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Flat Spot On: Racing from Virginia to Georgia and Alabama

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 13 2019
The new Michelin tower is a window on pro road racing’s aspirations. (RacinToday photos by Jonathan Ingram)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

ALTON, VA. – After finally arriving in the main paddock at the SCCA Runoffs, I was transported back 25 years. It had been that long since I had last attended a National Championship weekend. This one, at the Virginia International Raceway, had all the hallmarks of the “local” Runoffs I covered each year for over a decade at Road Atlanta.

Once the SCCA decided to rotate the Runoffs to different tracks, I didn’t follow. Living in Atlanta, the Runoffs at my local, albeit internationally famous, road circuit were a perfect capstone to a season of chasing professional series around the country. I could just ease up the highway for a busman’s holiday. After a quarter century hiatus, it became a metaphysical experience to be at club racing’s premier event once again. So little had changed in terms of the visceral high induced by an extraordinary array of people and race cars in a crowded paddock, not to mention all manner of pit vehicles and a constant stream of speed on the track during qualifying.

It was my first trip to VIR after hearing the legend for so many years, including the now missing Oak Tree from the namesake curve at the entrance to the back straight. (It fell down from an extraordinarily large wingspan and old age.) I had not been to VIR before, because nobody ever paid me to go there and write a story, which is a prerequisite if you want to make a living as a racing writer over the long haul. As countryside tracks go, VIR and Road Atlanta bear a remarkable resemblance when it comes to physical beauty, including sunsets that are fine backdrops for the Runoff parties. (Not surprisingly, New England had the best beer at VIR, delivered via a full-size keg brought in from Massachusetts.)

I was on a book tour in support of my most recent oeuvre, “CRASH! How the HANS Helped Save Auto Racing.” Staying with friend John Davidson in a motor home on the back straight, I awakened to the pleasant cacophony of engine music before glancing out to see some cars going past pretty damned fast compared to the GT cars of yore.

So, what can I say? Since the SCCA will continue to rotate the location of the Runoffs, get to one near you one day soon. Where else can you get so many cars, classes and drivers with nothing to lose going all out? (Best to go with a worker who knows where all the parties are …)

The Runoffs at VIR. The Oak Tree Curve without the namesake, which fell down.

I drifted further south on Friday to the track where they cut a new blue ribbon on the pork-chop shaped ribbon of black asphalt now known as Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. While an extraordinary gathering, the vibe at the Motul Petit Le Mans is different in a flat-out professional series ruled by factories compared with the Runoffs, where passion is virtually the only entry required and there are plenty of low overhead categories to compete in. My personal favorite continues to be Formula Vee, where brain power counts at least as much as engine power—and budget – in a 120-mph draft.

Alas, I drift in the draft. Where the Runoffs specialize in wide-open beer parties, the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship is all about major league aspiration. Skip the wine. Go straight to the whiskey. 

When I pulled into the parking lot on race day at the Petit, which had been vacated by the competitors in the Friday’s Michelin Pilot Series show, I jumped into the first available empty spot in my Q 45 beater, where not a single corner looks like original equipment. As I proceeded to the new, gorgeous Michelin Tower, I passed one McLaren, two Lambos, two six-figure Porsches and a Ford GT.

The landscaping, like the car-scape, caught the eye as well. The more I thought about it, the more my local road racing track now looks like my neighbor’s place just up the street in Atlanta—each blade of grass is green and free of weeds on properly landscaped grounds featuring pines, leafy maples, oaks and poplars. As I said, aspirational.

The Petit remains a fast, close show on the track. The current 10-hour version of Don Panoz’s original 1,000-mile concept covers more miles each year. The belly-to-the-ground run down the hill from the bridge to Turn 12 remains worth the price of admission—in all three classes. The fastest prototype lap on this day made Mark Donohue’s old track record in the Sunoco Porsche 917/20 of Roger Penske so much, well, history. (Like all of America’s classic road circuits, this one is haunted by the Can-Am, where the formula libre approach may not have been faster, but sure as hell was mind-boggling.)

Formula Vee for value: low budget, high entertainment.

In a classic high-end corporate co-op, the Coca-Cola-liveried Porsches won best in show in the concourse category due to excellent use of the soft drink company’s classic swoosh. The Corvettes pounded the countryside with IMSA-legal 5.5-liter V-8s while the Italian mounts screamed. (As did fans looking for concession stands in the infield full of posh hospitality structures …) Occasionally, a 12-second gap of silence emerged, when the field got spread out. It was a surprisingly refreshing counter-point.

It was also a reminder that Ford is leaving the GT LM category after this race. Other teams in GT Daytona and DPi are going missing next year. Is the massive river of factory cash that makes the WeatherTech series flow (and makes it a challenge for privateers) starting to ebb? Maybe not, given Ford’s interest in a hybrid prototype.

The sun sets uneasily on this one—last year the Wayne Taylor Racing prototype took the checkers on the grass, in the dark. At night, the headlights pierce and slash the night like stilettos in a knife fight. With any luck, I’ll be watching at home, getting ready for the 110-mile dash to Talladega, where a week of racing concludes for this weary, but invigorated, author.

Mark Donohue, in the aforementioned Porsche, also held a speed record on the 2.66-mile, high-banked oval in Alabama. Previously, that was about the only connection between Road Atlanta and NASCAR’s goliath. Now, both facilities fall underneath the France family umbrella.

There once was a racing connection of sorts between Road Atlanta and Talladega back in 2001. Andy Pilgrim, while driving a Corvette in the Petit, had contact with the Viper of Tommy Archer to win the GTS class in the last lap darkness. Dale Earnhardt, anticipating a co-drive with Pilgrim in the Corvette in the following year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, sent him an overnight envelope with a one-page note congratulating him on his victory. It ended, “We’re going to skin some snakes in Daytona.”

If you’re not in the mood to “skin some snakes,” then don’t show up to drive at Talladega. It’s a different kettle of passion with far more precision than usually acknowledged by road racing fans who dislike stock cars. On the other hand, the relatively unruly stock cars draft at 200 mph for 500 miles.

Speaking of unruliness, Earnhardt was putting together plans to race Corvettes at Le Mans after retiring from NASCAR’s Cup series. Those plans died with Dale in Turn 4 at Daytona within weeks of his fourth-place overall finish in the 24-hour with Pilgrim, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelly Collins. Earnhardt’s death was the beginning of a safety revolution in American racing. Alas, that’s another story.
(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is a 43-year veteran of reporting on racing and the author of six books. CRASH!How the HANS Helped Save Racing, was released in September. For more information, see www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 13 2019
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