The Sports Car Club of America puts you in the driver’s seat
It’s a hot, dry day at the Hawthorne Metropolitan Airport when I climb into the passenger seat of Edy Eddins’ shiny black Subaru Impreza. I strap on my loaner helmet and buckle my seat belt. Eddins, a 36-year-old man with blond hair and a goatee, steers the car carefully through the parking lot and out onto the tarmac, coasting slowly up to the starting line to wait for the signal to go.
All I can see are small, orange rubber cones. There must be a couple hundred of them out on the tarmac, placed in twisting patterns that I can barely decipher. With the windows rolled down, I can hear an announcer tell the small crowd of onlookers that this will be a demo run that won’t be recorded for scoring.
“Why don’t you put her in a fast car?” a male voice calls out from the crowd.
Eddins laughs and responds with an appropriately dirty gesture. Finally, the announcer gives us the go-ahead. The Subaru’s engine revs up to an angry roar, and the car shoots forward into the sea of cones.
In the next minute and 31 seconds, Eddins shows me what it’s like to be a member of the Reno Region Sports Car Club of America. Even though he’s pushing the car at only 80 percent of its capacity for this demo run, it feels as if the Subaru is flying. We jam through straight-aways, slide through slaloms and brake hard into tight turns that make me cling to the door handle for dear life.
Before I realize it, the ride’s over. I’m alive and still in one piece. And I’m totally pumped to do it again.
If you think only professionals can do this type of driving, think again. The roughly 65,000 members of the SCCA are amateurs, regular guys and gals with a need for speed. The local chapter of the SCCA, of which Eddins is director at large, boasts a membership of about 230 speed freaks, any of whom could be your neighbors, co-workers or friends. And they’re not all dumping thousands of dollars into super-charged modified racecars, either; Eddins’ swift little Subaru is the same car he drives to work every day.
“Anybody can do it,” Eddins says. “We have a gentleman who showed up to one of our races in Carson City who had a 1962 Jaguar. And it wasn’t like a nice, restored Jaguar. The thing had seen 38 years’ worth of driving. And he showed up in that on his regular street tires, and he drove around the course and had a blast, and he’s come back a couple of times.”
Other drivers have shown up in Honda Accords and Civics, Volkswagen GTIs and even pickup trucks.
“I guess if a guy really wanted to come out here in a Suburban, he could,” Eddins says. “But it’s really about passenger cars.”
The type of competition the local SCCA chapter focuses on is called Solo II, also known as autocross.
“We set up mock road courses on large pieces of asphalt—usually we use municipal airports [or] large parking lots—and everybody runs for time,” Eddins explains. “You’re not out here rubbing one car against another. There’s only one car on any section of the course at any given time. You’re strictly running for time, strictly against the clock.”
During a two-day event, you get about half a dozen runs on the course. At the end of the event, your times are compared with other cars in your class to see who’s the fastest of them all. Your times are also compared against cars not in your class, using a handicapping system called PAX to even out the playing field, much as in bowling or golf.
In a nutshell, if I pit my Ford Taurus against a fully race-prepared Dodge Viper, it wouldn’t necesarily matter how much faster the Viper is; the winner is the driver who handles the course best.
But just how fast will you be going?
“This course is actually the fastest course that I’ve driven with this club in a long time, and I think my top speed was about 85,” Eddins says. “There are some sections that are real fast … but from a safety standpoint, what we do is say, ‘We’ve got this really long straight section. Let’s make this a slalom.’ So we have to slow the car down, because we don’t want people going too fast and losing control. It would be fun to get out there and go all out, but again, we want to keep it safe.”
Safety is extremely important to the SCCA, Eddins says. To protect both the drivers and their vehicles, a long list of precautions must be taken before tires ever hit the pavement.
“Let’s say that you showed up today and you wanted to race,” Eddins says. “The first thing that has to happen is your car has to pass a tech inspection. We check the tires; we check the bearings; we check under the hood to make sure it’s a safe car to be out on the track. Once that’s done, nobody’s allowed on the course without a helmet. If you don’t have your own helmet, we have loaner helmets that we provide. … You’re not allowed on the course without proper safety belts.
“And then, past that, there are course workers all throughout the course as you’re driving around, and if they see an unsafe situation, we have radios. We call in and say, ‘Stop all the cars, there’s some oil on the track, or there’s some debris out here we’ve got to get cleaned up.’ Because the bottom line is, if it’s not safe for the car to be out there, it’s not safe for the workers, and we don’t want to risk damage to the car [or] damage to the person.”
Eddins says that since he started attending SCCA competitions in college, he’s seen only one competition-related incident that required medical attention.
“Yesterday was the first ‘incident’ that I’ve seen this whole season,” Eddins says. “A guy had a Corvette—actually, he just got the car Friday—and he drove it off the course into a fence over here, a chicken wire fence. He wasn’t injured. The car sustained a little bit of cosmetic damage. But the number of incidents is very rare.”
Eddins sounds convincing, but I’m still worried about screwing up the car I depend on to get me to work every day.
“The first thing that guys tell me when I invite them out is, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to tear my car up,’ “ Eddins says. “If you get out here and you drive your car and you go nuts, the worst thing that’s going to happen—in most situations—is you’re going to hit a little rubber cone. You’re not going to slam into a wall or hit a light pole, because we use large open stretches of pavement. I mean, the worst thing that could ever happen out here is you hit a rubber cone and you might go off into the dirt a little bit.”
Eddins also says that the wear and tear on your brakes and tires is only slightly more than normal driving. After all, he reminds me, you’re on the course for only about a minute or two at a time. For five runs, even the slowest driver will log only 10 minutes of driving. The fastest drivers put only about six minutes of extra stress on their vehicles.
