This will be a tough race report to write, because this year's HSR Walter Mitty Challenge at Road Atlanta was such a split-personality hodgepodge of good weather and bad weather, great fun and serious setbacks, magnificent competition and really dumb driving and friendly, sunny smiles occasionally punctuated by ugly temper tantrums. The only thing I know for sure at this point is my title: "Full Moon Mitty."
And it was.
But rather than dwell on all that, I'd like to tell you the part I can't really put in the magazine report. And that, of course, is my own, personal story of the weekend, which was just as strange, fun, rewarding and disappointing as all the joy and crap swirling around me. So here's "One Man's Mitty," as told by yrs. trly.
My friend Gordon King had once again stupidly agreed to let Andy Greene and I run his lovely little Royale RP4 (that's me in it below), and therein lies a somewhat sad story.
Ex-pat South African/now Charleston native Gordon is a hell of car and motorcycle enthusiast and a pretty damn fair racing driver as well. But, like many of us as the old personal mileage keeps advancing, he ran into some deteriorating-vision problems on one side and went to see an eyeball doctor who said he could sort it all out. So there was an operation. A couple of them, in fact. And the net result was that, instead of fixing things, it made them worse. So, with one good eye left and essentially no help on depth perception or peripheral vision on the other side, he had no choice but to give up driving racecars.
And that's a bitter, bitter pill for someone who loves it as much as my friend Gordon.
It's also why his Royale is up for sale.
Now people always ask me "what's your favorite racecar to drive?" and my stock answer is always "the next one."
But if the question were re-stated as "If you could only drive ONE racecar for the rest of your so-called career, what would it be?", I'd do a lot of hemming and hawing and the best I could probably manage would be to narrow it down to a short list of a half-dozen or so. For sure a Ferrari 250LM would be on it, because it was my first real "icon" drive and my first-ever ride-mooch story for the magazine (not to mention that I love the way it works and sounds and feels and it's got an unbelievable life story) and also a Chevron B36 because they fit me like a second skin, go fast, feel great and I've always done well with them (1st overall at the CHR Enduro way back when with my late, great friend Al Lewis and second step on the Enduro podium at Road Atlanta in Rich Carlino's example...see pic below)
But no question Gordon's Royale would be way up there, too.
So I was really looking forward to driving it again. Plus Andy Greene, the Royale and I had some "unfinished business" from a couple years back far as the Mitty Challenge Enduro was concerned. Won't bore you with the details here (I mean, how many times have you seen your co-driver take the lead, pull away from the field, then your team cuts a PERFECT 5-minutes on-the-nose pitstop and nobody passes you (or even shows up in your mirrors!) for the rest of the race...and yet when you pull into victory lane, there's some effing Mustang that was never even close to you already occupying the First Place spot?). For full revolting details, see "We Wuz Robbed" in the old, archived e-blast available here:
But the point is Andy and the Royale & me were really eager for a rematch. Only, like a lot of the other stuff swirling around us at this year's Mitty, it didn't quite go according to plan. Starting with rain all afternoon on Friday(we didn't have rain tires and, having been out on a wet track on dry tires before, I have no desire to rediscover how much seat upholstery my sphincter can inhale) so neither one of us turned a wheel.
And then came the phone call.
Andy's 90-something-year-old father had suffered a severe heart attack in Washington, DC.
The family was gathering.
He had to be there. ASAP.
Of course the logistics were a mess (Andy had towed up from Savannah solo with the Royale rig plus he had a customer's Ferrari to get back to his shop there), but, like always, everybody pitched in (particularly Wayne from Ted Wentz's Savannah Race Engineering shop next door and Toby Bean's wife Ann was a huge help getting last-minute air connections made) and, come 8pm, I was hustling Andy to the airport to catch his 10pm plane to Washington.
Sadly, his father did pass away, but Andy got there to be with his family. Sometimes that's the best you can do.
It was on my way back from the airport that I got a surprise call from Gordon. "We have a new co-driver for you," he said with a teasing layer of mystery in his voice.
Jesus! I knew what those three letters meant!
