It seems like every year Nationals sneaks up on me quicker than the previous year and this year was no exception. I felt the least prepared for Nationals this year than I ever have and my driving showed it, but we’ll get to that in a bit. My Nationals ‘week’ started early, it actually started the Tuesday before as I made my way out to Lincoln Air Park to help set up the fence that forms a perimeter between Nationals and the active air port. Setting up the fence is no small feat, as there is well over a mile of fence to set up and usually a relatively small group to do so. Luckily that group has a lot of practice and we have it down to a science.
Driving, or ‘racing’ if you will is really only a small part of what makes up Nationals week. There are a ton of friends, many of which you only see once or twice a year, banquets, welcome parties, class dinners, four square, region tents and lots lots more to pass the time and it always goes too quick. On top of all those things I just mentioned, I shoot photos and I do my best to try and get some of everyone, because who doesn’t want to see photos of themself driving at Nationals. Now this is nearly impossible since I am also competing, but I do what I can and I almost succeeded this year as a friend took my camera and got some shots of the heat I was running. Only a select few (Rupert, Perry, Zach, etc I’m talking about you) really know how hard it is to shoot Nationals. Two courses of cars running at once, 1200 cars to get shots of, not only get shots, but get fun, interesting shots that capture the Nationals experience. Then there’s the harsh sunlight in the middle of the day with limited access to get the right angle for that perfect shot. Oh, but the cars aren’t the only part of the experience, there’s all the happenings in grid and paddock. You really need to be in at least three places at once to capture it all and nothing is close together, so there’s the miles and miles of walking back and forth, from grid to shoot, from course to course and you better hope you didn’t forget something in your car. Eating lunch, getting something to drink, both pose a challenge, take a break and you’re bound to miss something. Luckily for us, the weather this year was mostly agreeable, much more so then it has been the past few years. It’s amazing how much of a difference just a few degrees cooler can make on your energy and motivation levels.
The photography portion of Nationals began, for me, Sunday morning with qualifying for the Speedway Motors CAM Invitational at 7:30 AM. I am somewhat lucky because I only live an hour away from the Lincoln Air Park and I get to sleep in my own bed each night, however, I have to get up an hour earlier to make it there and there’s an hour drive back each night. The sun was still real low on the horizon when the first car took to the course. The week before Nationals I made the decision to finally buy a new lens, my first camera related purchase in a few years and boy, it was the right decision. It took me a few shots to get everything dialed in and switching from the push/pull zoom of my 100-400mm lens to the more standard twist type zoom took me almost all of Sunday, but the sharpness of the Canon 70-200mm 2.8L is amazing. It helped me capture some amazing early morning shots of CAM, the low sun made everything golden, some of my favorite shots from the whole weekend were in those first couple 100 shots I took with the new lens.
Sunday was hot, the hottest day of the week and ProSolo action is non-stop. Car after car after car, leaves no time for a break. Luckily I had brought a drink out with me, unfortunately I forgot sunscreen, which turned out to be not so bad since I had a chance to apply some before my sunburn got too bad. By the time the Ladies Challenge began I was already exhausted and I knew it was gonna be a long week. It’s amazing how much energy it takes to photograph autocross, holding ‘heavy’ camera gear perfectly steady doesn’t seem like it would be that difficult, but after hours and hours of lifting those 7 or so pounds of lens and camera body up to peer through the view finder, it begins to weigh heavy on your back, shoulders, hands and arms. The non-stop, exciting action of ProSolo helps get you through though and I got some amazing shots out of the nearly 4000 photos I took that day. 4000! On the first day of Nationals week! The most shots I had ever taken during Nationals week in the past was around 10000 and I was already almost half way to that number and Nationals itself hadn’t even started.
Monday was mostly an off day, since I had registered for Nationals on Sunday and I didn’t run until Thursday 3rd heat. I relaxed most of the day and sorted through about half of the photos I took at the Pro, trying to get refreshed and renew my energy for the rest of the week. The forecast for the week was cooler, much cooler than it had been on Sunday and that was encouraging, as 4 more days of heat like Sunday did not seem like fun, not fun at all.
Tuesday morning started off a little damp from the downpour that drowned out the Tacos and Talent Welcome party on Monday night. First heat had to deal with drying conditions, but slightly wet conditions make for some fun water splash and reflection photos. I got photos of every car in every heat on Tuesday, filling up almost 32 gigs of of memory. By the time competition wrapped up around 5:00 PM I was feeling pretty tired. But not too tired I was gonna miss out on getting some photos of the gorgeous McLaren MP4-12C. I mean, c’mon, how often do you get to see a McLaren at an autocross? Tuesday ended with a dinner and drinks with some friends from out of town in downtown Lincoln.
