There are few places that I'd rather be than behind the wheel of a high-power Mustang. More than just the adrenaline derived from acceleration and speed, I crave the pressure of competition, of being in the moment where you can win or lose, where you put it all on the line.
Dale's Tire Center in South Bend was kind enough to swap on our Michelin Pilot Sport tires
In nearly two decades as an automotive journalist and racer, I have competed in drag racing, road racing, karting, hill climbs, and other automotive contests, but none as grueling as the eight-day Tire Rack One Lap Of America. In this week-plus long contest, contestants drive over 4,000 miles, race balls-to-the-wall at all types of tracks, and sleep very little. OLOA is a rigorous test of man and machine, albeit one the average Joe can compete in. I accepted the challenge offered by Tim Wheeler of Roush Performance to compete in the 2012 OLOA behind the wheel of a shiny silver 565hp 2013 Roush RS3. Participating would provide excellent editorial and Internet fodder.
Brock Yates' OLOA began as the coast-to-coast Cannonball Run (which they made a movie about), but has evolved into an on-track racing event encompassing drag racing, oval track, skidpad, and road-course racing, with long transits between venues.
To share in this epic adventure, I called on MM&FF freelancer and owner of Track Guys Performance Driving Events, Jeff Lacina. "As a seasoned track driver and instructor, I've seen and driven on my fair share of race tracks and road courses," Jeff stated. "However, as an OLOA rookie (or lap puppy, as we were called by the veterans), the diversity of the tracks and the events in which we had to compete were like nothing I've ever experienced."
While the route changes each year, the OLOA format remains consistent. We visited 10 racetracks (with 18 individual events), and the score is derived from cumulative laps times from each event. Basically, the driver gets an out lap (or recon lap) to warm the brakes and tires (or learn the track, in my case), then you stop at the start/finish line. One at a time, the cars are given the green flag and run three flying laps. Since I hadn't been to a single venue, I had to learn the corners as I danced about at speed--not an easy task.
In all, we spent eight days racing around the country--we covered 4,043 road miles, ate the most lavish gas-station cuisine, and, at times, experienced sleep deprivation, and mental and physical fatigue. Our reward? Powering around famous racetracks, meeting amazing people, seeing our great country, and feeling the satisfaction of completing what has been called "the most grueling eight days of racing in the world."
Start Your Engines
Jeff and I picked up our mount in Plymouth, Michigan, at Roush Performance headquarters. Our home for the week was a silver Stage 3 Mustang packing 565 hp and 505 lb-ft of torque. It was boosted by an R2300 TVS supercharger, and had the enhanced Roush hardware that we've come to love, such as stiffened suspension, big brakes (we changed to Hawk racing pads), and 20-inch wheels.
Before heading out, Jeff and I had a briefing with 2011 OLOA competitors Jack Roush Jr. and Jay Velthoven. As you may know, Roush's other driver, Billy Johnson, won the OLOA the previous year. Being amateurs and total rookies of the event, Jeff and I set our goals on finishing the week, and then hoping for a top five in class.
With the back seat and trunk overflowing with gear, we made our way to South Bend, Indiana, home of Tire Rack, where the event would begin. South Bend is also the home of Notre Dame University, and by chance, Jeff and I got to take a stroll onto the famous football field.
By chance we ran into a fellow named Jeff, who handles the grounds at Notre Dame. Lacina a
After feeding our faces at a local watering hole that was slightly seedy, we spent the next morning at Dale's Tire Service swapping tires and applying the OLOA stickers to the Roush. The rules require you to purchase a set of tires from Tire Rack; you must finish on those tires, which are stamped "OLOA 12." Wreck a tire or wear one out prematurely and you're done. You get a pass if it's an unforeseeable puncture, but unless you purchased a spare and carried it with you, you're screwed.
The registration day was relaxed, but I could sense the energy and desire of the competitors to get on the track. The makeshift pits were littered with amateurs, seasoned track dawgs, and a few professional drivers waiting to sink their teeth into the competition. As for the vehicles, there were about 75 total, 14 in our class. They ranged from a gutted Honda CRX (driver Andy Hollis even swapped a race seat for a stock seat at every track), to a slew of professionally driven M-class Bimmers, to Vipers, Vettes, Mustangs, Camaros, and a gaggle of GTR's. Plus a sprinkle of factory-prepped rigs, such as a stripped-down turbocharged 540hp Honda Odyssey mini van, a slick SRT-8 Jeep, along with other specially prepped street-legal iron with built engines and huge spoilers.
