and grid, talking to each competitor and welcoming any interruption. He’s a gracious host.
At registration, Brock Jr. gave a tearful account of why his father, the man who started this whole event, could no longer attend. While Brock Sr.’s body is in fine shape, Alzheimer’s has taken his mind. During his attendance in 2011, said the younger Brock, “he didn’t really know where he was.” Everyone was saddened by the news, and stood to applaud Brock Jr.’s painful speech.
More sad news came when another automotive figure passed away during this year’s One Lap: Carroll Shelby succumbed to heart problems on May 10, 2012, the same day the event stopped at Road America. This has become an unfortunate year for icons in the industry.
It’s an odd sight:
millions of dollars’ worth of cars in the parking lot of South Bend Motor Speedway, an abused circle track with a gravel paddock. This event isn’t about avoiding the hoi polloi, though. The goal is to campaign a machine that’s capable in a variety of settings and events—autocrosses, fast and slow road courses, a drag strip and, of course, the long, long miles on the interstate.
What’s worth maintaining?
Competitors have to answer this question at each stop of the One Lap. Do you have the time and energy to clean your chrome wheels? Are you chasing down problems as you go?
The Magnus Motorsports Mitsubishi Evolution X of Tim Harper and Stephen Burke had an oil leak at Autobahn Country Club on the first day of competition.
The oil return tube from the turbo wasn’t sealing properly; servicing its O-ring would’ve taken hours. The duo was able to fix it in the paddock in a few minutes using copious amounts of RTV sealant, and the car ran mostly problem-free the rest of the week. That oil wasn’t happy staying inside the engine, however: It eventually came out the dipstick tube and onto the windshield when the powerplant gave out at Road America.
Some team members can get away with not doing a whole lot during track events...
...especially if a duo assigns only one role to each person. Dedicated transit drivers will catch up on their sleep at every opportunity. Comfortable cars provide an advantage here; trying to nap in Andy’s CRX was like being punched to sleep in a storm drain full of bees.
The more competitive drivers...
...try to get a jump on each other—especially when there’s not an opportunity to walk the course—by watching track videos on YouTube.
Newlyweds Roldan de Guzman and Noriko Hamaguchi...
...picked the midday break at Hallett to bleed the brakes on their Lexus IS300. The car, Roldan’s daily driver, had 157,000 miles on it, so they were careful to keep it in good shape throughout the event.
Noriko was six months pregnant, which made it all the more impressive that she agreed to come along on a weeklong automotive adventure with her husband. Hayai Gumi—which was also written in large kanji characters on the sides of the car—is Japanese for “fast team.” “The team name is very straightforward,” Noriko said. “It’s not very creative, but it gets to the point and it looks great in Japanese.”
They’re both club racers, so a car-centric event was the natural honeymoon setting. They also considered La Carrera Panamericana, but didn’t have a vintage car to run in it. One Lap of America, they decided, was the more practical getaway.
Noriko and Roldan finished the week without incident, placing third in the mid-priced sedan class and 58th overall.
Hallett has a corner ominously dubbed The Bitch.
It’s known for catching drivers off-guard and sending them sliding across the grass into the tire wall. The grandstands near The Bitch are the most popular place to hang out at Hallett—mostly because of how many people lose it there. The track’s short runoff is grass, not sand, which makes for plenty of dramatic tension as cars approach the vintage tire wall.
The time trial format is meant to prevent passing...
...but even a long wait between start times allows for occasional wheel-to-wheel action. Passing is permitted at any time, with or without a point-by, and this VW buzzed the vintage Porsche with seemingly little effort at Hallett.
Since track time is so brief, it’s important to get to know a circuit’s corners as much as possible before running hot laps. Anything with an engine is prohibited on course walks, so several competitors—including Rene von Richthofen—brought travel bikes to ride on track. Rene drove a BMW M3 as part of the Chariots of Palm Beach crew.
Rene is a descendent of the Red Baron, the World War I flying ace, but he’s typically met with skepticism when he makes that claim: This professional artist is a constant jokester. Maybe if his M3 had a Fokker-style, three-element wing on it, he’d be taken a bit more seriously.
It was clear at the autocross that many competitors had simply never participated in one before.
Despite their high-dollar machinery and impressive road course times, plenty of drivers still drove choppily and got lost in the orange cones. As a result, this portion of the event allowed some underdog cars to move up in the ranks.
GT-R drivers had a big launch-controlled advantage on the dusty surface, but Andy was still able to snag fourth place at this event behind three Godzillas. We were heartened to see the turbocharged 2001 Miata driven by Street Survivalists Joe Woodward and William Loring take seventh place, again demonstrating the MX-5’s inherent cone-dodging prowess. Those guys finished 27th overall.
As he approached Canada Corner at Road America...
...Erik Cullins had a serious pucker moment when he discovered a sudden lack of power steering on this 2007 Volkswagen GTI. He toughed through the rest of the session, but lots of caster, combined with sticky tires, meant he had to put forth incredible steering effort. Erik was straining to lift even the lightest items when he and co-driver John Noble were preparing to leave the track later that day.
High Plains Raceway has a few corners that can surprise a racer...
