A Lap Puppy Diary by SEMPCAmember Tom Fielitz
Early in the 23 year history of the Cannonball One Lap of America race, a competitor was asked what motivated him to come back every year. His response was “You either run with the big dogs or sit on the porch.” Since then, experienced One Lap competitors have been known as Lap Dogs, and One Lap rookies – Lap Puppies. This year, Al Wright and I became Lap Puppies and this is an account of our adventure.
Most people’s knowledge of this event is limited to the glorified Hollywood movie version titled The Cannonball Run, with Burt Reynolds and friends. The real Cannonball is very different!
The original Cannonball was contested on public roads. For the past two decades it has been contested on the top race tracks in the country, linked together in one long week of transit driving from state to state. The 2006 Cannonball race route began in Indiana, ranged west into Iowa, south into Louisiana, east to Virginia and north to Wisconsin before ending back in Indiana. There were 86 cars in various classifications contesting 20 racing events ranging from skid pad to stock car oval and road race courses to drag strip.
Al and I were entered in his leased 2004 Porsche Cayenne S, an SUV that does normal duty as tow vehicle for his racing Porsche GT2 Turbo. Why would we choose to race the Cayenne instead of the race car? Because it would be more comfortable on the long transit drives and we presumed that the SUV class would not be hotly contested. Our first surprise was to learn that there were six entries in our class. The hottest prospect was an entry by Chrysler’s SRT group of a Jeep Hemi Cherokee with 425 horsepower, carbon fiber body panels and Plexiglas windows, piloted by the SRT test driver, Eric Heuschele. Two other factory entries were Honda Odyssey vans sporting racing motors, brakes and suspensions and driven by professional Honda test drivers. The non-factory entries were equally potent with a Chevrolet S-10 Blazer body cleverly covering a Corvette C4 chassis and Grand Sport engine. The Blazer was driven by a team from the Carolina Speed Shop in their 18th consecutive Cannonball – legends in this race. Finally there was a Ford F150 4X4 entered by Powerworks with a 550 horsepower supercharged engine. Our Cayenne, with its 340 horsepower and 5,300 pounds seemed hopelessly outclassed.
Our total preparation consisted of replacing the stock tires with the lowest profile, softest compound Bridgestone tires that would fit the rims. It lowered the Cayenne by over two inches and gave it a distinctive “low rider” appearance. We optimistically figured we would make up the performance difference with driving talent and Porsche technology.
The only rule in the Cannonball is that “there are no rules.” Our fellow participants drove such things as a Viper race car with a 1,000 horsepower twin turbo Chevrolet race motor and a Porsche 944 with a Corvette Z06 motor. Cost is no object and no car combination is too weird. It should also be noted that driving talent ranged from the casual driving school participant to the career professional racer. This is the “Big Show” of unconventional racing.
This was the fastest and most evenly matched group of One Lap competitors that had ever been assembled.
Our One Lap adventure started on Friday night with a banquet in South Bend. We shared dinner with our Blazer competitors, Glen Dodd, Charles Lovelady, and Michael Stein. They entertained us with their past exploits both on the track and on the road. They became our instant friends and our closest competition throughout the race.
Saturday morning we all gathered in the parking lot of The Tire Rack. The first event was a skid pad that was soaking wet. A good effort by Al resulted in a second place in class behind the Jeep and 36th overall. That Saturday afternoon we were on the road to Illinois for the first road race event.
That was when we discovered that transit stage drives would be every bit as intense as driving on the track. Unfamiliar roads and unpredictable traffic made every transit drive a tension-filled experience. Without the front and rear radar detectors plus the latest computerized route technology, the transits would have been much more difficult.
The tracks were also demanding since we had not seen any of these track layouts except on paper. A pre racetrack walk seemed to us to be a poor use of our energy. The race events consisted of one reconnaissance lap followed by three timed laps with results based on cumulative time. Our poor Saturday afternoon race track result put us back in 74th overall and fifth in class. We went from second in class to fifth – all in the same day. The fight was on and we were humbled, but not discouraged.
The Saturday night transit took us to Iowa. We arrived at 3:30 a.m. looking for any available motel room. A Warren Buffet Convention had booked every room in Sioux Falls. A $20 bribe to a gas station clerk got us the honeymoon room in a small motel where we indulged in a three hour nap. Our second transit discovery was that motel rooms were essential. Every minute saved on a transit drive became another valuable minute of bed rest. Sleeping during the transits turned out to be too noisy and rough.
On Sunday we had two races which we split with our Carolina Blazer team. We were fourth in our class standings, but only barely. With no time to celebrate we headed off on a 1,000 mile overnight express drive to Louisiana.
