It has been said by many that SCCA’s Solo events are a mere step up from speeding through the Target parking lot and that they don’t include the thrill that comes with driving 100 mph around the local racetrack. What those people fail to mention is the fact that they’ve never tried competing in a Solo event; either that, or they did and somehow managed to end up toward the bottom of the overall rankings. My point is, one of the most often overlooked genres of motorsport to the average youth enthusiast is SCCA’s Solo program.
With event entry fees priced in the $10–$20 range, the initial appeal is high for Solo. Many top drivers in series ranging from ALMS, World Challenge and IndyCar—all the way down to grassroots time attack and HPDE drivers—got their start in SCCA Solo. The low initial cost, safe event format and the uncontested spirit of competition that comes with a Solo event get even the biggest speed freaks addicted. So the question is, Just how serious does Solo get? As if finishing last in a local Solo event wasn’t enough, I decided to take the ultimate beating by attending the 2008 SCCA Solo National Championships in Topeka, Kansas, and find out for myself.
The weapon: an all-original, unmolested Championship White ’98 Acura Integra Type-R. In a series where drivers buy and sell cars yearly in order to have the most competitive advantage, the Type-R is no different, given its dominance in SCCA Solo’s D-Stock category. In 2007, 41 cars entered the D Stock class at the Solo Nationals; 17 of those entrants were Integra Type-Rs, probably making up the majority of the remaining Integra Type-Rs in the United States. Using SCCA’s rulebook as a guideline, modifications for the D-Stock class are as follows: Koni replacement shocks, after-cat exhaust system of your choice—a Fujitsubo setup in my case—grippy brake pads and even more-grippy tires.
Tires are the key factor in winning any class in SCCA Solo. With the usual exception or two, as always, tire selection and tire sizing in Solo is paramount over everything else in a car’s preparation—shocks, engine and so on. With Stock class rules having stipulations for only a tire’s DOT rating and the utilization of the OEM wheel width, the trick is simply finding the largest tire that will physically fit on that wheel. In my case, 225/45ZR15 Hankook Z214 DOT-legal competition tires are used on the front of the Type-R, while smaller 205/50R15 Hankooks are used in the rear, in hopes of giving the FWD car more rotation around tight corners. After a few weeks of planning, a few trips to ScienceofSpeed Racing to get the Integra Type-R sorted out for a 2,500-mile road trip and, more importantly, the 2008 SCCA Solo Nationals, the adventure begins!
Very few things will get a person out of bed this early in the morning after having driven 1,200 miles the day before—racing, a burning house and an early morning flight are about all I can think of. It’s bitterly cold outside, the temperature is in the 50-degree-Fahrenheit range, it’s still dark and the wind is blowing a solid 20 mph. Today is the one and only practice day on the Heartland Park skidpad, so I didn’t have much of a choice but to get up and endure the poor conditions of both myself and the outdoors. The Hankook tires needed to be scrubbed in and I needed all the practice I could get.
Walking into Solo Nationals for the first time sure is an eye-opener. Seeing what lengths people go to in order to make a competitive Solo car is amazing—rear wings more suited to a sprint car, giant 285- and 305-width tires stuffed under makeshift fender flares, people covering tires in plastic wrap to keep them clean, pit crews . . . the list goes on. “Hard-core” describes the majority of the cars at Solo Nationals, and I was feeling rather intimidated for the first half of the day.
Once the Sunday practice was finished, I was left feeling a bit depressed and frustrated at the thought of having to drive for two more days on the Heartland Park surface. Most drivers spent the practice slip-sliding around, often spinning out, and more just trying to keep their cars pointed forward than actually working on driving or car setup. The cold temperatures and dirt that swept across the skidpad during the previous day’s rain left the racing surface especially slick. I managed to get three decent runs in, which were only good enough to scrub the stickers off the Hankooks.
High noon during a day off from racing at the Solo Nationals can only mean one thing: BBQ lunch at Pat’s Pig on Topeka Boulevard. The restaurant wasn’t difficult to find either, being that it’s about a mile down the road from the event site and there were no less than 30 stickered-up Solo cars on questionable “street-legal” tires parked out front along the curb. Make no mistake, this was the most leisurely part of the day; it was all business after lunch.
At a typical regional Solo event around the United States, a driver will preview the course by walking it, perhaps two to four times. At Topeka, with a Solo National Championship jacket on the line, most drivers spend the entire day walking the course. The format was simple: the East course on the left and the West course on the right. On the first day of competition everyone drives one of the two courses. On the second day, everyone switches sides and drives the remaining course. I was slated to start on the East course on Tuesday, so I walked around the course about 12 times the day before.
