great racin’ suriel ’05

The fourth annual installment of Me and My Dad Racing Around the Desert just concluded. (If you’re just tuning in, you can read my accounts of the first, second and third races, the first one being especially helpful in the way of background information.)

This year, while still including unbelievable amounts of desert, was different in a lot of ways.

I drove up to the hotel on the northwest side of the valley on Thursday morning, just in time to register and collect our preliminary speedometer calibration instructions — the organizers always give you a chance to calibrate your speedometer a day before the actual start of the race, just in case. So, instructions in hand, we set off down the 101 at a precise and unwavering 50mph, while I ticked off signs and marked down times.

It’s important to be as precise as you can, because this sort of race is not about speed. Any idiot with forty thousand dollars can go fast; this is about precision and intelligence and planning and math. A pair of barrel-chested motorheads in a new yellow GTO had issues with that this weekend, and in fact screwed up Friday so badly that they didn’t even bother to race on Saturday — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

So we finished up the calibration run and got off the freeway to turn around and go back and do it again, when my dad noticed a burning smell. He’d noticed a few miles back up the road that the engine was running hot despite going 50, which should have ensured a nice flow of air over the radiator, but the burning smell and the feel of the brakes clinched it: the brakes were locked tight and the engine was having to strain against them to move us forward.

Thus, we found ourselves on the side of the on-ramp, my dad under the car doing something mechanical to the brakes while I passed him tools from the tiny toolkit that represents his only means of repair on the road, as the car’s not big enough for a full-size toolkit. Once the brakes were loosened to his satisfaction, we hopped back in and drove back to the hotel, to re-run the calibration with warm tires — which can actually make a huge difference.

Back at the hotel, we caught up with Chris and Todd. Chris and Todd work for my dad’s sponsor, Tony Chachere’s, and my dad was loaning them his 1936 Ford 5-window Coupe to race. They’d just done one calibration run and wanted to do it again, as well, so we set off together to run it again.

In the first run, we’d noticed the car backfiring and accelerating sluggishly, but I thought it was because it was cold. This time, the car was properly warmed up, and it was still backfiring every few seconds, and the acceleration was crap*.

My dad futzed with the car while I drove home to shower & grab Loki, but he couldn’t figure out what was causing the backfiring and performance loss, so we gave it up and went to bed, to be ready for our early start the next day.

Friday was the first day of racing, and I woke up twisted in the sheets and shaking from a nightmare: I dreamt I’d overslept and missed the start. Horrific. Happily (well, comparitively) it was only 5:30 and I hadn’t missed anything.

After a light breakfast (I was too nervous to eat anything else, in case it came back to haunt me), we did all our pre-start futzing: unloading the Speedster from the trailer, calibrating our clocks and stopwatches, and finally collecting our instructions twenty minutes before our start time of 8:13. We set off immediately for the first part of every day’s racing, the daily tire warmup and speedometer calibration.

Today we were headed for an overnight stop in Parker, Arizona, on the California border, so after tooling down the 101, we got onto I-10 and headed west. Amazingly, there was no traffic to impede our 50mph progress down the freeway, and we made it to the restart at Highway 85 and Southern Avenue. (We were apparently passed on I-10 by Loki, driving my dad’s truck and taking my stepmother Bobby and my aunty Lida to Parker, but they’d been afraid to honk in case we were concentrating. Later I realized that everyone and their uncle was honking at us, and if I was, in fact, concentrating, I didn’t even look up.)

And the car was still backfiring and accelerating like a pig with a blockage.

We set off on time, and it was immediately apparent that our wonderful performance chart was going to be all but useless. What should have taken 13.5 seconds was taking 17 to 19 seconds, and given that these races are often won by one or two seconds, losing four or more seconds on one maneuver out of the hundreds you make each day was clearly going to be a killer.

I didn’t realize this at first, and kept to my chart-based calculations, but my dad knew, and I caught him compensating for the acceleration loss by going faster than prescribed for a few seconds.

“Forty-five, dad, not fifty. Four-five. Four-five.”

“Yeah, I know,” he’d say, and we’d motor on.

We stopped for lunch at Quartzite and compared notes with the other drivers. Chris and Todd had missed a sign, a really bad thing which can get you extra-lost, but they’d turned around quickly and gotten back on course. Chris was having problems with the performance chart, not understanding the physics of it. I kept telling him not to even try, just trust the chart. It was Sunday before he believed me.

