3 June 2015

One Lap of America

By the time you hit the fifth day in the Tire Rack One Lap of America, cars, faces and events begin to blur together. But that's the way it's supposed to be. One Lap is an epic haul; hundreds of miles of driving for seven days straight. It's the spiritual descendant of the Cannonball Run, and glory comes to those who can persevere mentally, physically and mechanically.

That's about where I was earlier this month as a friend and I hit the final stretch of One Lap his 1980 Porsche 911 SC on a 3,000-mile loop through Middle America. We rose early each of the event's seven days, spent several hours at whichever track was on the schedule, then drove anywhere from 250 to 650 miles to the next stop, usually along with one or two other cars. By the end, we were like what I imagined World War II bomber pilots had been toward the end of long missions – small talk is not necessary; speak only when it matters.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, for although everyone should know what the Cannonball Run is – or was – not everyone does.

Back in the '70s, when the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit was the scourge of highway travelers, a group of rebellious motorsports enthusiasts sort of took the law into their own hands. Led by Brock Yates, a racing journalist, they decided to prove a point by breaking the New York-to-Los Angeles speed record, which had not been done since Erwin George "Cannon Ball" Baker did it in 53 hours and 30 minutes, in 1933. Yates and his acolytes wished to proselytize the public to their way of thinking: fast driving and safety were not mutually exclusive, so long as the driver was skilled. So the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash was born.

Yates, his son, Brock Yates Jr., and two others made the first crossing in a 1971 Dodge Custom Sportsman van – Moon Trash II – in 1971, setting the new New York City-to-L.A. record of 40 hours and 51 minutes.

"I was a 14-year-old kid and I got invited on the trip of a lifetime," Brock Yates Jr. said between One Lap track events. "Back then, the roads were practically empty compared with today; no one was driving at night and no one gave a shit."

Informal races followed the quartet's pioneering mission – one in 1971, and three others, in 1972, 1975 and 1979.

"The idea was that the better driver you were, the faster you could drive," the younger Yates said.

The informal race was run in an odd assortment of vehicles by the denizens of an automotive counterculture. Over the years, the armada included Moon Trash II, a collection of fancy European sports cars, hopped-up muscle cars and trucks, a Travco motorhome and even a tiny Honda 600. In the 1979 Cannonball, Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough set a new, 32-hour, 51-minute record in a Jaguar XJS (although that record has since been broken).

Brock junior didn't delve into any details on the use of mind-bending substances, but popular lore is rife with tales of Cannonballers making the long trip with the aid of booze, pills and whatever else it took to get the job done.

By the end of the decade, the Cannonball Run had entered public consciousness, and also the gaze of so many vigilant law enforcement officials around the country. Some truckers had become resentful of groups of cars flying past at triple-digit speeds. Brock Junior recalled that people with insane cars who may or may not have been skilled at handling them began expressing interest in doing a Cannonball. His father saw the writing on the wall. Cannonballers had managed to race across the country multiple times without hurting anyone, but like many good things, the Cannonball, it seemed, was finished.

The elder Yates, not to be stopped by obsolescence, molded the Cannonball's anything-goes spirit into something more appropriate (not to mention safer) for the convention-bound 1980s: One Lap of America. The format has changed a few times since its first running, in 1984, as has its distance. The first year, participants began in Darien, Conn., drove to Seattle, San Diego, Miami and back to Darien, completing a course that was nearly 10,000 miles long.

"The problem with that setup was that there was nothing to do but drive endlessly," Brock Junior said. "So over the years, we added things like autocross, time-speed-distance stages and regularity runs, where you run the same stretch of highway twice and try to do it in the same amount of time."

But even that, he said, left participants wanting for more excitement. So in 1989, One Lap's organizers talked the Sports Car Club of America into allowing them to drive a short section of the track at Hallet Motor Racing Circuit, in Jennings, Okla. Gradually, year by year, the hot driving permission increased to a full lap, then two. Today, it stands at three hot laps, and participants visit a variety of tracks throughout the weeklong event.

"By '94, everyone was tired of TSDs, so we changed it all to racetrack stuff," Yates said. "Since then, we've been to over 100 racetracks."

In terms of overall distance, One Lap has settled into a more or less consistent 3,000-4,000-mile groove over the last decade, always with a stop at the Tire Rack (the event's main sponsor) headquarters in South Bend, Ind.

Brock Yates, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, no longer shows up at the events. So his son does all the organizing and emceeing in his stead.

I'm usually dimly aware that One Lap is happening every May, and for some time, have had an inclination to participate. But I'd never pulled the trigger. Finishing the event – never mind winning it – requires not only stamina behind the wheel and a partner you feel comfortable with in close quarters for days on end, but a car that can endure punishment at nearly a dozen track events, as well as the transits between tracks, which are usually hundreds of miles apart. Preparing such a car, and taking a week off of work, can cost plenty.

This year, dim awareness snapped into bright realization when my friend Theodore Goneos asked me – several days before One Lap was to begin – to help him drive transits in an air-cooled 911. What was I going to do, say no?

