It's mid September at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course
. The trees burn with oranges and autumn
red. It's the weekend before The Runoffs, and already you can tell this week will be different.
Motorhomes and transporters are lined up outside the gate, waiting to register. The license plates come from California, Colorado, Canada and Louisiana Eight hundred race cars are coming. Everything from showroom stock Dodge Neons to the blazingly fast Formula Atlantics, pure race cars that can smoke Winston Cup stocker like a cheap cigar. The best of the best. Some of the transporters are pure pro, custom semis with built in quarters and machine shops. Then you see Warren Stilwell pulling in. He's driving an old window van with his Spec Racer Ford towed behind on an open trailer. It doesn't look like much, but Stilwell has won seven consecutive Runoffs, whereas many of the semi boys haven't won.
The manufacturers tents have sprouted a small city in the paved lower paddock. Race workers from across North America. Tires are stacked man high outside the Hoosier and Goodyear compounds. The new race-only Dodge Viper and the office trailers are on display in the paddock. They aren't in the infield where the spectators can see. This week isn't about spectators, it's about racers. Everywhere you see cars up on jackstands, and hear the sound of impact wrenches. Or the sound of engines, being tuned. It's about the race workers, whose tents are sprouting in the Lake Erie Communications campground. There are campfires everywhere, and the clink of beer mugs as old friends renew annual friendships. This is the Runoffs, the amateur Road Racing Championship of the United States.
You can't just send in an application to be a part of The Runoffs. You have to race your way in. Pretty cars are here, but pretty cars don't always make it. Speed does. At least four SCCA national races are required to qualify, and then only the top drivers in each division will qualify in each of the 24 National racing classes. sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America You have to be invited to race at the Runoffs. The Runoffs is a place to begin. Top drivers like Bobby Rahal, Jimmy Vasser and Mark Donohue won their first championship at The Runoffs.
Monday is test and tune day. A chance to learn Mid-Ohio, one of the most wickedly difficult courses on Earth. A chance to see if your set-up is even close. A chance to shake out the cobwebs after a long tow from the west coast. In traffic. Often there will be over 50 cars on track at once on the 2.24 mile road course.
Tuesday through Thursday are qualifying. Try to get in a good time early, because it rains in Ohio. You won't improve your time in the rain, but you go out anyway, trying to learn the rain line. It might rain on race day. Hope the equipment keeps going, and you have spares for what breaks. Some cars will drop out, like a GT-3 RX-7 whose clutch explodes catastrophically, shattering the bellhousing into tiny steel bits.
Every night there's a party. On Monday the county cooks pork chops and barbecued chicken for everyone. Miss Ohio is there to sign pictures, and the beer is free. Tuesday through thursday the party is at the track, with door prizes for everyone. And when the kegs run dry the corner workers return to their campfires, for more stories and discussions of the day to come.
On Friday, the racing begins. Friday Saturday and Sunday there are eight forty-eight mile races each day, after a short warm up for each class. Fifty-five E Productions take the track. A Lotus Super Seven gets sideways in the esses and is tagged by a TR-6 while a Honda Prelude snaps right to evade. Warren Stilwell spins in the rain on the first lap, but he comes back to win through brilliant driving and force of will. Twenty five Formula Vee's race nose-to-tail for fifteen laps, only a miracle and supreme skill preventing a carnage.
Some of the races are sleepers. John Heinracy runs away from the T-1 field in his Z-06 Corvette. But others are total war. In H production five radically modified Austin-Healey Sprites dice with a CVCC Civic, and every lap there is a new leader. A Sedan Mustangs and Firebirds trade paint. In the Formula Continental race Arie Luyendyck jr., son of the former Indy 500 champion takes a lesson on driving from old pro Dave Weitzenhof, who has many Runoffs titles under his belt. That's the way it is at the Runoffs.
Autoweek magazine put it best when they said that "to the extent that we love road racing, our roots are in the Sports Car Club of America". The SCCA has offered ordinary folk safe, organized wheel-to-wheel racing for two generations. The Runoffs is not about money, though you'll see plenty spent. This is about a trophy, pride and the chance to call yourself National Champion. It's about tight racing and old friendships.
If you love racing, go to The Runoffs. The 2004 Runoffs will be at Mid Ohio from September 21-26. 800 cars are expected to compete Rent a motorhome, stock the coolers and load up on charcoal. By the end of the week, the people next to you will be friends. You'll see some of the closest, most competitive racing of your life. You might even join the SCCA. I did.
Noders wishing further info are encouraged to look at the SCCA and Mid Ohio Websites at http://www.scca.org and http://www.midohio.com All the races will be carried on Speedchannel --- formerly Speedvision ---- and some of last years races may occasionally be rebroadcast.