What amazes me most about this event is the fact that it feels like work. Everyone wakes up early to take their cars through tech inspection, walk the course, prepare the car, attend one of the many seminars and do one of the many Solo-related errands that keep a person busy for the entire day. After walking the course for the full day, the business of the night was the Evolution School seminar, where the school’s top-level instructors spent the evening giving a presentation on the course layouts. Driving lines, braking points, visual references and vehicle dynamics and how they pertain to the upcoming courses for Nationals were all discussed, followed by a Q&A session from the audience. Remember that the courses setup for competition for the week have never been driven before, by anyone, so theoretical discussion and analyzing about the courses is about all one can do to have the best chance.
I feel like I’m setting a record for the number of times in which one can wake up before the sun rises! This day is for good reason, however, as it’s the first day of competition for me and the Integra Type-R in D-Stock. I arrived at the site extra early to walk the course a couple more times before diving in head first for the competition runs.
The starting grid for D-Stock was about as I expected—mostly all Integra Type-Rs making up the 40-car field, with a few Cobalts, Audi TT and BMW 135 racers thrown in the mix. Given the nature of the Stock class Solo rules—with limits on alignment and wheel width—naturally, some cars will be favored over others, and that has long been the reputation Solo has. Buying “the car for the class” isn’t just ideal, it’s necessary to win. The B-Stock grid of more than 40 cars is almost entirely comprised of Mazda RX-8s. Even in the Street Prepared categories, Mazda Miatas are the car of choice in C-Street Prepared, while the Lancer Evolution and Subaru STi are the top-two picks for B-Street Prepared. Walking through the grids on the first day of competition was interesting, but a little disappointing at times because it seemed more like spec-class racing than anything else.
After a slice of pizza and a few hours of watching the competition, my turn came around. I strapped myself into the car—palms sweaty and my head nearly spinning after having reviewed the course in my mind at least a hundred times. Some people have rituals before lining up for their competition runs: mentally reviewing the course, looking at a course map, breathing exercises, praying and so on. My ritual of mentally talking crap to the other competitors didn’t pay off, as by the end of the third run I was more than 2 seconds behind First Place. On any level, 2 seconds is a good distance. At the Solo Nationals—where, in this case, first and second place were separated by only a tenth of a second—2 seconds is an eternity.
Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me on Wednesday. As four-time B-Stock champion Jason Isley once told me, “Everyone’s going to try and be a hero on Day 2.” True, indeed. While his comment was more in reference to people’s efforts being overdone, usually resulting in a big failure on Day 2, my goal was to be a hero and manage to keep my driving in check.
Day 2 used the second of the two courses and favored my background of driving: road racing. The first day’s course was littered with slaloms, high-speed transitions and some insanely technical bits that only reward the most seasoned autocrossers in the country. Dare I say Day 2’s course was “easier,” typically in an autocross setting, however, large sweeping turns instead of tight, twisty transitions usually does mean easier. I was hoping to capitalize on my road racing habits and translate them into some sort of time improvement.
The second day at Solo Nationals is the toughest by far. People whom I talked to just the day before, were less social and more serious, as it all comes down to the final runs. Usually if you’re in a situation such as me, it’s time to just wing it and go for a fast run. For the drivers who are in the top five after the first day, the final runs are the most intense—perhaps the most rewarding, or the most disappointing.
My theory worked—the wider, more open course on Day 2 felt natural to me. The Integra Type-R was hooked up so well that the inside rear tire was lifting 6 inches off the ground due to all the grip of the Hankook tires. My first run was the “hero” run of the day—a no-holds-barred attempt at a fast lap. After running the first lap and realizing my mistakes, the second run was just a conservative, smooth and clean run with no hit cones to ensure a solid time for the day. The second run would stand as my best, less than a second off the leader’s fastest time.
With the large gap from the Day 1 finish, my overall position in the bottom half of D-Stock surely wasn’t one I’m interested in remembering for any length of time, but it was important to realize the competition level of the drivers who attend the SCCA Solo Nationals.
The experience at Topeka is what motivates people to work endless hours preparing cars and working hard at local events for the other 51 weeks of the year. There’s just something about watching the competition rise to the challenge, motivating the inner racer in everyone who attends Solo Nationals. Parking lot jokes aside, the Solo National Championships is an excellent, and often humbling experience for drivers coming from all types of backgrounds. If you’ve ever taken an interest in Solo with your local club, I dare you to try Solo Nationals for yourself.