I wanted to check out Elkhart Lake. Road America is one of the most famous and celebrated tracks in the country, and since Trans Am driver Ron Keith had invited me to ride along for a race this year, just as he did last year, I was finally going to head north.
But then I noted that Trans Am would head to Circuit of the Americas in November. You know the place. It cost $400 million to build. It hosts the only F1 event in the US. It has a gigantic observation tower with a postmodern mullet.
Circuit of the Americas (COTA), outside Austin, was on the schedule for 2015, paired with an event by the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA), which meant I had the chance to spend a week at a race track from the future surrounded by cars from the past. I can hit up Road America next year.
So first, don’t take 35 south through Austin. Just take the toll road around. Even if you’re in a gigantic RV with a tri-axle race trailer, just take the bloody toll road. There’s little chance we didn’t lose an hour shouldering down a river polluted with taillights and inattentive driving. Austin is massive, and every blogger, photographer, and programmer who works within the freethinking metropolis leaves work at the same time. You’d think with all that innovation…but I digress.
As the author of a novel in progress, I’m constantly reminded of how important it is to beat your protagonist to within an inch of his life, to run him through every wringer you can find until he can barely get up, to fully ruin his life. It’s a cruel torture for a virtual child, but it makes a fantastic story.
COTA is that child right now. Financial woes have plagued the track since groundbreaking. It finally left the runway in 2013 with a real F1 Grand Prix, and this year’s USGP just finished there at the end of October.
But the event was a mess. The furthest tentacles of Hurricane Patricia flung themselves out across Texas and inundated COTA for the weekend. The track was so flooded that they had to move qualifying to the morning of the race, something they haven’t done in years.
The weather wrote a bad check for many of the seats for the already expensive event, and the 2015 USGP was sparsely attended. And then things got bad.
Reports vary on whether or not the tornado actually touched down the Friday after the race, but when I climbed out of the RV on Tuesday morning to get my first look at the fog-shrouded racetrack, I realized it didn’t matter. Swirling or not, the winds had been strong enough to vandalize the place, and the accompanying flood had washed across the main straight, through the media center, and into several other buildings, ruining floors and drywall.
Piles of junk lay everywhere. Mangled tents with crinkled aluminum frames jutted from the parking lots like the carcasses of animals left to rot by predators who didn’t need to eat, only to hunt. Dirt and rocks coated many of the external lanes. The iconic tower’s decorative lighting array sputtered on and off in random order.
The temporary structures COTA had set up for the F1 race had needed weeks to tear down, and workers never got the chance to begin when the weather came in. The newest, most advanced track in America was trashed.
Thankfully, the track surface had escaped the destruction, so everyone went racing anyway.
Ron and crew set up under the canopy of the Archer Brothers. They’ve been discussing a partnership for the 2016 season and decided on a trial run for the final few races of the year to get a feel for whether or not it would work. The Archers have a lifetime of experience. Tommy has raced everything from Le Mans to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and is a favorite at Trans Am. His brother and crew chief John owns a racing shop in Duluth and is as quick with a wrench as he is with a joke.
I spent the next two days in the Paddock Club of the grandstands trying and mostly failing to concentrate on work while priceless vintage formula cars tore the air around me from below. I couldn’t get my photo vest until the Trans Am rep arrived on Wednesday at noon, and a security guard kept walking by slowly like he was afraid I was going to make off with the tablecloth.
Tuesday night I wandered the upper infield paddocks, grabbing shots of some of the most incredible racecars I’ve ever seen live. Many wore badges you’d never see on the road: Lola, Chevron, Crossle, Brabham. A pipe-smoking, mustachioed man told me that the particular open-wheeler I was shooting was similar to the one driven by Sterling Moss at Monaco in 1961. Moss had removed the side bodywork on his to let the heat out.
Finally I got my photo vest and began to shoot the Trans Am and SVRA practice sessions. COTA is not a track you can shoot if you’re on foot. 3.4 miles of curves and massive elevation change could wear an amateur photographer to death. Thankfully, Ron loaned me his team’s pit bike for the event: a Vespa 150. He also showed me how to ride it. No, I’d never ridden before. Just bikes, not bikes.
