by Ray Alexander
For a rookie the event spans 4 days, which seems like a lot of time to devote in exchange for 49 minutes of fast driving. The time goes by very quickly because you are busy. The entire event is well organized and well staffed. Do not come here thinking that you can bend a rule.
A rookie must go to a qualifying session that begins at 6:00 AM on Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. As we head for Las Vegas the weather is unsettled and before getting to Blythe on US 95 we find water running across the road. This is not the stuff that Coors says they use in their beer, no, this stuff is muddy and carrying a payload of rocks. There are several more of these north of Blythe.
We get to Las Vegas too late to get the car washed. I want to arrive at the track with less than one half a tank of gas. On the way to the track a detour through North Las Vegas was mandatory. I get to the track with one eight of a tank of gas. I tell one of the instructors about my situation and he says I think that you will be okay. The sun was not up yet so he didn't see the 1750 pounds of mud on my car.
I line up behind the school's BMW that I believe will be the first on the track. I have been asking myself this question: why at 6:00 AM when we are not hauling illegal whiskey or stealing anything; further not even a cup of coffee is provided. Nothing gets moving until well toward 9:00 AM except some papers. After 30 minutes of instruction on lead/follow we are ready to go. For people that are apprehensive or have never done anything like this, a slow group is formed. The Dodge dually opted for the slow group.
We pile into some vans and instructors are showing the preferred lines. After a couple of slow laps they get after it, never mind the 1599 pounds of meat in the van. A Porsche Carrera has lined up behind me and an Acura NSF behind him. As a way of breaking the ice I go to the Porsche driver and ask him to not run over me. He has a very British accent and his name is Gerry. The Acura driver is Paul both are from England and now live in San Francisco.
We take the track and it is a short course but there are lots of turns many are sharp. I have my traction control fully engaged but I am still spinning and breaking the backend loose. I can out accelerate the Porsche but when we get into the quick turns he is right there nagging my back bumper.
After several laps we catch a group of yellow Corvettes. These guys are all from the state of Washington. We stay behind then. My low fuel light comes on along with the chime. We just keep going, now the needle is on the red mark. Finally the checkered flag waves. I tell one of the instructors that I must go get gas. I get 8 gallons and come back. Gerry tells me that I did a good job of drifting the Charger. That is not what I was trying to do; I wanted to get him off my rear bumper.
We have another classroom session before you get the chance to show an instructor that you can drive. There is one section that I really liked because you drove far to the left on a rumble strip setting up for a right turn. The right turn goes into a very quick left then right onto the front straightaway. Both turns had the brightly painted elevated sections that road courses have. These will help you enter or complete a turn. By going high on both of these you could almost go straight while getting first one side, then the other side of your car popped up.
After about 3 laps my instructor says you are doing fine but you might be better off if you brake a little earlier. We take the checkered flag and stop for a couple of instructors. One of them hands me my successful completion certificate. I was not worried about failing because my credit card had already been tapped for the entire entry fee.
It is too late for me to get across the city and get inspected so I get the car washed. I hook up with Gerry and Paul in traffic; Paul does not recognize me in a clean car. It really was that dirty.
I start loading the car. It was a job because everything had to be out of the car for the track event. I am sweating very badly; the line of wet spots could have been used to track me down. The car is loaded and Dinah wants to gamble instead of going to the luncheon so I go alone. Several people are introduced and indeed there are several countries represented.
After lunch I hit a craps table for a few minutes. I lose one dollar. I go to the tech inspection area and locate Blue who is the roister of the rookies. I tell him of my tire situation and show him the ream of paper containing information from the Tire Rack. There is a rule stating that your car must be equipped with tires that are equal to or better than the tire that the manufacturer supplied. My car came with tires rated ZR for speed, the ZR is tested at 149 MPH plus. I now have V rated tires on the rear and they are rated for 149 MPH. I am running the 110 MPH class with an absolute top speed of 124 MPH. My front tires are W rated which are tested to 186 MPH. We couldn't find the “tire guy” but Blue thinks that I am okay.
We leave in caravan with a stop scheduled at Ash Springs. The caravan quickly breaks apart. Several blocks down the street a large number of the vehicles turn left but several of us cannot complete the turn. We are such docile creatures that disobeying a traffic light is beyond comprehension. All of the rest of the vehicles except us go straight ahead. We turn left to be greeted by an empty street.