Vehicles were categorized by price and engine size. With a base MSRP of $46,300, we slipped into the SSGT2 Big Bore class, the home for vehicles with an engine larger than 3.5 liters and costing less than $50,000. Vehicles were initially run in order of entry, but after the first day, the order was determined by scoring.
It was hugely beneficial to score big on the first three tracks. OLOA officials allow about six cars on track per group, so starting early meant finishing early. Finishing early meant we could hit the road quickly, and that's important when you have 350-to-600-plus-mile transits between tracks. There's a big difference between arriving at a hotel at midnight versus 2 a.m.!
- 6 a.m. Wake up, shower, shovel down whatever free breakfast the hotel offered, fuel the car, and get to the track.
- 7 a.m. Unload gear, walk the track, set tire pressure, torque lugs, decide who was driving first, set up video cameras, get in the zone.
- 8 a.m. Run first session; whoever wasn't racing would get photos, then attempt to rest (which was near impossible).
- 11 a.m. Find food, attempt more rest (often unsuccessful), check tires again for next session.
- 1 p.m. Run second session, return to pit area, slam gear in car (took about 5 minutes), plug destination into GPS device, hit the road (350-625 miles).
- 6 p.m. Refuel car, switch drivers, and eat crappy food.
- 10-12 p.m. Arrive at hotel, check in, wait for adrenaline crash, sleep.
Repeat for eight days!
Tire Rack's Wet Skidpad, South Bend, Indiana
This year's One Lap kicked off with a wet skidpad test for lateral grip. Tire Rack's 200-foot skidpad tested lateral g's, and we did two laps in each direction. Our score was based on the total time, which converts into mph and g-force. "How do you ever practice this?" Jeff stated jokingly.
You can pull more g's by keeping the car as close to the inside of the skidpad as possible without taking out a cone (resulting in a DQ for that event). Most rear-wheel-drive vehicles struggled, as just the slightest bit of aggressive throttle resulted in the front tires loosing grip and the car skating away from the inside edge. "Driving the wet skidpad quickly is a great deal more difficult than it looks," Jeff stated. Still, the Roush RS3 pulled 0.76 g, but we ended pretty far down the overall list (43rd of 75), and 4th in our group. The battle was on.
We had plenty of power on tap--565 to be exact--but we still averaged over 19 mpg, includi
In all, we traveled through 13 states and covered over 4,000 miles.
South Bend Speedway, South Bend, Indiana
After the shortest transit between venues (6 miles), we arrived at this nifty little ring. The track had character, meaning it was cracked and bumpy. "I've seen it on ESPN--the coverage is excellent," I jokingly told Jeff as we walked back to the pits to find the competition working hard on suspension. Actually, one Camaro owner was dialing in negative camber, like 2.5 degrees. Turns out, he did this at every track; then he put it back to zero for the road drives to preserve his tires. He also had a cage, a gutted interior, huge spoilers, and a built engine. Did I mention he was in our class?
Soon cars were making noise, two at a time and spaced appropriately. I planted my face on the weathered chain-link fence to watch. I was amazed how quickly the first guys were getting around and how little brake they were using. A grizzled, gray-bearded old-timer leaned in towards me: "My boy runs here all the time. Got the track record!" he clamored. "You want to go low [in the corners], low as you can, then open 'er up [meaning the steering, I assume]. Nail it right perfect [pause]... and you never stop turning left, just go round and round," he said matter-of-factly. Just then, a BMW ran wickedly hard off Turn 4, kicked up a wisp of dust, and everyone clinched up. "Did he hit?" one guy hollered. "Nope, just snatched the cone," said the old-timer. "Too wide," he said. "Too wide."
Just 10 minutes later, another BMW skimmed a mirror. This is serious business. I've seen enough. I thanked the old dude and jogged back to the Roush. I paired up with a black '03 GT--we'll run together. My heart was thumping as the gate flung open. The two fighters exited as we climbed in.
With only one recon lap, I had to push. I deactivated the TC and AdvancTrac, I sailed into Turn 3 and turned down to the bottom, just touching the brake to set the suspension. The Roush stuck well so I pealed off the apex, and shot up to the wall with the power on. I turned in a smooth recon lap, came to the line, and prepared to race the clock.
I ripped away hard on green. The powerful RS3 skipped the tires and chirped 'em in Second as I entered Turn 1. I breathed the gas, got it low, let it drift up, and rolled on the power with the Roush's tail on the edge of traction. The wall was coming fast, but there was no time to lift or do anything but drive the line. I ran on the ragged edge for three daring laps, and just like that it was over. Though I was on cold street tires, there was far more grip than I expected, and I went faster than I thought possible. I'd finally felt the Mustang at the limit, but glory was far from ours. I finished 31st overall, and 3rd in class. Ten minutes later, Jeff and I had the Stang packed and were heading to Joliet.