I arrived to find an interesting assemblage of cars and people. The first car I saw was Mike Hickman's 1981 Chevrolet Camaro, which he's been running in One Lap for 25 years, making various improvements each time. The first year he participated, he had been working for a parts manufacturer, using the car as a parts test mule, and he saw an ad in Car and Driver for One Lap.

"I told management that we could put the names of all the different parts companies on the car and they could write it off as advertising," Hickman said. "I didn't think they'd go for it, but they did."

After a few years of that, he bought the car from his employer and kept running it in One Lap every year. So far, he's put about 140,000 One Lap miles on it, and plans to "freshen up" the car's fuel injected 383-cubic-inch stroker engine over the winter to get it ready for more.

There were a few other Camaros and Corvettes, too, as well as a trio of Nissan GT-Rs, an Ariel Atom that looked as if it had been pulled from an Apollo moon mission, and a Ford Crown Victoria towing a utility trailer made from the hood and trunk sections from another Crown Vic. Perhaps most compelling, if only because of its nostalgic value, was the 1977 Ford Country Squire station wagon driven by Kent Mckay and his three sons, Eric, Justin and Michael. It was clad in a lovely shade of '70s puke green, and the Mckay clan had decorated the otherwise bone stock behemoth with a dogless leash hanging from the rear bumper and Nebraska tags that read "GRISWOLD."

Other than the relentless pace of One Lap, the event runs pretty smoothly. Tracks are more or less predictable, and as long as no one flouts posted speed limits too badly or too often, getting thrown in jail for reckless driving isn't really a risk (unless you're in Virginia).

That wasn't always the case. Brock Junior said that One Lap's association with the Cannonball Run did not escape the notice of law enforcement agencies, and he recalled one of the first years, when the Ohio state police dispatched a helicopter to track down any One Lap-stickered car driving in excess of the speed limit. Something similar happened in 1990, when One Lappers encountered a police welcoming committee in Salt Lake City.

"You would have thought we were the anti-Christ with the number of cops they had there," he said. "It's all different now. I even send out notifications to let them know we're coming, and no one really has problems."

What makes the current iteration of One Lap challenging are the unpredictable factors. Among other things, weather can turn black and mechanical things can break. For example, somewhere between Denver and Pueblo, rain – which doesn't fall too often in Colorado – began coming down by the bucketful this year. A tornado was reported in Oklahoma a few days later, and some One Lappers reported seeing 12-inch-deep standing water and chunks of trailer park on the roadway in its wake.

The little Porsche, a very capable machine by all rights, had its problems, too. Somewhere in Texas, we smelled something burning, then heard a very loud pop. I thought for sure the engine had failed, but when we looked behind us, the rear windshield was all spidered with cracks. It had exploded. Some electrical problem with the rear defogger, perhaps? Who knows. (Luckily, even the hardest showers don't come in when you're driving faster than about 30 miles per hour, and loading and unloading the car at the track was a breeze until we installed some plexiglass procured from a Home Depot.) Later, the passenger-side window fell off its track – during a rainstorm, naturally. And later still, when a week's worth of track driving had worn year-old performance tires down to what were effectively slicks, it was impossible to drive faster than about 45 mph during the frequent and sudden downpours that plagued us almost all the way back to New York.

I'd never driven an air-cooled 911 before, and while I've never been a huge fan of their styling (I think they look kind of like cartoon frogs), spending time behind the wheel of one gave me the opportunity to "get it" (although I still didn't know what to say to the little gaggles of drooling Porsche pilgrims who seemed to gravitate toward the car at every fuel stop). To be fair, the Porsche faithful were often part of small throngs of people who came to see why they kept seeing groups of sticker-festooned sports cars (and the Griswold family truckster) on the highway. An Ultima GTR – a Le Mans-worthy supercar – towing a small trailer through rush hour traffic in Tulsa is an uncommon sight for most people.

One Lappers tend to end up at a lot of the same filling stations throughout the week, so amid the long stretches of driving, there are brief, festive interludes. The mashup of track and highway bingeing and mini cruise nights at filling stations and motels all over the country creates a unique atmosphere. It's not exactly a road trip – there's not enough time to see anything, and the hotels are usually in strip malls that could be anywhere in suburban America. But each track has its own culture, and One Lap creates camaraderie among participants, keeping many of the same people coming back year after year.

Don Kahn, who drove the Crown Vic but also had an Ultima GTR and a Subaru in the race, has done 11 One Laps. Goneos has run it since 2004; he started in a 1978 Pontiac Trans Am, and transitioned to the Porsche later. Robert Dubler, a Swiss chocolate maker with long gray hair and flowing, '70s rockstar sideburns, has been running One Lap for years, most recently with a pack of retro Chevy HHRs. Souped up Corvettes do well (as long as the drivers know what they're doing) and Nissan GT-Rs tend to win, but there are enough classes for a wide variety of people to get a pat on the back. Jenna Wagner and Victor Bell, for example, won the alternative vehicle category in a turbodiesel Volkswagen Jetta.

It doesn't matter what you're driving – a Porsche or the Griswold family truckster," Yates said. "Everyone has fun."

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