It might be the old, wrinkly elephant in the room, but I’m not afraid to point it out: When it comes to cars in general and motorsports in particular, we’re all paying way too much attention to the past—and the future is suffering as a result. Case in point: Hundreds of automotive journalists and thousands of fans spent last weekend at Porsche’s Rennsport Reunion, a glossy and glitzy megabuck event largely focused on Porsche’s “glory days” of the Sixties and Seventies. It was a great place to see some legendary race cars lapping at (close to) pace, but it was also a forceful validation of the idea that the “good old days” of motorsports are long past us.
Luckily for those of us who prefer racing in the present to reminiscing about the past, there was an alternative. Just 2299 miles to the east of Laguna Seca, in the decidedly less posh and hip confines of Bowling Green’s NCM Motorsports Park, Heyward Wagner and the rest of the SCCA’s staff were creating the motorsports future in real time with . One hundred and twenty-nine drivers, including my brother Mark and wife Charley, were entered in a unique event that mixed aspects of autocross and timed lapping to crown the fastest drivers in 16 classes that covered everything from perfectly-prepared Vipers and McLarens to a dented, automatic-transmission EG-generation Civic hatchback.
“Wait a minute,” the old hands are saying, “hasn’t this been done before?” Kinda-sorta. The SCCA Solo I program was a prehistoric predecessor of Time Trials, discontinued a while back for lack of interest and participation. Other series like Redline Time Attack and NASA’s Time Trials program have long offered a hot-lapping alternative to club racing. But this new SCCA program isn’t exactly like any of them, and the differences are far from trivial.
To begin with, this is an “experiential” program, which means it’s designed to be enjoyed by casual participants. The rule set is deliberately loose to accommodate the ways people modify their cars in the real world. Not every single car out there is going to be competitive in its class; my brother didn’t like having to run his Focus RS against the C5 Corvettes, while my pal JP Daugherty probably thought his Camaro SS 1LE was, shall we say, slightly overmatched by the McLaren MP4-12C that beat him to first place in the S1 category.
The best way to understand SCCA Time Trials is as the next step up from the wildly successful Track Night in America program. Early in the planning stages of the Nationals, the SCCA identified six cars that were most common at Track Night in America events; those cars became the foundations of their classing. Like the Track Nights, the Time Trial events are separated by approximate proficiency and/or vehicle speed. So if you’re a Novice-level driver competing in your Corvette, you’ll be with other Novices instead of with the advanced 'Vettes that are running 20 seconds a lap ahead of you—although your times will be scored against people driving cars similar to yours, regardless of their skill group. Even better, each group has a steward to watch for infractions and coaches to help drivers address their weaknesses or concerns behind the wheel.
After the warmup day on Friday, there were five events that made up the Nationals proper: timed lapping on Saturday, timed lapping on Sunday, and a trio of timed “TrackCross” events, where a segment of the circuit is turned into a quasi-autocross, with the racing line altered with cones in places. The times for all four events were added up for the final rankings. It was possible to buy insurance to cover your car against a total loss on-track; my wife bought the coverage for her 2014 MX-5 Club while my brother elected to take the risk.
(Why didn’t I race, you ask? Well, somebody had to crew for these two. Plus, my Accord is still hors de combat after losing an axle at my World Challenge race a few weeks ago.)
The competition was fierce but friendly. When MX-5 driver John Li experienced a wheel bearing failure in his NC MX-5, I suggested that he talk to Dallas Reed, who was running an RX-8—and the two of them ended up pulling an all-nighter to swap the RX-8’s spare hub into the Miata. “I lost my ABS as a result,” Li told me, “but it beats not showing up for Day 2.” He would go on finish third in the T4 class.
Christopher Meeks in got more than he bargained for when he bopped one of NCM’s barriers early in the event. His direct competitor, Aashish Vemulapalli, helped him perform some field-expedient bodywork and Meeks got right back on track to finish the weekend. Neither would go home with a trophy, but they both have a story that will prove more durable, and interesting, than the mere fact of a win. I wouldn’t bet against either of them winning in the years to come. In the long run, grit matters as much as horsepower.
My wife, the infamous Danger Girl, found out the hard way that her class was stacked with SCCA Solo champions when she turned a lap that would have qualified her mid-pack for American Endurance Racing’s Class 2—only to wind up in fourth place for the day in this “experiential” event. Elsewhere, there were Corvettes fighting it out with ITA-class road-racing Neons for supremacy in the Unlimited-2 class. If that wasn’t enough to keep everyone interested, there was a separate competition held using NCM’s new fleet of rental karts, in which JP Daugherty fought with former World Challenge driver and APEX Pro head honcho Andrew Rains for top honors.
This was the youngest crowd I’ve ever seen at an SCCA event. Which is not to say that there weren’t plenty of the old hands around, many of them putting in scorching times in perfectly-prepped cars. But the ratio of twenty-somethings to sixty-somethings was much younger than it is at any club race. That alone justifies the existence of both Track Night and Time Trials.
Then there was the social aspect of the thing: dinners at the track every night, a food truck serving a long line of drivers, and a big party to cap everything off at the end. Friendships were formed and rivalries were begun. I received some forthright feedback on my writing for this magazine from drivers of all skill levels. There was a near-constant undercurrent of laughter in the garages. Someone, somewhere, was always having a good time.
Emboldened by these results, the SCCA will be announcing a nationwide Time Trial series for 2019. I know I’ll be there, and I recommend that you give it a shot as well. You don’t need anything but an SCCA membership to show up—and if you don’t have one, they will set you up right there at the track. This is amateur motorsports at its freshest and most fun.
The best way I can think of to describe it goes like so: if the Rennsport Reunion is like your 30th high school reunion, where you get to kind of mill around and think about the good old days, then the Time Trial Nationals is like your senior year at a high school where there are no bullies and everybody is engaging in crazy shenanigans all the time. I left the weekend with a renewed excitement and determination regarding club racing and amateur motorsports. Listen, everybody likes reunions—but in the Time Trial program, the good old days are happening right now.