...including a blind left-hander at the crest of a hill; only the top of an orange cone hints at where to point your car. One of these corners tore off the front bumper cover of the Edelman Racing Camaro, driven by Eric and Freddie Edelman. The guys threatened to bite back when they continued, scrapping the bumper cover and painting pointed teeth on the bumper support. The Dubler teams—made up of Swiss chocolate magnates—and racer Amanda Hennessy have a fleet of Chevy HRR SS vanlets they bring every year. They’re a fun bunch, but many of them don’t speak much English. Their goal is to compete against each other; they don’t care much about how they fare overall. The Dublers’ paddock shenanigans included a rather animated grape toss at Motorsport Park Hastings.
Just like at the autocross, some people knew what they were doing at the drag race and some didn’t.
Jeff Lacina and Evan Smith definitely knew how to lay rubber in their Roush Mustang, and were impressive on the track as well; the team took first in class and 16th overall.
Some competitors complained that the car didn’t deserve its additional Stock classification—this powerful, Roush-developed machine is available directly through some Ford dealers—but rule quibbles are settled by Brock’s final ruling, and he let the issue pass.
The drag race has two portions: a simple elapsed-time competition and bracket drag races. The bracket drags reward teams for nailing every run the same way, and this highly modified Honda Odyssey minivan nabbed the top honors.
Paul Street and Steve Manley, employees at the Alabama plant that builds the Odyssey, built their van in their spare time using off-the-line scrap parts. They stripped some serious weight, getting the thing down to 3200 pounds, and added plenty of boost. Its output can be as high as 550 horsepower, depending on the tune.
The manual transmission sourced from an Acura TSX couldn’t handle that power, though, and it lost fourth, then third, then fifth gear over the course of the week. Paul and Steve finished 42nd overall, but they promised to return next year with a more robust gearbox. Their third-in-class finish came behind a relatively unmodified Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 and a totally stock BMW X5 M.
Track food can be hit or miss...
but Brainerd, Hastings, Hallett and Road America all provided fantastic meals of questionable healthfulness.
One of the advantages of such a long road trip is getting to see many different parts of this huge country. Brock’s route guides are a useful tool for getting between tracks, and sometimes he directs competitors past some excellent scenery. The rain and traffic from the NATO summit protests slowed us down through Chicago, but we got to see the city’s skyline.
Despite being competitors, teams are always ready to help one another.
Peter Lier, whose Porsche GT3 was taken out by cooling system issues at Hallett, pressed on in a pickup with his race car on a trailer. He was following the 1967 Camaro of James Shipka and Carl Casanova when their equipment trailer had a blowout. Not one to just avoid the debris and keep going, Peter pulled over and lent a hand.
Everyone wants to make it to the next hotel in time to get some decent rest, so meals are often the fastest thing you can grab. Some nights we dined on Subway, but more often we ate the delicious offerings at convenience marts when we made a fuel stop. One night’s meal was Gatorade and beef jerky; another—in Wisconsin, of course—was garlic-and-dill-flavored cheese curds. They were delicious, but we couldn’t convince Andy to eat anything called a “curd.”
Andy competed uncontested in the Econo Car class...
...so the overall trophy is the impressive one here. In a field filthy with horsepower, Andy’s 250-pony CRX was outgunned in anything with long straights. His big advantages were the autocross and skidpad portions.
With the Hankook RS3 tires on backorder, a switch to Continental rubber earned him a runner-up spot on the wet skidpad—but hurt him most everywhere else. Last year’s ’kooks are awful in wet weather, but considerably better in the dry. Andy was expecting more rain this year, but it didn’t fall.
The Continentals were a bit easier to deal with, though: They didn’t require preheating, so he could leave the Chicken Hawk tire warmers and Honda generator at home.
Andy made it to the second-to-last round in the bracket drag races—a TSX-powered Honda face-off against that turbo Odyssey—but the thrill got the better of him, and he came in, just barely under his minimum time. The minivan went on to beat a Corvette, but Andy stayed back in third place.
Highly modified cars tend to have problems at One Lap of America, but our biggest issue with the CRX was finding high-octane gas. Another challenge was keeping our sanity while that four-cylinder exhaust relentlessly dumped its BRAWWWWWLP sound directly into our brainy meats—that is, until the end of the day at Road Atlanta.
It was then that Andy noticed another sound. How he could distinguish any specific noises in that cacophony is beyond our understanding, but he believed he heard a wheel bearing going bad. Andy limped the car to the final event at Tire Rack HQ in South Bend, Indiana, where he went to the ultimate extreme in an attempt to hang in the top 10 overall.
He removed everything possible from the car, even unbolting the heavy rear hatch to get the best g numbers. That front-right wheel bearing had a quarter-inch of play in it by that point, but he still got what he needed: 1.030 g, good enough for 10th place overall.
Andy’s wife, Ann Hollis, has been his sidekick in previous years. She took a hiatus in 2012 so she could be present for the birth of their granddaughter, which was supposed to happen right around the week of the big event. The child came early, so Ann planned an impromptu visit to her husband. Peter Lier, who had free time after his Porsche dropped out, picked up Ann at a nearby airport and delivered her to Road America for the surprise reunion.
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