Thursday, February 4, 2016

Revisiting My First Meeting With Dave Mirra...

With the extremely sad news of Dave Mirra's suicide today came the memories of my first meeting with the BMX and Rally star some eight years ago.  It was my first time attending a Rally event but wouldn't be the last.  Reading through what I wrote about him then remarkably matches up with what everyone seems to remember about him.

Also funny is the people that I didn't realize I had run into at that time that I would get to know much better later on in life--Vittorio Barres and his Audi for instance.  Regardless, it makes for a nice remembrance...only wish the memories would have stayed buried and not dredged up due to Dave's death.

OK, so Dave Mirra's performance at the “Team O’Neil Rally” probably wasn’t as good as he hoped...

Errrr…well, it definitely wasn’t as good as he (or his fans) had hoped, but Mirra’s entrance into the first stop on the Rally America Eastern Regional Championship did create a “Mirra”cle of sorts. In conjunction with his fellow racers, Dave Mirra brought real racing excitement and economic benefits to a small, sleepy, (decidedly blue collar) New England town that doesn’t share in the benefits that winter snows bring to nearby ski resorts.

Coming into the weekend it was known that Dave Mirra would be entering his freshly prepped, Monster Energy Drink sponsored, Vermont SportsCar Subaru. The onetime BMX superstar and holder of the record for most medals won at the X-Games, Dave Mirra is following the path of other crossover stars like Travis Pastrana, “Cowboy” Kenny Bartram and Boris Said in trying his hand at Rally Racing. Having started his rally “career” only a few months prior with a four day class at the Team O’Neil Rally School, located in Dalton, New Hampshire, Mirra returned to try and show off his early progress. The “Team O’Neil Rally” would mark only his second full rally race ever. His only previous race came back in November of ’07 at the “Rally of the Tall Pines” in Ontario, Canada where he finished 22nd in a field of 34.

Coming up from his home in comparatively balmy North Carolina, Mirra might have been questioning his sanity coming through the permanent snow storm that hovers in the mountain pass of Franconia Notch; the entrance into what New Englanders call the Great North Woods. Noting the N.C. plates and large Monster emblazoned support truck and trailer it was to miss Mirra’s arrival, early Friday evening before the Saturday race.

Though traveling with a logistical support team larger than any other team at the race, Mirra comes off as being humble and low key. Stepping into the Dalton, NH town hall Mirra does not demand half the attention the graphics on his race vehicle do. Short, lean and compact, Mirra comes off as perhaps more of a Golden Glove caliber boxer than one of the best known Gen-X “extreme” athletes around. He carries none of the bravado or “look at me” demands that we associate with that scene. But despite his understated stature and ego, Mirra still attracts attention wherever he goes.

Unfortunately for the Applebee’s waitress attending to Mirra and crew after the driver’s meeting, her corporate policies forbid her from asking for an autograph or picture with him that she would have loved to get - but was reduced to watching Mirra walk back to his hotel and talking about her brush with fame with the rest of the waitstaff. Fortunately, freelance writers and not bound by a like set of corporate policies and I was as giddy as a little schoolgirl to have my picture taken with Mr. Mirra!

Saturday morning arrived clear and cold, with little wind. Great conditions for a winter rally, not only for the racers but for the marshals and other course workers who would be standing outside most of the day, marking start/finish times, keeping the locals from getting run over and monitoring radio traffic, etc. As one of the workers assigned to the far end of the course I got to drive its length and see just what the racers were up against.

The course was broken down into three basic sections. One being a tight, heavily forested, twisty area where the one lane road surface consisted of mostly hardpacked snow with some small icy patches. A skilled driver could speed though this section, sliding through corner after corner without fear of any major damage. Going off course here would mean high-centering your car in a snowbank or at worst, crashing your car into a relatively small tree (nothing outside the ordinary for a rally racer).

The second major section of the course was the most interesting. Coming out of the forest, the course quickly transitioned into the working property of Chick’s Sand and Gravel. Almost like a mini Pike’s Peak, as a number of people described it, the road would switchback its way over and over down a very steep hillside. The road was a frozen gravel, providing decent traction and lots of flying debris as the cars tried to avoid skittering off the outside edge of the road. Much like Pike’s Peak, a mistake here could mean the end of your vehicle and possibly your life, as the dropoffs were literally heart stopping.

