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