We need to get on I-15 North. The first street that I try is not an on-ramp. On I-15 the traffic is horrid. I can't break out of a pod of traffic. Behind me there is a Mercedes SUV with a spotlight that makes me think law enforcement. Just before the turn off for US 93 the Mercedes comes around me and indeed it is a law enforcement officer. Good thing that I didn't find a hole.
Ahead I can see a long line of cars along US 93 and they are just beginning to move. Thanks for waiting! Now I can easily get by traffic that is not going to the Silver State event. I also pass the last two vehicles that are in the convoy at about 100 MPH. Now I am getting concerned about my reserve of fuel. On and on we drive, and I am slowing to conserve fuel. The Jaguar passes me but the truck with a car on a trailer stays behind me.
I am sure that I am going to run out of gas and that will be very embarrassing. Finally I see a sign gas ¾ mile. From the appearance of the sign that station probably went out of business ten years ago. A Chevron station soon appeared, not a brand that I normally use but today it is marvelous. A short distance farther the group is stopped at another gas station. We get a lecture that includes Blue saying for a particular infraction, “I will burn your car to the ground.” I believe he meant it. He also recommended having two stopwatches.
Past the Narrows we have one more stop before going on to Ely. Some guys are getting pretty frisky. We run into a little bit of rain and a beautiful rainbow that appears to end on the yellow Corvette in front of us. There are about seven yellow Corvettes in this event and I intend to sell the picture to each of them.
We stop at the rest stop again, there are still 8 rolls of toilet paper but all have now been opened. When we came through a month ago 7 rolls still had page one glued down.
On to Ely where we check into the Nevada Hotel. The weather is very cool and there could be more rain. We get a room along the main street. I have been told that in the Wild West the most desired rooms were along the main street where there was a covered walkway. If trouble came your way you could jump onto the roof of the walkway then onto the back of some ones' horse and flee from Ely. Two small problems, no horses and we are on the fifth floor.
By the time we get luggage to the room we are due to be at a reception. Wow, this is a hosted bar, let the good times roll, no, I mean Early Times. I hook up with Gerry, Paul and Bob. Bob has a 04' Mercedes SL 55, he is also from England. His son Zack is his navigator. It was great to see a father and son get along so well. Some time during the weekend I brought up the Renault Dauphine as my idea of a bad car. The turn signal was a piece of wood that sticks out of the side of the car when the driver pulls a rope inside the car. Bob remembered the name. It is a trafficator. Now that is a good million-dollar question for “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”
Steve Waldman comes over to chat with us. Steve founded this race 21 years ago. After determining that we were all rookies he came across with some advice “run at least 10 pounds more air in your tires than the car manufacturer recommends.” His reasoning is along the lines this is a public road, it is not paved like a racetrack. You all went over the road today but you did not see everything, plus between now and race time someone might drop something heavy on it. This takes a divot and you come along at high speed making a turn and this new fault will break the bead of your tire. I was going to run 4 pounds more but went up to 42 pounds. During the race the pressure went up to 46 PSI.
The next morning I go to registration. I sign release forms and get my car number 399 along with a bunch of sponsor decals that must be put on your car. The wind is blowing about 119 MPH making the placement of large decals very, very difficult, no need to worry about bubbles or wrinkles, you are going to have them. All I am going to say is K&N should be required to put their decals on their cars.
All decals on, now I can go to technical inspection. Comments from the inspectors; damn look at the size of that breather, nice job mounting the fire extinguisher, and the rear tires ain't gonna fly because the V rated tire is a lower rated than the ZR tire 149 versus 149 plus. There are two tire shops in Ely and the recommended one was absolutely no help. The other one called potential suppliers and on about the fourth call located 2 ZR rated tires in Salt Lake City, and they would be here in the morning.
The parade of cars is this afternoon and we are to gather at the high school. The four of us rookies that have been hanging together wind up on US 93 at a chain removal pad outside of Ely. I didn't think that my tires would fit into my trunk and remarked this would be a good place to do a burnout. A NHP drives by and immediately nabs someone who stops in the chain removal area. That put the burnout idea on the back burner.
