Twenty-Four Hours Ago

Twenty-four hours ago, I

Paula Baker's Miata

This is me a couple of days ago. Photo by Connie Hudson.

was autocrossing Paula Baker’s Mazda Miata on a big slab of concrete in the middle of Nebraska. Now I’m back on the couch in San Rafael, typing where I normally type, wondering if any of this really happened.

I meant to blog about this experience every night in the hotel but fell asleep instead.

I suppose if 50,000 people can justify driving out to the Nevada desert to wear body paint and do drugs, 1200 sports car enthusiasts racing cars and Big Wheels in an airport runway in Nebraska makes more sense than it ever did. So credit Burning Man for giving us balance.

Many things happened this week. I’m too sleep deprived to try to tackle them right now. But we had the Ladies Luncheon on Monday, where 130 women racers gathered, for the first time in history, to talk about said history, like where we come from and where we’re going.

There were the Texas SPOKES Sports Car Club Big Wheel races every evening (until a wheel broke), negating any reason to leave the concrete to visit the rest of Lincoln. Only a couple of injuries were reported.

I know there were some tight races in the event itself, and I paid attention to none of them. I found people’s personal stories much more compelling, and most had nothing to do with autocross.

This was supposed to be my swan song, and now I’m not so sure. And it’s not just because I’d like to improve on spinning out on otherwise perfectly good runs. It’s because I just spent ten years away from my family. And I don’t know what the heck happened, but some of you got really old. The solution to this seems pretty obvious to me.

The question I have is how to do this without having it rule my life, as I did in the past. So I think I’ll just fix Lucy’s roof first, and deal with the rest as it comes.

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On The Road, Or: The Truth about the 948cc Lotus 7A

The curb jostles my eyes back open. My Dad steers us into another Texaco. Moths dance under neon beams of red and blue. Cars and Trucks! Save Like Mad! I smell a skunk.

“How fast does it go, Mister?” It’s always the same question. It’s the same kid, same blue coveralls, same squint under a mop of straw hair, same chewing gum.

“Two hundred miles an hour down the straight away.” My Dad always says that.

This time, back in the van, we call it the Great White Whale, I ask him. “Why do you lie like that? L’il Stroker (what we call the race car) only goes 80 miles an hour downhill, you said.”

“If I told him the truth, he’d be sad. Did you see how happy he looked when he waved goodbye?”

The traffic lights disappear behind us. Mumbling voices and the murmur of steel guitar keep us company through the dark of the desert.

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What’s Wrong with Autocross

This is my sister Maggy on the left, held by my mother Pat Kelly, race car driver, dispenser of honest, sage advice.

Ten years out of the sport has given me a fresh and accurate perspective of everything that is wrong with autocross. It’s not just one or two things, either, but too many to count.

It’s those stupid orange traffic cones, and how they’re arranged, like mostly in your way.

It’s a windy, cloudy Sunday afternoon in Marina, CA (ten miles north of Monterey). I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a bright yellow and purple Mazda Miata, slamming my head with the removable steering wheel. Paula Baker, who’s towed this D Prepared monster the six hours from Carson City, NV, just to let me drive it is trying to make me feel better.

“You look better,” she says, but not confidently.

“I don’t know what I’m doing!”

“It’s hard.”

“It’s totally hard.”

“This course doesn’t really flow.”

No, it doesn’t. It has too many cones in all the wrong places. I watch her wiggle her five-foot frame into this car, built precisely to her own measurements. “This bend in the roll cage was added just for my own elbow,” she explained earlier. She wrestles with a stubborn starter motor and a drained battery before taking off for her fourth and flawless run, three seconds faster than my personal best. Somehow, she makes the car dance, never lifting off the throttle in places where I thought I might collide with a pylon and explode.

I try to look at the bright side. I’m a beginner again. I can only improve. My fastest run of 42.5 was within a second of her first run. Three seconds, why, that’s a blink of an eye. For an alien with the head the size of Jupiter.

Paula and my Mom gather around me.