At one point, driving down a road at 45mph, the GTO passed us going in the opposite direction, driving very fast. As no other race cars had passed us, we were pretty sure they were lost.

After lunch, we got back on I-10 for a long transit to the last Arizona exit, to restart the day’s rallying. We were headed as aforementioned to Parker, and we spent the afternoon rolling around the hills and farms around the Colorado River, crossing the river at one point prior to heading up to Parker Dam.

It was a beautiful drive with no stops or turns, just speed changes, and we drove over the dam feeling like we’d done reasonably well, all things considered.

Then we pulled into the hotel and got our scores, and didn’t geel so good any more.

Despite acing the first check (zero seconds, a perfect score), we’d had a 39-second day, and that was after our factor**. 39 seconds is Not Good, and it is, in fact, the worst score my dad’s ever gotten for a day’s racing, if you leave out his rookie rally. We were in 14th place.

We stood around chatting for a while, then repaired to the bar for drinks. Campari was had, and turns and stops and maneuvers were hashed out, to the irritation of my stepmother, who wanted to talk about shopping and the London Bridge, to which Loki had driven my aunt and stepmother when they’d arrived too early to check in.

After a freezing night with insufficient pillows, I awoke, achey and stressed, to a freezing morning and the prospect of a long day’s rallying to get back to Phoenix.

We were 13th in the pack again, and the sun was barely up when we set off south down the river road, the wind whipping us and our hands and feet frozen — for, despite our feet resting on the firewall, the engine was too cold to warm us greatly. It would be after 10am before we warmed up.

We had a long, long drive through the desert, turning onto a long, long side road to head up to Alamo Dam.

Today’s racing was the longest leg between gas stops I’ve ever been on: 195 miles between Parker and lunch in Wickenburg, and gas was a big concern. With explosive starts and pitch-through-the-windscreen braking, gas gets burned at an amazing rate, and most cars have a small tank and poor mileage. In fact, my uncle was so worried about his fuel that he got a two-gallon can of gas to carry with them. The whole way up to the dam, the Speedster’s gas gauge was bouncing between a quarter-tank and empty.

After our twenty-minute sightseeing stop at the top of the dam, we restarted on time and headed back to Highway 95, my uncle and cousin ten minutes ahead of us in position 3.

Once on 95, the Speedster’s gas gauge dropped to empty and stayed there, and my dad and I had an entertaining few minutes calculating the Speedster’s mileage, tank size, and whether or not I could push it at 50mph, as we hadn’t passed a check yet, and there was sure to be one before we hit Wickenburg.

We had a lot of time on that long, straight road, with no turns or speed changes, and we had a nice long talk about everything. Most importantly, we talked about our performance. Even though we were running for “fun” (not for cash prizes), I was stressed about doing well — I wanted us to do well to justify the expense of the race. My dad, however, said that with the way the Speedster was performing, we were well out of it, and he was happy just to be spending the (admittedly expensive but well worth it) weekend with me.

At that moment, my stress levels dropped about 75% and I was able to enjoy the rest of the weekend much more.

When we were perhaps 2/3 of the way to Wickenburg, we saw something on the horizon: a car on the side of the road. This is always a concern, and although there’s a truck with a trailer that follows the course at the end of the pack to pick up any breakdowns, it’s disappointing for the team. Even a loss of only a couple minutes to change a flat can mean the difference between winning and losing.

As we approached, we could clearly see the bright yellow and huge flag, and soon we saw that it was my uncle and cousin, and they were heaving the red gas can into position: they’d run out of gas. The real shame here is that they hadn’t done it at the dam, when we were “off the clock”; now they had at least ten minutes to make up, and we were pretty sure it couldn’t be done. Sure enough, they’d managed to pass only 3 or 4 cars (making up 3 or 4 minutes), and would take a 2-minute score on the last checkpoint before lunch, the maximum late time.

After lunch, we restarted just outside Sun City, and drove through a couple of mazes with a lot of stop-and-goes, then into Sun City itself, with more stop-and-goes, only now we were dodging senior citizens and golf carts.

After one last checkpoint, we drove back to the hotel, where we got our score: 24 seconds, and again, we’d aced the first check. Better than yesterday, and we’d moved up to 12th place overall.

The Tony Chachere’s team had done better: they’d left late by a whole minute, but had regained the time so well that they were 4 seconds early at the first check. They were excited, and they were clearly hooked by the whole experience.

