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Flat Spot On – ‘One Loop of North Georgia’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 9 2021

Scott Robertson and Becky Burton in line before #slowmiata’s first competition on an oval in the One Lap of America. (Photos by Jonathan Ingram)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Call it a simple twist of fate.

I found myself driving on Highway 53 in the northern reaches of Georgia on a Wednesday morning to meet two co-drivers, Becky Burton and Scott Robertson, competing in the One Lap of America. 

Drivers always get to see a lot of America on the One Lap—although much of it is viewed after dark during the overnight drives to the next track and time trial. Along the sparsely populated Highway 53 on this overcast morning, rusty-roofed sheds still stand among clapboard houses with vegetable gardens, and, for an antebellum touch, the occasional sharp contrast of McMansions. Nearly everybody seems to maintain a frontier feel with houses way back from the curvy road.

Since 2013, there’s now an automotive wonderland several miles past the historic red brick Dawson County Courthouse. At the Atlanta Motorsports Park, members can garage their cars and the 152-acre front yard is a track designed by Hermann Tilke of Formula 1 fame.

Back in the day, they didn’t need much in the way of fanciness in a place known locally as the “State of Dawson.” Resident Dan Elliott once tried to set the record on the road from Dahlonega, in neighboring Lumpkin County, to Dawsonville in a Ford Mustang that he rolled into a ball around the nine-minute mark just outside of town. 

Mildred Elliott, in a discussion I had with her long ago around the pot-bellied stove at George Elliott’s Ford dealership, recalled how she knew son Bill, who is Dan’s youngest brother, was on his way home from a date. “You could hear him cutting doughnuts on the other side of the mountain.” One can almost hear the cheers at Riverside International Raceway, where Million Dollar Bill won his first Cup race on the road circuit. Or perhaps those are the huzzahs at the parade held shortly afterward for Dawsonville’s hometown hero.

On this year’s One Lap tour, there was a simple twist of fate that brought me back to the scene of that 1983 parade and my first visit to Dawsonville. The original schedule sought to include Road Atlanta, to be followed by time trials on the oval across the highway at Lanier Raceplex. But, due to an isolated track problem at the world renown road course scheduled for repair, according to the tour organizers the circuit was not available and an alternate was needed. Hence, the fifth day of this year’s Tire Track One Lap of America, as its officially known, started considerably farther up Georgia Highway 53 at the Atlanta Motorsports Park and its ribbon of asphalt draped over steep climbs.

That’s where I caught up with Burton and Robertson after the latter’s hot laps on board the team’s MX-5 and a subsequent session of some sleep-deprived, yet animated “hand-talk” racing by Robertson with some fellow competitors.

Burton and the relatively tall Robertson make their living as carpenters in Holland, Mich. Although she’s not an engine builder, Burton’s interest in engines and Robertson’s interest in race cars is what brought them together as racing teammates. Burton has since made herself a tire and suspension expert and the two have gradually built a race car from their trusty 2001 Miata, which travels with a dramatic rear wing including custom end plate winglets. Down below, there’s no rear bumper to facilitate bump drafting in the wheel-to-wheel events pursued by the team in the Gridlife Touring Cup. 

The team name of #slowmiata, by the way, signifies that “We have the least power of any car in the One Lap,” said Burton. This despite a repurposed junkyard Honda K24 engine that produces 217 horsepower for the 2,450-pound chassis.

Like any kind of racing there are compromises, including this year’s choice of wider and extra-sticky Falken tires for the One Lap. Robertson took advantage at the Atlanta Motorsports Park and had the low aspect ratio tires all the way over onto the previously unused rubber of the sidewalls on the hilly circuit. “When you have less power, you can stay on the gas all the way through the big loop at the end of the track that leads to the front straight,” he said after cutting the 23rd fastest time among 64 aspirants.

Scott Robertson scored well at the Lanier Raceplex oval, helping to boost the team to a third place finish in class at the finish in Ft. Wayne.

Ah, grippy tires. The other choice was sticking with the taller, more narrow Continentals used previously. “They are much better in the rain,” said Robertson, “but this year we decided to swing for the fences.” If that sounds like an easy choice, consider that the time trials at NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans, where Burton turned her first laps of competition in the One Lap, were run in the wet. And, one Ford RS competitor failed to make it through the storms in the overnight from New Orleans to Atlanta, crashing out of the event. Robertson said that didn’t give him much pause, but he found watching a close call on a possible tank slapper by one of the big bore Mustangs coming onto the front straight at AMP, a fast track with precious little runoff area, unsettling. 

