From Your Eyes: 2020 Time Trials National Tour at Thompson

by Aashish Vemulapalli

At some point between the Time Attack sessions on Day 2 of the 2020 Tire Rack SCCA Time Trials National Tour at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park Powered by Hagerty, Andie Wolfe pulled me aside and asked if I could write an article summing up the event from a participant’s perspective. I nodded yes, but the enormity of the task hit me after the event concluded. Allow me to offer a little perspective.

This wasn’t just another Time Trials National Tour event, it was the 75th anniversary of the first SCCA event on track - Time Trials held on the oval with Track Sprints on the then finished sections of the road course. While that event took place as World War II was drawing to a close, this one took place in the midst of a global pandemic.

The buzz for the event started just prior to last years’ Time Trials National Tour. I was at Thompson for a Track Night event and the then track manager told me about how Thompson was the venue for the first ever SCCA Track event. A social media conversation then followed with Heyward Wagner confirming that the 2020 event was the big one and that’s when the wheels were set in motion. Word was spread at membership meetings and at subsequent Time Trials National Tour and Nationals events and the excitement started to build. Members who’d been with the club for decades were looking forward to being there – where it all started.

And then, just like that, COVID-19 hit us all, impacting entire industries, sectors and the lives and livelihoods of common folks. SCCA Programs including Time Trials were affected as well with the first two National Tour events canceled. Around the first week of May an update was shared with what events remained on the calendar and the probability of those events actually happening. Thompson Speedway was at 75 percent. That was the lowest probability for all the events that remained given the precarious situation in the Northeast at the time. The event looked unsure and then just as it got confirmed (thanks to the vociferous appeals of the advocates), along came a tri-state restriction requiring people from certain states to quarantine for 14 days. That did put plans on hold for people that wanted to come from those states. Heyward Wagner was unable to come, and this also meant that the father and son duo that were handling the Hagerty party duties could no longer feed the hungry masses.

External environmental factors aside, the event was still a resounding success with 92 entries (88 cars set times with some drivers coming from as far as Detroit and beyond), and with everyone diligently following the rules of social distancing. A terrific suggestion by Brandy Wiggans resulted in us having a socially distanced yet fun, Hagerty Party, with hot dogs in lieu of the barbecued and smoked meats that have become a staple of the Time Trials social events. As you all know eating hot dogs fresh off the grill on the 4th of July beats eating pizza.

By now, you no doubt understand my predicament in trying to write about the essence of this milestone event given all that passed in the lead up to it. Also, I finished nowhere near the podium; in fact, I was the farthest from it in my class. I’d gone 4 seconds faster than the year prior, but it wasn’t enough. So rather than bore you with my superlative efforts to win the ‘First from last’ trophy, I turned for inspiration to Jack Baruth’s write up of the inaugural 2018 Time Trial Nationals.

Jack was present at the 2018 Time Trials Nationals as a crew member for his wife, Charley, and his brother, Mark. While crewing for those two, he also had conversations with several members in the paddock, motivating them and summed up the essence of the Time Trials program in his article – fierce but friendly competition, competitors helping each other out to get back on track, and every member present in the paddock having a good time in the spirit of being on one team. In short, he called the Time Trials program the future of motorsport. And, as a participant and a witness to the 75th anniversary of the SCCA’s first ever track event, I can confirm that this event lived up to those expectations.

The spirit of sportsmanship and camaraderie was well and alive. Seeing that I was struggling to swap my wheels (Full disclosure: I struggle at the simplest tasks), my friend Shiv Joshi and Mike Park, a fellow Mohawk Hudson Region member walked over and made what was a painstaking effort a 10-minute job. I then responded by taking Shiv and Frank Putman out on a track walk as they had never been to Thompson before. On track during the first practice session, I perceived someone in an ITS race car behave in what I thought was an unsportsman like manner, causing a train. Before the second practice session, I motioned Shiv, who I knew would go faster than me to grid ahead, to avoid a train. Farzad Karkvandeian, who was running his Subaru BRZ in my class allowed me out on grid ahead of him even though he was faster on sections of the track than I was (he did move me to last place after the final time attack was run).

Competitors were sharing data and driving tips throughout. Donald Lui and the Northeast 86 Cup group were in the thick of things and it was impressive to watch them help each other improve. The CART group was in the midst of the action too with volunteering at the event and managing timing and scoring as well as helping out their participants with car issues. Kathy Barnes, Greg Amy and Dick Patullo from the New England Region worked the event as officials and group coaches with Paul Krysiak managing pit out and the top of grid. Some NER folks also managed Tech and made sure it flowed smoothly. Members from the Mohawk Hudson Region showed up to volunteer at the event. Jon Coffin working pit out for the event, while Salvatore Baisley showed up to spectate but cheerfully worked grid despite recovering from a motorcycle accident. Greg Rickes, who manned the role of public announcer converted his Honda Element into a mobile broadcast booth and parked it overlooking the oval as social distancing norms meant he did not have access to the Control Tower for his duties. Harry Adalian of MoHud reviewed data remotely for some of us and gave us tips on where to pick up speed. Similarly, my friend Anthony Tau Hai who won the Max 3 class last year offered feedback from home by watching our videos. The event may have been happening at Thompson Speedway but many from near and far that couldn’t be there were tuned in and cheering us on. Picture that, and you’ll realize just how much those who were present and those who had any remote connection to the event were equally committed to the events success.

