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.