You punk kids under 40 won't remember that line, from the intro of the old TV show ABC's Wide World of Sports (see YouTube). “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,” and then some poor schmuck falls on the ski jump ramp and launches butt-first. Yikes, looked like it hurt. Hate to admit this publicly, but that's pretty much how it felt for the K-PAX Volvo team at Long Beach during the SCCA Pro Racing Pirelli World Challenge GT race. Agony.
I gotta say that teammate Alex Figge and I are pretty much off the hook – or I sure hope so. Of course, we always think so at first, until the engineer brings up some data line on a computer that shows we messed it all up. I just floor it and drop the clutch. Car works? I look like a hero. Car doesn't work? A zero.
We had good speed on the streets. I was a hero in practice, no sandbags in my car (aside: sometimes World Challenge teams hold back a little to keep from getting restricted by the rules guys), then had the pole in qualifying, too, for a while. Alex went back out in the No. 9 Volvo and put 0.2sec on me, a long time when I knew I'd already had a good lap. I decided to stand on what I had; to not go out and skim the walls trying to beat my K-PAX teammate. It was a Volvo 1-2 grid, and the manufacturers' championship is our goal, our mission, our job.
Everyone else seemed out of range, and then James Sofronas in the Audi R8 nipped us on the checkered flag lap, taking the pole from Alex by a couple hundredths. Rats!
With our K-PAX Volvo all-wheel drive, we rule the starts, and we figured we'd still be the first two cars into Turn 1 and the fountain. We lined up, lights come on, foot to the floor. Lights go out, drop clutch. I immediately turn right to be sure and miss the No. 14 Audi, which had a weak start at St. Pete, and Alex is long gone. Immediately, I feel something is wrong. Shift lights are on, we're banging the limiter, but it's hard to shift – real hard. And I'm not feelin' the accel G forces. Major wheelspin? Nah. Revs? Yes. Gs? No. Clutch slip. Argh. That never gets better, only worse.
By now, the field is streaming past, but I've got maybe 50mph, so I'm easier to miss. Bad luck – we broke. Good luck – no one rammed us.
I take the runoff area at Turn 1, spouting off to my car chief Will Moody about what the Volvo is doing. Or not doing. The clutch won't fully engage, not even close, but won't completely disengage, either. Been there, done that. The clutch probably blew, and the pieces are jammed between the pressure plate and flywheel; for now.
Ever the optimist, I choose to limp back to the pits, but she'll only make about 30mph and, halfway back, I start getting really worried I'll be in the way of the thundering herd when they come back around. How stupid would that be?
Fingers crossed through the last tight section before that super-tight Long Beach hairpin and into pit lane, crawling. Smoke starts emanating from the hood vents. What's left of the clutch is probably burning by now.
I nurse it as far as I can, but the crew has to come push the poor S60 the last 50 yards. It's hot enough now that something is on fire – just a small fire, probably the slave cylinder and fluid. Friction plus slip equals heat. Hot heat.
No miracle cures, which I pretty much realized immediately after committing to pulling back out on track from the runoff area. I'm done, and get out to comfort my K-PAX team and cheer for Alex, who is leading.
Again. He's led almost all the laps thus far this season, but his one win came by way of the tech shed, when the Entrust Porsche of Ryan Dalziel failed with a funky splitter. That Truspeed team has apparently taken their ball and gone home in protest, a shame, because they were a real player in the series, having won it all in 2011 with Pat Long in the 911.
Late in the race, Alex is looking strong, slow-starting Sofronas is not yet back in it, and the Johnny O'Connell Cadillac is pressuring from second. It's looking pretty good for K-PAX to score the win when Figge suddenly appears in the Turn 1 brake zone backward! Slewing around, he dings the wall a couple of times before coming to rest in the runoff I'd escaped through earlier. A brake rotor has exploded – always catastrophic at high speed, but something that has never happened to K-PAX before. Like the clutch, more hot heat. But we've never lost one, until now. It's hard to keep these thoroughbreds running, sometimes.
So, it's o-for-two today, both due to first-ever failures. Looks like Johnny O will cruise to the win under yellow. Hold on, he's smoking! That Caddy is not happy. Under yellow? What the heck?
Turns out a sizeable chunk of that brake rotor had gone straight through the Caddy's radiator, the protective screening not designed for three-pound iron projectiles at 150mph. Good thing it wasn't the windshield...
He's on the last lap, nursing, praying, willing it around, but we can smell the sour stench of burned bearing oil as he goes by. Not a drop of water in the radiator. Even Mobil 1 can only do so much by itself.
Last lap, full-course yellow, 45mph, smoke starts really billowing about Turn 7, and the CTS-V takes its last breath. With just half a lap to go there is more agony of defeat; so close and so not Team Caddy's fault. The Audi R8 of Sofronas inherits the lead and scores its second consecutive win – under the yellow flag! Wow. Gotta finish to win – even a 50-minute World Challenge sprint.
For K-PAX, it's load 'em up for a long ride back to Denver. Repair, regroup, resurrect the world's fastest Volvo
S60s and aim to get “The Thrill of Victory” next time.
Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of SportsCar magazine. SportsCar is the official publication of the SCCA (www.scca.com).