The Beginning of the End

photo by Jack Puryear

This is me in Topeka, Kansas, at the 2001 Solo II National Championships, driving Jeff Ellerby’s D Modified Westfield 7, two days after some lunatics flew airplanes into buildings in New York.

You can purchase a Westfield in kit form, just like you once could the Lotus 7 on which it’s based. Jeff’s car is powered by a motor from a Nissan Sentra, I think.

This was supposed to my big comeback. After the Great Shock Absorber Perch Setting Controversy of ’99 (which I’m sure to tell you about sooner or later; it’s unavoidable), I took some time off from national competition to travel the world. In 2000, while everyone made their annual pilgrimage to Topeka, I went to Poland.

I came back two years later with a new drive, a new focus, but no car because I just didn’t want to deal with the consequences of the Great Shock Absorber Perch Setting Controversy of ’99. As it happens, Jeff was co-driving Del Long’s Lotus 7 (ingeniously named “Yellow Car #2”), so they just happened to have an extra car. How many times does that happen.

They towed the car out from Iowa just for me. I was the luckiest girl on the planet.

Here’s the top five.

1T  198 Jeff Ellerby          67 Lotus 7 Yellow     Hoosier    Iowa    47.590      48.122(1)   45.938         45.938
   [98]  Marion, IA            SpintoEnterprises,Inc.           CENDIV                                              
 2T   99 Chris O’Donnell       63 Lotus Elan White   Goodyear   CSCC    48.386      48.332(1)   46.800         46.800
         Laguna Beach, CA      ServicePolymers,Inc.             SOPAC                                         (0.862)
 3T   10 Christopher Bernard   90 Caterham S 7 White Hoosier    NEng    48.102      47.087      46.889         46.889
         Woodstock, NY         PuffinEng/KokopelliRaceCars      NEDIV                                         (0.089)
 4T   75 Katie Kelly           94 Westfield SE Red   Hoosier    SanF    58.242(1)   48.117      47.394         47.394
         San Rafael, CA        SPSS/NoAmericanPylon/SprintoEnt’sNORPAC                                        (0.505)

 5T   98 Del Long              67 Lotus 7 Yellow     Hoosier    Iowa    49.240      48.583      47.667         47.667
   [198  Cedar Rapids, IA      SprintoEnterprisesInc.           CENDIV                                        (0.273)

Chris O'Donnell in 1998. Photo by Jeff Cashmore.What these results don’t show is how badly we all wanted to beat Chris O’Donnell, the reigning D Modified chanpion for the latter part of the 20th century, in his pristine, showcase Lotus Elan which, according to anyone who supposedly knew better, was simply unbeatable. All the guys from “Team Iowa,” including Jeff, Del, Al Cram, Jeff Christiansen, people I was meeting for the first time, welcomed me to the team in our “unified goal”.

I’d been watching Chris in the latter part of the summer, as he’d come up from San Diego to run our events, and I noticed something. He would take fifteen unscored “fun runs” a day. Sure he was fast, but how fast was he at run number three, when it counted? That’s when I knew he was catchable. And thanks to Del and Jeff just giving me a car, I thought, maybe I can do this.

But I fell short, but what can you do. It was still my best result ever. Del tells the story best:

A side from the terrible events in New York City, the 2001 Nationals will for ever be etched in my brain. We only ran one course, you had to do it right. On the third run Chris O’Donnell came in with what everyone assumed was the winning time, just as the congratulations were starting  in Chris’s pit, Jeff Ellerby came through the lights with with a time that was .862 second faster. There was an instant of silence, and then pandemonium broke out.

photo by Jack PuryearYou can see Jeff in Yellow Car #2 waiting at the start line (that’s me, of course, in the red car). When he won, I felt about as good as if I’d won myself.

So in case you’ve ever wondered just what exactly happens at Solo II National competition, here’s an exciting scene:

photo by Jack PuryearWhat we see here to our left is called “walking the course.” This is a key component because at most autocrosses, especially at national events, you only get three chances to drive the course. Out of those three runs, only your best run is scored. At national events, you get three chances over two days, a different course each day. (We only got to compete one day in 2001, as we were on the Forbes Air Force  base during the 9/11 attacks.)

So unlike a roadrace on a track, where you have a whole day to practice, at an autocross, you have three chances to get it right. To compensate, they give you hours and hours to walk the course several billions of times. And that is truly how most of us spend our days at the Solo II Nationals. And then we get to drive for six whole minutes, a minute at a time. It just happens to be the most intense minute of your life.

I’m not big on course walking. I think that I am considered a freak in this regard. I will walk the course at nationals no more than twice. That’s twice as much as I’d walk a course at home.

I’ve been criticized for this approach, as the so-called experts say that you can never walk a course enough. You have to know all the nuances, every pothole, every crack, every piece of gravel.

Aside from the health benefits, I can’t see what good it would do me. All I want to know is where to look. The only reason to walk the course twice at nationals is because they tend to be longer than our local events, so there’s more to remember; but what I’m trying to figure out aren’t the nuances. I just want to know where to look. When I do this, something strange happens. Time slows down. I accelerate early out of turns. Sometimes, I don’t even slow down, because all I see is space to glide into. I think I’m Peggy Flemming.

I learned this at an Evolution Autocross School, then called McKamey Autocross School, maybe three years prior when they came out to Sacramento. Jim McKamey himself took us all for a lap around the tightest course I’d ever seen in someone’s commuter BMW. I don’t think he ever once hit the brakes, or if he did, he was so smooth, we didn’t notice. And the entire time, he steered with one hand while with the other, he pointed beyond what seemed natural, repeating his mantra: “Look over there, look over there.”

I started looking “over there.” It’s not easy, but it’s simple. I had found the zen of autocross.

