This article first appeared in the September, 2020 edition of SportsCar Magazine. Everyone can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here. To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here. While much of this information was targeted specifically at Road America at the time, much of it can still be applied to the Runoffs this year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and for years to come.
Facing off against the best at the Tire Rack Solo National Championships is only half of the battle. We venture beyond the driving in order to maximize your chances for Solo Nats success
“It takes a village,” one multi-time National Champion quipped to a passing competitor, after watching his friends’ run excluded from Tire Rack Solo National Championships results because in the madness of pre-run grid, they’d forgotten to peel the “L” decal off one side of the car. Something as simple as a sticker oversight is not unheard of, especially considering that the awe-inspiring size of the Solo National Championships can overwhelm even the most experienced of competitors. Often it does take a village to negotiate this championship event correctly. Luckily, those many with ample Solo Nationals experience are willing to offer pointers in order to set you on the right track for Solo Nationals success.
First, it’s important to decide how you want to approach the Solo National Championships itself. Everything about the Solo Nationals is big. The event is bigger than any autocross across the country. The courses are undoubtedly longer than anything you’re used to. The entry list has more people than any event across the country. The competition is better than – well, you get the idea. It’s big.
Which leaves competitors with two options. The first is to embrace the size and scope of the event, understand that it’s unlike any other, and treat it with the respect it deserves. The other school of thought is to ignore the size and treat it like any other event. That said, even the most experienced of Solo Nationals competitors will tell you that ignoring the event completely is really hard to do.
“It’s both,” Bartek Borowski, a nine-time National Champion, says. “A big part of that is that I’ve been in [E Street] for a while, and Chicago has a pretty big contingent for the class that I run in. It sort of helps, if you’re going to Nationals, to know someone else who’s there. Whether they’re in your class or not, just so you see a familiar face and you’re not overwhelmed by how big the event is.”
Of course, perspective also matters.
Andrew McKee also treats the Solo Nationals as special, which is perhaps part of the reason his closet is stocked with 10 National Championship jackets. With that success comes a luxury that many of us flailing at the back or middle of the pack may not have. “At most local events, I'm trying different things [and] playing around with setup,” McKee says. “For the Solo Nationals, I have much more focus on preparation since I do not want to be chasing setup during the most important event of the year.”
Perfect Paddock Position
So, if we expect the Solo Nationals to be large, what can be done to help focus? Start with something that a first timer may not give much thought to – the paddock. In advance of the event, saying the paddock is a quarter-mile long may not sound too bad. But for those in the back, it’s a long way to grid. That may not be bad, but it’s something to keep in mind should you forget something in your paddock spot.
“Since we take the whole family, proximity to the courses is a huge deal,” McKee explains. “Going long distances back and forth for people and equipment can be a real time drain.”
Distance may not be the only factor.
“How long are you [at the Solo Nationals]? Did your Region reserve a big tent? If you’re there for a whole week, you probably don’t want a spot on the far end,” Borowski points out. “Maybe you park next to somebody you’re co-driving with, or if you leave the car on site, you park near the person who is giving you a ride to the hotel and back. If you’re borrowing tools, it makes sense to be near that person.”
In the excitement to arrive, however, don’t forget that an airport runway is concrete, with a distinct lack of shade in the afternoon.
When you park in your paddock spot, Borowski says, figure out where the sun will be throughout the day. “Then you can park in a way that provides more shade for you later in the day,” he says. “If you can block the sun as it moves across the horizon, it makes for a more pleasant stay on site.”
Contemplating a Couple Courses
Spoiler alert: The Solo Nationals courses are most likely longer, faster, and more spaced out than anything you’ve seen throughout the year. “It can be overwhelming by how far apart things are spaced,” Borowski advises. “If you’re not used to how courses are marked compared to local events, that by itself can be quite surprising. I’ve been to events at Lincoln Airpark where you’re coming out of one maneuver and the next gate is so far out – you’d never see anything like that at a local event.”
Luckily, there are solutions. Take advantage of any provided course maps and make notes. If there aren’t maps available, sketch the important corners on your own. Keep your head up and looking ahead while you’re in the car – something that’s always important.
But, mostly, recognize that you’ll be competing on two courses, and more often than not, the courses will be very different.
Initially, Borowski explains, “I like to walk both, just to get a gauge of what they represent and what the main differences between the two might be.” Following that, he concentrates on the first day of competition. “Then I concentrate on the course I’m driving first, because that’s the one I need to be ready for. For the remainder of whatever day I was driving that course, I walk the other one.”
Walk the courses in a way that makes you comfortable but have a mission. “I’ll walk it two or three times to get a feel for it, and then I start breaking it down into what’s going to hurt me the most,” Borowski says of his strategy. “I spot the biggest areas that can hurt you, because you don’t want to be surprised by something.”
It’s important to recognize the limits, however, so while no one wants to be underprepared, it’s possible to overdo it.
“I'll make sure I walk the course enough times so that I can visualize my run in near real time in my head,” McKee says. “As I get older, that means more walks. Also, with age, fatigue comes sooner, so I sometimes have to recognize that I'm tired and not getting what I should out of a walk and take a break.”
Testing and Tuning
So now it’s time to drive, right? Not so fast. Unlike every other event, there’s a third course on site. It’s smaller, and completely unique to the event: The Test N Tune. This is the chance to shake down your car, or let a co-driver borrow the car for some seat time.
There’s a fee for the four runs on the practice course, and you are not allowed to run on your scheduled competition days. But it’s also for a good cause – $10 of every entry goes to the Tire Rack Street Survival program. While it may be technically possible to sign up on site, it’s unlikely any spots are available, so be sure to register in advance.