My choice of pulled pork nachos for dinner turned out to be a bad one, as I woke up around 1 AM with a mild case of food poisoning. Food poisoning is not something you want to have when the only bathroom option is a porta potty that 100s of other people have been using. Luckily I was not forced to rush to one on Wed. To compound my loss of sleep from the stomach issues, I had to wake up early to pick up my daily driver that had some unscheduled rear end modification done to it by a Dodge Dakota a few weeks earlier. Since I had photos of every car from Tuesday I felt less pressure to shoot every car in every heat on Wednesday. I also tried to spend a little more time hanging around grid, talking with people and oh yah, get my car teched for Thursday. I still took 2500 photos or so, plus get in some course walks and start to prepare mentally for driving the next 2 days.
Thursday, I got to the site early to get some more course walks in and then scurried out to take photos of heat 1 and try to get some of heat 2 before I ran back in to my car in grid and sneak in a course walk between heat 2 and 3. West course was way behind East course after a patch in the concrete had to be made and I was not able to get any photos of heat 2 over on that course before I ran back in, as heat 2 on East course, the course I was on, was almost done, or so I thought. Shortly after getting back up to the grid area a CP car lost a wheel that went careening into the spectator area. Luckily no one was injured as it was slowed down considerably by a golf cart that was up watching the action. This caused a significant delay as the car needed to be helped off the course and gave me some time to relax and focus before my course walk. The East course was a fast one it appeared from my course walks and it sure was. I had decided to get a race gas tune for my STU EVO to get a few extra HP over my 91 octane tune for Nationals and the speed of the East course backed up that decision for sure. Unfortunately I had zero practice runs on the new tune and I’m fairly certain that came into play in the cone hitting that occurred over my six runs.
My first run on cold tires had me get slightly sideways on the first turn and that helped lead me into coning not too far into the run, my time wasn’t bad and without the cone I would be sitting pretty much where I figured I would be in class. No problem, 2 more runs to clean it up and find some time, I knew I had left a bunch out there. The car felt good and the extra power was really going to help on this course. My second run was feeling great, I was more aggressive in a few spots that I had been slow in and I was feeling real good as I headed into the finish. Just 2 elements to go and I’ll have my clean run, but I lifted a little too quickly and the back end started to step out, not just a little a lot, catch it, ok, a little too far the other way, caught it again and through the finish. Ok, well that cost me some time, but I at least got a clean run in, or so I thought until I got my time slip and it had the dreaded +1 on it. Where had I hit the cone, I had no idea. I hadn’t heard anything, usually I have a pretty good idea, but not this time, no clue. I patiently waited for the sweep car to come in and found I had hit one near the finish. Apparently that slide had cost me more than time and during it I had slid into a cone. Ok, ok, one more run, this one has to be clean, HAS TO BE CLEAN, clean and fast. I tried to not think about it, but it lingered in the back of my mind. I don’t remember the last time I hit cones on 3 runs in a row, I was gonna be fine. Up through the start, turn back towards grid, full throttle into the showcase turn, turn in, no turned in too soon and ran over a cone with the rear tire. NOOOO, I think as I hear the clunk of the cone, welp, just gotta make this one faster at least and besides the cone everything was going well as I head into the finish. Don’t lift so quick this time I think to myself, but I’m still a little too aggressive and the back steps out, not as much as last run, but enough to cost me precious time. I end the driving portion of the day standing on my first run, with a cone and in last place. Well my hopes of doing anything close to decent are out the window, at least I can fight my way out of last. I’m not buried in last, less than a tenth behind second to last and less than .5 second out of moving up quite a few spots.
No time to waste, I grab my camera and run out to take more photos. West course is still on third heat. Excellent, there’s an opportunity to at least get photos of one course of third heat. I’m upset with my poor performance driving and it takes me a while to focus on what I’m doing. I’d also not grabbed anything to eat, at least I had a drink with me to get me through the rest of the day. It took me most of what was left of third heat to get over how upset I was with myself and focus on photos. Shortly after I got settled in to take photos, I get a text from my co-driver asking if I had another sway bar end link. One of my end links was lost and we were probably running with no rear sway bar he had found while taking the rear tires over to be flipped at Bridgestone. Luckily he was able to borrow one for Friday. What else could go wrong today?
