A Bad Day at the Track

Editor's Notebook, September 1997



I've told you about the sweetest spot on Earth. If you've been reading my Notebook, you know that I think Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is God's gift to those of us who love motor sports. Its a beautiful four miles of asphalt laid out among the hills and forests of the Kettle Moraine glacial formation.


Thunder Valley, the winding ribbon of track between Canada Corner and the Billy Mitchell Bridge, is, by turns, the most peaceful and the most tumultuous that Road America offers. Birds and small animals twitter and scurry through the woods. The leaves rustle overhead. Dappled sunlight makes patterns on the track.


The scream of brakes...

The roar of 240 horsepower engines, 750 horsepower engines, and 900 horsepower engines are heard in the distance. The scream of brakes before Canada, the squeal of tires as cars fight for control to begin the uphill run through Thunder Valley, and the roar of the cars under the canopy of trees, all punctuate the glory of the landscape. When the cars are gone the hills remain, awaiting the next onslaught.


Susan and I were up for the CART weekend, staying in a private home on Elkhart Lake, a short scooter ride from the track. The weekend weather was volatile, rain, sun, clouds, wind. Saturday was good. Some practice and qualifying was rained out, but we met old friends and found new vantage points to watch the racing.


The Rain Sunday dawned with promise. We hopped on the scooters and headed for Uncle Monty's for a big country breakfast. (You won't find any signs that say 'Uncle Monty's' because they've upscaled the joint and renamed it. But they haven't changed the menu.)


After breakfast, we headed towards the track, to be met with a torrential downpour just as we were passing the home in which we were staying. We turned into the drive and ran for the house. After drying out and waiting for the rain to stop (which it most decidedly did not), we abandoned the scooters and took the car to the track.


This was shaping up as a bad day at the track.


We found a fairly legal parking place...

We found a fairly legal and safe parking place in the mud pit just above Thunder Valley, walked down through the trees to the snow fence, and watched the Toyota Atlantic Race from that vantage point.


The Toyota Atlantic Race Chuck West, our colleague from World Speed Motorsports, had set a new track record the day before and qualified on the pole for the race. As he headed the pack on the warm up lap before forming up for their traditional European-style Toyota Atlantic standing start, we had hopes of seeing him lead the race from the pole to the checkered flag.


The cars came screaming through Canada for the first time in anger, and Chuck had dropped to fifth. We later learned he had motor problems at the start. He struggled through the rain, avoiding the cars that were sliding off the track right and left. His day, and the race, ended when he lost it in Thunder Valley and came in contact with the barrier just before the Billy Mitchell Bridge.


This was shaping up as a bad day at the track.


We made friends with the grudging fans...

Susan and I walked to a rain-protected viewing area above Turn Five. (In the wet, Turn Five, a hard left-hander after a long, downhill straight, is great fun.) We made friends with the grudging fans who had already crowded into the area to avoid the rain. At least we were friendly.


The Neon Race We ate too many brats, drank too much rain-diluted coffee, and waited too long. The Neon cars were sent out for their ten lap race, out of sequence, to dry the track off for the CART cars. (At least this was better than the fate of the Barber Dodge drivers, who had to race, essentially, in the dark, after the CART race.)


the conditions were awful...

Jennifer Tumminelli, PPG Pace Car Team Driver and Thunder Valley Racing Featured Driver, was in this race along with the other Pace Car Team drivers. She was quick and consistent, but the conditions were awful. After the race, she told me that her car kept stalling as she braked for turns. As she downshifted for each turn and then popped the clutch, she would, essentially, jump start the car. Not the best way to provide smooth power for acceleration, so Jennifer finished fifth in her class.


This was shaping up as a bad day at the track.


The CART Race Susan and I ate more brats, drank more lukewarm coffee, and waited. Finally, the rain lifted and the CART race went off about two and a half hours late. We watched the race from the inside of Turn Five.


Zanardi drove a nearly perfect race...

What a race! Racing on a wet and slowly drying track really separates the skilled racers from the rest. (If you've ever seen Emerson Fittipaldi or Michael Schumacher in the wet, you know what I mean.) Alex Zanardi drove a near perfect race. Tracy ended his first lap upside down. Andretti slid off at Canada. Moore punted on the back side of the track.


For much of the race there was an eleven car draft, with Zanardi at the front and others switching positions behind him. When Blundell blew his engine with two laps to go, Alex brought it home. Susan and I were privileged to witness his exuberant donuts in the Turn Five run off area.


I guess all this just proves the old adage: A bad day at the track is better than a good day anywhere else.


Yours 'til the green flag drops.

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