I say this was the beginning of the end for me. I went to Nationals one more time in 2002, this time driving the same car Jeff drove in 2001 (now owned by Peter Raymond in Colorado who needed a co-driver), while he drove his red car. And once again, he won the class and I was fourth. 

I was satisfied and grateful for my friends in Iowa and Colorado for giving me the opportunity for my best nationals results ever. It seemed as though, after sixteen years of trying so hard, that I had found my niche. I learned that not trying can work better than trying. I had found my way.

But there was always a question looming in the distance: how long could I drive other people’s cars till I’d have to face up to the Great Shock Absorber Perch Setting Controversy of ’99? Sooner or later, I’d have to go back to Lucy or mooch rides until I got on everyone’s nerves. How long could this last? Or was I going to machine those shims of less than 1mm of thickness, all to avoid another protest at Nationals that the next time might not go my way?

Meanwhile, I’d been to Poland. I’d been to the Karnonoska Mountains. I’d been lost in Latvia.

And another thing happened. Well, one of many things, but I remember this thought process exactly: I went for a run just after dawn before work with my friend Teresa. We’d both just started running, because we wanted to be so super fit, and we thought we’d try running through the Tennessee Valley outside of Mill Valley out to the ocean and back. It would only be three miles or so on soft dirt, she said. Easy on the knees.

As we plodded along the path, I was transported away from the news of the world, away from the traffic, away from the Great Shock Absorber Perch Setting Controversy of ’99, and away from the parking lot. We didn’t talk on this run – too hard – but through the sound of our heavy breathing and our feet falling rhythmically into the ground which cradled our every footstep, making our way over the rolling hills, through the trees and wild flowers, to the ocean, too winded from running to say much, then seeing the waves crash onto the cliffs and sandy beach under the blanket of fog that enveloped us, and finally turning around to start our day, I had a strange thought: here we are not competitors; we are observers. We are a part of the cycle of life. I can find peace in a parking lot or I can find it here and save so much money in gas and tires. 

Dammit, this is too much for me, I’m going to Starbucks right now.


About katiekelly

I grew up in a parking lot.
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10 Responses to The Beginning of the End

  1. Jake Hodges says:

    Hi, Katie! I think that April 30, 2006 for me. The second day of the Atwater National Tour, and I was driving James’ incredibly fast and nerotic FFR Cobra. The first day we had had some mechanical trouble, and I had to limp the car back in on my second run, but the second day I drove the best run of my life! It was thrilling – Every moment my eyes were way ahead. When I got to the tricky section in the back, my awareness was so far ahead of the car that I knew I could accelerate much, much harder than I had previously. The grip on the concerete was divine, and I was ELATED. After that day, I really felt like I had done what I came to do. Running seems hard, so I’ve joined a little mandolin orchestra instead. 🙂

  2. Katie says:

    Hi Jake! I had an experience in James’ Cobra as well, but a little different than yours: while your eyes might have been looking far ahead, mine were in the back of my head. Does he still have the wooden steering wheel and the single pad seat on the floor? Those were good times. Thanks for sharing your autocross zen moment.

    I think that running is hard, too. What about your bike?!

  3. Mitch Lewis says:


    (You don’t know me)

    Have you ever read the book “The Inner Game of Tennis”? Reading that book has made me look at “competition” a whole different way.

    Sorry to hear you’re not autocrossing anymore. But I’m glad you’ve found happiness via traveling.

  4. Katie says:

    Hi Mitch,

    Actually, an autocrossing friend (Rich Urschel, whereever he is) recommended that very book me in 2001, I think. It helped in so many ways. Thanks for writing!


  5. Mitch Lewis says:

    Hmmmm……so does that mean that since I read it last year, I’ll want to get out of autocrossing in 5 more years? hehehehe

    I’m glad you liked the book.

  6. Brett Howell says:

    About 7 years ago I asked you for help convincing my wife to join me in my autocrossing endeavors. You graciously agreed to email her, but to my dismay you logically explained to her that she should not join me unless she really wanted to – that she should do what her heart told her to do (tricky, tricky).

    Well, with 20/20 hindsight, you are probably not the person I should have recruited to coerce people to commit their time, energy and money into dodging cones, but as usual, you were right to tell my wife to follow her heart. She let me go play with cars while she committed her time and energy into getting her teaching degree. She started teaching middle school math this past fall, and I have seen her happier than ever because she really enjoys doing that.

    Thanks for the advice.

  7. al cram says:

    You could never wear out your welcome mooching cars from the hogs on ice Iowa farm boys team! I liked your narrative a lot. You really should come back and Zen your way around the new asphalt course at Heartland park. It has no grip to speak of so I’ve gone back to the go kart and located an asphalt low grip track to race on so I can figure out this form of ice skating that is now Nationals. We spent all those years setting up for the super grip concrete, and now we need to change everything to stay in the hunt. The Yellow car three can now be configured to run in both D and Emod and since they run on different days usually there is probably a spot for you in there somewhere. Come on out and play!!!

    Al Cram
    Old Duffer Racing

  8. katiekelly says:

    Gee, Al. Slippery asphalt. Sounds. Fun.

    No, really. I’ll be back. I just have to figure out a way to get there.

  9. Jake Hodges says:

    Biking is much easier than running. You get do do it sitting down! The hard part is getting out of this office when the sun is up. I miss weekends. 😦

    James still has the wooden steering wheel, but he did add a seat to the car. Allowing the driver to spend less effort conecntrating on staying in the car was good for at LEAST a second.

  10. Rich Urschel says:

    Hi Katie,
    I retired and moved to Placerville in 2001. I’ve been doing about half of the Sacramento events lately.

    Sorry for the delayed response. I only do an internet search on my name every 8-10 years.

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