Words and Photos by #69 Clifton Kangas aka Harvey Steele
As we all know, 2020 has been a very unusual year. So was my adventure to the 2020 SCCA Rallycross National Championships in Topeka, Kansas.
The thought of attending this year’s National Rallycross championship had not even entered my mind until I had a phone conversation in June with fellow NER RX enthusiast (and 5-time national champion) Warren Elliot. He said he needed some chassis repairs to his 2006 Mitsubishi EVO IX, affectionately nick-named by his closest competitors the “BWM” (black-winged monster). I knew that with a competent driver this car was (as stated on the rear body panel) “lightning fast”. Warren proposed a trade: I work my magic on the chassis and he’d give me the ride in Topeka.
I was intrigued. I usually compete in my normally-aspirated, non-turbo, Subaru which only has half the power of the BWM. But Warren had stated that I could drive it at Nationals if I did him a solid. I decided I was game. “Sure, why not?” I told him. I figured I could repair the frame degradation to ensure the car was capable to stand the rigors of national-level rallycross. It seemed like a pretty straight forward plan to me.
Nationals Prep Begins
With the BWM now in my shop I began repairing the chassis issues we knew about and found a few we didn’t. It was pretty standard stuff which I sorted out and completed with little trouble. All the time trying to decide if I REALLY wanted to travel all the way to Kansas to compete at the national level in a car I have never even raced before. I mulled it over, talked to colleagues, and decided I should be up to the task but, I was nervous as I hadn’t raced anything since mid-January, and felt rather rusty. In the end, the thought of finally having the chance to compete in a very powerful championship car was, let’s say, an offer this racer couldn’t refuse.
Decision made, I called Warren to let him know the car was ready. While reviewing the repairs with him Warren mentioned that “the clutch isn’t perfect, but should hang in there.”
I started running scenarios in my head: there were no events to even practice for the Nationals in this car because of COVID so there was no chance to tell for sure if the clutch would hold up. My stress level started to rise. I knew that racing an unfamiliar car is something to approach very carefully. I had taken another colleague’s turbo car to Nationals in Oklahoma in 2012. That experience taught me to tread lightly with an unfamiliar car, as an electronics snafu kept me off the podium. I finished a very disappointing 8th place and vowed never again!
What to do?? One of my mottos is “Always consider the risk vs. the reward” and though the risk was there, the reward could be the one accolade I have not obtained in Rallycross, a National Championship. I consulted my main racing advocate (my father) and his advice was to “follow my dreams.” Decision: Settled. I would enter a lightning fast car I had never raced for the top prize of our sport and trust in my experience and fate to guide me to the promised land! Stress going up some more.
Warren Elloitt and Hal Deham are seasoned NER racing buddies going back many years, whom I consider top Rallycrossers and personal mentors. As they were also competing at Topeka, under their guidance and tutelage, I figured I would be “just fine.” Plus, both have raced and won in this very same car. Now it was time to show the world I am as good as I know I am. Stress level going up some more. Plus anxiety.
I have always felt that with the right weapon, I am as fast as anyone on four wheels. But in the back of my mind, doubt began to creep in. Doubt, and knowing racing is one of the most humbling sports around, was keeping me awake at night. I have to find out! It was time to load up and head to Topeka.
Arriving in Topeka
I’ve had the pleasure of towing race cars all over our great country. Although towing is a necessity, for me it is also an adventure every time. Another of my famous mottos; “The road has a way of testing your resolve.” I have learned to bring 3 spares for the trailer and 2 for the truck, and anything you can carry in the way of spare parts. I am glad to report I only needed one spare this time! Hooray! This trip, although very long (3,166.8 miles round trip), was fairly uneventful. Maybe the texting driver in Missouri who just about ran into me would disagree but that would have been their fault. I left Massachusetts early Wednesday morning and after stopping at my sister’s in Cincinnati for the night I arrived very tired at Heartland Park Topeka, KS around 3pm. Thursday afternoon. Warren and Hal had our paddock spot picked out and pointed me towards the hotel. I unhitched the trailer, checked into the Super 8, and crashed.
Friday at Topeka was the old hurry up and wait – making sure of proper signage on the race car, getting through tech inspection, etc. The drivers meeting was as normal as always except for the masks, making it less personal, and hard to get a read on the other competitors’ state of mind. The biggest faux pas a chief steward could make was uttered, “we are going to do 15 runs”. What? Nice jinx guy, I thought. Maybe even out loud. I raised my hand and reminded everyone that “it’s quality not quantity” and to put a number on the runs we’d do was foolish. Some laughed, others agreed. It was certainly a sign.
The Friday afternoon practice runs would confirm to myself that I could compete in this BWM. I was overly anxious to find out and had planned this for weeks. My plan was to ride with Warren on the first run (to see how he operates his beast) and then switch seats and get his thoughts. The third and final practice run was to be mine alone. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Warren gave a few instructions and proceeded to launch the Evo on the first practice run. This type of launch is full throttle, on rev limiter, find pinch point on clutch, and let it eat! Very impressive but from the awful stench, hard on the clutch.
