Note: The following was written in the summer of 1998, back when I was an autocrossing star. Nobody believes me, but it’s true. I sometimes used to write for my parents newspapers North American Pylon and The Wheel, where I somehow for some reason gave myself the pen name “Ace Reporter” probably because I had no journalism skills whatsoever. And I still don’t. Sometimes, people would invite me to drive their cars and then write about it. That was cool.
Has this ever happened to you?
Just try to understand my perspective. It’s springtime, I’m just sitting here at work, surfing the Internet, minding my own business, and I get this e-mail from Joe Cheng. Oh, Joe Cheng, I think to myself. He’s that nice fellow who built the fastest autocross car in the world with autocross idol Gary Milligan, 1998 Driver of Eminence. And what about that Phantom, the fastest autocross car in the world. I wonder what it’s like in Vancouver, BC. I bet it’s beautiful there, with no road rage. I wonder what it’s like there in July. I bet people there are really nice. I wonder if I’ll ever go there.
Here are the moderately edited contents of Joe’s e-mail to me:
“Dear Ace, I was wondering if you’d be interested in flying up to beautiful Vancouver, BC, in late July, the most spectacular time of year here, to test drive the Phantom, the fastest autocross car in the world. Signed, Joe Cheng.”
The months up to this significant event of giant proportions in my life were long and difficult. It was a tremendous challenge for me to keep this a secret and not annoy nearly every autocrosser who knows of the Phantom’s rich racing record: three A Mod National Championships, ’96-98, two with Gary and one with Joe. In no year was the race even close. It was number one on the PAX index by seconds. It has changed the face of A Modified forever.
Finally, after months of anticipation, the moment arrived. I was off on an airplane to Vancouver, BC, to test drive the Phantom. This test would be at the Boundary Bay Airport, the Cheng-Milligan secret Phantom Headquarters, located just south of Vancouver. The occasion: the West Coast Can-Am Challenge event, hosted by the VCMC Motosport Club, July 31 through August 1, a must-attend event if you’re ever in the Pacific Northwest in late July.
Their top secret testing grounds are on a narrow, active runway in the middle of a big field. We arrived there Friday afternoon so Joe, also serving as the event’s chair, could open the gates and registration for Can-Am contestants. It would also be a chance for me to get some seat time in the Phantom as a means of preventing any sort of public humiliation on a larger scale the following day.
There were some things about this test period that had me nervous. Through out the entire Can-Am Challenge, student pilots at the airport nearby practiced their landings. They flew directly over us, landing just beyond the autocross course.
There were also some incredibly tall crops growing next to us that had me worried. The Phantom might sound like a powerful lawn mower but I’d hate to be the one to test it.
But what I saw next did not soothe the butterflies: there were already contestents walking the course. And then Gary declared it was time to get into the Phantom. I pointed out the pedestrians blocking my path.
“Don’t worry. They’ll avoid you.”
Said Joe: “And hey, if you see a plane taxiing, you’ve gone too far down the runway.”
It is no wonder to me that Canadians invented ice hockey.
So, I get in the Phantom. Thanks to Joe’s specially formulated seat created just for me the night before, right in front of Gary Milligan’s house (I’ve seen where he lives!) I fit perfectly in the Phantom.
Next, Gary explained how to drive the Phantom. The instructions were simple. Too simple. “This is your gas pedal on the right, and this is the brake on the left. Don’t step on the brake and gas at the same time.”
Then he explained how to start the car and how its special computer monitor worked, and what everything means. I don’t remember a thing he said, except for one thing, which was, “Don’t worry. It’s benign.”
Benign. What does that mean, benign. Tumors can be benign. Can plowing into a field of crops be considered benign? I did not ask.
It was time for my test runs. The Phantom, powered by some sort of two-stroke snow mobile motor, makes a lot of noise while you sit there until you reach about 4,000 rpm. Make sure you gingerly put your foot towards the floor, and the Phantom effortlessly rolls into a smooth glide and you’re off.
This pleased me, because the first time I had to actually move the Phantom, it was pointed directly at Joe’s Miata. Crashing his Phantom into his Miata would not be good.
As there were people walking the course, I kept my lines straight. There were also two rows of some sort of crop on my right and left, and I could not fathom how one would turn the Phantom. I’d have to figure that out the next day.
