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Open Track Challenge 2002 -- Pat and Mark's Vegas Vacation

Well, its all over, and this wraps up another great automotive racing adventure, competing at 7 tracks in 7 days.  We are still trying to put it in perspective what we have done.   Keep in mind we had never driven ANY of these racetracks before, and were competing against locals that had.  And the rules allowed you to modify your car in any way, and we showed up with a car we had never driven, and it was right off the showroom floor.

The Mini survived despite our best efforts to drive its wheels off.  Sure, there were some minor mechanical issues with it, but nothing that would be unexpected for a first ever track competition of a brand new vehicle.   Keep in mind we took this car essentially off the showroom floor, bolted 4 wheels on it (and a set of front brake pads), and put it through the most demanding testing it will ever encounter.  (Of course, the book on that has not fully been written - we may have some plans for the future...)

Also keep in mind that this was the first ever track debut for a Mini Cooper S, anywhere in the world.  So we were going to find a few weak spots here and there.  Overall I am very impressed with the Cooper S, and I am considering buying one myself.  Its a super car that comes highly recommended from someone that has put a few miles on one, in the toughest of conditions.  For a small car, its built like a tank (has 6 airbags), gets good gas mileage, goes quick,  handles great, looks fabulous, has style out the wazoo - what more could you want? 

Best of all,  we survived 2 weeks with each other on the road under stressful conditions, and Pat and I are still friends.    We got very little sleep before and during the event, saw each other 24 hours/day, all while competing as hard as we could.   Not exactly an ideal situation.

Kids, don't try this at home!

This picture is probably going to get me in trouble, so I have reservations about posting it.  But keep in mind the interstate speed limits out west are really high, and they are relatively empty in the middle of the night.   You may recall that in order to run in Touring class, the rules required that the Mini be driven from track to track.  Often we didn't leave the track until about 5:00pm, and then we would caravan to the next track, me in my Diesel Ford truck, and Pat driving the Mini.     Sometimes the long drives between venues competed for our need for sleep, and we may have gone a bit faster than we should have.    Some of the longer drives were about 350 miles, and we would find ourselves searching for parts along the way (like spare 50Amp fuses for the starter), so that meant some pretty late nights.    The first thing I would do when we got to the hotel would be to write and update the website.

Photo by Shelley Hayashi

Here is a fantastic photo of us getting ready at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, taken by Shelley Hayashi.  It almost looks like Pat is saying a prayer!!!

One of the really nice things about this type of competition was meeting so many great folks around the country.   The Mini is a super vehicle for doing so, because it doesn't intimidate in any way.   At every race track we had people show up to the event that were also following along on the website.  Unfortunately in the heat of competition, I sometimes develop a distant manner when my mind is on other things.  So to those folks that visited us at the tracks, if I didn't  give you my absolute friendliest hello, please understand I may have had a few things on my mind at the time.   All I can say is that when you are preparing to go out on track and drive at the absolute limits, you sometimes have to get into a different frame of mind.

One of the questions I have gotten was, who won overall?  This incredibly modified (6 years in the making) Porsche 914 was the overall OTC champion.  It was actually tied in points going into the last day, with the Mumford/Provost Viper!  But the really smooth track at Las Vegas clearly favored the 914, which was shod with incredibly wide sticky slicks.  

Yes, I know this is a terrible picture of the T4 Class winning RX-7, but it is the only one I have.  The RX-7 is on the left.  The car on the right is the very well driven 3rd place in T4 Miata R.   The Miata R started out slower than us, but after a tire upgrade and exhaust modification during the middle of the event, it proved the spoiler, beating us in several events.  If it had been sorted out this way at the start, it would have done even better.

So here is our hard fought OTC trophy for our 2nd Place overall in Touring 4.  Pat is lending it to me right now, but I think it should go back to his home for safekeeping, seeing how he is the car owner, and that is the tradition.

Here is the award for which we are most proud.   I've gotten a lot of questions about the Big Dog award, namely, what the heck is it?  So I will clarify it here.  EMI racing, one of the sponsors of OTC, thought it would be a neat idea to give bragging rights to the team that won its class at Willow Springs International Raceway.    Willow Springs calls itself the "Fastest Track in the West", and quite frankly it may also be true for the east as well.  This is because the combination of turns and straight-aways at Willow Springs allows you to maintain extremely high speeds all the way around the track.    Combine this with breathtaking elevation changes, and terrifying blind turns, and you have a track that is only  conquered with a lot of guts.    Hence the origination of the Big Dog award, and it is only given at this track.  Each class winner got one of these, and since we won T4, this one is ours to keep.   This $50 will remain behind glass, forever.  The best part is, Willow Springs is a track that can take days to learn, and these were the only laps we ever turned here!