When we are ready to go Bob's car will not start. I don't work on Fords or Mercedes but was coerced into taking a look. I diagnose it as a dead battery but we have just been running. I disconnect the battery for a minute to reset the computer. The battery is still dead. Bob asks Paul to go to town and buy him a battery pack. Paul comes back with a battery pack that was loaned to him because the new ones need to be charged. The car fires instantly.
Onward to the high school. The dominance of Corvettes is very clear here. I take some photos, none of Corvettes. Some bloke has just bought a NHP motorcycle and it still had the lights and siren on it. This bloke drove an Audi R8 in the 145 MPH class. More hurry up and wait but you are at least hanging with a large group of great cars and a bunch of Corvettes.
The pace of the parade is much faster than a normal parade but then we didn't have a marching band nor Clydesdales pulling a beer wagon to hold us up. There were a lot of people out for the parade. During the entire time in Ely I did not hear anyone say a bad word about the race. Not even the truck driver that would be required to drive 50 extra miles unless he got up very early on Sunday morning.
The parade ends at the Bristlecone Convention Center where we have a welcome reception. There is again a hosted bar with the same bartender from last night but the bar ain't open. We can't open the bar until the Sheriff gets here. Huh? Didn't the Sheriff lead the parade? Did we outrun him? We are introduced to the Mayor of Ely, a delightful politician. He tells about the fellow who came to town and stayed for several months painting murals in “The Big Four” whorehouse.
By now we are out on the street and he is pointing out the location. He will go up and have a beer with us later but now he needs to get inside, he allows that some of these people might vote. Later I have my picture taken with him. I also get my picture with the founder of this race.
Among those that gave short welcome speeches was someone from the Nevada Highway Patrol and from the county Sheriffs. The race starts in one county crosses the next county and ends in a third county. I am not sure of exactly which county that we were welcome in.
Later the four of us go up to the “The Big Four” and when the lady bartender mentions that they have a big gravel parking lot across the street I go to the door and look out with new eyes. I burst out laughing. We came up a month ago to pre-run highway 318 and had just purchased a radar detector. One of the things that you need to do in calibrating the device is drive in three 360 degree circles without stopping. That is where I did the three circles and at the time I commented on the funny looking bar across the street a big building with a small bar.
The next morning I go down to the tire shop about 8:30 after I have been cleaning on the car for 2 hours. All cars are to be on display today sort of a mandatory car show. The tires are already there but they are the same V rated tires that I already have.
Bob stops at the tire shop looking for a battery. He had bought a battery pack and charged it overnight. I tell him that there is a large NAPA parts place down the street. Ely does not have a battery that will fit his Mercedes. He goes through the rest of the weekend and the race jump-starting his car. That would have driven me nuts.
I go back to tech inspection and get another negative confirmation, but if you get tires we will tech you late. It is now mid-morning; I have a mandatory drivers meeting at 5:30 and Las Vegas is 190 miles away.
I tell Dinah what I have to do and tell her to go to the drivers meeting and sign me in. I stopped at the tire shop again and now the lady that ordered the ZR tires is there. She feels bad and says, let me make a couple of calls for you. She finds two used tires that were the front tires delivered on an SRT8, in Elko, only 130 miles away. She gives me directions to the front door, it's only four turns.
The tires are in relatively good shape with no repairs. This SRT8 wore out the rear tires first and I wore out the front tires long before the rears. Was it the long straight roads or did this guy like to smoke ‘em up? I pay $80 for the tires mounted and balanced. They put my tires in large plastic bags and put them in the trunk. I am ready to leave but one tire pressure sensor is not working. A guy brings out some magic mojo and holds it against the tire. I was going to monitor tire pressure during the race and was not happy with the right rear not working. The mojo does not fix it but the guy says drive around the block and get up to at least 30 MPH if it does not work I will take it apart to see if I can fix it. These guys were great, in fact the guy helping me had driven the Silver State.
I had a couple of badly butchered lug nuts and tried to buy two. The guy said the only ones that we have that will fit are on the boss' SRT8, and I can't sell you any of his. When I got back home I bought two for $17. I started looking on the right rear and there were no bad lug nuts. That is where they were and all the lug nuts on the left side are also good. They wouldn't sell me any, but they gave me two.