Traveling at a phenomenal rate down the runway, the cones and people were a blur to me, as the Phantom planted itself lower into the concrete surface. I’m sure I outran the plane flying directly over head. I noticed as I picked up speed that there was a low rumbling sound. Was this Mach 1?
“The Phantom has no limit,” Joe told me later that night over another fantastic Chinese meal. “At least not one we can find. It’s amazing that someone like Gary Milligan, who’s driven some of the fastest, best engineered cars in autocross, says even he can’t find the limit.”
None of this comforted my nerves, you see, but I did have one thing going for me for Saturday morning: there would be no course walkers.
The plan was that A Mod Ladies would run in the first group, and A Mod in the third and final group. I am not a fan of Ladies classes, and one reason is because from a strategic, competitive standpoint, I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to watch and mimic Joe and Gary. But on a spiritual, emotional level, what can I say. I was driving the Phantom.
Gary walked the course with me Saturday morning and gave me more driving advice. “You’ll discover that you might take some funky lines,” he said. “Just ignore it and keep on going.”
I thought this was crazy advice, and yet I liked it. It was simple. The Phantom might seem like a handful, but there’s something to the simplicity of the required mindset that might actually work to my advantage. I’ve certainly never been good at analyzing courses. It seems that the more I think, the worse I do.
It also all reminded me of Mrs. Alfano’s piano lessons. I never thought there’d be a pay off, but I’ll get to that later.
I must first explain a little of the emotional dynamic which underscored my two days in Vancouver. I was a foreigner in a foreign land. I thought everyone had a Californian accent, and if you didn’t, you were from somewhere else. Here, it was the opposite. You could look at me, and know I was from somewhere else. “Oh, you’re from California, eh?” I heard quite a bit. “I could tell by your accent.”
Added to this was that I was now strapped into an 800 pound car, in a narrow runway lined with crops.
My nation’s pride rested on my shoulders.
The man with the green flag waved me onto the course. I barely remember what happened next. The cones whizzed by me, in a blur with the fields of wheat. I strained to keep my head upright. My eyes welled up with tears.
“Not bad for your first run,” Joe told me after I pulled back into the pits. “You drove like you were driving a street car.”
Little by little, the secrets of the Phantom were slowly revealed. There are three principals:.
1. Use the downforce. The car only works with adequate downforce. The only way to create the downforce is by accelerating into the turns.
2. Do not bother with thinking. You don’t have time to think. You just have to know.
3. If you take funky lines, take them like you mean it. No one will notice.
The only thing Joe and Gary needed were heavy robes and large green ears.
On that first run, I focuses intently on finding the apex, smoothly accelerating out of the turn. I had difficulties keeping the car moving in the direction I wanted it to go. According to Gary and Joe, that’s just all wrong.
Just drive faster, they said. Don’t think. Just keep going.
My second run was a little better, until I got to the slalom. I was having a hard time coordinating the steering with the throttle.
“You have to work on that,” he said. “Just turn the wheel back and forth really fast. You’ll make it through.”
It all goes back to Mrs. Alfano, bless her, back in my amateur piano playing days. Let’s say there is a specific reason why I didn’t continue with the piano upon surviving the Christmas Mall Recital Incident, but her sage words got me through that day, and they live with me, still. If you’re playing a piece on the piano, and you hit a wrong note, do not go back and fix it. Just keep on playing. No one will notice. Let it “accentuate” your performance. Personalize it.
That is how I got through the Christmas Mall Recital Incident. Who was to know these words would still be useful for a multitude of applications?
Still. How do you convince your brain to accelerate entering a turn?
Joe and Gary spent hundreds of hours developing this car, even spending time in a wind tunnel, with the goal of designing an A Mod car to generate enough down-force where the faster you enter the turn, the better the adhesion.
From a cerebral stand point, this makes sense. Of course, if it’s a land speed record you’re looking for, you won’t find it in the Phantom. There comes a point where downforce actually slows you down. But for autocross purposes, where the goal is to go around sharp turns as quickly as possible, if you can enter the turn under acceleration, you force the air to flow over these large wings which push the car towards the earth, ripping the car through the corner at an ungodly rate. Physically, this is possible. Mentally is an entirely different enchilada.