Monday in Louisiana we were greeted by oppressive heat and Al’s brother-in-law Rod. Rod surprised us with a huge Cajun lunch of gumbo and stuffed pork roast. Although we struggled to run well at the two races on a challenging track, Rod made our day with cheerful support and good cooking. Our Blazer competitors hit the first of many calamities which kept them out of both race events with electrical gremlins. We took our leftover Cajun food with us on our next transit of 700 miles to Georgia in another all night drive.
Tuesday would be a very busy day with two races, a checkpoint in Midway, Georgia and another 200-mile transit drive to a night race at our one oval track race in Florence, South Carolina. Our day was easy compared to that of our Carolina Blazer team, who literally had the steering wheel fall come off in the driver’s hands at the end of their first race of the day. The normally very composed driver, Charles was much more animated after that incident. In true Cannonball spirit the Carolina team found a junk yard replacement and had it installed in time for the second race! That was typical of many of the Cannonball competitors who were constantly repairing all types of failures from oil pumps to wheel bearings. Our Cayenne maintenance consisted of one quart of oil and swapping the tires front to rear. The grinding under-steer of the Cayenne had worn the Bridgestone name off the front tire sidewalls!
The short, banked oval race track in Florence, SC was an unknown track to everybody. Al was picked to drive this race in honor of his 20-plus years of Southern living plus his stock car driving experience. He listened carefully to the track owner describe the nuances of this track and then drove a very inspired race. But it was the big black SRT8 Jeep Cherokee that provided the big show. The driver proved the aptness of his moniker: “Hollywood” by running the oval track with a huge “sprint car” racing wing on the Jeep’s roof. As soon as we could pack up the Cayenne we were on the road again for the 200 mile run to Virginia.
Wednesday was the most difficult race day of all with three races on three different track configurations. With more luck than skill, we bested the Carolina Blazer in two out of the three races. Now solidly fourth in class, we faced yet another all night dash of 675 miles to Indiana and what would be the high point of our Cannonball.
Thursday morning we awoke to a steady rain that would raise the anxiety level of even an experienced Cannonball racer. Track knowledge and the slippery conditions minimized the horsepower advantage of the rest of the field over our Cayenne. The fast cars all slipped and slid to slow times. By the time our turn came to run, the rain had stopped and the racing line around the track was dry. As a result, we finished an astonishing fourth overall on the entire 88 car field and well ahead of everyone in our SUV class. The finishing points brought us right back into competition with one of the Hondas and well up on the rest of our class.
Cancellation of the drag race was good news for our Cayenne team. Canceling an event we were unlikely to win meant extra hours of time to cover a short 215 mile transit leg and a much needed full nights sleep. By this point, distances of 200 miles seemed like mere drives around the block. But in this drive, the temperature plunged to 34 degrees and we faced snow! It must have been a terrifying drive for the team in an open-topped Ultralight. This was a home built car just large enough to hold the driver and passenger but with no windshield, doors, trunk, or roof. Totally exhausted on the transit stage, the team decided to sleep in the car still wearing their helmets. After a while the driver, Kevin Boulton, awoke to what he thought was a passing train. It was the snoring of his co-driver Loren Edwards! After running up and down the road to wake himself up, Kevin fired up the Ultralight and revved the engine to wake Loren. Loren was so shaken that he couldn’t sleep for the rest of the transit.
Friday in Wisconsin was another terrifying day for most competitors but not for our team. It might have been cold and raining but it was a track that I knew from over thirty years of driving schools. We managed to beat half the field including several Corvettes and a Cadillac CTSV. We were now close in points to third in our SUV class with only one race event left back at the start in South Bend, Indiana.
Saturday morning everyone was reunited in the parking lot at Tire Rack in South Bend. In just one week we had come full circle; but all the strangers that had gathered a week before in that same parking lot were now fast friends and fellow Lap Dogs. Cars and drivers were posed over and over again for pictures of such an epic moment. On the final skid pad the tables were turned on us and we ran on a cold and damp track first, leaving a dry and warm track to the faster cars.
In the final tally, we were a solid fourth in class and not far behind the Honda Odysseys. We were 71st in the overall classification. The winning car for the third year in succession was a Porsche 996 Twin Turbo. They only won one race but never finished lower than third, except for the race in which our modest Cayenne had beaten them! We had spent over $1,000 in gas and $500 in rooms and meals. We averaged only 4 hours of bed rest per night and short naps during transit drives.
When we were preparing for this race we were brave and confident. What could possibly beat a well-prepared and well-driven Porsche? When the race started we were stunned to see the level of factory involvement and competition-prepared cars. We were also humbled to be racing against seasoned and talented amateur and professional drivers. The races and transits were physically and emotionally exhausting. Our hopes were raised at the results of one race only to be dashed at the results of the next race.
When it was over, we both agreed that we were proud of a very good effort, the very best we had in us. I could not have asked for a better team mate or better friend than Al. When you share such an intense experience it cements a friendship. So much so that we will be going back next year in a more competitive Mini Cooper JCW edition and we will be official Lap Dogs.