The third and final section held the highest speeds of the day. When exiting the gravel pit, the road widened into long sweeping turns and straightaways, access roads for the large dumptrucks and construction equipment. As one competitor commented, this course was exactly what a winter, regional rally should be—A relatively short course over mixed terrain, meant to challenge but not frustrate the competitors.

The vehicles attacking this course were an eccentric mix of new and old, high end and home brewed, running the gamut from a pair of vehicles born in 1987 (an MR2 and an Audi 4000) all the way up to an ’03 Impreza STi.

In theory, rally races start the fastest car first with the rest of the field following in intervals to minimize the chance of any vehicles coming into direct contact with one another. Rally racing is not as much a car vs. car sport as it is a car vs. course sport. While this sounds good in theory, throw in the vast differences between 2WD cars and AWD cars, experienced and inexperienced drivers, and intervals that may have seemed sufficient at the starting line become non-existent in reality.

More than once during the day a pair of cars would come roaring by the snowy straightaway I was at. They traveled so close that if this was desert racing, I would have expected the faster, rear-positioned car to come up and punt the slower car out of the way. As a low key regional event however, no inter-car shenanigans took place and all competitors ended the day on good terms.

The morning session of runs produced a number of strong and close results with the Subaru STi of John Cassidy and Dave Getchell grabbing stage wins in two out of the first four stages, placing a close second in the other two. Cassidy’s STi seemed well prepared for the slick, twisty sections. Whenever his competitors’ speeds slowed, Cassidy’s times rose to the top of the leaderboard. Dave Mirra put together a very consistent morning with a third, two fourths, and an eighth place finish in the first four stages.

With no major carnage in the morning sessions, all ten competitors were ready to go in the afternoon with just a quick inspection of their vehicles and a bite to eat. Many of the afternoon runs would take place on the same sections that were traversed in the morning, but run in the opposite direction.

Instead of running down the mini-Pike’s Peak gravel pit switchbacks, the drivers would now be going up it. While this took much of the major danger out of the course (momentum and gravity would now be working with the racers, keeping the vehicles from going over the edge,) it also meant that traction and horsepower would be the deciding factors on the steep road and loose gravel. This being the case, it’s no surprise that the Subaru STi of John Cassidy and the Mitsubishi Evo VI of Enda McCormack dominated the afternoon time sheets. Cassidy won both the stages, running directly up the mini-Pike’s Peak with McCormack finishing in second each time. Cassidy also finished second behind Christopher Duplessis and his surprisingly strong 1990 VW GTI in the other two afternoon runs.

While there was little damage in the morning runs, the afternoon was a different story. Whether the limited amount of sunlight melted some snow and greased things up a bit or the competitors were getting tired is unknown. What is known is that a couple of the competitors would not finish the day.

First on the chopping block was the mid-engined Toyota MR2 of Jim McCelland. Struggling all day with the slick conditions, the game little MR2’s traction finally gave out and off the track and into a tree she went. Some minor damage to the MR2’s headlight and front fender was the result but McCelland was able to get the Toyota back on the track and cross the finish line. As Tim O’Neil (founder and owner of the Team O’Neil Rally School and five-time US and North American Rally Racing Champion) said, “Many racers at that point would have cut their losses and called it quits." McCelland didn’t. He pressed on and with a giant grin on his face, finished every stage thrown at him and the little MR2 that could.

Murphy’s Law’s next victim was Dave Mirra and his really shiny Impreza. Again showing off some solid driving skills for someone so new to the sport, Mirra continued finishing in the middle of the pack during the first three of the afternoon runs. However, on the very last run of the day, Mirra lost control of his machine, sending it careening into another of New Hampshire’s finest (trees that is), and taking out a good portion of the front passenger side of the vehicle. Deciding that they could not extract the now mangled Impreza in a timely manner, Mirra and Edstrom (who as the regular co-driver for Travis Pastrana must be used to such accidents) ended their day with a DNF.

Last but not least was the experienced team of Vittorio Bares and Kristin Chute in their ’87 Audi 4000. In their case, the mini-Pike’s Peak hill climb proved too much for the Audi’s fuel pump as it gave up the ghost on their final run of the day. They needed a tow by one of the sweep vehicles back to the O’Neil Rally School’s compound, resulting in the other DNF of the day.

