This race makes Le Mans and the Mille Miglia look tame. It has more drama contained within it than five years of daytime soaps combined. The competition is as close as a Nextel Cup finish at Charlotte. The speeds are maximally illegal. The cars and trucks they race here are a polyglot lot, from bone-stock to full-tilt. Bless 'em all, the long and the short and the tall.
Every year, dozens of racers convene somewhere to run Brock Yates's One Lap of America event, the one that started 25 years ago as the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, or simply The Cannonball. Race from the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, as fast as you can, run whatcha brung. Yates and Dan Gurney were busted in a Ferrari for going 175 mph on public roads. Three movies, all of them bad, were based on The Cannonball Run, and many a story was born. But after a handful of Cannonballs, Yates, author, raconteur, race-car builder and restorer, sailor, bar owner, and country squire, the longest-standing writer at Car and Driver magazine at 49 years, decided to tone it down a notch.
The One Lap of America concept was born, a week or more of timed competitions at seven or eight different venues, on a different road route every year. For amateur racers, tuners, engineers, tire companies, medical doctors looking for stress relief, and the poor, twisted people known as Lap Dogs, those who run it year after year after year, this is the annual equivalent of the Indy 500. A day or more to get there on either end, eight days of consecutive competitive events ranging from wet and dry skidpads to drag racing to road course timed laps on some of the toughest road courses in America. And you get no points for anything that happens on your transit legs. Unless it's points on your license. Just be in pit lane when your group runs, or take a DNF for that round. So what if you get a late start and the next track is 1,327 miles away and you have to be there by 0830 the next morning. What are you, some kind of wimp?
All you need to enter is $2,100, a good, fast car, plenty of driving talent, no particular need for extended periods of sleep, and the following: SVRA license, physical exam, single-layer driving suit, Snell-approved helmet, fire extinguisher, and road flares. Your car, which must be street-legal, licensed and ride on DOT tires sold through Tire Rack, will be inspected by professionals. Trailers are allowed, but support/tow vehicles are not. You must finish on the tires you start on. If it sounds too easy, you read it wrong.
The 2004 One Lap of America, which started at The Tire Rack's headquarters complex in South Bend, Indiana, was the toughest one yet devised by Brock Yates, his son Brock, Jr., known as Brocker, rally master Jon Davis, and their band of merry men and ladies. The One Lap crew splits into two squads and does every other event, flitting about the USA in a fleet of borrowed cars and SUVs from the sponsor, BMW. The drivers have no such luck.
The rest of us have only a few hours to get from place to place. In a flash, the stops go by: South Bend Topeka Pikes Peak Infineon Las Vegas Pueblo Hallet Road America South Bend.
This year's between-track road mileage averaged over 700 miles, 5,628 miles in 8 days, with a late start each day and side trips for eating, fueling and generalized getting lost, about a 6,500-mile week from door to door. A calculator will tell you that this adds up to high stress.
Oh, and of course, you have to drive your ass off at every track, every round, every day. No spins, no straight-offs, no mechanical problems, no late braking, no slip-ups at the drags, or you see your score headed for 80th. That's right, 80 teams of loons, ne'er-do-wells, polercherontroons, churls and boys and girls showed up this year, almost two Nextel Cup fields.
The European contingent was very, very strong this year, as exemplified by nine Porsches, a dozen BMW's of every shape and size, a trio of new Minis all in bright livery, a cluster of VWs, a couple of Audis, and not a single Jaguar, Ferrari or Maserati this year. Not very good on this event, usually. A Ford GT40 replica with a very strong Ford V8 came this year, along with Porsche factory racer David Murry in a new GT3.
After one event, the wet skid pad at Tire Rack, we could see the cream of the crop rising: Mark DaVia and Drew Wikstrom in a worked silver Porsche 996 TT, two-time winner Ron Adee and brother Pat in a Dodge Ram truck, David Murry in a Speed Yellow GT3 with a Boston journalist along for the ride, Roy Hopkins from New York in a wicked-fast blue BMW M5. Veteran Lapper Paul Gerrard was in a lightened, 400 bhp Mitsu Evo 8.
Five miles from Tire Rack, the 300,000-miler Mercedes-Benz 190 2.3-16 of Michael Sokalski out of South Jersey blew a trans, first casualty of the event. He dropped it off with AAA, rented a Mercury Mountaineer SUV for $179 for the week, went to every subsequent event, retrieved his Mercedes for the final event at The Tire Rack some thousands of dollars later, and finished One Lap.
Next day, David Goodman's tasty old 930 Turbo lost its transaxle, replaced at a cost of $4,000; David and co-driver Keith Ibarguen from Massachusetts missed a day's events, but carried on and finished. The Ford GT had to have it's a/C removed to fit a better fuel system at Topeka, so for the rest of the week, the two-man crew used an open right-side door, a roll of paper towels and bungee cords to let cool air into the car. But they finished.
On the second day at Topeka, which included two road-race rounds, an all-out quick-elapsed-time run, and a bracket drag race, there was more attrition. A new Mercedes S55 AMG driven by first-time One-Lappers (called Lap Puppies) Jim and Carter McClelland crashed into the fence at the end of the Topeka drag strip and retired from the event with severely wrinkled sheetmetal and one set of hyperextended tendons.
We got our ride, a brand new Mercedes-Benz E 55 AMG with the panorama roof and every other E-class option known to man, up to 145 mph on U.S. Route 50 West across Nevada on the way to Infineon, the track formerly known as Sears Point.
What a beautiful car it was for covering America between races. It ran 12.65 in the quarter-mile at 117.50 mph, sixth quickest car in the entire field, for added bonus points. At the tracks, it gave us enormous torque coming off the corners, the flexibility and convenience of paddle shifting, and room for three persons, three laptops, soft clothing for three for eight nights, two helmets, two sets of camera gear, a mandolin, two boxes of spares, tools and cleaning supplies, about 100 CDs, and a constant flow of road food and highly caffeinated liquids of every flavor and color.
We got to see a full moon rise three nights in a row, hover over our line, and move on. We saw mountainscapes at sunset that would bring a tear to your eye. And, every day, in every way, we got to experience the thrill, the challenge, and the opportunity of the open road, all the while eating some of the worst food imaginable. Except for the Ybarra family's Mexican cuisine in Guymon, Okla.
Mark DaVia and his co-driver Drew Wikstrom held up better, drove faster, and beat up their car least, so they won this year's One Lap, by a good margin, in their silver Porsche 996 Turbo full of demon tweaks. David Murry was third in the GT3. Neil Simon and Woody Hair won the GT1 Small-Bore class with their red M Coupe. William and Margaret Caswell won the GTS Small-Bore class with their M3. Roy Hopkins, Adrienne Hughes and Nancy Becker won the Luxury Sedan class with the hot M5. Glen Clarke and Louis Frlan III won Vintage Foreign with a '79 Porsche 911 droop-nose. Butka and Larson won Retro Car with their Mini Cooper S. In short, the Europeans cleaned up.
We did not win this year with our Flying Percheron. We were 17th overall out of 80 cars, and quickest car in the Luxury Sedan class (we've won twice before, once in a BMW M5 and once in a Mercedes-Benz S 55 AMG), but we sure had a good time.