“So… last night my hotel tried to make me leave and go to a homeless shelter.” It’s a robust thirty-seven degrees Fahrenheit in the garages at Mid-Ohio, and A.J. Lepore has to periodically interrupt his story to blow steaming air into his shivering hands. His knuckles are bloody, as are his cheeks and forehead; he’s spent all but five of the past thirty-six hours wrenching on his car. “As you guys know, it started snowing around midnight here. An hour later, I couldn’t feel my hands in the gloves anymore so I headed to the hotel.
“When I got there, I saw they had a pot of coffee on so I walked over. Figured I’d try to warm up a bit before I got a few hours of sleep, you know? Well, the desk lady comes over real cautious and she says, ‘It’s okay if you have coffee before you leave, but we can’t let you stay here. Now, there’s a homeless shelter down the street, and we can get you a safe ride there.’ So I pull out my room key and I’m like, ‘Lady, I’m stayin’ here!’” There’s a general chorus of laughter, but it’s obvious to all of us, even A.J., why the clerk was concerned. He’s wearing a faded Nomex suit rubbed head to toe with a combination of oil and clay dirt, his hair hasn’t been washed in days, and his wide pupils are crazed and bright behind a raccoon’s mask of filth.
A few garage spots away, crew members from Team Racewife are meticulously loading items into their pro-style stacker trailer. They’d won the previous day’s event, a and , driving a Ferrari 458 Challenge painted to match their other Ferraris. If their margin of victory over the BMW E46 behind them was a little thin, so what? A win is a win, inch or a mile, whether it’s done with a rapier or a broadsword.
Above: An on-board lap with the 458 Challenge at Mid-Ohio.
They cast an uneasy eye on A.J. as they walk by, and who can blame them? He looks like the kind of person who would be at home on Wilshire, asking for bus fare. She’s been wearing this stunning custom driving suit by Hinchman of Indianapolis, stitched and dyed to look like a bell-bottom blue-jeans ensemble from the Studio 54 era, and her face shines with the effortless cheer of the truly prosperous. Just a few minutes ago, I’d had to pull her aside and apologize for the fact that one of my drivers had clipped the back fender of her Ferrari in the first hour of the race; she’d accepted my regrets with grace and poise before giving me a mildly chiding look and striding away to prepare for her own stint.
This is the Venn diagram of racing: homeless-looking dudes hand-decking a BMW straight-six head on a wooden bench with a rasp file in one circle, the Ferrari-owning, toterhome-and-Prevost illuminati on the other. The space where they intersect is known as , and it is just plain wonderful to behold. Even when it snows.
We live in that tiny intersection as well, my wife and I, running her MX-5 Cup car with a rogue’s gallery of NASA thugs, former karting superstars, mercenary driving coaches, and independently wealthy thrill seekers. Our 2016 season was miserable, to put it mildly. 2017 was a joy; we took wins at NJMP and Mid-Ohio after a shaky start.
This year’s been somewhere in the middle. At NCM, we set fast lap in class and chewed through the field effortlessly–but we also overheated both days, thanks to a literally invisible crack in our coolant expansion tank that had us watching the finish from the sidelines. We fixed that problem and a half-dozen besides. This time, at Mid-Ohio, we were loaded for bear. Everybody in our driver lineup had won an AER race, a major kart race, or a major NASA race. We brought six crewmembers including an IMSA mechanic.
Better than that, we had Secret Weapons Of The Luftwaffe–or at least of the Flugplatz. I’d called Woody Rogers at the , described our setup in exhausting detail, and received specific instructions as to the tires we wanted (, in 225/45R17) and settings for tire pressure, temperature, and camber. Nobody else had access to that kind of expertise. Well, that’s not true anybody can call the Rack up and get the same help. But most people are too stubborn to do it.
suggested, then sent, Fox coilovers that took a full second off our laptime compared to our hyper-expensive Penske remote-reservoir shocks. Sounds suspicious, right? Well, the Foxes are tuned specifically for the kind of street-tire racing we do, while the Penskes had been set up for NASA sprints on DOT-R tires. Plus we benefited from a little additional setup advice, courtesy of Flyin’ Miata’s famous Keith Tanner.
Last but not least, our tame pro, Kevin Madsen, had arrived with a new color dash system from AiM. Like all former MX-5 Cup cars, the #76 RTF Racing Miata had arrived with a state-of-the-art (for 2006) AiM dash–but this new one had an iPhone’s worth of resolution and the ability to show us everything from custom text messages to predictive laptimes. You didn’t even need to tell it what track you were driving; when you turned it on in the vicinity of a racetrack, it would load in the information by default. Compared to last year’s race at Mid-Ohio, every one of our drivers took at least 1.5 seconds off their laps just by using the new AiM features in combination with some data-based coaching from Kevin. To my annoyance, it’s much nicer than the extremely expensive dashboard in my World Challenge Accord.
All of this stuff worked exactly as we expected. On Sunday, we went from last to first in our nine-car class by the one-hour mark. The Bridgestones came in for a lot of praise; they wore evenly and delivered fast laps.
