Trans Am at Road Atlanta: Tradition Burns On

The radar was a mess. A riot of color was rolling across it like some kind of perverse, 8-bit gangrene. But Trans Am races rain or shine, so Mike loaded the wet tires down to the pits. It was Saturday. Race day at Road Atlanta.

Before we left for this campaign of awesome, Ron told me that the following race was at Mosport in Canada, and that he wasn’t sure if he would go. It would be an expensive trip, he said, and it would only matter if he got a podium spot at Road Atlanta. Points are everything in a hobbyist series.

And Ron was killing it in the points department. After taking second and third the first two races of the season, he was well stocked. But the biggest name in the series was still Cameron Lawrence, who has been racing two thirds of his life, even though he’s only 21.

Also facing Ron at Road Atlanta was Adam Andretti, the other guy who had beat him at Homestead. And because I know you’re wondering, Adam is the son of Aldo, Mario’s brother. So there. Veteran Bob Stretch and Ron’s teammate at Mike Cope Racing, Kevin Poitras, who had taken fourth and fifth respectively at both Sebring and Homestead, were also forces to contend with.

It was hard, though, to stay focused on stats and points when I got to Road Atlanta on Wednesday night and found myself surrounded by the giants themselves, especially when they turned out to be such real, approachable, and generous people. I was riding some kind of invisible line between the distant, digital TV world of amazed spectating; and the nonplussed, professional world of a career paddock crawler. And I wasn’t sure how to take it. I was a mortal tossed up to Olympus and caught with a smile.

I was still reeling at 8am on Thursday when the first practice session started. I hopped in Ron’s golf cart with his brother, his best friend, and his teammate’s wife, and we headed for the hairpin at the other end of the track to watch.

Trans Am is divided into three classes: TA, TA2, and TA3. TA3 is production-based; while TA and TA2 are tube frame customs, the former making around 800 hp and the latter around 500.

Ron races a 372 cid TA2 Mustang. Yes, all TA and TA2 cars must resemble American icons in production: Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes, and soon, Challengers. Which means they’re the coolest-looking tube frame cars ever built (with the possible exception of some of the mad DTM cars). It’s like a NASCAR that you actually want to look at. It has a unique shape per model. And it’s so low, and the fenders are so severely flared, and the whole thing just has presence.

So when you’re at the exit of the hairpin at 8:12 AM and you both see and hear one of these road lions blaring down the hill, wide open, for the first time, you’ve had your coffee.

Ron blitzed down some very quick 1:29 laps, even dancing with the other two classes sharing the track. (For safety, however, TA2 races separately from the others.) Practice shot and experienced, I went poking around the paddock.

Two other series were sharing the track officials this weekend. I knew about the kids from Formula Drift, dirtying up the atmosphere in the most spectacular fashion imaginable, and I captured some evidence of Gitten Jr, Forsberg, and all the rest of those hoons being nothing but impressive.

I didn’t know NASA’s Global Time Attack series would be there, too. GTA runs several different classes, from the off-the-lot Enthusiast level, such as the only running car of the owner of an old Civic; to the Unlimited class made up of heavily tuned GT-Rs, Evos, and an angry Audi R8. It was very cool metal across the board, and I devoured it.

Later Ron, Randy, Rick and I cruised to the other side of the track to the drift paddock so they could immunize themselves against the fallout of the coming generation war.

My hosts are all around 50 and grew up immersed in American racing. There was weeping. There was gnashing of teeth. There was an abundance of commentary about flat-brimmed hats and figureskating. Chief among the lamentations was that this dance was the future of motorsports. Then we took a look at a 900 hp, LS7-swapped Genesis Coupe, and the Experienced Gentlemen began to enjoy themselves a little more.

But I kid. On Wednesday night, as we ate chicken sandwiches (because it’s bad luck to eat chicken on race days) Rick, a circle track legend, said, “I don’t like all motorsports, but I respect them all. It takes guts. Even for the guy going out there in a spec Miata.”

For all their dubstep and cuffed pants, I think the drifters earned the same respect. And frankly, I talked to several of the GTA drivers, and I doubt any of them were over 35, so I think the future of “grip racing” is secure.

