The Case of Vee that Got Away

I spent today at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course, officiating an SCCA National race, one of the last qualifying events for The Runoffs, the amateur road racing championship of America. I was assigned to corner station 8. Eight is located right in the center of the esses of Mid-Ohio, a set of curves the TV people named 'madness'. The esses constitute a very technical set of corners with significant elevation and camber changes. Car placement critical. 8 stands smack in the center and is the slowest corner on the course. Many drivers simply coast through eight. First of all, the wall is almost at the edge of the track, so screwing up at 8 can end your day. Even more important is that eight is a slow corner leading to another slow corner. The second corner leads to a straight enough section to make speed out of nine really imporant. Eight is usually driven to set up nine. But not always.

The day began with a bang, not a whimper.. Meaning the cars were doing a lot of 'rubbing' in NASCAR parlance. Lots of pushing and shoving. The opening salvo came with the American Sedan Race. The second place car shoved the leader aside in seven to take the lead. Later on he got chopped by a slower car leading to a synchronized spin. One Camaro tried to push another aside, relying on what we call "the chrome horn". Another guy got tapped, spun in and tapped the new leader, leading to another synchronized spin.

Next came the prods and small bore GT. Production class race cars began when people decided to start modifying the old MGs they were racing at the time. Many prods are British. If you don't know what that mean I shall refer you to a previous race this year when a Sprite driver pulled off in my station. When I asked him 'What do you think is wrong with it he replied, "It's British."

The British sports cars of the fifties were good. They remained competitive in the sixties, but possessed a certain 'character', by which I mean they broke a lot. British cars in particular suffered from electrcial systems provided by one Joseph Lucas, otherwise known as 'The Prince of Darkness". It is said that Lucas did not invent the darkness. But they did invent the sudden, unexpected darkness.

Of course these are race cars, and all of the Lucas has long been replaced with much more modern stuff. But they remain British, and the full prep rules for Production allow for engines and transmissions that are . . . ahem . . . very highly stressed.

In other words, the fast cars break a lot. They also leak, smoke and smell. A transmission housing decided to throw a snit at Nine. Goodbye, oil. The result was a series of pirouettes the June Taylor Dancers might envy. A Fiat even chipped in (those old Fiats were sooooo reliable) by converting itself to a tricycle. Needless to say, the driver was quite surprised.

But the piece-de-resistance came during the session for Formula 500's and Formula Vees. These are lightweight, inexpensive cars to operate. A Formula Vee uses the suspension, transaxle, brakes and engine from the early sixties 1200cc Beetles, and puts them into a formula car that weighs only about 800 lbs (380kg). The engine mods are limited, so they don't have a ton of go juice, but Vees are light and when running on racing slicks can turn a bit.

Formula 500 are open wheel racers using a Rodax 500cc snowmobile engine. They have NO suspension, other than a set of bushings. You adjust the handling by changing bushings, and they are tricky to set up and drive. On the other hand they have a lot more go juice than a Vee, and weigh 800 lbs. with driver. Given a good setup and a good driver they can go like stink. This was a National, with several former and the reigning national champions in the field.

The first thing about open wheel cars is they weigh nothing so they're all fast in terms of lap times. The second thing is that they're fragile. Those exposed wheels and suspension parts break when hit. It's easily possible to lock wheels, which is often followed by a rousing chorus of 'You Chose a Fine Time to Leave Me Loose Wheel'. I'm sure you know the song.

Another thing is the Vee tendency to run in packs. They do a 'nose to tail' trick whereby one will quite deliberately put his nose into another's transaxle. That can add 300 RPM to the anemic motor and the close draft pulls the following car along behind. Both drivers go faster, but nose-to-tail isn't for the fainthearted. The practices leads to long 'Vee Trains' whee a bunch of cars come dancing by even though Don Cornelius is no where in sight.

The next thing I know is that a Vee simply forgot about my corner, did a quick 'Oh shit', locked 'em all up and slid directly onto the tire wall. Hard.

Tire walls do move, and the Vee moved his section. In return the tires flipped him. So I grabbed my fire bottle and at the first break in traffic and sprinted across track to check the driver. He was hanging from his seat belts, and oil was pouring out of his dipstick and onto the track. I frantically signaled for help, and a full course yellow. I got both.

The driver was fine. We pulled the car up on it's side so he could exit easily and the ambulance took him to medical for a precautionary physical. Then we flipped the Vee on its wheels. Really, except for a rather torn up fiberglass nose, the car looked fine. It would take five minutes to hook up a wrecker to hoist it out of there. Or we could put it in neutral and push it out of the way.

Great idea. Except that the apex of three is at the crest of a hill. We got the Vee rolling easily enough. Almost immediately gravity took over. The car accelerated. Four grown men found themselves running at full speed trying to slow the car. Finally we let it go and it rolled downhill, on its own until it was stopped by yet another tire wall near station nine.

Talk about humiliating. Seems like something out of a Laurel and Hardy movie. But it cleared the track quickly, and the car was not hurt any more than before.

But no sooner had we cleared this incident when two 500's locked wheels entering 14 and ended up doing a full Olga Korbut tumbling run with back flip, handspring, triple jump and an iron cross before the dismount. Ambulance now! The stewards decided they had seen enough and checkered the session.

And this was before lunch.

After lunch people played a lot nicer. Perhaps the word had spread through the paddock and penetrated into the 'red mist' that so often occupies a driver's helmet, but they played nice. My friend Tom Sloe broke the GT-1 lap record by a over a second. For four laps in a row. And still had Phil Lasco's Mustang on his tail at the end.

Way cool. Actually, it was a ton of fun. But if I ever push a Vee downhill again, I'll make sure someone is in the car to work the brakes.