"I run these tires on my street Miata, and I love them," said Travis Okulski, one of our drivers and the guy who runs this very website. "But the most impressive part is just how consistent they were. They already had a heat cycle or two in them when I went out, yet I turned my quickest lap just before pitting in for the end of my stint. They had great grip and were progressive and predictable when you overcooked it. And it was barely 40 outside. Imagine if it was warm?"
What didn’t work: the drivetrain. Our clutch release bearing exploded on the fourth lap of Saturday’s race. We needed a new clutch, pronto, so we called on , the famous Northeastern Ohio collector who owns every rare Japanese car . He brought it down from Cleveland. We attached it to our spare transmission and finished the race, only to discover that we’d sprung a leak in the radiator. An R&T reader who happened to be on hand drove back to Cleveland in a snowstorm to get the replacement from a 24-hour AutoZone. His return trip was slowed somewhat by the fact that a semi-trailer had blown over in front of him. It was that kind of weather.
On Sunday, we led our race until the transmission stuck in fifth. Time to build a “Greatest Hits” assembly of the old transmission and the new one. Amazingly, we fixed it in 72 minutes and got back on track. Our competition started to falter as well; all but one of the other cars in our class pulled in for one type of repair or another. The amazing K-swapped Fit discussed previously in these pages actually managed to shatter its left-side wheel and hit the grass running at triple digits; after saving the car and himself from the wall, driver Tommy Lydon wore the remains of the broken wheel as a massive Flavor-Flav-style necklace.
Right after we put our car back on track, the Racewife herself spun, possibly on an oil spot reported by our driver, and crumpled the Ferrari. The Bimmers behind her, previously resigned to another second-place finish at best, promptly fell to squabbling as their crew chiefs frantically rejiggered pit strategies. A few more cars hit the wall hard. Our MX-5 had a few incidents of its own, once of which required a quick drilling and reattachment of the driver-side rocker panel. If you’re reading this and you happen to be in possession of any 2006-2014 body panels or doors, let me know, would ya?
At the same time, A.J. Lepore’s Don’t Panic! Team was busily rebuilding their BMW 325i, which had lost an engine during Friday qualifying, using 90 percent of the original car and 10 percent of an E30 convertible that had been brought to them by the a local foreign-car scrapper. At first they thought they’d use part of the junkyard engine and part of their own; an all-night work effort through the snow had proven fruitless. The Frankenstein assembly wouldn’t run, So they took it apart and rebuilt the original junkyard engine, without a head gasket, and tried starting it. That didn’t work either.
Someone found a head gasket. The work continued through Saturday night. Jeff “” Bloch, the man who has built race cars out of planes, helicopters, upside-down Camaros, and sideways VW Buses, was both guest driver and chief mechanic. “I feel tricked,” Bloch laughed. “I paid to drive, but all I’ve done is fix the car. It’s gonna run, I’ll tell you that. COUNT ON IT.” With two hours left in Sunday’s race, they levered the rebuilt junkyard engine into the black Bimmer. It didn’t start. Speedy and A.J. swore, spat, and put their work gloves back on.
There was more on track. Signals got crossed. Voices were raised. A silver BMW pulled into its pit only to find it empty; the team was at lunch. A new-generation MX-5 Cup car, running second overall in class, ran out of gas and was towed into the pits, only to find that the team had no fuel ready. Someone grabbed a few jugs and ran to the trackside pumps with a credit card as the car fell down the running order. The Racewife transporter closed its doors and prepared for a dignified departure. A.J. rubbed his hands on an oil-black towel. A group of drivers in mirror-shined, custom-stitched OMP suits discussed market opportunities in tech stocks; on the other end of the garage, a crew member for one team realized in a conversation that he’d been indicted in his youth for the same felony as the crew member for another team.
With three laps to go, Air Force Major W. Christian “Mental” Ward made our final pass for position; we would finish 30th of 59 registered entrants and about 42 cars still running at the end. With two laps left to go, there was a roar from the garages: Speedycop had brought the old Bimmer to life. It stumbled past our pit and out onto the track, running on five or perhaps four cylinders. The crew of the second-place BMW M3 worried audibly about the old smoker’s chances of affecting their battle for position. Everyone else cheered.
Above: Don't Panic's E30 completes its only lap of the track.
“Mental” passed Speedycop’s ride on his way to the checkered flag. We waited for it to pass the tower, but the crooked-faced coupe wasn’t up to the challenge of a second spin around Mid-Ohio. It ducked into pitlane, blowing a blimp-sized cloud of blue smoke, then crossed the timing loop on its way to the paddock and registered one completed lap, approximately one minute and ten seconds slower than Racewife’s fastest time of the day. The crews and drivers ran to the pit wall for the finish as the old BMW rattled past behind them. We cheered the winners and the losers and everybody in between. Back in the garage, A.J. leaned back on the wooden bench and smiled. “Hell of a race,” he pronounced, and who among us could disagree?
There is one more AER race this year, at Summit Point. We won’t be there, but if you’re in the area you might want to stop by, either to lend a hand or just to wander the grounds with ears and eyes wide open. There are a few hundred stories at each and every one of these races, grown in the fertile soil found in the intersection of prosperity and disrepair, waiting for you to discover them, and perhaps to add one or two of your own.