One Lap of America: How competitive can a daily driver actually be?

Staff
By Staff Writer
Sep 24, 2023 | One Lap of America | Posted in Features | From the Aug. 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

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Story by Tom Suddard and Andy Hollis

Each session covers just three laps, and every circuit counts. No practice, no do-overs, no mistakes. After that, you drive your race car hundreds of miles to the next track. Now repeat for an entire week. 

Oh, and there’s one more hurdle: Teams are allowed just four tires for the whole ordeal. 

Just finishing the Tire Rack One Lap of America Presented by Grassroots Motorsports requires extreme endurance and meticulous car prep. Winning One Lap takes more endurance and more meticulous car prep than the world’s top drivers and factory-backed race teams have to offer. 

[When the Cannonball Rally went legit | The history of the One Lap of America]

But this isn’t a story about the pointy end of the field. This is about catapulting our daily driven hatchback to a podium finish in our class. Here’s how we did it.

When Plan A Doesn’t Work, You Move to Plan B

The McLaren 720S we ran in the past represents the ideal tool for the One Lap task. It delivers incredible track performance with modern stability for poor conditions, all backed by top-notch creature comforts for those long transits.

[How we survived the Tire Rack One Lap of America]

But the Achilles’ heel is reliability. It’s a low-volume British supercar, so things break–especially when tracked frequently. 

In our case, it was an alternator that came loose and damaged the engine block mounting boss, requiring removal and machining. This all happened just weeks before the event’s start, so there was little choice but to move to Plan B.

We looked for something that we felt could complete the mission: Our Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI project car, built from day one to be a daily driver that could also tear up a track day without any changes–and without swapping tires. Our only goal? Finish the event. 

We ran our GTI more or less in daily driver trim this year, but we did make a few last-minute tweaks to help it survive the week. First, we upgraded our brake pads: Pagid’s Street+ compound is fine for daily duty, but it doesn’t hold up on fast tracks. We swapped to the brand’s RS29 compound, a track-focused pad that’s still streetable and has higher heat capacity. 

Second, we completed some preventative maintenance: A leaking water pump meant a day in the garage replacing it with new OEM parts from FCP Euro. 

Third, we changed the oil and wiper blades to prep the car for a nearly 6000-mile-long week. We sourced these from FCP Euro, too, as its lifetime guarantee means we’ll never have to buy oil and wiper blades again as long as we send back our used ones.

And finally, we plumbed a drain from our 034Motorsport catch can to the car’s turbo oil drain. This meant another day in the garage, as the exhaust and turbo coolant lines needed to be removed, but this step should eliminate the need to regularly empty a catch can. (Spoiler alert: We didn’t use a quart all week.)

We hatched a plan so Andy Hollis could transit the car from our Florida base to the event’s start in South Bend, Indiana, and hit a track for recon along the way. There was an SCCA Track Night in America event at Nashville Superspeedway, a track he knew from previous One Laps, so the car would be the only variable. 

It was clear from the first session that fighting understeer would be our biggest challenge. With relatively soft 034Motorsport springs and stock dampers, driving the nose-heavy FWD car was like a wrestling match with the front end. Moving to a stiffer adjustment on the rear anti-roll bar helped substantially, as did some rear toe-out. 

With Nashville in the rearview mirror, it was on to Tire Rack in South Bend to install our competition tires. Per the rules, teams must complete the week on only a single set of tires rated 200tw or higher–though, if you have the space, you can carry a spare in case of road hazards. 

There are two schools of thought on One Lap tire selection: Max Performance Summer tires that are excellent in all conditions or Extreme Performance Summer tires that offer superior dry performance at the expense of deep-water hydroplaning. 

Swinging for the fences, we chose an Extreme tire, the Bridgestone Potenza RE-71RS. It holds both the dry and wet skidpad records in Tire Rack’s public testing program, the same skidpad we’d be competing on.

The other question was size. Narrow wheel wells and big brakes limited us to an 18x8.5-inch Titan 7 wheel. Using our long history of tire testing, we knew that a 225/40R18 was going to be the optimal fit. We picked up our tires at Tire Rack and had them mounted. 

The Odyssey Begins

All that was left was to compete. Over the first two days, our One Lap duo, Andy and Tom Suddard, completed a wet skidpad, an autocross and a rainy track day at Nelson Ledges. We quickly started to realize our strengths and weaknesses.

