Our Long-Overdue Nationals Recap

The culmination of a spring full of car preparation and a summer of learning if we put together something worth competing with was the SCCA Tire Rack Solo National Championships in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The days approaching our trip to Lincoln were hardly stress-free. Earlier in the week, I was rustled out of bed by a minor earthquake. If that wasn't disturbing enough, a hurricane was heading towards the southeast United States, with the Washington, D.C. area in its path. While we were going to be away when the hurricane was actually visiting the sleepy little 'burb of Waldorf, that doesn't mean we didn't have concerns about what was happening while we weren't around.

Despite the weather concerns going on at home, we loaded up and headed west. We had new confidence in our ability to get the Miata on the trailer and, more importantly, keep it there, after being shown the ropes by a competitor in Toledo back in July. Surely enough, we never had to crank a notch into the ratchet straps for the whole ride.

The trip out itself could have been a royal bore, especially since Kate drove the entire way, but we were fortunate that the karting Garfield family put together a fun photo scavenger hunt for those of us who were making the trip. The Nationals Snap Crap Challenge kept me awake when I would normally be sleeping, and we spent the umpteen hours on America's interstates on the lookout for things as mundane as silos and windmills to things as ridiculous as a sedan with five people in it or the unlikely unicorn, a North Dakota license plate. Well done, Garfields.

We made fantastic time on the ride out. When we left Waldorf on Friday morning, our goal was to make Lincoln sometime on Sunday. There was very much no rush as we didn't really have to be on site till Monday, but the sooner we could get situated and figure out the lay of the land, the better.

We made it to Lincoln Airpark late Saturday afternoon. We made it there in time to do registration and get our paddock spot just before the registration folks were to close up shop for the day. We had the car off the trailer, prepped and through tech as well on Saturday. Considering this event was going to have about 1,200 drivers and 800 or so cars, getting this stuff done and over with so early in the week was good. We even got to take in some of the final events of the Pro Solo Finale that was going on at the same time.

Sunday was a quiet day. We took the opportunity to sleep in as things would start happening in a hurry once the new week began.

By Monday morning, the two courses that the championships would be decided on were set up and open for walking. We did that, but also we had both signed up for the Evolution Driving School test & tune on the practice course. Kate got the course for an hour on Monday while I was scheduled to run it on Tuesday. Kate's test went well, and we even got a guest driver or two to take the car out and see if we were in the ballpark. John Vitamvas was first, followed by Ian Baker. Both said the car was a decent handler, but lacked power. One suggested that replacing the stock exhaust manifold with a header would help.

A header was on my list of things to do during the winter, so this didn't come as much of a surprise. I filed that information away and we headed back into town for the Evolution Seminar and, later, the welcoming reception. While at dinner at the reception, smartphones were buzzing away as our subset of DC Region invaders - me, Kate, James, Noel, Chris, and Frank - were searching to find who had a header and was willing to ship it overnight to our hotel. They hit roadblock after roadblock as it was nearing the end of the workday (and shipping window) in most parts of the country. I took that as a sign that this was probably a bad idea to rush into, but the search continued anyway.

Eventually we found 949Racing, where Emilio was willing to get a header shipped out. The order was placed at 6:00PM Nebraska time, and the header was in Nebraska at 3:00PM the next day. If the parts can travel that fast, imagine how they'll make the car work.

Tuesday turned out to be a busy day. We woke up to a thunderstorm. Sane people, especially those who didn't really have to be at the airport until a hair before their noon test & tune slot, would have gladly slept in a couple extra hours and let the weather pass, but we weren't sane. The plan was to rise early every day and get to the site as the sun was rising so we could get some course walks in before the day's competition began. This is what we did, taking to the East course with the rain still falling. We made it about halfway through the course before deciding that this plan was ridiculous and we retreated back to the 4Runner to wait out the rain.

We were soaked, but we had a few hours to dry out before it was my turn to run the Evo test & tune at noon. The rain moved out of the area and the sun took over, and I got to run the test & tune in sunny, dry conditions much to my relief. Afterwards, the Parsimonious Racing crew, whether they knew they were part of it or not, was about to spring into action.

I brought the Duckling to James' paddock space and put the car up on ramps. James had assured us that he'd tackled a Miata header install before and would spearhead this project. While Kate headed back to the hotel to pick up the package from 949Racing, we - and by "we", I mean "James" - dove under the hood. Before I knew what was going on, he already had the heat shield off and was working on the manifold nuts. I asked if there was anything I could do, and the answer was "stay out of the way." As Kate showed up with the shiny chrome Racing Beat header, the old manifold was on its way out. By the time James had to leave to do his work assignment, the job was 90% done. The last hurdle was to tighten everything up and reconnect the oxygen sensor wiring. A quick test drive once everything was done revealed a car that was a little louder, and, at least according to the butt dyno, a little faster too.

Wednesday was the first of two days of actual competition for us. After a little hiccup to tighten up the oxygen sensor - with a borrowed jack from a fellow competitor, a borrowed jackstand from another, and I don't know where Kate found the right wrench but it did the trick - it was time to put all our work on the line.

Kate started her Wednesday on an auspicious note, knocking down five cones on her first run. For me, it wasn't much better as I had one cone myself. Fortunately, we both cleaned up our acts and at the end of our heat we were actually sitting in decent shape, at least, relative to our expectations going in. I was 27th and Kate was 35th out of 39. We left day one of two feeling pretty good about ourselves.

The good feeling did not last through day two.

The West course was described by many as "slalom 'till you puke". The start led to a long straight that didn't even count since the timing light to start the clock was at the end of it. After a left turn, it was slalom, then offsets, then another left turn that led to walloms. After another left, it was another slalom leading into a long sweeping left-hander. After a couple of ninety-degree rights, there was a short slalom followed by another right followed by another slalom. This opened up into the showcase, which was another fairly randomly spaced slalom all the way to the finish.

I didn't think I'd like it going in, and I wound up not liking it during the actual competition. I did a decent job of chopping off six tenths off my time on my last run, but the end result was still sub-par and I fell from 27th to 31st overall. That was a bit of a bummer. Kate, on the other hand, wound up doing well enough to pick up a spot to wind up 34th out of 39 in our class. I wasn't too thrilled with how my run at Nationals ended, but Kate was justifiably thrilled.

We packed up our car and gear and got out of Dodge with our pride intact. We came into the event expecting to finish well down in the standings, and while 31st and 34th were far from trophy positions, they were better than what I expected, especially in light of our last and near-last positions at the Toledo Tour earlier in the year. We left knowing that we had definitely improved from Toledo, both with the car's setup and our driving, and with no doubt in our minds that we were going to return to Lincoln in 2012 to try and improve further on our first trip to the SCCA Solo National Championships.

In-Car Videos:

Alan's East Course:

Alan's West Course:

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