Elliott Forbes-Robinson is not only one of the top professional road-racing drivers EVER (three wins at the 24 Hours of Daytona, Trans-Am series Champion, ALMS series champion, 3 SCCA National Championships, has won major races in five (coun't em!) decades, Motorsports Hall of Fame and on and on) but he and wife Lounett are great friends of mine (he likes my books!) and are among my most favorite racing people. And that part was great!
Downside was that I knew how damn good EFR is and that, at best, this would be a serious lesson in humility.
Upside was that we figured to do pretty well (how can you go wrong with arguably the fastest car and even more arguably the fastest co-driver?) and I couldn't wait to casually mention on the podium (assuming we made it there) that EFR and I had a combined age of 142 years...
To give you a little perspective, Ulysses S. Grant was president 142 years ago and that's the year Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis got their patent for blue denim jeans with copper rivets.
Even so, old EFR and me are still feeling pretty spry.
Plan was for me to go out in qualifying Sat. morning and then for EFR to take his first laps ever in the Royale during the sprint race that afternoon. My end of the deal was pretty much a case of car-coitus interruptus, as I headed out of the pits, warmed up the tires a bit, easily passed several people and then came face to face with black flags on all the corner stations. Damn. So I pulled into the pits, waited in line with the motor switched off while they cleaned up whatever sort of mess they needed to clean up and eventually we were released again. Passed a few more people and then, what do you know, black flags on all the corner stations again. Into the pits. And that was the end of the session! Not even one complete lap at speed. Aaarrrggghhhh!
Remember what I said about "The Full Moon Mitty"?
I made sure to stop up to see my friends in the announcers' booth and explain that I was the guy in the RED helmet and that the guy in the Royale in the BLUE helmet would be the aforementioned and esteemed EFR, and then I went up on the hill during lunch and signed books with my friends Ute and Tom at their new "Velocity Stack Shack" goodies-and-geegaws tent on the vendor row (and did pretty well with it, if you must know).
Come racetime I was back trackside to watch EFR "feel out" Gordon's Royale, and may I say he was impressive indeed. There were 48 cars entered in the 7-lap sprint race (split among several different classes), and the shrewd handicappers on hand had it down to four cars in "the hunt at the front." Seasoned (you could even say grizzled) old pro and longtime head instructor at Road Atlanta Doc Bundy is always fast in Paul Rego's well-prepared, electric blue Lotus 23b, Cliff Berry was on hand in ANOTHER Royale RP4 just like ours (but on more expensive--and stickier--Avon tires) and serious second-gen racer/car preparer Craig Chima was in the mix with his VERY rapid Lotus Super 7 (which is surely in much the same configuration Colin CXhapman himself would have arrived at if he'd spent half-a-century developing the 7 concept instead of fooling around with all that Formula One stuff).
Much to my amazement (if not complete surprise), EFR got a handle on "our" RP4 rather quickly, and knifed through a few cars to engage fellow-pro Doc Bundy in a truly stirring race for the lead (see below).
It was exciting stuff (including some really expert passing and re-passing) and eventually, EFR worried/goaded Doc into a rare mistake at Turn 5, and went on to win the damn race!
The funny part is that I'd told Doc's car-owner Paul Rego (in jest, I assure you, and long before I learned that I'd be co-driving with EFR) that I'd be "coming after Doc" in our sprint race. Better (or worse?) yet, the announcers completely forgot my earlier visit to the tower and were calling ME in the winning Royale over the PA system. Did quite a bit for my reputation as a driver...and without even working up a sweat!
And, somewhere around half-distance, Cliff's Royale came around all on its lonesome and "our" Royale was nowhere to be seen.
Turns out EFR was having some brake issues (master cylinder? piston seal on a front caliper? who knows?) and, heading into Turn 6 with Cliff all over him, EFR stood on the binders and, although the pedal was hard, he had only the rears working....
Exit EFR and "our" Royale into the Turn 6 kitty litter. Fortunately without damage.
Our ad-hoc crew (thank you, Wayne, Billy & Henry) bled it out overnight, but it still didn't feel quite right so we agreed to park it. Damn. My whole Royale weekend boiled down to those two incomplete, car-coitus interuptus "qualifying" laps Saturday morning!
But at least Gordon's promised me a rain-check if he doesn't sell the damn thing first.
So remember: It's an awful car.
I wouldn't buy it if I wuz you...