With the day's racing finished, the competitors and workers retired to the “Folk House” restaurant (which was only staying open through this event as a favor to Tim O’Neil and was closing its doors permanently afterwards) where the beers flowed, racing photos were examined, and stories of the day were swapped. Dave Mirra left the festivities early (but not without saying goodbye to about 50 of his newest friends) as he was off to the Vermont SportsCar facilities to prepare for the following weekends Rally America Sno*Drift event in Atlanta, MI. Mirra will be moving from regional events into Rally America’s premier series, against the big names in American rally racing like Pinker, Foust, Block, Bartram and reigning Rally America champion Travis Pastrana. Here’s hoping the boys back at Vermont SportsCar can get Mirra’s car back in one piece after this weekend's brawl with a tree in time for the Sno*Drift Rally.

Shortly after Mirra’s departure, the final results were posted. Coming in third in the ’07 Team O’Neil Rally, with three stage wins and a total time of 56 minutes, 12 seconds were Christopher Duplessis and Catherine Woods in their very feisty VW GTI. Second place went to Enda McCormack and Bernard Farrell, with a single stage win in their Mitsubishi Evo VI and a total time of 54 minutes, 42 seconds. Winning four stages on the day and taking the ’07 Team O’Neil Rally crown with a time of 52 minutes, 36 seconds was the Impreza STi of John Cassidy and Dave Getchell.

The spoils of Cassidy’s dominant victory? There are no gold medals here and no wads of cash - but something just as valuable, to rally racers, anyway.

With the win, John Cassidy and Dave Getchell secure themselves a free entry into the New England Forest Rally (July 11-12 2008), the sixth stop on Rally America’s current schedule, valued at well over $1000. Held in the Bethel, ME area near the Sunday River ski area, the New England Forest Rally is only New England stop on the circuit for North America’s top rally series and generally brings out fans in droves from across the Northeastern United States and Canada. The free entry will now ensure Cassidy’s ability to compete against the big boys of American rally racing and show them that it’s not just the better known names that can hammer down.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Coolest Cars (IMHO) at '16 Barrett Jackson Auction

Some have already been sold, some not.  Not going to provide a lot of details here as there are so many.  Just the basic vehicle info and if it has been sold already, how much it went for.  Lots of Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros, etc. all quite boring and also lots of old Toyota FJs with Chevy heart transplants...Zzzzzz...All in all, not a lot of good stuff given the # of vehicles available.  Not a single Nissan, only a single Datsun...maybe another year...

'71 Beetle Dune Buggy.  Sold for $9,570

'69 International Harvester Scout.  Sold for $17,600

'70 Chevrolet Blazer.  Sold for $35,200

'78 Toyota Landcruiser FJ-40. Sold for $37,400

'64 Austin Mini Cooper S Historic Rally car.  Sold for $20,900

'82 Toyota Pickup.  Sold for $24,200

'65 Datsun 1500 Roadster.  Sold for $22,000

'71 Ford Bronco.  Sold for $27,500

'75 Ford Bronco.  Sold for $31,900

'13 Local Motors Rally Fighter.  Not Sold Yet.

'90 BMY HASCO M923A2.  Not Sold Yet.

'86 Land Rover Defender Pickup.  Not Sold Yet.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Nissan Entry at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona

Yup...not exactly a common thing these days but there is a Nissan powered entry at the 24 Hours of Daytona this coming weekend.

The #37 of SMP Racing running in the top "Prototype" class against the Panoz Deltawing and the new Ford GTs is running a naturally aspirated Nissan VK45DE V8.  While it finished third in the speed tests at Daytona in early January, no result of that nature should be expected.  The SMP team will have to play a cautious game of wait and see, hoping for breakdowns of the "virgin" Ford GTs and experimental Deltawing to have any shot at a podium.  Truth is that while this team and exact car have run exceptionally well in Europe (also known as Russian Bears Motorsport) in the LMP2 class there, it is not designed for the unique characteristics of Daytona like the Daytona Prototype cars are.

Still, it will be good to have someone to root for other than your typical NASCAR drivers slumming it up in endurance racing.

Facebook page:  SMP Racing
Twitter page:  SMP Twitter
SMP HomePage (though not working for me at moment): SMP HomePage

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Finishing Nissans of the 2016 Dakar

Not that there were that many of them...and the best performing Nissan wasn't wrapped in Nissan clothing at all as it wore a Renault badge.  The best Nissan Frontier of the event suffered a bad crash on the second to last stage of the event and DNF'd...As we've seen in recent years...the Nissan marque has dwindled at the Dakar.  Our last best hope is from the Redline Motorsports guys in South Africa who continue to build great Rally Raid vehicles designed around a V8 Nissan engine at a price appropriate for serious privateers while providing event support as well.  So here they are...the Nissan finishers of the 2016 Dakar.