Here is the Cinderella award, which also needs some further explaining.  This award was voted on by all the competitors of the OTC.  They were to vote for the car/team that did better than anyone expected it to do.    Anothere name for it might be the "underdog" award.  So we showed up with a Stock Mini, and nearly won our class.  Hence we got voted this trophy.  There were actually two Cinderella awards, one for the Touring Division, and one for Unlimited Division.    Somehow we ended up with the one for the Unlimited Division due to a mix-up, but we aren't complaining!

The morning after the awards ceremony found us getting up kind of late, as we attempted to catch up on missed sleep.  At the last minute we decided to take a different route home, mainly because we didn't want to return across I-40 in Arkansas, which is entirely under construction.  We also wanted a change of scenery, thinking that the more northern route across I-70 would be more interesting than the constant desert scenery we have been looking at for the past week or so. 

And we weren't disappointed, as right from the start we headed saw spectacular new vistas as we climbed high desert plateau's into southern Utah.  I think Utah is one of the most beautiful states in the nation, with Bryce and Zion National Parks being a place that must be visited by everyone. 

As the interstate carved through the wilderness, we couldn't help but wonder how easy it was to see this great nation, traveling places by car that were completely inaccessible to most people only a hundred years ago.

Heading into eastern Utah and western Colorado, the terrain turns from shades of red and brown, to green and grey, as the foothills of the Rockies make themselves evident.   We stopped for the night just east of Vail, in a small resort town.  It was the off-season, too warm for skiing, but too cool for biking and hiking, so we practically had the Best Western all to ourselves.  The next morning we awoke, ready to drive 1000 miles, only to find the truck wouldn't start!  It would crank and crank, but not turn over.  Finally I called Ford Roadside Assistance, and requested a tow truck.  I got off the phone, and darn it if the truck didn't start the very next try!  We decided we'd better just take it to a Ford dealer right away, so we headed over to Phil Long Ford in Denver. 

It turns out the problem was just a simple failed relay, so they had us on the road fairly quickly.  The relay controlls power to the Glow Plugs, which in a Diesel are kind of like spark plugs.  It only needs to power the glow plugs while its starting the engine, and even then only  when its cold outside.  Which is why the engine wouldn't easily start, high up in the Rocky Mountains!  So we hit the road again, but delayed a little by our starting problem.  They even showed us how to bypass the relay in an emergency should it fail again.  Hmmm, this is starting to sound a little like the Mini problem isn't it?  Only we can't push start a 6500lb truck very easily.  

Colorado is like two separate states - the western half is dominated by the towering Rocky Mountains, but east of Denver it quickly falls away to a vast open plain.  In this slice of Americana, we took a detour down the dirt main street of one of the small towns that dot the high western plains.   We were determined to make it just east of Kansas City, where we stopped for the night.

Spotting on the map an interesting detour, we thought we might take Mini back to its roots.  Here in the middle of the country, we found an English inspired town, where Mini could feel right at home! 

The Tudor architecture called to poor Mini, and I think it wanted to stay awhile, but we had to hit the road and put some miles behind us.  We had hoped to make it home by Tuesday night (having left on Sunday morning), but our late in the morning start, combined with our minor truck problem put us way behind.  Here we were on Tuesday afternoon, and we still have much of our journey to go.

We crossed the Mighty Mississippi, and then made fast tracks across Southern Illinois, Indiana, and then Kentucky, before stopping for the night at my parents house in West Virginia.  Its kind of funny sleeping in your old bed, but as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out like a light.

The next morning we hit the road once more, bright and early.  My mom made us breakfast, and packed us a lunch (moms never change, do they!), and we set out on the final stage of our journey.   We had planned to take the Mini directly to Flow Mini for some much needed R&R, but instead Lee Davis, a sales manager at Flow, suggested we take it directly to VIR,  where they were having a members only track day.    Virginia International Raceway is the world's first Motorsports Country Club, kind of like your local Golf Club except centered around a race track.  Since VIR re-opened there have been others like it, such as the Texas Motorsport Ranch,  but none as grand and luxurious as VIR.  Its 3.27 miles are some of the most beautiful racetrack this side of the Atlantic.  We couldn't pass up the opportunity for a homecoming like that. 

Arriving at VIR after about 7000 miles on the road, we unloaded the Mini and let all the fellow members take a look at it.   Despite the Ferraris and Porsches littering the paddock, the Mini with all its decals and two weeks of track grime, was still the belle of the ball.   And so our journey ended on one warm, sunny Wednesday afternoon, at the most fitting of places.   Afterwards Pat and I  visited the VIR clubhouse, for one last celebratory cold drink, before heading home to our families...

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