West course was still way behind East course and East course finished up for the day before West course even started fifth heat. Clouds were rolling in and it sure was looking like rain as fourth heat finished up and fifth heat started up. I still needed to walk West course as I had been trying to stay focused on East course and the rain started to fall. And it continued to fall as fifth heat wound on and on. I headed in to check on the sway bar end link and got to paddock just as my co driver pulled the car back from scrubbing off the OPR from the tires, but one of the rear tires was leaking air real bad and it was obvious the bead was not set. Bridgestone, Hoosier, every one was gone for the day. Nothing we could do, but pull the wheel off so I could run it over in the morning and hope the bead had not been torn.
Fifth heat finally wrapped up around 7PM, what a long day and I hadn’t had any food all day. Dinner was calling my name and a course walk in the rain wasn’t going to serve much purpose, so I made the decision to forego a course walk until the morning and just watch some footage from earlier in the week. After watching the GoPro footage I head to bed, wind down from the frustrating and long day and dump the photos from my memory card. The first card shows up with a real weird name and I quickly realize it is corrupted. The perfect end to a frustrating day, all my photos from Heats 1 & 2 will need to be recovered if possible and this does not help me relax to go to sleep. Sleep doesn’t come til well after midnight, morning is going to come way too quickly.
Friday I am up at 5:30 AM and ready to get out the site to get in some course walks before I take the leaky tire over to Bridgestone and hope for the best. The guys at Bridgestone pull the tire off and find that a piece of the extra rubber on the outside of the bead had ripped off and was not allowing for it to set properly. They remount the tire and I put the wheel back on the car to drive around to make sure everything is ok. A quick trip to the skid pad for some hard turns and it is holding air. I let out a sigh of relief and I run out to reshoot what’s left of heats 1 & 2. West course is moving fast and I begin to realize I am not going to get photos of Heat 2 on the opposite course, so I head in to double check on the tire and the car. I try to shoot some of heat 2 from the spectator area on West course and after a DM car spills oil all down the finish I run over to East course and get some of the action there, before running back to take my course walk and drive.
I g0t the honor of walking the course with Mr. John Hunter, who gives me some excellent pointers on key spots of the course. I head out on my first run and the first turn comes up real quick and I go in a little too hot, some time lost there, but not the end of the world, just concentrate on the key spots I think to myself, get that clean run in and you can stop worrying about it. I head into the showcase sweeper and as I’m looking for the exit I turn in, just a little too soon and bam cone. Ok, let’s get the course down and we’ll clean it up on the next run. My time is not bad even after the mistake at the beginning and I know where there is more time to be had. Lots of cones are hit on first runs, so I’m not feeling too bad as I prepare for my second run. I try to not think about the fact I have hit cones on 4 runs in a row, but the pressure I put on myself is mounting and as I head out on course for my second run, I don’t feel comfortable in the car. I don’t know why, but it felt like I had never driven the car before and I hit 2 cones and slow down a bunch. Well, that’s 5 runs in a row with cones. C’mon just one clean run. Give the cones plenty of space on this last run, I gotta have one clean run in me. Feeling good on my third run, I backed off the cones and as I come out of the sweeper I go into the next element a little too fast and get behind and there’s nothing I can do, clunk, another cone 🙁 I’ve coned all six of my runs, ALL SIX OF THEM. That last cone cemented my position in last place, just .2 behind the next to last place person. Pat, my co-driver however had found some time and moved into the trophies! I can’t help but feel excited for him, even as the disappointment in myself was high. There’s always next year I tell myself.
This year isn’t over, even as Friday night’s banquet winds down and I wake up Saturday morning. I still have 18000 photos to sort, process and upload. Now, 18000 photos is a lot of photos. 14 hours on Saturday and I’m still not through them all, as I call it quits around midnight. My eyes are glazed over by this point and I see cars when I close my eyes as I head to bed. I wake up early Sunday to finish up the photos and upload them. 4 more hours and they are finally up, well except for the 4000 ProSolo photos and the 1400 photos on the corrupted memory card that I had yet to recover, but the majority was done and I didn’t have much left to give that Sunday. Work was looming come Monday and I was tired, real tired, it was gonna be a long Monday I could tell already. Nationals hangover was in full effect, despite all the work, exhaustion and disappointment I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I guess that’s what makes Nationals the destination of 1200+ competitors every year. Oh yah, 1260 competitors this year. A new record. Maybe it’ll be bigger next year, my guess is it will, once you’ve witnessed it, it’s hard to not go back.
Be sure to check out the photos:
2015 SCCA TireRack Solo National Championships Photo Gallery
2015 SCCA ProSolo Finale and Speedway Motors CAM Invitational Photo Gallery
Photo of me driving credit to Chris Jepsen (thanks Chris for grabbing my camera during my heat and getting some photos for us)