UPDATE: Jeff Olson's Big Diesel Adventure continues
I missed the pre-race drivers’ meeting because I was eating cheesecake. That’s my excuse for the day. Pretty sad, eh?
I should have been disqualified or fined, but because everyone involved in the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup is so amazingly nice and professional and understanding, I was allowed to compete in Sunday's race. Didn’t even have to beg for it. Just got in the car, lined up dead last and went for it.
Missing the drivers’ meeting, it turns out, wasn’t such a big deal. Eating cheesecake before a race? Not recommended.
Had I gone to the drivers’ meeting, I would have learned all about launch control, which would have gained at least, oh, 20 positions at the start. And, had I gone to the drivers’ meeting, I would have known all the procedures for the start, which would have gained, oh, another four spots.
Yep, missing the drivers’ meeting quite possibly cost me the podium.
But let’s face it. Cheesecake may have been the dumbest move of the day. I have a severe case of moo-itis, the technical term for an unusually sleepy reaction to dairy products. Give me a glass of milk at 11 p.m. and I’ll be asleep by 11:15. Plus cheesecake tends to roil in the gut. So there I was, starting dead last in the most important race of my career, cheesecake flopping in my stomach, about to fall asleep.
But I did manage to accomplish a couple of my goals. I didn’t finish last. Technically, anyway. I finished 25th out of 27. And I did manage to shave another nine seconds off my qualifying lap, which is by far the best part. Just before the yellow cut things short, Glen Plake and I were engaged in a spirited duel for the cellar. I wanted to go another 30 minutes. I caught myself laughing at one point, it was so much fun.
As for the lap improvement, I got down to 2:55.109 during the race, a 9-second improvement from my best lap in qualifying and only 9 seconds behind the best race lap by the winner, Andy Lee. By my calculations, if we raced20another 15 hours, I might have been competitive. Of course, by that time I would have passed out from cheesecake poisoning, so maybe it’s best that I just sputtered around at the tail.
Best of all, though, I didn’t wreck it. I had nightmares about being upside-down in the gravel trap, releasing my five-point safety harness and dropping like cordwood to the ceiling. How would I explain to Allstate that I rolled a racecar with a bad case of moo-itis, a belly full of cheesecake and no idea how to operate the launch control? Silly journalist. Tracks are for kids.
And race they did. I saw none of it, but I’m told it was quite impressive. A little ragged at the start, but serious nonetheless. Lee, a 26-year-old from Arizona whose mother sold her home six years ago to finance his racing career, told me before the race that he needs the season championship and its $100,000 prize or he might not be racing next year. It was his first win in two seasons with the Jetta TDI Cup, a day after his first pole in any form of racing. Good guy, gutsy racer, great story.
In fact, I’d go a step further and predict long car eers in professional racing for 10 or so of this year’s class. Names like Timmy Megenbier (Sunday’s runner-up) and Mark Pombo (third) might be familiar in the sports-car and/or open-wheel world down the road, just as the rest of Sunday’s top 10 – Andrew Cordeiro, Joey Atterbury, Jake Thompson, Taylor Broekemeier, Derek Jones, Nicky Boulle and J.D. Mobley – might become familiar in the future to those who follow higher levels of road racing.
The program, led by Volkswagen Motorsport manager Clark Campbell and a group that includes technical program director Dennis McCormack, program manager Kyle Novak and driving instructors Jan Heylen, Ryan Arciero and Mark Miller, is as compete an entry level racing education as the young North American racer will find. In a couple of weeks, they’ll race at Road America. After that, it’s Mosport.
In between, they’ll be schooled in the 90 percent of professional racing that has nothing to do with the racetrack: public relations, sponsor cultivation, presentation, speaking and networking, to name a few. Not wearing the sponsors’ short when you’re in public at the racetrack? Oops, you’re docked points. Cell phone goes off in a drivers’ meeting? Docked points. Carry a tiff with another driver beyond the racetrack? You might find yourself out of the program.
The result is a well-heeled group of prospects receiving a proper pro racing education. Imagine what those who came before could have done with something like this. Imagine what I could have done with two more days of this?
