STARLITE IN FASTEST CAR MADE IN AMERICA
by Max Backwards
(THE FOLLOWING IS NOT INTENDED TO ENCOURAGE OR AUTHORIZE ANYONE TO VIOLATE TRAFFIC LAWS OR EXCEED THE SPEED LIMIT. It is just one person's account of the experience. It may or may not all be true.)
1991 was a recession year. STARLITE entries were down. Bush was in trouble. It was the kind of year that called for an expansive gesture. A statement against restraint. A test of limits: driving and credit line. I rented a Corvette ZR-1 for STARLITE 91.
I knew times were tough when a recognizable out of work TV personality delivered the car. I remembered his work as a child actor on a western series -- the morals of each episode so carefully wrought at the time now spun in a blender of late 20th century economics -- as he filled in the rental agreement and told me about the 6-speed and the FULL ENGINE POWER switch (my personal favorite, cuts in the runners for the 2nd set of valves).
As he left he made me promise not to reveal the price I got him down to, so I won't. For once, I took advantage of the recession instead of the other way around. The car was sitting in my driveway, looking like Arnold Schwartzenegger after an hour's workout at Gold's. It was noon Friday. I rigged the car and was out by 1:30.
My regular navigator couldn't get off work. My substitute was a hard-drinking, hard-living Viet Vet helicopter pilot named Dudley. Dudley was making a living flying helicopters to fight forest fires during the summers, and then spotting fish for open-sea trawlers the rest of the time. A dangerous occupation, to say the least. He would probably ride a skateboard naked into the fires of hell for fifty cents if he thought he would get off on it. A man with a taste for adventure, and he knows how to read map mileages. The perfect navigator.
As we left L.A. for Santa Barbara, a stint of stop-and-go showed me the ZR-1's limitation as a Monte Carlo Rallye vehicle. It didn't really like to creep. Trying to go very slowly without stopping produced a distinct clutch odor after 2 or 3 minutes. I made a note. I should have ignored it. More on that later.
Around Las Virgenes, the road opened up and so did the car. Outstanding acceleration. 2nd gear is good up to 70. This is going to be fun.
Lining up for tech inspection for STARLITE is like nothing else. Even in this, their worst in 15 years, there were still 125 cars entered. The line-up is on a little road near California Highways 192 and 154 in the west end of Santa Barbara. An isolated pocket in the suburban hills. There converge all manner of vehicles. Several "normal" Corvettes, a DeLorean or two, Thunderbird SC's, Mustang 5.0's, BMW M3, M5, and M6, a couple of Alfas, a sparkling red Cobra replica with big Panamericana-type numbers on the doors (Wind-chill? We don't need no steenking wind-chill? Theese car hass no top!), and a wide variety of this year's model rent-a-rallye-car: Probes, Grand-Ams, Barettas, Maximas, a boxy Volvo 242, more Mustangs and Thunderbirds. It was like car heaven.
A couple of forgotten items were scavenged and we got through tech. We got our Route Instructions and went into the meeting area. (Start is at a local school. The cafeteria tables serve to figure things out before the Driver's meeting). Some of the team went to the nearby house of one member. A few of us stayed behind. I like to have the extra 20 minutes, so I just stay at the start. It turned out we didn't need the extra time. With only 10 checkpoints, we had the maps marked and the times figured an hour before the Driver's meeting started. We figured everything out perfectly, It was just too bad that we didn't do it the way we planned.
We pulled up to the Start marker and got in line about 4 minutes before our out-time. A last minute clock check and we were off. Since the first Standoff was all the way up 33, I had a goal in life -- catch Mr. L. and Mr. H. in the Maxima 2 cars ahead of me. I knew they knew I was 2 cars behind in a ZR-1. It wouldn't have mattered if they were on a bicycle, it would have been a matter of pride with them not to let me catch them. That attitude later proved their undoing.
Out of start and south on 101, we were ready to run. However, the CHP had a different idea. Blasting through SB we passed a cruiser giving a ticket to someone else. We backed it off since we knew he'd seen us, and several other ITN cars went by us. By the time he caught up to us we were 4 cars down. Just then, as our luck would have it all night, '91's Equinox winner flew by us doing xx+ (yes, passing the cop). The cop took off after him, but he was just before his exit, so he made it off unnoticed. The cop got a guy in a Pathfinder.