Autobahn Country Club Road Course, Joliet, Illinois
By 1:15 p.m., we'd completed the 114-mile drive and were ready for the third event of the day. We were jacked and ready to go, but due to a prior commitment by the track, we didn't get to run until nearly 6 p.m. (Sigh). Down time is a real mood-killer, and we sat around for five long hours. I did my best to rest. I laid down in the car, behind the car, and practically under the car at one point to avoid the sun. We were just four laps away from tackling the 568-mile haul to the far side of Iowa.
Finally we got the call and Jeff suited up. "Our first road course event was on the 2.5-mile, 12-turn course at Autobahn," Jeff stated. "It is relatively fast, has a nice flow, and has some corners that can hold more speed than you think they can--but ONLY if you have the car in the right spot and are prepared to put the power down in spite of what your eyes are telling you."
Jeff felt good about his run, but admittedly, he overcooked a corner and was being hard on himself. Nevertheless, we packed up the Roush and headed west. Thanks to smart phones and our friends who were scanning the Internet, we knew the results from each track moments after they were posted. When the news came in, we saw Jeff nailed it, scoring 13th overall and 1st in class!
Mid America Motorplex, Pacific Junction, Iowa
Rain! That was the theme of the morning at MAM. Jeff and I found a small overhang, just big enough to prevent our stuff from getting soaked, but we were damp, tired, and not too excited about running hot laps in the wet. We decided I would run first so Jeff could take advantage of the dry, considering he knew the layout. "The challenge at Mid America Motorplex is maximizing corner exit speeds on at least three of the turns, as the track features some very long straights," said Jeff. "Another challenging aspect of MAM is its flatness. With just 18-inches of elevation change, it can be difficult to see through the turns."
I'd never seen the track before, so my recon lap was sketchy at best. Thankfully, the sun was drying the track quickly. Wanting to maintain our upward climb in points, I dialed my brain back a notch and focused on running smooth laps.
By my second lap, I was closing heavy on a BMW 330i and I prepared to make a full-on racing pass. I launched off Turn 14 (a tight right-hander) that led on to the long straight. The Roush gained ground with every foot, and as I approached 130 mph (and the fast 90-degree right-hander) I inched past the German machine, late-braked off line in the wet, and dove into Turn 1 cringing! The Roush held, and I rolled on the boost and drove off, completing my laps without further drama.
At MAM, Jeff and I combined for a great score, which moved us up the chart. Our closest competitors were a pair of new modified Camaros and a Dodge Magnum with a professional race driver on board. With our adrenaline pumping, we slapped our gear in the Mustang and headed south towards Hallett, Oklahoma, just 425 miles down the road.
Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, Hallett, Oklahoma
When the scores were posted from MAM, we were elated to find the Roush Performance Mustang listed second in class. While winning was our secret hope, realistically, a top-five finish and bringing the car back intact was the main goal.
Hallett is a staple of OLOA, and this is the 10th year the race has been held here. It is tight, quick, and can bite you--hard. If there is a demon turn, it's Turn 9, a quick right-hander aptly named The Bitch. Jeff knows this place--he knows it well--and we knew a double win at Hallett would give us the lead. Having fun was one thing, winning was another. I am competitive, I like winning, so I benched myself and told Jeff to let it eat.
"Hallett's 1.9 miles of climbing and diving, twisting and turning asphalt is one of my favorites," said Jeff. "Being highly technical, it is a true driver's track, rewarding precision and car control above torque and horsepower." Of all the tracks we competed at during the 2012 One Lap of America, Hallett is the most demanding of the driver's attention. You have to precisely place the car in the proper position and use every inch of asphalt--if you don't, you crash. Just before Jeff went out, a Porsche went off entering The Bitch, dirt is flying everywhere, and he barely saved it. Seconds later, a GTR barreled off and slammed the barrier, but somehow backed up and continued. I was nervous because I knew Jeff would push hard. Jeff made it happen, though, holding his line and winning both sessions by a nice margin. We got the lead! Next stop--High Plains, Colorado, just 625 miles away.
High Plains Raceway, Deer Trail, Colorado
After a 10-hour transit, Jeff and I made it to Denver and the Strasburg Inn. It's been there since the 1800s and seemingly was never updated. It was late, well past midnight, and cold, about 34 degrees outside. We're in shorts and no one answered the door. This sucks.