Warren wheeled the beast through the lap the whole time, elbows and groans. It was obvious he knew this car well. I was impressed but concerned for the poor clutch’s chances of completing this event. I made some comments, but was told just to roll out before going full peddle and I would be fine.
We switched seats and I took a cleansing breath and rolled out of the start as aggressively as I dared. The car was almost perfect, it heeded my inputs, and was fairly predictable. My first run was good, 1 second or so faster that Warren’s, I was pleased. The concern over the state of the clutch lingered longer than the smell, and since the Chief Steward was set on 15 runs, the decision was made to take it easy and park the car till race time Saturday. I was skeptical but figured this was the right call.
I couldn’t help thinking, “Was that a fluke run or did I have this?” I was not too sure. I visited the practice course several times later to observe and try to get a read on my competitors. Soon, I was fairly satisfied that I was in the hunt! I talked with various competitors and officials I knew and headed for the hotel. I tried to eat a nutritious dinner (about half consumed) and was sleeping by 9pm.
Photo by Rupert Berrington on SCCA.com
Saturday, Race day #1
I was up at 4:30 am. I ate breakfast in my room and headed to the racing field, arriving before first light. While sipping my coffee I leisurely walked the course set for our first runs. I was blown away at how open and fast it was. I was thinking in my ten plus years of Rallycrossing I had never run such an open track, and would, without a doubt be utilizing second gear often. (BTW, I was told that 1st gear was mostly sufficient for racing this BWM in the gravel and 2nd was rare.) Walking the track a second time I thought of how fortunate I was to be here with a fast turbo car and not my normally-aspirated Subaru. (I would not have had a chance with her). These thoughts made me sad and happy at the same time, for I have had great success with my beloved Rue (Subaru). We competed twice in the Nationals, earning a respectable 6th and 4th place finishes. I was aware that Rue would, no matter how well I drove, most likely finish last in class on this fast course.
Now it was time to get my small cooler together and check in for my worker assignment. As I watched the grass get converted in hard loam/gravel, I was amazed at the driving talent and speed being displayed. From experience I knew some of the best of the best in Rallycrossing were laying down their fastest runs, and it was impressive. I was anticipating the chance to show what I had, and still not sure just exactly what that was in the BWM. It was HOT and HUMID and I was already sweating the sun block into my eyes. I drank all the cold drinks my cooler held and still waited for the group to be over.
Seems no matter what is suggested to our hard-working officials, the timing system always has issues at Nationals. This year proved no different. IMHO Solo timing does not work for Rallycross. A simple pressure hose system has proven itself in NER. But I digress. The day progressed and the delays continued, as I questioned the sanity of using the same system and expecting a different result. It was obvious by noon time we were only going to have time to race once per group. Yes there was car breakage, and even a roll over, but it took till about 3:15pm before our thrid group assembled for our parade lap. Talk about “icing the kicker”! I was now in super stressed out mode. I knew to try to calm myself, which I did to the best of my abilities. Still, I knew the importance of putting in a fast and solid first run. This WAS my plan.
I figured that if I drove well, with limited penalties and the car still running at the end, I should be nicely rewarded. Completing my parade lap I was sure it was mostly second gear, so I made a mental map of how I would drive the course. I decided to take it easy as I could on the clutch at launch and gas the s@#!*& out of it the rest of the way. Sitting at the start I was somehow very calm. Launch was okay and now game on! The car accelerated hard, I was amazed at the power, it juked and bucked around more at speed than on the slower practice course. I struggled a bit to corral the horsepower and made a couple slight mistakes, but overall I was pleased as I sped through the finish timing beam. That is till I saw my posted time.
I was CRUSHED. 60 some odd seconds and well off the pace by maybe 4-5 seconds! At first I didn’t believe it. I thought it was pretty sporting, but I really had nothing to compare it with. I knew it wasn’t perfect but 5 off, REALLY? I found my place on the grid and the next few minutes were a blur of thoughts of disbelief. Was I really that slow? I wasn’t thinking straight. Still shaking from the violence and speed I just experienced inside this hot rod. I slowly became aware of my surroundings when I saw Hal walking down the grid towards me. He was looking a bit odd, he said “What happened”?
“Guess I F-ed up! I really thought I had done better,” I said. But I wasn’t sure. Hal informed me that the car just ahead of me and one other in class had been granted reruns because of timing issue, and I should go question my time. I agreed and as I was walking to the official scoring board to write out my complaint I noticed the track crew changing the last section of the track.