Turning off on 150 to Ojai, and freed from close-order surveillance, the ZR really came to life. Passing in 2nd with the "FULL POWER" switch on was better than anything at Magic Mountain. Ask the 4 or 5 ITN cars we passed on the way. This hulking thing would swoop up behind them, shadow them for a few turns, then, as soon as visibility through terrain would permit, pass and simply disappear. Across the bridge just before Ojai we hit xxx. Effortless is 5th.
At this point I was just learning the car. You're packed into this thing like a formula car. Controls are everywhere. Room is so tight we had to put the clock/computer on the console. Since there was no place to stick the CB antenna, we were limited to the carphone. Going up 101 to START, I'd discovered that the car would idle (1000 rpm) in 6th gear. Speed = 60 mph, and the car could pull shallow grades in that fashion. This is some car.
North out of Ojai, I cut the power switch, but we still found out everything we had in the car wasn't securely fastened. A little repacking at Standoff 1 fixed things for the rest of the night. At S.O.1 we also found Mr. L. and Mr. H. laughing. "ZR-1 couldn't catch the rented Maxima, huh?" They taunted us. They had to. It was the only chance they'd have all night. I made excuses. "Just getting used to it." "Want to make sure we have gas to Frazier Park." Actually both were true. On FULL POWER and pushing it, you've got about 140 miles on the 16 gallons. Running with the power switch off and taking it easy, you've got 260.
The light on Leg 1 was not there at Standoff, although you could see it as you got to it. But a handout told us the location. Binoculars showed us where the cars were crossing the hose. A quick calc and we knew we should wait. In this car it would be a lot easier to speed than creep. 16 minutes before our Intime we rolled out and did about 35 to the Checkpoint. We got there 2 minutes early but my rhythm was on and we pulled a zero. On to 2.
Lockwood Valley Road is one of my personal longtime favorites. It's a great drivers' road. The ZR took the "10 MPH" and "20 MPH" stuff at 35, the "30 MPH" stuff at 60 -- all in 2nd. We got to the long straight and wound it out before the dip. A stab at the brakes and we were down in a flash. Mild scrape on the bottom of the dip. Floor it. Same thing again before the second dip.
We caught Mr. L. and Mr. H. on the fast sweepers going into the town of Lockwood Valley. It's a section of road I know well enough to be comfortable on. We took the Maxima on a short straight and I kept my foot down and went up to 3d for the next turn, really testing the ZR's capabilities for the first time. The curve warning sign said "45 MPH." We went in above that, blind. I anticipated the apex, gave the wheel a little jig, then straightened it immediately, because before you could even see the turn, we were through it.
The road was clear ahead. I left it down and grabbed 4th, then 5th. Unhindered, we sailed through the sweepers. The ZR was incredibly stable with a very slight and predictable understeer. The power on hand is enormous, better than anything but a small handful of production cars. The car is a real rocket.
One thing we found out, at those speeds you get to places quickly. Suddenly we were in Lockwood making the turn towards Frazier Mtn. (the town, not the mountain). Traffic kept us low key to I-5. Some cautious passing gave us short spurts of speed. I knew we had to make up time for our planned gas stop in Gorman. The stop went well, costing us just under 5 minutes.
Out of the stop, we figured we wouldn't see Mr. L. again until Standoff 2. Running in Expert Class, we had to pick up an additional Course Control up at the corner of N2 and Ridge Route, two very twisty roads. Going up Ridge we found one of the few limits of the car: you throw one cup of sand on a turn and the tail comes out. Those rear tires are so big, they have their own Zip Code. So it was 30 - 35 to the Control.
Then off onto N2, which in the westernmost section is a tight as Ridge, but there's less sand. However, at night N2 is treacherous. There are no guardrails or marking lines, so the dark pavement seems to merge into the night without boundary. Fortunately, the ZR has good quartz highbeams as well as some really nifty wide angle driving lights. The latter would illuminate the trees lining the road, usually just in time to take evasive action.