The computer is not quick at updating information because I hit 30 MPH in the first 30 feet and I was well over halfway around a city block before the EVIC was updated with pressure information. I drive by and give them the thumbs up. Then I settle down for the long drive back to Ely. I go to where inspection was being held and as I thought no one was there.
I decide that parking in front of auditorium where the drivers meeting was to be held was the thing to do. As I drive by the hotel I see Dinah on the way to the drivers meeting. There is a yellow curb along here but I park anyway. The inspectors will have a tough time getting by here without me seeing them. I go sign in and come back out. Here come some inspectors but not the tire guy.
The emphasis on tires is such that one guy only does tires that must be why they call him the tire guy. Collectively the others decide that I am okay and slap a couple of stickers on the windshield. What a relief.
In the drivers meeting we spent a lot of useless time on restarts. If the race is red flagged your timing is shot but everyone else on the course at that time is in the same boat. We went over at least 50 ways to get disqualified. Then we talked about falling below minimum speed in the Narrows. This went on and on when the discussion was focused on going 40 MPH in the Narrows David Cudd gets the floor and ends it by saying “why are we talking about 40 MPH, nobody is going to be doing that speed, I go through at 70 MPH in my motor home pulling a trailer (inside the trailer is '64 Lincoln Continental). I later find out that his son was in the shower when the motor home was going through the Narrows.
After the meeting I am looking among several motor homes for someone who is leaving the motor home so that I could leave my tires. All of the motor homes were going and they had to be past Lund by 5:00 AM as well as all course workers. One of these was David Cudd and he said he would take my tires and leave them at the finish line. He is driving the 150 class and will be loaded and gone before I finish. The Hot Rod Lincoln also pulled 145 in the acceleration test. He was in a hurry to get to Las Vegas.
He was cooking shrimp, steak and chicken almighty. I ask how did chicken almighty get its' name. He said that he has been going to the same local meat market for years and tells the butcher that he wants a strip of chicken breast rolled round with a jalapeno and jack cheese inside. The butcher replies “good God almighty, what are we going to name this?” David said I think you just did. It is now a standard offering in his meat case.
He was happy to learn that I was 68. He grabbed me and said “boys, look at this, 68 and still going strong. I have a lot of years left and I am going to build me a new car.”
During the day Dinah has got Bob to buy us a second stopwatch. I go to the room and try to figure out this new device. It is in some mode where the time will not set. Finally I can set the time to where I want it.
The next morning at 6:00 a Sheriff leads us in caravan to the Lund truck stop. We are put into a rough grid format. I am the 23rd car in a class of 26; in front of me is a Lotus Elise driven by a seasoned veteran and she is well sponsored. She will drive faster early to get slightly ahead of schedule, then settle in on 110 MPH. There is a Corvette behind me also driven by a veteran and he will be at 110 the entire way, because he only loses 6 seconds in the Narrows.
We discover that stopwatch number 1 is dead. It was timely advice to have two stopwatches (no pun intended).
Our turn comes to go to the final starting grid. We are advised to strictly adhere to the speed limit in Lund. For days we have been driving in a high concentration of law enforcement folks but soon there will be none. Time goes by slowly in the final grid. You are sent to the starting line on a finite minute. Twenty yards from the start line four guys look for fluid leaks and inspect the entire circumference of each tire. What a disappointment it would be to get turned back now and some cars did.
It is about now that the second stopwatch dies. Oh well, I was not planning on winning anyway. We are staged in the left lane and the atomic clock rolls around to zero. This is not a drag race so I shift at 5,000 RPMs. It feels so good to finally be able to let the car roll.
One of the things on my checklist was to reset the trip odometer to zero and set the EVIC to tire pressure. Those were done and by the way we do have a full tank of gas. We have a GPS but had not planned to use it. It is a marine version and it consistently wants me to drive where there is no road. It does have an elapsed time feature. Now I am driving as close to the centerline as possible until I set up for a turn.
In preparing for this event, I had divided the course into 30 three-mile segments identified by highway mile markers. We need to cover 3 miles in one minute and thirty-seven seconds. Dinah gets out the GPS and when she gets the screen she wants the odometer is at 15. Now by adding 7 minutes and 20 seconds to the ET we have an idea of our progress. The speedometer is extremely accurate, and I had run 115 for the first 9 miles then slowed to 110.