The little Italian proved a true and trusty friend throughout the event. Pull up to a press window in the catch fence, kickstand, clickclickclick, back on the bike. Squeeze the brake, mash ignition, and you’re gone. It was smooth, quick, and quiet. The workers clearing mud from the perimeter road had trouble hearing me through the ear plugs they’d applied to fend off the howls of the vintage muscle cars.
They were legion, too. Yellow-vested and never idle, the workers dotted every view of the facility, their Texan bluecollar tenacity very quickly restoring the park to its original state over the course of the week. By the time the official races on Saturday rolled around, nearly all of the wreckage was gone. They replaced the entire floor of the media center.
But I was able to weave between them without incident, and they only greeted me with smiles and waves, their warm, southern hospitality shining through. I lived in Texas for a year after high school, but I’d somehow forgotten how friendly southerners are. Corner workers went out of their way to let me know the cars would be on track in three minutes. Paddock officials made casual conversation as we waited for a line of TA cars to rumble out of the gate.
I took every opportunity I could to feed my camera. My lens was markedly smaller than the megaphone-buckets most of my colleagues had brought. A good 93% of my motion shots came out blurry. I shot in JPEG. I was no professional photog. But I couldn’t help it. Whether it was the modern TA cars, fitting into their cookie-cutter but awesome silhouettes (NASCAR should take a page) or the timeless SVRA racers, each one unique from the last and tossed into classes together, I couldn’t look away.
Technicians who work on movie sets – boom operators, key grips, costume designers and the like often talk about how you can’t get starstruck when meeting Tom Cruise or Anne Hathaway. You just have to do your job. Getting starstruck made my job easier.
But human wonder eventually does cool, and I was able to focus on the racing itself. After a single practice session on Tuesday, Ron told me COTA was the hardest track he’d ever driven. The hulking TA cars, with their live rear axles and 2800 lb weights required a certain degree of slip around the corners, and COTA’s noticeable dearth of pure straightaways proved a challenge for silhouette muscle cars that go fastest in a straight line.
Nor was Ron entirely happy with his car. Throughout the test sessions, Ron and his crew chief, Rick Beebe, a racing legend in his own right, made several adjustments to the “Red Dragon” TA2 Mustang. A brake valve, new spark plugs, different shocks. His lap times in practice were too high, and everyone knew it. I tried to stay out of their way.
It’s an odd sensation, sitting in an RV at a racetrack, to read on a website based in New York that the CEO of that racetrack has been ousted, but that’s exactly what happened. On Tuesday the COTA board of directors issued a statement that they had decided to “part ways” with CEO Jason Dial. It’s a euphemism for getting fired.
In some respects, I felt a little bad for the guy. It wasn’t his fault that a hurricane showed up during the track’s most important event of the year. Or that race fans in America just prefer ovals and don’t show up for cars that also turn right. But racing is an expensive venture. The track has a $400 million note. At some point you have to start trying things.
By the time qualifying rolled around on Thursday afternoon, the car was feeling better. Ron’s lap times were getting quicker. He wouldn’t win on this setup, but he had known that going in.
I had set up at the end of the back straight to get pictures of all the flaming exhausts and glowing brake discs I could hoard. The safety car laps passed. Car after car clamored through, taking liberties with the track limits as they fought to learn where to brake. The yellow flag appeared from the corner worker’s box beside me. And where was Ron, anyway?
His absence could only mean one thing. I jumped on the Vespa and caned it back around the perimeter. Not on the back straight or the hairpin. Not coming down the hill. Finally I spotted some flashing lights near turn 7. The Red Dragon sat cooling in the gravel between Toyota safety trucks, its rear bumper and trunk area crunched like a pop can. The ambulance had already come and gone with Ron in it, and a local corner worker assured me that he was fine. He’d walked away.
I got back to the paddocks in time to guide the tow truck over to Ron’s trailer. He climbed out of the ambulance, irritated and eager to get a look at his stricken car. Rick, Ron’s brother Randy, and pretty much everyone else knew what had happened immediately. A corner worker said he had seen Ron’s left front tire flip sideways while the other had not. A quick inspection confirmed it. An inner tie rod end had snapped. Before Ron could correct or even slow down from the 110 mph he’d been going, he had spun and planted the rear into the wall.