I was running third to last in the last class of the third group, and as such any track changes would happen just after my laps. The course had changed MANY times since the morning group and was only slightly following the same general path. I realized that there wasn’t much that could be done for my predicament. I also knew most people were aware it was my first time racing this car. My time was within reason I figured, but wrote out my complaint as instructed by Hal anyway. The official representative from timing found me in my grid spot and was very courteous. He explained that my time was reviewed and it was believed to be accurate. I expected this result and thanked him for his work. Well, this was not the start to Nationals that I wanted, in fact the exact opposite.
A very wise Rallycrosser, (Hal), has always told me that the only thing in RXing that matters is the next run, or next gate. You have to put the past out of your mind and go “do your job”! So I did. The next and last four runs of the day were right on the pace of the leaders in my class. My fifth run was the fastest of anyone’s on that run! I was learning on the fly FAST, just wishing I hadn’t dug such a deep hole right off the bat.
I was hiding out some from Warren in the paddock because he’s my most ardent critic. When he found me he asked if I felt okay, and was I missing any attachments. He said he had driven about as fast as I did on his first run in a front wheel drive Mini! I really had no response except to say “I tried my best”. This really didn’t help, but I was still invited to dinner with him and Hal anyway.
Given the state of the event at the conclusion of racing on Saturday the race officials called a drivers meeting after the last run group. It was decided we would race on only two tracks, not three. Sunday’s 3-5 runs would be it for 2020 Nats. Hal graciously sprang for a very tasty dinner at a nice local steak house. There were other competitors there and the ribbing was equally infamous and fun. We all got to bed at a reasonable hour, readying for the final day of combat. I felt as though I had let my region and myself down, and really didn’t sleep too well that night. I showed I could be fast but to overcome a 5 second deficit to these talented drivers was a tall ask. I was sitting in 4th place .6 out of 3rd, 3.2 out of 2nd. and 8.5 out of first. Work to be done. Still stressed.
Final Sunday Runs
Sunday morning at the race field I had a rare moment of time to myself with all the other cars in my class at grid. I examined them carefully to try to locate any advantages they might have. I noticed that the two cars that ended up 1-2 in class had the same tires! And we ALL know how much tires can make a difference. It was apparent to me that these tires were conservatively 1-1.5 seconds faster than mine in these conditions. Their edges were much sharper and had a foot print helpful on hot packed dirt. I knew I had to “send it today”. Turned out we would have 4 runs, and the condition of the track by the time we were to run it would be anyone’s guess. I was determined to finish strong.
Figuring with only 4 runs to go I might as well launch harder. I found that full launch mode seemed to work on the last run Saturday, so I continued that way for Sunday’s runs. The runs were pure adrenaline, ultra-fast, and you could not miss the groove by more than half a tire’s width. Speeds approached 70 mph, with my vision obscured by the violent bouncing. Stressful but fun indeed. Some of my younger competitors even stated that they were shaking from the speed and fast competition. I was not alone in feeling that at any moment it could all end in tears.
I laid down 4 impressive runs and moved up to a solid third position at the end. 2.8 out of 2nd. and 10.1 out of first. I was wishing for just one more run but the race was over. I was sure I drove my best on Sunday, I was pleased with that. Later I realized I was the only driver in class to run all 9 runs clean and penalty free. I guess I should be proud, but I was gunning for more.
Nationals Comes to an End
After packing the truck and trailer up, we made our way to the awards ceremony. It is always fun and sporting to stay and congratulate the top finishers. I forgot that in my limited class of 6 cars, there were only 2 trophies being awarded. Again I missed a trophy at Nationals by 1 position. OH WELL, I did enjoy racing with the other top racers in my PA class. Of special note was the second place driver who was sitting 3rd on Saturday, but drove an absolutely outstanding race on Sunday to finish a well-deserved second in class.
After the ceremony I thanked the race officials for a great event, especially under the circumstances they had to deal with. They seemed appreciative, and it was stated that in the future there will be no talk of how many runs we are to do, which we all laughed about and said our farewells.
As I headed East, I reflected on the event. My thoughts and doubts still heavy on my tired brain. It was very difficult to trust the enormous horsepower of the BWM and cut so closely the gates without hitting or going wide. I was still smiling recalling the speed we ran and the fact I was cone-free! All my stress started to leave me, and I was now “good” with the event. I made it to Terra Haute before finding a suitable area to catch some z’s. I was at my sister’s by 11 am and spent that afternoon chasing my nephew around a local go kart track. I think he may have “the bug” too. I finally arrived home about 7:30 Tuesday night, tired but satisfied.
Now that we’re all clear, I’ll review a piece of hard-earned advice: Don’t bring a car you have not raced to a National Championship. I knew it would be tough, but I just had to try. I want to thank Warren for making it all possible, and he and Hal for all their years of friendship, sage advice and encouragement. I did the best I could, and in the end I think it wasn’t too shabby. I am proud to represent the great people who together make up the New England Region, any time, anywhere.