“It looks like you’re turning too soon,” Paula suggests.

Later, I’ll think about that and conclude it’s not that I’m turning in too soon; I’m driving too slow, which makes it look like I’m turning too soon.

“You just seem really violent and jerky with the gas pedal,” says my Mom. “I’m not really sure what you’re trying to do out there.”

I have always relied on my Mom to speak the truth, in the almost most loving of ways.

“I was watching the Olympics and thinking about you,” she told me earlier, as I was walking to Paula’s Miata parked in the grid. I haven’t hung out with my Mom in a parking lot in so long. I feel a warmth in my heart.

“I was thinking about all that time and effort those athletes put into realizing their dreams.”

“Yeah.”

“They might be talented, but more than that, they work so hard.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So much time and energy. A million hours.”

“I know.”

“Don’t expect much, is what I’m saying.”

Will there ever be a time when my mother isn’t right?

I don’t know what’s normal to expect. This isn’t like running or swimming where ten years out of practice, of course you can expect a loss of fitness. Is autocross a form of fitness? I’d imagine some rustiness, but shouldn’t it be like riding a bicycle? Wouldn’t it be realistic to think you’d pick up where you left off? Or if not, what is a typical loss of ability, and can it return? Like, in eight days?

I consider bright sides. My Mom and Dad are here. Paula is here. My boyfriend Craig is here. Olly the Dog is here. They’re rooting for me. And in spite of all the new faces, new generations even, of autocrossers, I see so many old friends, some whom I’ve known my entire life. The running gags continue exactly where we left off. I am surrounded by love.

“I’m sorry, did you say you’re going to Nationals?” says Howell. The last time I saw Howell, it was on a running trail near Mt. Tamalpais in Marin (where I live). It was random, never to happen again, but what stands out now is how quickly of us both stopped running upon seeing each other, to hide our shared lack of coordination.

Howell and I became friends at an event in Stockton in 1999 or so. I was spinning out, and I didn’t think he was going to run out of the way. So I gestured with my own hands, in an attempt to communicate the gravity of the situation. He would never let me forget this.

“Really, Katie?” he told me after the incident. “You really thought your car spinning out of control wasn’t enough indication of danger? Really?”

You’re going to Nationals?!” he says.

“I’m just going for fun,” I say.

He stops choking, and says, “Well, you weren’t that far behind Paula. You’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, just three seconds.”

His laughter is loud and spastic.

It is clear that my role at this year’s nationals in Lincoln will be different. I will not be a contender. I will be nowhere close.

I’m going for the laughs, the runzas, to drive first to warm Paula’s tires, to support this woman who is as significant in the history of autocross as my parents, who has come all this way just to see if I’d fit in the car.

And I’m going to say goodbye. Because grateful as I am for all the memories, the laughs, the friendships, and this amazing opportunity Paula has bestowed before me, I cannot see myself doing this again. I see myself falling back into my boring but good life. Craig and I talk about bringing out Lucy, my own Miata to autocrosses. Then we pay rent. Bills. We count our blessings that we have jobs. Sunday mornings, we go for breakfast and urban hikes instead.

I really want my Mom and Dad to be there at nationals. It’s the 40th Anniversary. They need to be there. I need them there. I don’t like this. But money’s tight, my Mom says. The trip’s so hard on Dad. We don’t ever really talk about why.

So now, I’m standing at the shore of this sea of cones, the wind’s slapping my hair in my face, and I’m watching my Mom squeal her Camaro around the turns. When the results come out, we’ll see that she beat me and my Dad in the PAX, so she obviously has no trouble finding her way. Her once dirty blond hair is now bright, curly gray. My Dad’s in his lawn chair, wearing his helmet waiting his turn, taking pictures, walker parked at his side. I flood out thoughts of the future and take in this moment, my Mom and Dad, the rebels they’ve always been.

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What the Heck Am I Doing

This Is My Boyfriend's Helmet

I don’t even own my own helmet. This belongs to my boyfriend, Craig.