The season was over. Ron had already expressed second thoughts about carrying on to Daytona after COTA, down on power as he would be around the Floridian oval. Now we knew it was the end.
I feel just a little guilty about taking off, then, but if we were packing it up and rolling out tonight, I was going to shoot as many of the SVRA cars as I could before then. When I finally returned to the tent near dark, it was a flurry of activity. “He’s going to fix it,” Ron’s wife Terri told me. I couldn’t believe it.
When I told John Archer that I thought the car was done for sure, he simply said, “That’s not how we roll,” and went back to work. Ron had found another TA2 driver who had brought his parts car along, the same Mustang body style Ron drove, and had agreed to sell Ron whatever parts he needed. This, by the way, is the power of being a nice guy in the pits. Fellow racers might be your opponents on track, but once back in the paddock, make friends.
Rick and the Archer team tore into the Red Dragon, pulling out bent parts and shattered fiberglass panels. I put down my camera to help Rick as he patched up the broken front bumper and replaced the splitter, among other odds and ends.
I hate to see any racer crash. It’s dangerous and expensive. But I’ll be honest. Helping rescue a race car was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I felt like I was in a movie, or at least a Top Gear episode, sans buffoonery. Here a group of dedicated racers refused to give up, viciously clinging to a love of speed despite expense, exhaustion, and inconvenience. I learned to use a rivet gun.
By the time Friday’s first test rolled around, the car was ready. Ron’s tires had unfortunately been ruined during the crash, and buying a new set barred him from being able to run the last chance qualifier on Friday afternoon. That meant using his qualifying time from Thursday- when he’d crashed. Ron would start dead last. Something seemed strange about these rules, but there was nothing for it.
Finally Saturday arrived. Race day. SVRA and Trans Am would both race, and since SVRA has precisely 2 million different classes, I had a busy day shooting. I circled the track. I wandered the pits. I shot everything I could find, including the classics brought in for the attached auction. I have a feeling a group of vintage racers is a great place to auction off classic road cars. They even bring their own trailers.
Trans Am gridded up at 4pm and spent the next hour struggling to get up to speed.
It was a bust. Of the 30ish laps they were supposed to run, they managed about 10 under green flags, running the rest under caution. Crashes abounded. Cars spun out. But Ron and the Red Dragon climbed from 30th to 15th in those 10 green laps. Tommy Archer gained 9th from 24th, where he’d been stuck after car trouble during qualifying. Talented guys.
As a whole, the Trans Am race at COTA was a vast disappointment to the few spectators who had gathered to watch. Chalk it up to inexperience at the track, bad weather, or tired drivers and cars at the close of a long season, but it wasn’t the event anyone had hoped for.
That’s racing. There are circumstances outside our control that will sometimes destroy us. A hurricane slams in. A tie rod end shears free. The guy in front of you makes a bad decision.
As I watched the race, though, I realized that sometimes it’s worth it to rebuild a wrecked car, to rescue and patch up a struggling track, to do what it takes to keep racing. Swap a rear quarterpanel. Swap a CEO. Do what it takes. Not because it’s profitable or because it even makes much sense at all. Because we’re determined to go faster, to challenge our opponents, to discover all we can in the merciless clutches of speed. Conquering limits is our domain as racers, as athletes, as humans.
Ron will push on to Daytona, despite the struggles he still faces with his car. Simply for the love of the sport.
But how can COTA come back? I don’t have many ideas. In fact, I only have one: NASCAR.
America’s most popular sport is known almost exclusively for its time spent on ovals, but twice a year, once at Sonoma and once at Watkins Glen, NASCAR runs on road courses. And frankly, they’re not that great. Races are often crashy and yellow. But at COTA, the runoffs are wide and welcoming, preventing crashes. Plus, Texas is pretty much the NASCAR of states, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to fill COTA with loyal cup fans. Once fans see the wonders of COTA, they’ll want to come back for every race.
This might seem a silly opinion after the debacle of the Trans Am race, but few of the drivers had ever raced on the track before, and after a couple of seasons, NASCAR drivers could get used to it. Just a thought for our friends in stock cars.
Whatever they do, I hope they do it fast. COTA is too perfect a facility to fall into the realm of forgotten ghost tracks. The hurricane and tornado are gone. The carpet has been replaced and the paths cleared. Now fill the bleachers.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.