Still, there’s money these days in drifting, so pairing a Trans Am race, whose audience is usually a bit older, with a hip, young Formula D event was a brilliant move by organizers, especially with GTA in there to bridge the gap.

But the abundance of racing brought an abundance of free time. Rick is used to traveling all day and driving every night. “This here is what we circle track people call wine and cheese racing.”

Friday morning brought more practice, which I shot from the pits. Qualifying came later, and for this I took a walk. I started on the east side of the track, just behind the concrete safety barrier, hoping to score some nice pictures at turn one and continue toward the Esses.

I did. But as I walked on, I found myself closer to the Mazda bridge just after the hairpin than I was to the paddock. I would cut across Mazda and take a short cut through the infield instead of walking all the way around.

I knew almost immediately that I’d made a mistake, but some blunting curiosity drove me on. I should have heeded the signs. I was marching through the Georgian backcountry, in May, along a twelve-inch space between a concrete wall and a lush forest full of insects, snakes, thorns, and something the considerate media organizer called “kudzu.” Soon the woods overlapped the concrete and I was forced to duck into their green maw or hop the wall and face the wrath of that distant corner worker, who was probably already eyeing me.

I chose the woods. As a ginger, I have a sense about these things, and I realized that just over 32% of this growth was poison ivy, but I prayed, thanking the Lord for my jeans, cuffed at the shoe, and dove in.

I ended up at the surprisingly lovely “trail through the woods,” another feature the media liaison had described, and finally came up at Mazda bridge.

And it was locked.

It was time to drink the bottle of water in my backpack. Road Atlanta is 2.56 miles long, and longer if you’re outside the fence. It took me about three years of trudging through the spare parking, more woods, and a sea of primered z-cars owned by a teeming school of foul-mouthed hipster drift fans who wore white sunglasses and smoked ironically. But I finally made it back to the paddock. Ron qualified an acceptable but disappointing sixth, having experienced some handling issues.

I could have shot the drift qualifying. Really, boss, I could have. But it started raining, and I found three ticks on my shirt, and all I wanted to do was eat four pounds of spaghetti and sit quietly, tagging photos on Flickr.

Via the satellite TV in the RV, I watched the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway, my home track, with the Three Rs, hastily explaining to them that though I’m not a circle track fan, I can still appreciate the skill. Then I crawled into bed.

And then it was this morning. Race day. I milled around the trailer, trying unsuccessfully to get an iconic candid shot of each of the drivers- that shot that their families would print in black and white and frame, the shot of them looking dramatically into the distance, challenging the corners in their minds. I bolted the Streetside WASPCam to a relatively straight member of Ron’s roll cage, trying not to get in the way.

The rain was looming, so team owner Mike Cope readied all the rain rubber and sealed the edges of the lexan windshields with tape. I asked Brian LeCroix, Ron’s other teammate, if waiting was the worst part. “I got that nervous energy,” he said. “I just want to get out there.”

But what seemed like hours passed in moments, and soon I was crouched at turn one again, waiting for the cars to fly across the start line. They fired before my vision like tremendously loud sparrows. Adam Andretti had qualified first, and he and Cameron Lawrence battled for first for several laps before a slight collision, about whose perpetrator I shall remain opinionless, put Lawrence into the marbles at turn 10, ending his day.

Meanwhile, the Mike Cope team was moving up the pack. Ron took fifth in the first lap, and Kevin soon climbed from seventh to sixth. The Lawrence crash put Ron in fourth, and he soon pushed to third, behind Bob Stretch and Andretti.

Then Stretch’s wheel flew off, which makes racing difficult, and suddenly, Ron was in second, though still about 15 seconds behind Andretti. Kevin ran into gearbox trouble and was passed by Tom West, who then overtook Nathan Stokey to settle into third. Brian had a little more trouble, sliding out of the hairpin and into the tires. That marked, unfortunately, the end of his race.

But Ron held onto second, though he and West had earlier made contact due to a mud patch, and Kevin soldiered through his transmission problems to take fifth. It never rained.

Ron is now the points leader for the national Trans Am Championship, having taken his third podium in his third ever Trans Am race. Not bad. I asked him if he’s still planning to go to Canada next weekend. He asked, “Got your passport?”

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