It’s been a week since my first autocross in ten years, one week to go ’til the SCCA National Championships in Lincoln, NE, and my thoughts have shifted from what to wear to the awards ceremony to What the hell was I thinking.

“Ten years” isn’t accurate. I drove a friend’s Porsche Boxster once at a local event in 2003, and then another friend’s Mazda Rx-8 the following year. Last year, my boyfriend Craig and I brought his 1974 Mercury Capri to an American Autocross Series (think big, loud, fast American cars) in Marina, CA, and battled it out for slowest time of the day.

So it’s been a good ten years since I’ve cared.

It’s been ten years of running trails, learning languages, writing, learning how to race bikes, long distance swimming, and even sleeping in.

It’s been ten years since I’ve even noticed if I’ve cared or not.

This all started last January, in Facebook. Facebook! Heyward Wagner, SCCA Solo’s PR wizard, whom I’d never even met, asked me in a private message if I might go, that he was entertaining the thought of a “ladies luncheon” for the 40th Anniversary. It was going to be a big reunion,  he said. I’d see my extended family for the first time in all these years.

It sounded so neat back then. So, let’s jump a little bit ahead, to a month or so back from this moment. Now I’m addicted to connected on Facebook and I see all the neat autocross things coming through the pipeline. Never mind that I don’t autocross myself, still, these status updates and commentaries stir up all these emotions within me, plus memories of “greatness” swollen by nostalgia. From time to time, even I leave comments about driving tips and car set-ups, as if I what I have to say is still valid, as anything I ever had to say was valid (as I will question, sharply, later).

So as it happens, thanks to some good fortune, it turns out even I can almost afford to go. So, what the heck, I’m going to just put it out here on Facebook, I’m just going to see what happens if I write this, most of my autocross friends have probably hidden me anyway.

“Hey, just wondering, does anyone need a tire warmer at Nationals?”

Crickets.

Not a surprise. And then: “What’s autocross?”

“Nothing. Just this silly thing with cars around around pylons.”

“You’re crazy Katie Kelly!”

This is what I expected.

And then. Here. I’ll copy and paste it for you.

Paula Mixon Baker: Ron can’t make it this year. I’d love to have you as a co-driver.

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Going Home Again

Solo II Nationals, 1973
That’s me in the passenger seat. Standing from left to right are: my mom Pat Kelly, my cousin Nell Sprague, Richard O’Brien (editor at Sports Illustrated!) and my cousin Peter Sprague. I might have Peter and Richard reversed.

Two weeks from today, I will be on a plane to Lincoln, Nebraska, for the 40th edition of the SCCA Solo Nationals. I was once a regular, but haven’t been back since 2002. So this will be a homecoming, I guess, though my first time to Lincoln. This will also be my first time without one or both of my parents there after a lifetime of this. Something else that will make this seem odd is that for the last several years, I’ve hardly been driving a car, so yes, racing around orange pylons will seem strange, and how I know this I’ll get to a little later.

What people might not know is that I was there for the first round of the Solo National Championships in St. Louis in 1973. Back then it was called Solo II, the weaker younger sister of Solo I, or time trials on a track, which faded to nothingness due to lack of interest. Now Solo is all ours.

I wasn’t even four years old then, but I have some distinct memories of the National Championships: Somewhere in an empty Kansas plain, from the backseat of my dad’s C&H Sugar company Duster, with the family Lotus 7A in tow, I asked my mom if Grandma Cathy would be at Aunt Mary’s house, where we’d be staying. And she laughed and said, No, she didn’t think so, because St. Louis was a long way from San Rafael. And guess who answered the door, with with her loud cackle and her arms open wide, to hug my little sister Maggy and me. She surprised us all.

She died in 1996. I miss her so.

I also remember breaking up Kraft cheddar cheese slices into tiny squares in my Aunt Mary’s kitchen, my big cousins’ red hair, and getting in trouble in a Chinese Restaurant because I’d told everyone to stop talking so loud.

So I think you can see the lasting impression this historial event had on me.