The weather gods were also smiling on the event. Friday was relatively cool, and Saturday was seasonably warm without becoming unbearably hot. The sessions ran with very little disruption on day one. Drivers that went off were apologetic in impound and this made the whole group of drivers feel like one team. During the first timed session on day one, Nick Austin of MoHud had an incident on track involving another car driven by Stu Cabral. Both drivers were OK and were thorough gentlemen as they discussed the incident and put it behind them. Nick, with the help of some MoHud members was also able to fix his car, compete on the second day and finish second in class. Another participant had trouble on track too, which put him out of competing at the event. It was a matter of pride to watch how the paddock came together to help him out. Not only did the member have an offer to have his car towed home, but a group of participants pulled together and helped load the car on the trailer and another member ensured this person had transport to his hotel and back. It helped that some of the people that had incidents were covered by Hagerty.

Day 1 was capped off with a very special photograph. All the cars, drivers and crew lined up on the oval and Geoffrey Bolte, of Clarus Studios, got a very special picture to commemorate the event. (If that picture makes it to the cover of Sportscar Magazine, I’ll finally be able to claim that I was once featured on a magazine cover. I imagine that will win me several imaginary fans.)

Day 2 started with a Track Sprint meeting and the morning featured Track Sprints as well as the first round of Time Attacks. The course for the track sprint utilized the drift loop between Turns 4 and 5 at Thompson Speedway and much as I was not able to set a decent time, I enjoyed watching others go through there while spectating from the bridge. On my final run, I followed a friend’s advice and started to engage my e-brake to help the car rotate and was able to salvage the track sprint somewhat.

For the time attack sessions, the groups were further sub-divided. We would have one out lap, followed by three flying laps and then a full cool-down lap. This meant the sessions would be about 5 minutes long, but they didn’t lack for intensity and I think actually allowed us to focus on doing our best without the need to maintain attention span for a longer session, nor have us deal with traffic. The sessions went by swimmingly and before we knew it, the event was done, and it was time for the trophy ceremony.

I packed the car and headed to the trophy ceremony. I wasn’t getting one, but just like the year prior, everyone that I helped learn the track was either on the podium or had finished better than me in their class. My friend Michael Finkbeiner who won the Sport 5 class last year, came back to finish third and Shiv Joshi won the Max 3 class, after being away from the track for three years. My MoHud fellow members including my mentor Greg Goss, Michael Park, Dave Burnham, and Nick Austin also won trophies. It was nice to see Brian Kuehl win his class and his father Don take third place in Tuner 3. Brian and Don are people that I’ve become acquainted with at Time Trials events. Elsewhere in Tuner 4, Kevin Zhu drove the wheels off of his 2009 Honda Civic Si sedan to place an impressive third behind Blake Fitzgerald and Nick Austin. That he was separated by a margin of less than a second from Adam Wright, last years third place finisher and Bryan McCrea is proof of the tight battles that are common at SCCA Time Trials. Keegan Stabley who was in Tuner 4 last year, moved up to Prepped 3 and dominated the class by setting an overall time that was 13 seconds ahead of second place. Victor Boniface, another friend that I’ve known over the past year also put in a great effort to finish second in the Sport 4 class. Dan Gorss in that attractive green Mazda 2 also did well to finish fourth in his class. All of the aforementioned are very good drivers and it has been my privilege to know them and watch their success.

As the trophy ceremony wound down, it was a welcome surprise when John Hunter called out the Mohawk Hudson Region for their effort and participation and announced that we had received the Spirit of Time Trials Award. Nick Austin received this trophy on our behalf for his comeback from an adverse situation. This one was for not just the group of MoHud drivers, but also our volunteers like Greg Rickes, Sal Baisley, Jon Coffin and crew members like Alyssa Park.

I would be remiss, if I didn’t mention the staff from the National Office. John Hunter was the event lead and made sure the event stuck to schedule as he remained his cheerful self. My friends Kristen Poole and Brandy Wiggans managed registration along with Andie Wolfe. The ladies also appeared to don multiple hats as the event progressed and kept things together. Jon Krolewicz did the safety inspection for the track, helped with tech and also served as driver coach for one of the groups. Watching this team in action, as I did, was a great learning experience. I was the proverbial fly on the wall listening in to Jon very patiently and genuinely explaining to a participant how someone in the Novice group could actually be faster despite being part of what is considered a slower group. The opportunity was rife for ridicule, but watching Jon intently listen to the participant and then offer him a full and proper explanation and watching that person leave satisfied with the answer was a live demonstration of the SCCA values. If you’re ever wondering how to keep and retain members and ensure they leave an event smiling, you need to watch this team in action.

Whilst I headed home somewhat wistful about missing out on a trophy despite my improvement in performance, the high of having spent more than 48 hours in the company of good friends and competitors at a milestone event surpassed any doom and gloom. There is also that promise of being on the cover of Sportscar Magazine and the hope that 25 years from now, I will compete at the 100th anniversary of that first SCCA event. Maybe I’ll win a trophy then. If not, I will to quote Jack Baruth “have a story that will prove more durable, and interesting, than the mere fact of a win.”

With Solo site availability becoming a challenge for a lot of regions, and the costs of club racing deterring entrants, I am glad that the SCCA has a welcoming program that brings together all kinds of car enthusiasts as one team to have #funwithcars. For proof, you need to look no further than the 75th anniversary event aka 2020 Tire Rack SCCA Time Trials National Tour at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park Powered by Hagerty. By all accounts, the format of the event held 75 years ago (time attacks and track sprints), seems to be a winning formula in present times too.

 

Photo by Geoff Bolte/Clarus Studios

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