In the first part of my story, whenever that was, I said I was going to one day talk about the Great Shock Perch Setting Controversy of ’99, or What Totally Took the Fun Out of Nationals for me.
Well, first, I have to tell you that ’99 was a very big year for me, because first, I decided I was going to once and for all drive in the “Open Class” through out the whole year, even at nationals, and not the Ladies class, which is, like, what all women do.
I had actually tried running in D Modified open in ’94, and found it to be an emotionally painful experience, namely in that at that time, the only woman truly allowed to do something that bold was Stacy Reitmeir, who had proven, with all her various victories and whatever, that she was good enough to run with the boys.
I say “allowed” because this was and still is one of those unwritten rules about women and autocrossing. I’ve always resented that women have to prove themselves first to run with the boys, but that is how it is, even to this day. Not everyone feels this way, but enough do, and you feel the pressure at events. When I tried it in ’94, I was not emotionally equipped to handle the onslaught of negative comments that came my way, many from my own father, but I will have to tell you about that another time, like maybe a year from now.
So with my own autocross car (Lucy above), I felt empowered to try the Open class yet again. And yes, I still had to deal with a ton of crummy attitudes, but it was much easier for me to ignore them. The lesson I learned is, it is pointless to live your life according to other people’s rules.
The added competition made me a better driver. This is something I really wish more women would be willing to embrace. Yes, I know it’s good feeling like you’re supporting your sister autocrossers, and I know the lure of winning a national championship is enticing (believe me, I know!) but when you run in the Open class, you just become a better driver. And it really is a lot of fun, most of the time.
So at the first day of nationals in Topeka, Kansas, (you compete over two days), I found myself in second place over all behind Gary Thomason, the multi-national champion, by only .2 of a second out of 51 Miata drivers.
There were many reasons for this. One of them is that I drove really well (duh!), but helping me out was tire choice (full treaded Kumhos) and an increasingly drying course (it had been raining at the beginning of our run group). Thomason, it should be said, drove on a slightly drier course than I did. I feel that I have to point that out, because so many people pointed out to me that I had better conditions. Over and over again, guys would tell me that. I wonder how many told that to Gary?
In fact, that picture above is “The Run” where I moved up from somewhere near the front (still a shock) to first place, and then second, once Gary made his run. Here’s the whole picture.
It’s not be fair of me not to mention significant people in my life who were providing emotional support for me. One was my boyfriend at the time, Arie Villasol, who for the whole year that we dated kept talking to me like I actually was a good driver. What I learned from this was that the power of positive thought can take you to heights you could never imagine otherwise. And the other was the fellow who owned the DSP Capri that Arie autocrossed that year at nationals, Dwayne Komush. And then, I had this whole circle of support, friends hanging around me in the paddock, telling me in the most surreal of ways that they believed in me, that I had a reason to be there.
I should also mention my friend George Doganis from San Diego, who had been the reigning national champ in the class for many years. We talked on the phone quite a lot, and we talked about car set up and driving and all the whys. He wasn’t telling me what to do; he was helping me figure it all out on my own. He was very much teaching me how to teach myself. All the best teachers do that.
I was surrounded by the best teachers. How that happened, I don’t know. You just have to know where to look, I guess. Or not look at all. Just listen.
But I digress.
The next day, a dry day, I made the choice to run on Hoosiers. Had I not been protested about my shocks later, I think that is what people would be talking about, because nobody, nobody switches tire brands between days. It’s just not done. You have to be true to your brand. That’s another one of those unwritten rules. But none of these brands were sponsoring me, so I felt I owed them nothing more than the money I paid for the tires, and so I just didn’t care.
Looking back, I’m not sure if it was the best choice, not just because the tire manufactures don’t appreciate it. I wasn’t used to the Hoosiers. These were said to be a stickier tire, a “must” (Gary was on Kumhos, go figure), but they were also very expensive, flat spotted very easily, and required a lot more exaggerated steering inputs.
By the way, I really cannot stand that word, “input,” but it’s what everyone says. It’s like one of those catchy terms, something that makes driving sound much more complicated than it really is. What I really mean to say is that you had to turn the steering wheel a whole lot more, so much more I thought I might rip my arm out of my shoulder joint. That is what “steering input” means in this context.
I was so afraid of flat spotting them before the event that I didn’t get the practice on them I needed. I ended up hitting cones on all but my first run, my slowest run, and this dropped me back to 5th place.
I was still pretty darned happy.
I rarely feel that elated. I’m glad I had five minutes of it before the official delivered the protest papers.
Kevin McCormick, the protester, graciously requested that I not be “served” ’til after our runs were complete, so not to mess with my head. I do regard that as a gentlemanly thing to do, because that most certainly would have messed with my head.
Kevin and I had competed together all year at Sacramento events, but the reason why he waited ’til Nationals to bring up my shock absorber issue is because he did not think the protest would carry the same impact had he done this at say a local National Tour event or a Divisional. Or maybe he felt he wouldn’t get the same ruling? I can’t remember exactly, but he waited for a specific reason.
We all were using Koni aftermarket shocks, but I, unlike everyone else in the class, I never bothered to fabricate the .2 mm piece of metal to go between the shock perch and the spring to ensure that the ride hight was identical to what it would be with the OEM Bilsteins.
Kevin’s point was that if it’s not identical to the OEM shocks, then it’s not identical, and it’s illegal. That’s a fair thing to protest, I guess. And it freaked me out, because I never measured. I didn’t know if they were identical or not. I had bought them from used from a friend of mine who assured me that these were from Konis “fixed” shipment, and that he had already measured, so there wouldn’t be a problem. So I didn’t even bother measuring. I never thought this would be a problem!
For some reason, Kevin just knew they were wrong. Now, he had threatened to protest me over other things, like my car’s excessively “tall” ride height (’96 Miata Rs for whatever reasons have a teller ride height), but I didn’t think he’d actually go through with it, because since when is a taller ride height an advantage?
So after my five minutes of glory, I felt like I was punched in the gut. I went from feeling like I was a top the tallest mountain to wanting to go home and watch Dr. Phil episodes for 24 hours straight. In short, this was a fate worse than death. Lucy was impounded for two days while the protest committee measured and remeasured. I waited around with my mom and friends, trying to find the humor in the situation. Thank God for friends and moms, that’s all I can say.
After two days of waiting around, they finally ruled in my favor and Kevin McCormick looked like a big ol’ butthead.
Today, I hold no hard feelings. I certainly don’t think that Kevin is a butthead today. That’s how I felt at the time. The lesson I learned is, you just have to be anal retentive when you go to national events like that. Autocross is self-policing, so competitors are going to be on the look out. It’s what keeps the sport fair. So, it happened to me, but it could happen to anyone. It’s important not to take these things personally, even though I did, and for a very, very long time, probably too long, but whatever, I’m human. I like to think I’ve evolved enough so that if it did happen again, I’d still buy Kevin a beer. He was doing what he thought was the right. And in the end, we all have a responsibility to do that. I really believe that to be true.
And that is the Shock Perch Controversy of ’99.