I walk to the corner liquor store and query the nice lady inside. She says to go to the cottage in the back and bang on the door. Jeff hammers hard on the door. Finally a grizzled man pops out and asks what we want. "Um…we have a reservation," I sort of say. "Oh. Go around, I'll let you in," he barely mutters. It was freaky, and you can see lots of pictures of the place online (musclemustangfastfords.com). Jeff found a weird love note under his bed. I didn't get such a prize. Five hours later the sun was up and we slipped away quietly.
"High Plains caught many of the OLOA competitors by surprise, as in-car/on-car video (which many of us used to learn the tracks) did very little to highlight the very technical nature of the climbing and diving configuration, and the dangers of missing a braking or turn-in point even by a few inches," explained Jeff. Thankfully, we had a secret weapon--killer brakes and the supercharged 565hp 5.0 Roush engine.
Being at an altitude of 5,300-plus feet above sea level, the power of our Roushcharged 5.0 proved to be a big advantage. Helping us, a Camaro plowed off-track, knocking the fascia clean off. "One of the highlights for me was posting a faster three-lap time than a race-prepped Viper ACR...at the driver's home track nonetheless," Jeff stated. Again, we won both sessions somehow expanding our lead in class. Next stop, Nebraska... All aboard!
Motorsports Park Hastings, Hastings, Nebraska
The drive to Hastings wasn't terrible. We arrived in town in time to eat a real mid-western steak at a down-home joint named Bernardo's Steak House. We stayed in a real hotel and then attacked the track.
Hastings was the one track on the OLOA schedule that neither one of us had driven before, but by taking a pre-event walk of the track (as allowed by the rules), we got up to speed in short order. The corners had names, and one was Smooth Smitty. We figured this track would suit at least one of us. With our lead building, keeping the car on the track and pointed in the right direction was paramount.
Like MAM, this place is billboard-flat, requiring sharp focus to follow the track, especially considering our limited time there. It was also tight, so keeping a flow was important. The Roush was easy to drive here, and we used the rumble strips and all the pavement to maintain speed. Jeff and I put in smooth laps and finished ahead of the pack, growing on our lead.
Hastings Autocross, Hastings, Nebraska
"As part of their multi-discipline driving mentality, OLOA organizers set up a small autocross in the small, dusty parking lot at Hastings," Jeff explained. "The course was tight and didn't flow that well, but it was the same course for everyone."
Autocrossing a Mustang here proved to be an exercise in restraint of the right foot. With the limited traction, we concentrated on making penalty-free laps. We reached our goal--others weren't so lucky.
One Boss owner ran hot into a section of the course, locking the brakes, causing him to slide into an Armco barrier that protected an electrical box (see photo). In a strange incident, the Mustang's left front wheel and fender struck the Armco, tearing the horizontal beam away, causing the I-beam post to then rip the driver's door off the car. Fortunately the driver was okay--the Boss, however, was toast. It sucked for everyone, as no one wanted to see that happen.
We snuck out of Hastings' autocross 1st in class and 24th overall, but with the longest transit ahead of us--630 miles to Brainerd, Minnesota.
Not 30 minutes from the track, we encountered a not-so-nice police officer (nailed us for $75), got jammed in traffic from two major traffic accidents (not involving us), and endured a never-ending drive through South and North Dakota. Our saving grace was getting to visit my good friends Travis, Trennor, Lilly and Holley Gusso, in Sioux Falls. They refueled us with some real food, and we chatted for a bit before completing the drive. Hello, Brainerd, (2:30 a.m.) and good night.
Brainerd International Raceway, Brainerd, Minnesota
By the time we reached Brainerd, fatigue was setting in. Our bodies and minds were feeling the strain of the entire adventure and a mere 3 hours of sleep. This is where the long days and thousands of miles crunched down on us. It wasn't just a car race anymore. It was a battle against the miles ahead, the track, and ourselves. Words just can't describe it. I was eaten up by the effects of fatigue, sleep deprivation, and the emotions which pry on you constantly. Jeff was doing far better, so he took the wheel.
"Our stop at Brainerd was cruel on many levels," says Jeff. "Not only did it follow our latest night/morning arrival time of the event, but it also included four points-paying events at one track!" At this point, the Mustang was performing beautifully--better than us--so could we keep it together?
"First up was our three-lap attack of Brainerd's original 3.1 mile, 10-turn configuration," Jeff explains. "After barreling onto the dragstrip at 90-plus mph and running the entire 1,320 and most of the shut-down wide open, you brake for Turn 1 at Brainerd--it's the fastest right turn in North America, and the Roush RS3 swallowed it.