17th Place, #317, Renault Sport Argentina, Renault Duster (Nissan VK50 V8), Emiliano Spataro

18th Place, #308, Renault Sport Argentina, Renault Duster (Nissan VK50 V8), Christian Lavieille

36th Place, #375, Red Line Racing Team, Nissan Navara (Nissan VK50 V8), Sean Reitz

40th Place, #363, Revival Aventures RS 13 Nissan (4L Nissan), Jean Philippe Theuriot

Three other Nissan Navaras, one Nissan powered Renault Duster and one Nissan powered buggie were DNFs in the '16 Dakar.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

National Motocross Returns to Southwick!

I hadn't realized this until now (about three months behind the news) but its great news for offroad racing of any kind here in the Northeast.

After two years away, a change in promoters, a reacquiring of town permits and a rebuilding of its AMA relationship, the sand of Southwick, MA will see a national level motocross event in '16.  Last held in '13 with the 450 class won by Ryan Dungey and the 250 class won by Broc Tickle, the Southwick event is likely the largest pure offroad event in New England and its not likely that anything is even a close second.

Scheduled for Saturday 7/9/16 tickets are already on sale and available here:

I can tell you from having attended the event before, if you are going to attend, be prepared for a hot day and TONS of people with little room if you are holding a "general admission" ticket.  This was about as or more crowded an event as any concert I've been to with long lines for bathrooms and food/drink.  The action is great and you can be right on top of the track, the grounds are beautiful with the greenest of grass and pine trees and the most wonderfully tan sand/dirt track manicured as if it were Augusta National...but its not an event for those looking for cushy conditions on the cheap...If you have the ability to buy a VIP ticket that includes an all day pit pass, private bathroom and viewing areas, they are highly recommended.

Regardless, it will be great to has such a prestigeous and nationally known offroad event return to New England.  Website here:

Monday, January 18, 2016

New England International Auto Show 2016

I think I've gone to this auto show about four times in the last six years.  Often I come away, having spent my $20+ on myself and my son and wonder if it was really worth it.  After all, I'm not really seeing anything I haven't before.  These aren't primarily custom vehicles and are overwhelmingly your run of the mill family sedans and haulers.

This year at least there was the new 2016 Nissan Titan to look at for the first time as it has only gone into production in the last month.  The '16 NEIAS had two of these new Titans.  Given I had not one but two ten year olds with me, my time with the Titans was a bit limited but did get a few impressions on it and the other vehicles in attendance this year.

Greeting you right when you come in is the new Ford Focus RS...Unfortunately Ford did not allow anyone to open the vehicle up, look at the engine, feel the interior, sit in it, etc.  This was quite odd as the only other vehicles like this on site were those up on rotating platforms or the high-end luxury marques that I can understand the brand worrying that some 12 year old is going to spill his Coke on the inside of a $250,000 Maserati.  Missed opportunity here, particularly as right next to the Focus RS is an identically black Ford Fiesta ST looking like a near identical vehicle.  I'm betting 1/2 the audience thought they WERE the same vehicle just on display twice and just shrugged their shoulders, "Eh, a Fiesta..." not knowing just what the RS is...

Uhhh, yeah...I guess (?) I have to be happy that there was one motorsports related display vehicle present (?)

No, this wasn't an actual GRC race vehicle.  It was just your standard beetle with a faux wing and a GRC/Andretti Motorsports related wrap on it...and not a very good one.  Heck, the little flip up (for the rearview camera), chrome, VW logo on the rear truck was COVERED with the wrap so it wouldn't open or flip up...VW should demand a refund.

Perhaps the most interesting stand to me, maybe because I'm just not familiar with them, was the Alpha Romeo display.  First was the Alpha 4C Spyder.  A beautiful car though I'm still not sure how I feel about the nose...It is also strikingly similar in size and design cues to the Lotus Elise--not that this is a bad thing.  With more power, more weight, more cost, fast 0-60, higher top speed than the Elise, this is seems like a Lotus on HGH.
Then you have the Alpha Giulia which is the exact opposite of the 4C.  The Giulia is so unassuming and small you might think it a simple econobox commuter.  Its dimensions are about the same as my Altima, it has 4 doors and if it weren't for the bright yellow calipers (and the four-leaf clover Quadrifoglio logo) the vehicle would have zero visual performance pretensions.  That puts the 4C (and most other vehicles this side of a supercar) to shame in terms of raw numbers.  Under the hood is a Ferrari derived twin turbo V6 with over 500 HP, a 0-60 time of 3.8 seconds and a top speed of 190 mph...all in a four door "family" saloon...