While I’m no longer concerned about damage to my body or my car, I’m still worried about the Idiot Factor. I imagine myself out on the course, plowing down cones in my Mom-Mobile while going a laughable 40 mph. How do I learn the skills I need to compete?
“The first event every year we have an autocross school, and usually halfway through the season for the guys who maybe came in late or want a refresher course. We try to do two schools every year,” Eddins says. “The schools cover the main elements that you’ll see out on the course. They cover braking exercises; they cover slalom exercises; they cover turning exercises.
“And this year we actually had a skid pad set up, which is where you put your car to the limits, you put it into a turn, and you stand on the throttle to see how fast you can get going before you lose control. And that’s really important to know: At what point am I in control, and at what point am I out of control?”
Eddins says you can benefit from autocross school even if you never choose to compete.
“We have a lot of people who show up just to do the school, because what you learn in the school you will definitely use out in the streets,” he says. “There’s an instructor who rides on every pass, if you want him to. He’ll get in the car with you, [and] he’ll say, ‘OK, the last time we went through the slalom, here’s the things that you may want to correct. [He’ll] show you where to brake, show you where to pass. … Every time I do a school, I learn a little bit more.”
The SCCA also offers mentors, who will guide first-timers through their initial competition and answer all their questions. Younger drivers, ages 16 to 25, can sign up for the SCCA Speed Freakz program. (All drivers and riders under 18 must have permission from both parents to participate.)
Speaking of young drivers, Eddins says joining the SCCA is a great alternative to illegal street racing, which has gained a lot of publicity lately thanks to movies such as The Fast and the Furious. He says that many illegal racers simply don’t know they have another outlet.
“If they want to drag race, they’ve got to go to Fallon,” he says. “If you go to Carson City, they have street stock classes, but you’re banging fenders with other guys, and you don’t want to do that. So I think that a lot of people—in an effort to see, ‘Am I faster than you?'—they engage in illegal street racing, and obviously we don’t want to encourage that. It’s not safe. It’s not sanctioned, and in the real world if you’re out there street racing and you have a wreck, it’s going to take forever for emergency crews to find you.
“There are a lot of us, if we find guys who are doing that, we’ll stop them and say, ‘Hey, look—I know you love to drive. This isn’t the best way to do it. Come on out here and join us and see what it’s like.’ “
For those of you who think fast cars are only for boys, Eddins is quick to point out that a large portion of the local SCCA’s membership is made up of women.
“A lot of times I think that ladies would like to come out and do this, but they may feel like, ‘Well, I don’t want to be the only woman out there driving,’ “ Eddins says. “But we have a large contingent of female racers too, both in everyday street cars and fully prepped racecars. So, young to old, male, female—it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of competition out here, and you’ll have a lot of fun.”
Eddins says the stereotype of swaggering drivers full of machismo is largely a myth these days.
“The reality is, there’s a lot of camaraderie too,” he says. “If we have a guy out here, if something goes wrong and his car breaks, there’ll be a dozen of us trying to help him get back going, even though he may beat us today. … It’s a friendly competition. It’s not cutthroat. I’m not going to go out here and let a little air out of this guy’s tires—although I’ve threatened to do that a couple of times to the one guy who keeps beating me.”
“But I’d never do it,” Eddins says, pausing for effect. “He checks his air pressure every run.”
One of the female drivers you’re likely to meet at a local event is Sue Orvic, a 58-year-old Bay Area resident who travels to the area for almost every competition. Orvic’s driven her hunter green Audi TT Roadster on such famous tracks as Laguna Seca, Sears Point and Thunder Hill, and she’s only in her third season of competition. She says she joined the Reno-area club because “they’re the nicest people in the whole world,” but she jokingly questions her fellow members’ sanity.
“Everybody came many hundreds of miles to get [to Hawthorne],” she begins. “The Vegas group is what, five or six hours? Reno is a couple of hours. I’m six hours. Everybody’s staying in a hotel, for the most part, at least two nights. All the meals, all the expensive cars, for how much time?
“We get seven runs all weekend. Let’s take the slowest run. The slowest run is less than two minutes. Seven times two. Fourteen minutes of time out there to spend thousands of dollars! Are we crazy people? … It’s not like golf, where you’re out there for four or five hours. At least you get your money’s worth.”
But Orvic says she’s not “crazy” enough to go wheel-to-wheel against other cars, which is why she enjoys the timed individual runs of Solo II.
“I never raced anything in my life, and to start this when I started, to be able to do as well as I’m doing—knock on wood—is cool,” she says. “And for me to think about, on a high-speed track at 100 miles an hour or whatever, trying to stay on the line and have somebody else want me off the line because they want that … Oh, I don’t think so! I’m very competitive, so it could get pretty ugly out there. And I love my car.”
Orvic says she also likes Solo II because of the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of the sport.
“Usually, the course is not the same on Saturday and Sunday. Usually, it’s one way one Saturday, and then we reverse it and do it backwards on Sunday, which makes it brand-new,” she says. “Part of this sport is learning this stuff really fast, because this course, we pick up the cones and it’s never going to be the same again. So part of it is not just your skill at driving; it’s also trying to read something very rapidly that’s going to disappear.
“It’s not like what’s going on with NASCAR today: one track, round and around and around, which takes an enormous amount of ability but a totally different kind of ability. An oval is an oval. This stuff, you need to learn it today, and then the next time you get there it’s a whole different course.”
Orvic looks at me pointedly.
“You would love it."