Rather than push too hard and wear out the car early, I settled into a left-right-straight, right-left-straight kind of a rhythm, not cooking the brakes, letting the tires do most of the work.
As we got to the next intersection, where the Experts rejoined the route for the other classes, we saw no other cars. We headed off determined, knowing our trip to the Course Control had cost us valuable time. We caught and passed 2 other cars before we got to Lake Hughes, where we became the caboose of a 3-car train. As we got towards Elizabeth Lake, there was some serious gravel on the road, although we couldn't tell why. We had to lay back a little so the stones sprayed up wouldn't break a headlight or damage the fiberglass. Finally, we got to a legal passing zone, but it was a short one. I pulled out to take the car in front of us, a Novice in a nicely tricked out blue minipickup. A small squeeze on the pedal and the Corvette was by him. I was running out of passing zone so I moved to slip back into line, but the minipickup decided he didn't like that and he closed the gap so I had nowhere to go.
(A word of explanation to Novices: Experts have to run faster because they frequently have to take a different, usually longer, route. Also, don't ever cut someone off or speed up while being passed. The safety of the pass may have been marginal to start with. If you cut them off, you are the one who has created a seriously dangerous situation.)
Since the turn coming up had a little visibility around it, I could see we were OK, so I really nailed it. We were around all 3 cars in literally 2 seconds. Later, at a gas stop, I mentioned to the Novice my perspective on his behavior. He didn't seem to get it. Don't these guys pay attention at the Drivers' meeting?
Anyway, it was our only close moment of the whole Rallye. However, it rattled me a little, and at Standoff 2 I made our only real mistake. The light was hard to pinpoint. It seemed to be closer than we had expected. At the START, it seemed clear that the ideal place for the Inmarker would have been next to the little loop just north of ROSAMOND BLVD., which is where it turned out to be. However, misjudging the distance, we hung back out of Standoff, biding our time, only to discover as we turned onto the In marker road that we were going to be late. With sideroads and driveways, I didn't feel safe over 110 and it just wasn't enough to make it up. We pulled a 128 on that leg. Without it we would have had an 04 total. C'est la guerre.
Bummed that we'd probably just blown the Rallye, we continued nonetheless. Never say die. You never know who else made a mistake. (Remember Equinox '91 or Starlite '89.) Anyway, because we were upset we didn't take the little loop around to the west of Checkpoint, but went up to BARKUS RD, over to and then down 14 to pick up our Course Control, then back up 14 towards Standoff 3. Heading back up 14 we saw an army of red and blue lights. We prayed no one had an accident. When we got there we saw a certain Mr. L. talking to a large number of law enforcement personnel. From what we saw, we knew he was off to jail. Of course, we were wrong. In spite of pulling the ticket, his remarkable luck held out. Anyone else would have gone to the hoosegow for sure.
We had already discovered we were on the wrong route. There was no way we were going to make it to In marker 3 in time. I figured Mr. L. had all the cops still awake in this part of the world busy for a while, so I honked on it. I knew about the back way around the railroad tracks from previous Rallye boners, so we got to S.O.3 no problem.
However, heading back, we made the same BARKUS RD. mistake again. This still stemmed from being flustered at 2 and not noting where it was. As we flew down BARKUS, we saw a car coming up from the south and hoped that's where the Checkpoint was. Since we didn't see the cops anymore we were able to hold on down the 14 to Rosamond. We got to the Checkpoint four and a half minutes early. (Later the Rallyemasters were amazed at this.) As we rolled up the last minute or so, I saw the double hose at the In marker. I went to minimum creep speed until my last .30 then took off. My judge of distance must have been good because we got four zeros (both tires on both hoses). It helped our morale a little.
Going back down 14 towards Leg 4, we saw the other Mr. L. (pere) pulled over. By Standoff 4 one of our teammates had called on the car phone and given us the scoop. The cops had the route maps. We decided to keep our eyes open.
Leg 4 was easy for us. TSD experience really helps on Minimum speed In markers.
After In marker 5 we decided it was the perfect time of day to open it up on 247. Taking the sweepers at full chat in 4th. The car was amazing. So was our luck. We dodged the bullets.