The last day, Sunday, was an early start at 7am (only half a day’s rallying on the last day), but as I’d drawn position 32, we wouldn’t get our instructions until 7:12 (you always get your instructions 20 minutes before your start time. The car in position 1 got theirs at 6:41).

We headed north on I-17 to New River for the first maze of the day, a white Chevy Tahoe in the #31 position one minute ahead of us. We were going well, despite my getting a boulder under my left contact lens about three minutes in and being unable to see a thing for twenty agonizing minutes, but we were rallying though Anthem at 20-30mph and the signs are nice and big. (I was talking with my brother afterwards and we both agreed that there’s nothing scarier than a “comes quick” or “look sharp” when you’re doing 50 — and don’t talk to us about rain or gravel or damn deep ditches.)

After another transit, we found ourselves in north Scottsdale, heading down Dynamite road toward a T-junction. Weirdly, as we paused at the T, a green Ford Explorer full of rookies, which should have been 4 minutes ahead of us, was right on our tail, and passed us on the road, lodging itself behind the Tahoe a minute in front and causing us no end of grief.

In a maze, at slow speeds, behind an experienced team, you won’t get close enough to the car in front to have a problem, but both the Explorer and the Tahoe were manned by rookies, without a clue. The Tahoe was stopping at stopsigns for the full 15 seconds, or so it felt, and with the equally clueless Explorer right behind them, we were all bunching up at the stops, which should never happen, and which threatened to throw off all our timing. My dad and I were both cursing and muttering and yelling at both cars the whole time: “Go, you bastards! What the hell are you doing? Get out of the damn way! GO! GO! GO!”

At several stops, with the Explorer and Tahoe bunging things up, my dad pulled alongside them, in the oncoming traffic lane, thinking we’d leave the stop at our scheduled time and just pass them, but inevitably, both SUVs would take off two or three seconds before we did, still bunched up. We were both livid by the time we passed the last checkpoint, and broke with Great Race tradition by not waving at the Explorer when we passed them at high speed on Shea Blvd. on the way to the finish.

Despite the poor performance of the Speedster, we’d felt really good about the morning’s racing, and we were incensed that the Explorer and Tahoe had conspired to ruin our chances for a really good day.

When we pulled into the finish at Turf Paradise, we got our times but not our scores, which would be announced with the top places if we’d placed; otherwise, we’d get our scores at the end.

We watched a couple races — Loki and I had a bet on a horse that tied for last — and then they started handing out trophies.

To their extreme delight, Chris and Todd from Tony Chachere’s had placed third amongst the rookies, and they’d aced a check that morning, thereby completing all three tasks they’d set for themselves: they’d wanted to place in the top three, ace at least one check, and beat the GTO, which had returned for Sunday’s rallying, although with no chance at all to place, their egos more than a little bruised. Then they got to the overall winners.

“Car 58. Can we get the team from Car 58 up here,” the organizer said.

Car 58 was my dad and I. We’d placed 10th. We’d actually placed! In any other race, I’d have been disappointed, but to make the top ten with a car that wouldn’t behave, I was very happy. Then we got our scores — we’d had a seven-second day! And two aces! On the last check, which had been preceded by the Debacle of the SUVs, we’d gotten three seconds. I was amazed.

Sadly, my uncle and cousin hadn’t placed at all, but that fate was sealed when the truck ran out of gas. My uncle, though, like my dad, had been happy to spend the weekend doing something he loves with his daughter — and this was her first rally.

The winning team was, happily, not the kid I loathe, but a 2005 Mini-Cooper, astonishingly. Their score, 40-some seconds, was raw — no age-factor to help them. It was the first time I’d seen a modern car place that high.

After that, I drove back to the hotel with my dad, we loaded up both cars and they headed out. One more lovely memory of a weekend with my dad to add to my store of them.


Pictures including some short videos are here.

*Acceleration is hugely important: every serious racer has a precise performance chart, built with hours of testing, detailing to a tenth of a second the exact time gained and lost in accelerating, decelerating and turning. With these charts, you can determine for how long you must pause at, for example, a 15-second stop (it’s never 15 seconds, to account for deceleration from the previous speed and acceleration to the next target speed) — see what I mean about precision and math?

** Your “factor” is what your score is multiplied by, and it’s based on the age of your car, with older cars getting lower factors. Our factor is 0.850 — the 1916 Hudson has a factor of 0.660, meaning that their scores are cut by a whopping third. Cars newer than 1950 have a factor of 1, and their scores are effectively raw times.