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Roughing It

In my world, there’s always a lot of cars around. I own four, babysit another, and frequently drive additional ones at the behest of generous auto manufacturers for the purpose of review. I come from a world where I frequently have to move one car to drive another.

So it’s a particularly jarring psychological shock when I find myself with NO car.

Such was the case on a recent trip to Atlanta. I had driven our Nissan 350Z project car from Florida to lovely Turner Field for the Tire Rack SCCA Solo Match Tour. While I managed to make the practice course on Friday into my jailhouse girlfriend, my newfound confidence in our Z-car’s competitive prowess was squelched when it came to nut-cuttin’ time.

During my first run on Saturday–official competition day–the skies opened up about 10 seconds after I left the starting line. And I was the last car in my class to run. The second runs were a washout for everyone, as the rain fell steadily since it first splattered on my windshield. My third of four runs, however, looked to turn my fortunes around. The sun had appeared, the course had dried, and the first few turns felt good enough that I was anticipating “ooh”s and “ahh”s from the crowd when my time flashed on the big board.

Fate intervened, though, as if often does, and midway through the course I found myself without any link between my engine and my wheels.

Cursory checks revealed my day was over, and when the AAA guy loaded the car on the flatbed, bound for Balanced Performance Motorsports in Sugar Hill, my weekend’s defeat was sealed.

Spoiler alert: An errant C-clip allowed the output shaft to crawl out of the diff. It was a minor failure, but one that required opening the diff to confirm and repair. Big props to Balanced for doing so, and big relief that it wasn’t something catastrophic. We’ll go into all that in more detail when the project car stories appear. Back to talking about myself.

My hotel was directly adjacent to the event site at Turner Field–maybe a 500-yard walk tops. But when that door to room 2231 of the Country Inn closed behind me, it sank in that I had no car!

I panicked a little. I checked and double-checked the mini-fridge to make sure I had enough water and Pepsi Max to last the long, carless night. If you’re familiar with the area around Atlanta’s Tuner Field, you know that the only thing within walking distance at night is a thorough beating. I felt alone. Trapped. Seeing my finite supply of Pepsi Max, I knew exactly how Survivorman feels when he realizes he only has like 3 ounces of moose fat left to sustain him until the helicopter looks for his rotting carcass several days later.

The barbecue joint across the parking lot began to seem like an oasis. I checked and rechecked the time, making sure I got my Styrofoam clamshell full of smoked meat well before closing time, lest they pick this one day of the year to lock the doors early, forcing me to survive on hotel lobby coffee and whatever dry oatmeal packets I could steal from the closed breakfast bar while the desk guy wasn’t looking.

It was only driven into my brain how much I take my mobility for granted once it was taken from me. It also made me realize that I should never camp. Actually, I went camping once. It was awful. Well, technically it was a night at a Hampton Inn, but the blinds didn’t close all the way and I got that slit of light right on my face in the morning. It was positively barbaric.

Anyway, the next day I rented a car and drove home. Ultimately, I survived my ordeal. But I came to realize that on-demand mobility is a tenuous thing. The autonomy of having keys in your pocket, no outstanding warrants, and open highway in front of you is something I suggest you thank the motoring gods for on a daily basis.

I have to throw in that the autocross community is one of the most generous and supportive communities of competitors in any sport anywhere. I got countless offers of cars to autocross, trailer loans, mechanical assistance, you name it. It’s a great bunch of folks.

And FYI, I’m writing this column from a different room in the same Country Inn two weeks after the above incident occurred. I picked up the repaired Z from Balanced today, and I intend to run the Atlanta Region’s autocross tomorrow across the street at Turner Field.

I figure that parking lot owes me one.

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