On this damp but not quite wet day, the duo is promoting their podcast with Becky’s self-made “Track Walking” pants and Scott’s “Track Walking” T-shirt. To sum up, the words “psychoanalysis” and “racing” and “better human beings” are used when Robertson describes “Track Walking.”  It grew out of racing in Gridlife and its wheel-to-wheel contests for Touring Cars, not to mention three previous One Laps with the current Miata. (Like everyone else, they missed last year’s “No Lap” due to the pandemic.)

One Lap, of course, grew out of the original Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. In the aftermath of Jack Kerouac’s classic beat generation novel “On the Road,” it was Brock Yates who arrived at the idea of creating the literature of stream-of-consciousness for the common man in one of its most unique forms—non-stop highway racing.

He cooked up the idea of the Cannonball in serial form in the monthly pages of Car and Driver, leading to the first shore-to-shore event in 1972. Among voluminous details, Yates’ own race report of that landmark event gave us the word “pachydermatous”—something to do with a thick-skinned indifference to insults and an elephantine-sized motor home among the eight entries along with three vans, a Cadillac, an MGB, an AMX and the winning Ferrari 275 GTB4 Daytona coupe co-driven by Yates and Dan Gurney. 

For those who may doubt the all-hands-on-deck, non-stop evolution of the Cannonball that is currently embraced by One Lap participants, consider this year’s tale of Robertson and Burton.

Their Miata got caught between a Porsche Boxter and tire wall during the Gridlife Touring Cup race in Bowling Green two weeks before the One Lap competitors were scheduled to meet in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Thanks to the healing hands of friends and fellow racers, the previously bent-up Miata arrived ready for action in Holland at 10:30 p.m., the night before they had to register for the One Lap in the next state. And, of course, prep work took until 2:30 a.m. before Burton and Robertson took off for Ft. Wayne, where the race opened on Saturday with an 8 a.m. Wet Skid Pad time trial at sponsor Tire Rack’s headquarters. On Day 5, here they are in Georgia at an extraordinary circuit after an all-night drive from Louisiana through horrendous, howling storms that pissed heavy rain and thunderbolts.

The SGT-2 SB class Honda S2000 of SuperK Adventures nearly scored an upset in overall standings, finishing second to a Corvette ZR1.

The non-stop nature of One Lap is the mind-blowing connection to that original race won in an elapsed time of 35 hours, 54 minutes by Yates and co-driver Dan Gurney in their Ferrari, which they occasionally had up over the 170-mph mark toward the finish. One imagines, judging from photos of the Ferrari’s trashed-out interior, knee-deep in the flotsam of various quick-hit food wrappers and drink containers, that sleep or anything other than concentrating on the job at hand was just not possible under the roar, however mellifluent, of the Ferrari’s V12 during the 1.5-day journey.

Ah, yes. That stream-of-consciousness thing. Current One Lap organizer Brock Yates Jr. has it figured that all participants can drive overnight at the speed limit to the next check-in point – assuming one leaves the previous event or checkpoint on time and assuming no breakdowns or repairs. Robertson and Burton give every evidence that they are switched on, lively people with sharp eyes for detail. But the road takes its toll, even with the caveats of two drivers and noise-cancelling Bluetooth headsets in a car where air conditioning and anything that might comprise noise insulation has been removed. “Day 4 and 5 are the hardest,” said Robertson. “After that, you get goofy and delirious.” 

Meanwhile, there was my own stream-of-consciousness on the drive down out of the tall hills on Highway 53, heading east from the Atlanta Motorsports Park toward Lanier Raceplex. You ease past the Dawson County Courthouse, surrounded by a ribbon of asphalt and a non-stop roundabout. But first, on driver’s right there’s a cemetery up on the hill. There rests Lloyd Seay, America’s inaugural stock car racing hero, killed by a bullet to the heart just before his 21st birthday in 1941 during an argument with a jealous cousin over who would pay for a load of sugar to make moonshine. Lloyd is cocky and smiling to this day, immortalized by his photo rendered on ceramic and set into the driver’s window of a ’40 Ford coupe carved into a tall tombstone. It was bootlegger Raymond Parks who paid for the monument and owned the cars Seay drove to major stock car victories in pre-war America on Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway, at Daytona’s Beach & Road Course, on the Langhorne mile and the high-banked dirt oval in, ahem, Ft. Wayne. 

Then you ease past the Dawsonville Pool Room, a reminder that the good ol’ boys tell the stories at the counter over grilled cheeses and Bully Burgers about the days when the local residents raced their road cars across the bridge and over to Gainesville—and then back again. This, when every highway in the South was two lanes bordered by drainage ditches. Then along came the Elliott clan out of “the state of Dawson,” including engine-building brother Ernie, rising up like sycamores from the deep green pine forests to take over stock car racing once again.