“I've struggled a bit on setup transferring from test courses, which tend to be smaller and tighter vs. the large-scale National course,” McKee warns. “So, I'll just look for big things wrong [with the car] on the test course versus much fine tuning.”
The idea, McKee insists, is to look for things that need fixing. Was there a clunk that you might not have heard before? Better to find the issue now than in the middle of your championship runs. Did someone crank those adjustable shocks down to zero and forget to re-adjust? That will show up on the practice course. And, for those less experienced, it’s a great chance to carry a passenger to dish out some pointers before the official runs begin.
Working Works Wonders
There are a few ways that the Solo Nationals mirrors every other autocross event, and the biggest is that you’re expected to work during one of the heats. Work assignments come down to personal preference, but they cover a range that includes the usual – shagging cones, timing and scoring, grid, and more – and some not-so-typical assignments that could include announcer, impound, and more. Though many are full of the same repeat customers and carry personal advantages (the timing trailer is out of the weather, for the most part, and registration may wrap up prior to your run days), sometimes the most effective assignment for your driving is to lace up the running shoes and head out on course. In fact, even our Solo National Championship-winning guides prefer it.
“I like working a course because so many things are happening,” Borowski declares. “I don’t mind running for the cones. I know it’s a bit of a hassle on one hand, and it’s not an easy job. But I think it’s an important job. I think if you get people on the course who don’t want to be there, they’re not paying attention to the cars.”
There’s an added – and sizable – benefit. “I think it does benefit you as a driver because you can see the course up close and get a good rhythm for it,” Borowski points out. “It’s, in essence, spectating from the infield instead of the bleachers.”
McKee concurs. “I've always preferred working the course because nearly 100 percent of the time I will come away with some insights from watching others drive,” he admits. “Of course, if you work after you run, this is not as helpful.”
Naturally, there are ways to pick up similar tips even if your work assignment comes after your runs. Observation goes a long way – though it’s important to know what, exactly, you’re watching for. This is one opportunity where an eyeball on the mid-pack contingent may be of more assistance than the cream of the crop.
How is that possible?
“If somebody is doing things right, it probably isn’t going to be very exciting when they’re driving,” Borowski says. “But if every third car is loose in one particular corner, maybe try to figure out if they’re going into it too fast, or if it’s off camber. That’s an area that you can investigate, so that you’re not finding out on your first run that this corner is a lot faster or slower than it appeared to be.”
Dealing with Details
Now you’re ready to head out onto the course and win you first trophy. Well, not quite. What you’re probably ready for are the butterflies, anxiety, and nerves that come from sitting on the grid and thinking through those course walks. The problem is that anxiousness can make you forget the essentials. Remember the magnetic number fiasco from the beginning of this story? This is where extra preparation and organization comes in handy.
First things first – heats at the Solo Nationals take a long time to run. That typically gives anyone plenty of time to prep in the paddock before heading to grid.
“I try to avoid things like cleaning the window on the grid,” Borowski says, pointing out that your things to do last minute should shrink at Nationals. “The more of those things you can do before you come to grid at Nationals, the more time you’ll have to relax on the grid and not stress out or mess something up. It doesn’t really take that much planning ahead of time.”
What you should bring to grid depends on your individual car, for the most part. “I always try to have a toolbox with just the tools I need to make all the normal adjustments on the car,” McKee reveals. “Lots of tools are nice, but I want the most frequently used ones to be easy to find in a hurry.”
There are some basics that apply to everyone, and those are exactly what you expect. “I grab my helmet, make sure I have my numbers, check the fuel, and have my tire gauge,” Borowski says. “Those would be the things that, if nothing else, you can get through all of your runs. Everything beyond that is icing.”
The most important thing you can bring is an attention to detail. Take that “fuel” comment that Borowski just made. Though some like to cut it close for weight, a few extra pounds from too much fuel will hurt less than not having enough fuel. “I found that out at the ProSolo Finale,” Borowski admits. “I wasn’t planning to go through as many rounds as I did, and then ran out of fuel. You may get a rerun, so make sure you have enough fuel.”
Beyond that is an individual preference. Does it look like it might rain? Bring the rain tires and everything to change them – impact gun, torque wrench, jack, and jack stands. Do you know you need to keep your tires cool (or warm)? Bring your blankets or spray bottle. Be sure your co-driver has his or her helmet handy, too.
In short, make a checklist and stick to it. It may take a few extra minutes of planning, but it will save you from headaches.
Finally – and most importantly – check your expectations at the door. It’s likely that your class is going to have a multi-time National Champion in it, and no matter how good you are, it’s going to be hard to beat them. The pages of the Solo National Championships history are littered with local hotshots who thought it was a given that they’d march into Lincoln and walk away with the biggest trophy, piles of contingency prizes, and all of the fame and fortune that goes with it – and then went home with their tails between their legs. But don’t despair, because that happened to a lot of people, and it hasn’t always ended poorly.
“I know at my first Solo Nationals I had pretty high expectations based on local experience, and it got abused by reality,” McKee reveals. “As the years have passed, I've really tried to focus on maximizing my performance and not worrying too much about others. There have been years I won where I wasn't that satisfied with how I did, and then other years I didn't do as well but was content knowing I'd given it all I had. You can only control your own results.”
The rest is up to you. And now, thanks to Borowski and McKee, you have the necessary information to do your best at the Tire Rack Solo National Championships. While this duo can’t prep your car, turn the wheel, or push the pedals for you, they certainly have offered enough information for a relatively new driver to the Solo Nationals to make the trip to Lincoln with confidence in order to see for themselves how they stack up.
Can you win? Well, that’s up to you, but the autocross village has given you the tools to take on the challenge.
Photo by Perry Bennett/Autoxpix.com