First, our weaknesses: power and traction, issues we expected going into the event. One Lap’s classing structure can seem odd, and we faced some stiff competition: a few all-wheel-drive Golf Rs and Randy Pobst in a Dodge Hellcat Redeye. Our little GTI was well outmatched on paper. 

One Lap is grueling, which amplifies each day’s results. Andy literally jumped for joy after mastering the GTI’s turbo lag. 

Sit-down meals are rare in an event with 700-mile transits, but we treated ourselves to a traditional Cracker Barrel visit. 

Efficient navigation is a precise science, so we’d call this experiment a failure. 

They say it’s bad luck to wash your car on One Lap. Photography Credits: Tom Suddard

Tom was also running conservative lines emblematic of a driver who didn’t know the tracks. He needed to work on his brake release, too. 

But we did have strengths: Andy’s background as a race engineer meant that our setup–like fairly low tire pressures of 30 psi cold and a lot of toe-out–was based on prior testing. Tom’s masochistic love of driving in the wet might have scared other teams, but it left us confident as our little GTI crawled up the leaderboard. Plus, Andy’s engineering brain compels him to pre-drive every single track on the One Lap schedule, meaning he knew the fast line around every stop we visited.

We also had data. Every time the car went out on track, an action camera was rolling with a view of the driver and a Garmin Catalyst watching the track. With these tools, we were able to find seconds of time after the first two days.

How’d we know there were seconds to find? Simple: Tom, the novice who’d never been to most of the tracks on One Lap, was beating Andy, the expert who had pre-driven them all. 

Something was going on, and we found it: Andy’s not used to cars with this much turbo lag, so he was getting on the throttle way too late. He needed to retrain his brain to mash the gas while the car was still cornering at the limit. Mind you, it can take immense concentration to overcome decades of second-nature training. 

Tom O’Gorman pulled off the three-peat as overall champion, but this time he shared on-track duties with car owner Salil Shukla. Their 2019 Porsche GT3 wasn’t always the fastest each day, but it was consistently quick throughout the week. In many ways, this team victory meant more to the community than Tom’s previous solo efforts, as both drivers contributed equally. Photography Credit: Driftpoint Media

After a week of reviewing data and coaching back and forth, however, we were running within hundredths of a second of each other and trading wins day to day. We split every track, with Tom running one session and Andy the other. This isn’t the most competitive approach–the smarter way to do it is having one driver per day, giving them more time on track to learn–but it’s the most fun way to do it and allowed us to compete against each other. 

How’d we decide who ran when? Tom’s quick in the wet and Andy’s quick in the dry, so we strategized each day to keep them in their preferred elements. And after reviewing our data, Tom O’Gorman, professional driver and professional driving coach, took another look and confirmed our conclusions. 

Hitting Our Groove and Moving Up

After a few days of competition, a theme was starting to emerge: We were competitive.

Thanks to a string of rainy sessions, the GTI was happily third in class and somewhere around 25th overall in a field of 80 cars. Not too bad for a daily driver.

By the final track day of One Lap, a stop at NCM Motorsports Park, all we really needed to do was not screw up and we’d maintain our podium finish.

And, well, we almost completely ruined our week. 

Slotting into the runner-up position were David Marcus and Mike King in the former’s highly modified Toyota Supra. After learning many lessons from their inaugural outing last year, they maximized every performance opportunity to gain the overall podium. Tracks were reconned prior to the event, with driving duties split accordingly. They also dealt with the transit logistics of running E85 to maximize on-track power.

Bringing an international flavor to the overall podium was the Canadian Eh Team of Bill and Alicia Rogerson in a 2017 Chevrolet Corvette. Bill’s drive to the top spot in the treacherous wet morning conditions at NCM Motorsports Park capped a solid week of driving.

BFFs Katie Poletti and Amanda Hennessy eschewed their usual Chevy HHR rides for Ned the Nova, a period-correct, hopped-up 1978 example of the Chevy icon. While it wasn’t exactly quick on track, it did complete the trek and the duo had a ball doing it. Photography Credits: Driftpoint Media

NCM’s forecast called for a downpour in the morning, conditions we knew would favor Tom in the GTI. And if we did exceptionally well–and one of those Golf Rs did exceptionally poorly–we had a shot at moving up to second in class. 

We faced a choice: Move to a conservative rain setup with our 034Motorsport rear anti-roll bar disconnected and the rear toe-out removed, or roll the dice, set up the car to be as fast as possible, and hope for drying conditions, good luck and a second-place finish. 