More than likely, I would have learned one important lesson. Never, ever eat cheesecake before a race.
Comes a time in everyone’s life – some of us more than others – when this question applies:
What the hell have I gotten myself into?
I know exactly why I agreed to race this weekend in a Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup race at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill. I agreed to race because the impetuous voice in my head (I refer to him in the third person as Dumbass) told me it would be cool. Dumbass told me it would be fun. Dumbass said it would be an adventure. Dumbass insisted that I would look good in a racing suit. Dumbass said my on-ramp skills were quite impressive and warranted further evaluation in the company of real racers. Dumbass even said I might be able to turn pro someday.
Amazing that I still listen to him. Dumbass once told me, at the impressionable age of 16, that a passing cop couldn’t possibly see my car if I continued to drive with my lights off. After the officer caught me, Dumbass reassured me he’d never notice the fireworks and beer in the trunk. Yeah. That worked out quite well.
Still, after all these years, I let Dumbass talk me into the strangest things. He’ll say something like, “Surrre, you can be dropped into the fifth race of an entry-level sports car series with little experience and compete against kids so young they think you fought at Normandy.
Don’t worry about that shooting pain in your right hip or your chronically sore feet or the fact that you’ve named one of the many voices in your head. Get out there and race, you old goat.”
And I’ll actually answer him with something like, “Sounds great. Let’s do it.”
So it’s on such dubious advice that I joined the Jetta TDI Cup for a weekend misadventure that should be interesting, to say the least. My only goals during the next two days are a) stay out of the way of the real racers, b) stay out of the gravel, and c) try to relate what it must be like to race for real to you, the loyal reader. Obviously, I’ll be embellishing most of that, but play along. If I learn anything, I’ll pass it along with updates here and on www.facebook.com/jeffolson77 and www.twitter.com/jeffolson77.
Before I get to the basics, there’s someone else I need to blame for this: Hoover. I’ve known Adam Hoover since he came on board as a fresh-faced PR rep for Eddie Cheever’s IndyCar team back in the day. He moved on to Team Penske for a couple of years, and now he’s in charge of all publicity related to the Jetta TDI Cup. This is his territory, and his responsibility is to make the series look good, and he knows all about Dumbass, yet he preyed upon me. If I end up on my roof in Sunday’s race, it’s his fault. Likewise, if I hang on to finish 23rd, he gets the glory. All dents are his responsibility. I keep all trophies and prize money. As if.
So what is the Jetta TDI Cup? It’s an SCCA Pro Racing series featuring identically prepared diesel-powered Volkswagen Jettas that’s limited to drivers between the ages of 16 and 26. (Dumbass insists I still qualify.) The cars are nearly stock, with the most significant changes involving the interior, which has been gutted to make way for a rollcage and racing seat. The engine is nearly identical to the one you’ll buy in a production Jetta – I’m told I will want to buy one after the weekend’s events – and the car is slightly lowered, equipped with massive brakes and grippy Pirellis, and electronic paddle shifters.
Drivers put up $45,000 for the season lease, which includes tires and fuel. Each car carries a series sponsor – mine is Virginia Tech, which supplies several technicians to the series – and the driver is given the hood and front fenders for personal sponsors. The idea is to create an entry platform for young drivers to get into sports-car racing while marketing the Jetta TDI and Volkswagen’s Clean Diesel technology.
It appears to be working on both counts, although it might be too early to tell if it’s advancing the best and the brightest young racers on an upwardly mobile path. Names like Timmy Megenbier, Joey Atterbury, Jake Thompson, Andy Lee and A.J. Nealy – the top five in points at the moment – might not be familiar to the mainstream for another five or 10 years. But it’s a firm, hearty start.
Poor kids. They have no idea some Dumbass is going to be in their way this weekend.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: We learn how to talk like a racer, which means I become we. We meet the car, and we shall call her Hokie. Even if we have no idea what a Hokie is. We also get fitted for a Big Boy seat and a Big Boy racing suit, and we meet the competition. We’re so screwed.