A simple twist of fate had me rocking as I drove across Lake Lanier on Highway 53. In the view from the bridge, one can easily imagine the skeleton of the Gainesville Speedway, the oval track’s concrete grandstands that were once lakeside before being consumed by the rising waters. (Those grandstands later arose like a proverbial Lazarus as the waters subsided during an epic drought.)   

Then there were all the memories of Road Atlanta, approached on this day through a green tunnel on a rising stretch of road dominated by a tall thicket of poplars. But I had only tunnel vision for the short oval across the road, now known as the Lanier Raceplex. Longtime road racer and five-time IMSA champion Jim Downing bought the Lanier short track in 2011 and turned it into a “black lake” by removing the interior walls to host go-kart rentals, stock car races, drifting and other events on the 3/8ths mile facility nestled into the hillside.

Yep, cars and drivers and road tracks and ovals and One Lap, an event that now encapsulates them all. It’s been run since 1984, when the Cannonball Baker went the way of dinosaurs save for the lunatics who keep running one-offs from the Red Ball Garage in NYC to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach during the pandemic in pursuit of the elapsed time record.

Talking with Tom O’Gorman, the overall leader in his Corvette ZR1 after the hot laps at Lanier, or Andy Snedegard, the SGT-2 SB class leader who set the fastest overall lap at Lanier, sleep deprivation and hanging tough is part of the challenge. The driver of a Honda S2000, Snedegard allowed that he hadn’t had much more than “five or seven” hours of sleep since the One Lap began. For his part, O’Gorman had the temerity to strap a bicycle to the standard two-wheel trailer used by most competitors. Apparently, he takes track rides instead of track walks in an event where energy management is crucial. (O’Gorman and co-driver Steve Loudin would eventually win overall and Snedegard would take second overall with Alexander Moss.)

Robertson, as well as organizers, advise against taking a race car on the One Lap, because reliability issues can generate major time and energy losses. When the #slowmiata entry suffered a problem with an aftermarket hub and wheel bearing that was installed for the Gridlife’s Touring Car series events, well, it was self-evident that fewer racing parts likely means better reliability. “It’s moving more and more toward stock entries,” said Robertson, “and that’s the right way to do it.” 

The aftermath of getting collected in that multi-car crash in Bowling Green on the National Corvette Museum track two weeks earlier raised its head on Day 2. It cost two hours to find a racing shop owner willing to help out. Robertson didn’t want to replace the hub with a stock part. “We drove two hours out of our way to Oklahoma City to pick up a good hub off of a race car. We were fortunate that he was in the ballpark and he was willing to do that. That was Memphis day and the drag strip got cancelled and we were able to leave early. In this particular car right now, the extra peace of mind throughout the week was worth it.”

At Lanier, after waiting in a quick-moving line, Robertson enjoyed his first laps on an oval in the time trial around the 3/8ths-mile track, where his wider, lower profile Falkens also came in handy. “None of us have oval experience,” he said, “so you just go out and try to drive the pants off it.”

As the day developed, I came to realize that Robertson and Burton, who are non-stop enthusiastic about the regimen of One Lap, epitomize the modern-day weekend warrior racer, whether it’s road racers running in the current multitude of events for modified stock machines or oval racers in purpose-built Late Models or sprint cars.  It’s the non-stop action and engagement and always trying to be a better driver and mechanic as a result of the challenges and, in the case of the #slowmiata team, better people. (Robertson tells the story of feeling badly for using some rough language in a fit of exasperation while talking to Canadian driving instructor guru and One Lap enthusiast Ross Bentley.) Meanwhile, the budget runs perennially in the red.  

Like a moveable feast, the parking area at Lanier, once teeming with cars and two-wheel trailers, was soon emptied of the knights on crusade. Vehicles sporting Tire Rack windshield decals, One Lap chevrons on the doors and various sponsor stickers quickly made their way out. After exchanging the brake pads to road-going versions, Robertson and Burton were the last to join the caravan headed for a checkpoint in Piedmont, S.C., at least 100 miles up the road by my reckoning. Time trials were scheduled the following morning at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia.

Burton and Robertson were headed for a third-place finish in a class of seven entries by the end of the tour on Saturday in Ft. Wayne and 37th overall out of 72 entries. And, virtually everybody was headed for some sleep. 

(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram was introduced to the #slowmiata team by Steve Secor, who works for one of One Lap’s sponsors—Tommy’s Express Car Wash of Holland, Mich. The company also sponsored Bill Lester in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Lester and Ingram are the co-authors of “Winning In Reverse,” a current release from Pegasus/Simon and Schuster.) 


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 9 2021
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