At Denny's in Barstow, ITN assembled. Amazingly, our cohorts showed up, having avoided incarceration, and someone talked Denny's into letting us use their xerox. Suddenly everyone had routes and maps again. There was some discussion about disqualification. They decided to run it out and see what happened. At the Finish it was obvious that the heat had come down on the whole Rallye, so the DQ's seemed the only sporting thing to do, although it is not specified in the SBSCC generals. Now you see why ITN has it in theirs.
We had figured Legs 6 and 7 correctly from the start, so they were no problem for us. However, several ITN cars decided to turn the event into Paris-Dakar. The quattro that high-centered was actually following 2 other ITN cars. Off-roading was clearly not an option in the ZR-1. However, LAS VEGAS REUNION last summer had run through this area, so it was easy for us to find MOUNTAIN VIEW and take it down to PIONEER and then back to MINEOLA and around to Inmarker 7. We judged the mileage right this time and paced ourselves up VALLEY CENTER. We got to Checkpoint with a minute to spare. An easy creep.
You heard from Mike Mahneke at the banquet about the numerous cop stories from Inmarker 7. After he gave us a very stern warning, we played it fairly careful. Heading up to I-15, the Corvette's smoke top made it easy to see the bears in the air, and there were several. (Another advantage to having a combat pilot for a navigator.)
On I-15 we set the cruise and laid back. However, on the first overpass sat a CHP and he was after us in a flash. I saw him pull on behind us so I backed the cruise down. As he pulled even with us he gave us a stern look and actually waved an admonishing finger at us. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. It was the closest we would get to a ticket.
As he headed down KELBAKER towards 8 we paced ourselves. Compass reading had indicated that the In marker should be just after the big right turn. It proved to be very close.
CIMA ROAD is tough on a car with a lot of overhang, like the Corvette, so we just got into a rhythm.
Coming out of Standoff 9 we guessed right and were 10 minutes early coming into the creeping line into Checkpoint. Actually the creeping was no problem. However, Car 90 had decided he was going to come in on my minute (Car 100). I moved around him, hoping he would notice my number and get the hell into the Checkpoint. However, the fact that cars 96 through 100 were in front of him and cars 101 through 106 behind him just didn't sink in. Then to make things worse, he decided to creep down the middle of the road. Thank God no cars were coming in really late, because they would have had nowhere to go. As it was, he did block one car from getting a zero. I wonder what he was thinking. I hope he comes back and figures it out.
Anyway, from there it was coasting. At Standoff 10 we had gobs of time for the standard STARLITE last Checkpoint. I think they do so everybody can finish the Rallye with a decent leg score, but their last legs are always straightforward (which is not to say easy).
Hanging out with friends at the bar after Finish is at least as much fun as the Rallye itself. There certainly was no shortage of stories this year.
However, I didn't really feel like I had gotten my money's worth out of the ZR until the trip home. We left about 4 Sunday afternoon and took the back way. NV 163 towards Pahrump, take the cutoff towards Tecopa Hot Springs, then down into Baker. Sunset was beautiful, but the difficult lighting conditions kept me from really wringing it out.
We paced our way down I-15 to Barstow, refueled, then headed out the back way, thankful we were clear of the choking traffic. On SHADOW MOUNTAIN ROAD, we went for it. As we came over the hill, we had the road to ourselves, so I nailed it. On the arrow straight stretch into U.S. 395 some headlights turned on in front of us and I brought it down. At the 395 end we waited again for the road to clear, then turned around and ran it again. Dudley watched the speedo while I watched the vanishing point. With a slight uphill slope, it wasn't long before we got into the hills. We turned around once again. This time I just went for it, oncoming headlights be damned. Dudley says we got up to xx before I brought it down for the Stop.
Later, after I dropped Dudley off, I spent another 4 hours working the car out on the Malibu roads I've known intimately through years of recreational driving. By then I had learned my limits as well as the car's and I pushed it for all it was worth.
When I turned the car in the next day I had definitely gotten my money's worth. Hey, maybe it's the only time I'll ever get to do something like that, but, let me tell you, I'm glad I did.
Next year I'll have to come up with something else. Let's see...
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