I read a couple of mile markers and Dinah believes that we are very close to being on time. There are a lot of people out here, two or more at every dirt road that can access highway 318. I am slowly catching the Lotus. I try repeatedly to set cruise control but it will not set. I check my speed often and I am very close to 110 every time I look. Later I find that the cruise control will not set to speeds above 100 MPH.
The Lotus is still getting bigger in my windshield. Thinking that she must be on time I slow down. The racecourse is being devoured very quickly. We are getting close to the Narrows and you cannot pass there. I decide that the Lotus is running too slow. At the same time my navigator says “you gotta pass her”.
In my class if you are caught going faster than 124 you are disqualified. I kick it up to 120 and complete the pass just entering the Narrows. The entry turn is the most dangerous turn on the course. It is to the right off-camber, double-apex with the radius tightening. I am going 120 and not close to my desired line. All turns in the Narrows are marked for 60 MPH. I don't hit the brake but the turn scrubs my speed down to 88 MPH.
This is a solid rock canyon so you cannot see the direction of the next turn but Dinah is reading course notes telling me which direction it is. We blow out of the Narrows at 112 MPH and I believe that I am hot. I slow to 108 but my navigator says no go back to 110.
Depression almost grabs a hold on me as the finish line is very close now. Dinah says the whole thing only lasted 15 minutes.
We finished 5th in a class of 26 in the Silver State Challenge, with an average speed of 109.9253 MPH. Gerry in the Porsche Carrera won the class and Bob with the dead battery was second. With the exception of the major design flaw of not being able to set cruise control for speeds above 100, the Charger was perfect. The engine temperature never came off normal. It is very comfortable at 110 MPH. I just now see in the preliminary results posted on the SSCC website; we have been pushed back to 6th by a Corvette that was shown far down the list. That Corvette is now shown in second place.
Two cars did not finish the event, one of the yellow Corvettes from Washington and a Mustang.
There were two cars in the unlimited class, both Camaros, one a 1971 and the other a 1998. The '98 averaged 198.3427 for the ninety miles and the 71 averaged 187.5571; both complained about the headwind. You would have a hard time finding anyone happier than the guy who drove the '71. I later hear him remark that his fuel costs $31 per gallon. The tires that they ran looked like NASCAR tires and those are not cheap.
A 1965 Corvair won the 170 class running 169.9905. This Corvair was stretched just a little and had a V8 Chevy engine in the back seat. He could tune that while driving, now that is a real plus. If I were rich I would buy an Audi R8, it also has the engine in the back seat, but you can't get to it for any tuning.
A pair of brothers won the 135 class in a 2007 Corvette Z08.
After the finish I got an excellent burger. All of the rookies were called to a touching ceremony sort of like being knighted for highway 318. You get down on one knee but you don't have to kiss the pavement. The finish line is about 3,000' and the day is much warmer than the one we left in Ely.
One story that I heard more than once is about a guy who has destroyed 3 Panteras. One was when he finished the race on fire and the car was burnt to the ground, as Blue would say. I talked to a guy from La Jolla that drives a Pantera. He got tired of blowing up Ford engines so he dropped in a big block Chevy.
As we are walking out of the hotel Monday morning, a guy on the customer side of the bar says, “take it easy, Mister, J&B and water.” It was the bartender from all of the hosted bar events. We told him we would be back next year and he said, “I will be here.” Gerry, Paul and Bob also said they would be back next year and we can all run in the 125 MPH Class. It will be so much easier after having been through it once.
For some time I have been postulating a bug theory. The essence, without showing math symbols and things raised to the tenth power, is that the faster you go the more bugs you hit and the harder they are to get off. Now I am working a whole new theory after looking at the '71 Camaro at the finish line. I think he said his top speed was 204 MPH and his bug splats were three times the size of my 110 MPH splats. I am working on a scale for the various traffic officers. In the future when you get stopped and the officer asks how fast have you been going. You answer 75. The officer looks at the front of your vehicle. He comes back and says, “boy, you are lying to me, because you have three bug splats that are 130 MPH minimum.”
More Articles by Ray Alexander
1999 Dodge Charger conceptNatural-gas V8 power in a sleek package
Operation PineappleCross-continental Jeep journey - by scouts
All Mopar Car and Truck News
Killing the buzzes
Dodge pickup trucks, 1961-71