After some discussion and watching the weather until the last minute, we made our bed. We’d run the dry setup with one concession to the rain: moving our bald front tires to the rear and fitting our like-new rear Bridgestones up front. 

The Bridgestone RE-71RS gets stickier as its tread depth decreases, so we purposely didn’t rotate tires to have as much front grip as possible all week. We figured some tread up front would help us cross NCM’s rivers. 

Time to put our setup to the test. And wow, it was a test. Other drivers described the morning sessions as “the sketchiest thing I’ve ever done” and “undrivable.” Multiple cars hit walls, and one Porsche even rolled during the morning sessions. 

We’d describe it as mostly fine (though Tom had never driven NCM before), with randomly placed liquid kick plates all over the track vying to spin the car. Terrifying.

After the sketchiest session Tom had ever done in any car anywhere, the results were posted: The GTI finished 37th overall out of 84 cars and nowhere near quick enough to move to second place. 

Still, we got some great in-car video of us going completely sideways at 90 mph. And at least this experiment was good for a laugh from the Goodyear team, whose eyes widened and jaws dropped as they said, “You put the bald tires where on your car?” Lesson learned. We’ll keep the tread out back next time.

Fortunately, the weather dried out for the afternoon session, and Andy jumped behind the wheel. He’s won multiple SCCA Time Trials Nationals at NCM, and handily placed the GTI 27th overall.

Another standout from the Vintage class was the 1963 AMC Rambler Ambassador 990 of Nick Lucchesi and Matthew Thompson, a well-built, LS-swapped restomod sporting some major exterior patina. The car was potent under the skin and finished second in class.

When Dave Schotz and Jeff Morrow rolled into South Bend in a V8-swapped 1980 MGB, no one expected it to finish. But finish it did, and quite quickly with Dave behind the wheel–winning the Vintage class in commanding fashion.

He’s a highly successful professional racer and performance parts supplier, but in his heart BimmerWorld’s James Clay is just another passionate gearhead like the rest of us. This time, he saw a promotional opportunity for one of his shop’s most recent project cars, the BMW M4 GTMore. Taking it on the road showcased its track performance, durability and streetability. Sharing the driving with Evan Levine, the duo took the win in the Luxury class–but not without an all-nighter to overcome transmission woes early in the week.

Every train has a caboose. It’s an integral part of the assembly, following the others and playing a supporting role to all. With One Lap, that is Sundae Cup’s jam. As a group of sub-100-horsepower cars from the Gridlife scene running on miniature 205-width Falken tires, they are last on track, last to leave and last to sleep each night. But that also allows them to help get damaged cars back on the road. Embracing that pace, they still compete fiercely with each other, with Scott Robertson and Becky Burton repeating as winners in their Mazda2 called Mooncake. Photography Credits: Driftpoint Media

By the final trial, a dry skidpad at Tire Rack, we’d locked down third in class and treated Andy’s 1.076g run as more of a victory lap than anything else. It had been a grueling week and we’d added 3700 miles to the GTI’s odometer, but it paid off: We finished third in class and 25th overall out of 84 cars, beating all sorts of far faster machinery with far faster names driving them (including the Hellcat piloted by Randy Pobst).

 Our daily driver had taken down a 911 GT3 RS and all sorts of other Porsches, new Supras, Corvettes, Mustangs, Audis and BMWs. And we’d done it as teammates and friends, helping each other be as competitive as we could possibly be. 

Bottom line: Who needs a McLaren when all you need to podium in One Lap is a used Volkswagen and a willingness to work as a team?

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Comments
bobzilla
bobzilla MegaDork
6/27/23 8:41 a.m.

daily drivers are awesome. This year with the added caster never even needed to remove a tire. Our run order meant we got the short end this year even though. We had the only super wet downpour session at ECR, the dry skidpad was still wet Saturday morning from the previous night. But doesn't matter, we still had a great time, the car was awesome and we got to spend a week with our friends/"family". 

Andy Hollis
Andy Hollis
6/27/23 1:16 p.m.

That year we brought Ann's daily...

 

759NRNG
759NRNG PowerDork
7/7/23 2:22 p.m.

The one part of this whole event that caught my attention was the statement that the faster drivers 'predrive' the courses before the actual event begins!?!?

 

bobzilla
bobzilla MegaDork
7/7/23 3:17 p.m.
759NRNG said:

The one part of this whole event that caught my attention was the statement that the faster drivers 'predrive' the courses before the actual event begins!?!?

 

They go to track events ahead of time or sim rigs. 

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