“You just have to believe it works,” said Joe. “You can’t see or touch it. You must trust that it’s there. You must believe in the downforce.”
Then there’s the direction of the wind. If it’s behind you, the car is loose. If you’re driving straight into it, you feel limitless. If it’s coming at you sideways, don’t ask me.
“This is something we’re working on for next year,” said Gary. Was he winking, or was that dust in his eye? “We’re working on a special wind barometer, with which we can quickly and accurately test the direction of the wind, atmospheric pressure, and adjust the wing placement accordingly.”
This gave me a small peep into the mindset of the duo that has created the fastest autocross car in the world, one that no car in A Modified, the fastest Solo II class, can even come close to approaching. Others across the country try to duplicate it, but says Gary, “That’s the weakness. You can’t duplicate it. If you want to beat it, you have to build something better.”
Joe attributes the car’s superiority to those long Canadian winters. “See, I figure, in California, you’re all good drivers because you can drive all year long. You get more practice,” he said. “Up here in Canada, we only have a few months of driving time. So, we have to use all fall, winter, and spring to develop our cars.”
Clearly neither Joe nor Gary are afraid to tweak the car at a moment’s notice. I was amazed when, during one of my runs, Joe noticed the car was understeering. I thought this was a criticism of my driving, and then he said, “Well, let me fix it.”
“But Joe,” I said. “The car is working fine. I’ll adjust my driving.”
“Oh, no, you can’t think like that,” said Joe. “I learned this from Gary. I used to say, ‘Gary, why are you changing the car all the time? It’s so good already!’ And Gary said, ‘Sure it’s good. But why settle for good, when you can make it better?'”
Sadly, the Phantom did not make its way to Topeka, KS this year. At $1.60 for every Canadian dollar, the exchange rate is tough. “Besides,” laughed Joe, “we have to give everyone else a chance to catch up.”
I boarded that Bay Area bound plane Sunday evening after some Japanese food with Gary. I think I first met Gary when I was about eight years old, and he was touring around California with a Lotus 7 on his trailer. Now here he was, giving me Miata set up advice, talkin’ shop.
Lucy my Miata was waiting for me in the airport parking lot back in Oakland, patiently as cars are known to do. We drove home through the Bay Area night traffic in silence. She seemed a little soft, a little slow, and already I was starting to wonder if my weekend in Vancover was nothing more than a dream.
Well, that’s what happened. But I left out a lot of things, like seeing Vancouver and that part of the Pacific Northwest for the first time, staying at Joe’s mother’s house and eating the best Chinese food I’ve ever had in my whole life.
The one part of the story that I left out was how my times compared to Joe and Gary. And I did this on purpose, because the reality is that I carry a chip on my shoulder and if I talked about times, I feared it would come out. Or it might sound like bragging and people who brag really annoy me.
Anyway, the night before at the fanciest Chinese restaurant in town – and I can’t fault him for thinking this way – Joe was telling me that he believes that women can’t autocross as fast as men. And according to all the emperical data, like results on paper, we can see that this is true. And yet, every time I hear this, something goes off in my brain. Who wants to hear that? It makes me mad.
Anyway, I beat Gary and Joe the first day and was .5 behind Gary the second day, after he fixed whatever was wrong with the car that he says allowed me to beat them the first day.
Now, that I was .5 behind the second day should come with an astericks because they let me take a fun run that afternoon because I had to drive in less optimal breezy conditions that morning. But it was a neat moment. The last drivers of the day were making their runs and Joe said, “Hey, Ace, why don’t you get back in the Phantom for one more try.” I know that he didn’t have to do that.
The air was calm then. If I were to write an instructor’s manual for driving the Phantom, it would be, “Just put your foot to the floor and steer really fast.” That’s about all I remember on that run. I sincerely doubt I could ever do it again, because I would think too much.
When I finished the run, I looked at the timing board. Just .5 off of Gary. Everyone in the parking lot was jumping up and down and clapping. I can’t find words to describe that kind of elation. It happened only
one other time two other times in my life, which I’ll get to another time.
Anyway, that’s the part that I left out. Was it really newsworthy? Probably not. But it really did happen! It was worth growing up in a parking lot, just for that one moment in time.