Lone Pine Time Trials
18 May 2002
I went to the 2002 Lone Pine Time Trials with only two autocrosses under my belt; at both of those, I found myself near the bottom of the novice class. I was driving Car 814, my H Stock (HS) 1994 Civic del Sol Si on Bridgestone Potenza RE910 all-season radials.
The Time Trial is a long, fast autocross held at the Manzanar Airstrip near Lone Pine, California. It's a non-sanctioned event that raises funds for Braille Institute Youth Center. The airstrip is on Highway 395, directly across from the Manzanar internment center where Japanese-Americans were sent during World War II. As far as I can tell, the airstrip was built at the same time, and the asphalt hasn't seen much upkeep since. It's severely cracked with vegetation growing through the holes. Cows also graze on the airstrip, and leave their own obstacles on the pavement. Fortunately, they kept their distance while we were running; hitting a cow may not result in a 2-second penalty, but it's expensive none the less.
Lone Pine is at least three hours' drive for most drivers, so they generally stayed in Lone Pine hotels or camped at the airstrip. Fortunately, my girlfriend Gina lives in Ridgecrest, only an hour south of Lone Pine, so I stayed there, and she came up to keep me company and take the photographs you see here. The Time Trials are run on Saturday and Sunday (the course being run in different directions on the two days). I only ran on Saturday due to time constraints. Since I was scheduled for the first run group, we drove up to Lone Pine to take advantage of early tech inspection and registration Friday evening. That went quickly and smoothly; a hospitality suite with snacks and beer was available, but due to other obligations we couldn't take advantage.
We got up at 5:00 Saturday morning, got everything ready, and were at the airstrip around 7:15. After hauling everything out of the car and inflating the tires, I was ready to walk the course, but veterans told me that due to the length of the course, nobody actually walks it. Instead, the 20 minutes of parade laps in the morning allow the drivers to learn the course. So I hung out and talked to some other drivers until it was time for the drivers meeting. There we learned that the turnout was very small (50 drivers, compared to 200-300 for the LA area autocrosses I've been to), and that we would run in only 3 groups instead of 4. We would get 4 runs each, instead of the 3 we got at my previous autocrosses.
After the meeting, we drove 4 parade laps around the course, which was sufficient for learning the course and deciding which way to enter the slaloms. The course starts with a left turn into a sequence that looks tight and twisty, but can actually be taken at or near full-throttle. This sequence would dump me into a straight, right around my upshift to third gear. I could get going pretty fast on the straight, and then enter a 6-cone(?) slalom on the left, exiting to a big right-hand sweeper. The sweeper exits into the ultra-fast back straight, which runs the whole length of the airstrip, and has a number of offset gates that force you to weave across the whole width of the strip. During the timed runs, my speed would exceed 80 mph on this stretch. After all of the gates, there's a right-hand sweeper onto a long straight with no gates, just a full-throttle run toward a 6-cone slalom. This slalom was challenging for most of us, because the last two cones are really close together, and can cause trouble even if you had a good rhythm to start with. The slalom heads into a tight right hairpin and then an even tighter left hairpin, which leads to a narrow channel with a lane change and then to the finish line.
Since I was in the first run group, I didn't have to wait long after the parade laps. I was about the third car to run the course, and posted my day's best time of 156.836 on a clean run. This was actually a pretty decent time, especially considering that the course favors powerful cars, which mine isn't. My second run was a DNF, because I pulled a "Hey... was that a gate over there?" maneuver. Despite the shortcut, I added 3 seconds to my time. My third run featured a spin through one of the gates on the fast section, requiring me to re-start the engine. It was easy to spin on the course, because there was a lot of slick debris, and any departures from the racing line at 70 mph were punished severely. Somehow I spun through the gate without hitting any cones, resulting in a clean, if horribly slow, run! My fourth run was better than the last two, but I carried too much speed through the exit and spun out trying to get off the course; that also resulted in a DNF.
Despite the DNF's and spins, the runs were fun. My car usually plows through the turns, but was actually prone to oversteer on this course, because of the slick surface, high speeds, and braking hard into the slaloms. I noted that the starters did a great job of keeping the cars well-spaced on the circuit; despite a lot of spins, I didn't notice a single red flag all day.
Between my runs, I looked at the results board and saw that I was the only driver entered in H Stock. Woo-hoo! My first victory was assured!
After my run group, it was time to work. Given the vast size of the course, it took a while to get the workers into position. Most were distributed from the bed of a pickup truck, but my post was near the start/finish line, so I could walk. Fortunately, nothing too exciting transpired where I was working, so I was able to watch and learn from the drivers. In particular, it was clear that most of them were fooled into driving conservatively through the first sequence, which can actually be taken quite fast.
As I finished my work shift, it was announced that fun runs would commence after the third run group. Gina and I made a quick trip back to Lone Pine for some lunch, and returned to the airstrip in plenty of time. By the time we got back, the winds had picked up, a common occurrence in the Owens Valley. While it had little effect on the racing, it was bothersome in the pits. Because the surface was very hard on tires, and most people were driving again the next day, few drivers wanted to do fun runs. In fact, the organizers were afraid that there wouldn't be enough workers (8 in each of two shifts) to cover the course. But there were just enough, thanks to some volunteers, and I was able to do 5 fun runs with no waiting between runs. Gina rode along for the first 4, her first autocross experience beyond the sidelines. No spins, but my times were in the low 160's, kind of disappointing given my 156 on my first run of the day. But I finished the day with 9 runs (20 miles!) under my belt, which was great.
After the fun runs and associated work shift, Gina and I packed up and headed back to town to await the dinner and banquet that evening. Unfortunately, since we didn't have a room in Lone Pine, we couldn't shower or change before dinner. The SCNAX folks we dined with were kind enough not to call attention to our hygiene. The dinner had to be moved at the last minute because we were locked out of the intended facility, but the organizers did a great job of securing an alternate room at the Bonanza restaurant.
Unfortunately, I didn't receive my anticipated trophy; their policy is not to give trophies in classes with fewer than three drivers. If this policy had been announced earlier, I might have tried to be re-classified in, say, an indexed stock tire class. On the bright side, there were lots of door prizes, and I won 8 quarts of Valvoline motor oil. It was even the proper weight for my car and had the latest API certification!
The Time Trials included an interesting "Beater Class," which was limited to cars valued under $500. It's reminiscent of the Grassroots Motorsports $2002 Challenge. My pride was saved, because I managed to beat all but one of the beaters by at least a few seconds! Given that I previously edged a stock 1962 Cadillac 6-Window by a mere 0.1 second, I think I'm getting somewhere. Also, my times were consistent with the middle of the SK2 pack.
In all, the high speeds and slick surface of the Lone Pine Time Trials were a fun departure from conventional autocrosses, and I hope to return next year. Between the tire-shredding surface and the remote location, though, I'm not sure I'd want to do it more than once per year! I didn't have time for many of the social aspects of the Time Trials, which seem to be a key feature and something to keep in mind for 2003.