I didn’t know that these National Championships were going to become a “big thing” with 1200 entries every year. Did anybody know this? Have I asked? No. I should.

I only know that my folks were excited about it, because autocrossing my Mom’s Lotus 7A was was their passion, and how they would define themselves until this day. Quite different from any of their own siblings or parents who were either very practical or artists, but mainly practical artists, but good at it and respected. My parents were the rebels. They were daredevils. They’d never sell paintings for $30,000, but both could pitch a car into an all wheel drift as well as Fangio. Before they met, my Dad dreamed of the roller derby; my Mom had been a downhill skier. They raced Austin Healeys. Between run groups on the hot asphalt of the Pleasanton Fairgrounds, their eyes met. They got to talking and exchanged pink slips.

When I was growing up, local newspapers turned John and Pat Kelly in to small town celebrities. They were the racers on our street, the family on the corner with the friends with the loudly painted sports cars who came to visit.

They were also members of an elite, invite-only band of drivers called  SCAT (Sports Car Autocross Team) who wore special shirts at events to distinguish themselves. Before The Wheel or North American Pylon, my mom produced a newsletter with her own illustrations on a mimeograph machine in the back bedroom. It was called Losers’ News. Everyone loved her for it, because she covered autocross events like they were real news. She made people feel important.

But what they were really known for was the merging of the decades’ old local autocross scene with SCCA, all in the name of supporting a national event that would at last legitimize autocross, a sport which evolved after World War II from gymkhana, a time trial event in parking lots in rickety British sportscars on skinny tires. This event, the Solo II National Championships, would at last put autocross on the map.

My memories of the 70s and 80s consist mostly of unsupervised play with other kids in parking lots across the country. (I consider these still my Golden Years. I didn’t then know the addictive qualities of autocross, that as much fun as it looks on the outside, once you decide to pursue it, how easy it is to lose site of what it is that attracted you to it in the first place.)

But while my sister Maggy and I built utopian neighborhoods for Matchbox cars in dirt, Solo II found tire sponsors. “Real” magazine coverage. Television news crews (who’d come once, see the cars go through the pylons one-at-a-time, and never come back.) There were mumblings of a newer sport on the horizon, called ProSolo, where maybe you could make a living at it. One year, British Leyland sponsored a drive-off at the end of one national championship in Texas, where all the class champions competed in the end in a TR-7 to crown the champion of champions.

I don’t remember who won that, but I remember the abandoned airport in 1977, with the corridors with broken class, dead escalators, and packs of grown ups looking at scoreboards posted on walls with cracked plaster. I remember a laundry mat and feeling fascinated by Texas accents. I remember the ostrich pecking on our window in the animal park.

These memories mean more to me than what came later, my own national championships, the travel, the challenge and personal liberation of competing in an Open class. These things aren’t what shaped me. Inventing characters and a code language in the bathroom with Kym Henry is. Or mimicking the roller skating skills of Rachel Hines (though not holding her baby brother, like she did). Or figuring out how to solve a Rubik’s Cube with Wendy Looman in Salina, KS. Wendy Looman and her brother Mark also introduced me to the language called Ubba Dubba, where you add a “b” sound to every syllable. This linguistic ability can sure make road signs on the 1500 mile drive home seem interesting. My parents have never forgiven them, but this spawned in me my own fascination with languages. Play has its place.

Later, I became supposedly a really good autocrosser (I question all of that now). But in 2002 I stopped. I’ll get to that sooner or later.  I let my SCCA membership drop. I unsubscribed from all the autocross email groups. It wasn’t my intent to leave at first, but to open the door to more experiences like the first phase of my autocross life, activities with maybe less structure.

So, I chose bike racing.

Moving right along, thanks to a pretty much random “status update” on Facebook, I’m back, if only for a little bit.

But today on an empty slab of concrete in Marina, CA, I learned, in the best yet crushing of ways, how hard autocross is, that my decision to go back to the National Championships in Lincoln Nebraska this year is likely not going to be like those last few times.

And I hope to learn that none of that matters.

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