"This was the first track where we encountered the Ford-mandated 148-mph top-speed limiter, inserted as a safety measure due to the two-piece driveshaft. We compared top speed to Chris Smith, a British journalist we befriended, driving a LG prepped Camaro. He stated we gave up almost 9 mph at the fast end of the mile-long (yes, mile-long) front straight to the unlimited Camaros in our class. It didn't matter as we still smoked 'em, leaving Brainerd after all four events, including the dragstrip contest, with our lead intact." Tired and slightly shaken, we marched from Brainerd to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin--just 425 miles away.
Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
One of the best nights came at Elkhart Lake. The 8-hour drive was drama-free, and my good friend and MM&FF contributor Jim McIlvaine provided his stately vacation cabin for our use. He also left us this culinary wonder of a danish called Kringle, which I have determined I can survive on. I finally slept for more than three straight hours, and I felt refreshed for one of the biggest tests of the event--Road America.
"Road America represents the holy grail of race tracks," says Jeff. This 4-mile, high-speed monster has been in operation since 1958 and has seen its share of incredible racing... and incredible accidents. It is scary fast and one of the reasons I told Roush I would do this.
Being the last road-course time trials of the event, many teams were pushing hard to make up ground. Thanks to the points lead we had amassed, Jeff and I just needed to finish in one piece.
More than any other track, my heart raced as I sat staged on the grid. Both Jeff, and event promoter Brock Yates Jr., offered advice for running fast and safe.
I totally respected the dangers. We'd been hammering ourselves and the car all week--I didn't want to run out of brakes or talent. Still, I attacked and it was glorious. Not my overall lap times, which were mediocre, but the experience of being in competition at Road America.
On my second lap, after being flat out in Fifth gear, and while approaching Canada Corner, I experienced huge brake fade. I pumped… then pumped… then pumped… and finally got a pedal, just in time to keep it on the pavement. Way off line and with my emotions maxed, I dialed it back, ran my last lap, and finished fourth in class. I didn't wreck, or even go off. Others weren't so lucky. Not long after my session, a seasoned veteran of the OLOA barrel-rolled a Cadillac CTS-V wagon. The car, as you can see, was totaled--thankfully the driver walked away unscathed. I was relieved I had tippy-toed around this joint.
Still catching my breath, I had some of the best track food ever. On a recommendation of a friend, I had my first cheese curd and I am now an addict! Does anyone sell these delights in Tampa?
The worst incident of the event occurred at Road America, where a brake failure caused thi
Road America is a work of art. "With its massive, horsepower-eating straights, we ran up against the computer-controlled speed limiter, again, this time at three places on the track! With outstanding corner exit speeds and the power to get us launched down the next straight, we spent significant amounts of time on the limiter," said Jeff. "Personally, Road America is where I began my performance driving career 25 years ago," he added. "So it was fitting that the last track event of our first One Lap of America was at the very same track where I was first infected with the performance driving disease.
"On an equally memorable note, I will always remember where I was when I learned of Carroll Shelby's passing," Jeff said. "I had just completed my session when Evan shared with me the news of Shelby's death."
"What an emotional roller coaster that day was. Our results at Road America essentially assured us of a class win, which brought elation, though the news of Shelby hit us both hard, especially considering the fatigue and accomplishment of essentially sealing the deal at this historic racetrack.
"It was only fitting that we venture into the village of Elkhart Lake, where I gave Evan a quiet, reverent tour of historic Stop-Inn at Siebken's, a watering hole famous for hosting race drivers from around the world during their race weekends at Road America."
Jeff and I found a painting of Carroll Shelby in there. He was smiling. And with that, there were just three things to do--drive the 234.7 miles to South Bend, run the dry skidpad at Tire Rack, and collect the trophy.
Tire Rack's Dry Skidpad
The final points-paying event was a competition on the dry skidpad. By this time, most teams' tires were in less-than-new condition, so posting a fast time required balancing the front grip and preventing the car from stepping out--at least for the rear-drivers.
Since Jeff made circles in the rain, it was my wheel to turn in the dry. I mustered a tight series of laps and clocked a 0.97g average, eclipsing over 1.0g in the counter-clockwise direction, which sealed our victory in the 2012 One Lap Of America.
Elated, tired, and proud can only begin to describe our feelings. "Once again, I think we surprised a lot of teams with a solid performance," Jeff says.
Hot on our heels was this Camaro, prepared by LG Motorsports and driven by British journal
We were also chased by Andy Stallworth in this highly modified Camaro.
After eight days on the road, Jeff and I were crowned champions of the 2012 One Lap Of Ame