Oh, and Alpha also had the most stunning collection of "booth babes" I've seen in any number of auto shows I've they just picked them up off the runways of Milan and flew them in on a company charter... gullwings...moving on...

Ugliest R8 ever??  Yup...ugliest R8 ever...

Awesome Porsche 911 GT3 RS...Mean and purposeful as the best Porsches are.  No faux wheel vents and louvers here.

A Nissan GT-R that all those in attendance think looks cool and fast but wold be flinging fiberglass and plastic parts all over the track in the first five minutes you start thrashing it.  Not too many custom vehicles present...but this was one.  Built by out of Marlborough and Norwood, MA.

Also "built" by Toy Companies, Inc. was the saddest custom vehicle I've ever seen.  A Toyota Camry with a "custom" grey paint job, blacked out logos, and stanced wheels...Some soccer mom must be feeling hella fly cruising Metro-West in this machine...

The new '16 Toyota Prius.  I've never hated the Prius design in the past.  It was always smooth and very neutral in a "must be as aerodynamic as possible" sort of way.  This new edition has exchanged the feminine, swooping "curves" of the old model to more masculine angles both front and rear and also has given the vehicle a more extended rump rather than just cropping the vehicle off right at the rear wheel.  It is not a becoming look for the Prius.  With numerous hybrids and fully electric vehicles flooding the market now Toyota felt the pressure to renew the grandmother of all hybrids and "green" vehicles for it not to get lost in the shuffle.  This look does not benefit it and it will have to get by on its long reputation for fuel sipping and general Toyota reliability.

The Subaru BRZ...oh, the poor BRZ and its sibling the Scion FRS...poor forgotten children of the cheap sportscar family...Only looked at by pimply faced teen boy sad...They deserve better.

 No exterior shots of the Titan.  If you want those there are plenty around to be found.  Instead you have here the in bed the gooseneck attachment for heavy-duty towing.  Won't see one of these in your Toyota Tundra.  You can also see the bed mounted cargo boxes as well.

Rear diff.  No sharing of the rear diff between the Titan and the Frontier or Xterra or other Nissan models this time.  It is an American Axle designed and built, 9.84" differential with 3.5" axle tubes.  There is some serious beef here.

Lastly the Cummins engine.  Do we have enough Cummins logos yet?  One on each front fender and here a big honkin chrome logo on the engine block.  Well, if you're going to partner with Cummins, you might as well promote it right?

One final note...the leather in the Titan XD--supplest leather I've ever felt--in a car or out.  I wouldn't get my work truck with leather but goodness...its like they skinned baby golden calfs for this could sleep for days on that stuff...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Book Review: The Caine Mutiny

Maudlin, melodramatic, simple, cliche...all of these MIGHT be used to describe parts of The Caine Mutiny...they'd all be partly right and all be significantly wrong.

Some 500+ pages in length this Pulitzer Prize winning work is easy to read.  There are no verbal flourishes or complex structures--yet it fleshes out its characters in ways most novels only aspire to without leaving the reader wishing for plot progress.

Its supposed "main" character is Willie Keith, a young sailor who is an upperclass, spoiled, WASP from NY.  Wouk doesn't shy away from showing all the prejudices of the times (WWII era), blacks, jews, gays, Catholics, women in general, etc. are all viewed as lower than ideal--yet, this is where the book is most progressive.  It is the Jew who rescues Willie Keith and his friend, Maryk during their court martial hearings.  It is May Wynn, the poor Catholic girl, who Willie turns to and away from his WASP mother at the end of the novel.  It is the blacks who stand by and hold their positions on the ship while the white captain jumps overboard to save his precious novel.

At the time the novel was written and following very popular movie made (which I have not seen to date) WWII was only six years behind the audience in 1951.  Likely they were more thrilled with the prospect of reading about the actions on board a minesweeper in the midst of the Pacific War than they were in hearing of the social inequities and conflicts to come foreshadowed here (JFK's election as the first Catholic president, Civil Rights and Women's Rights battles to come) and if someone wants to point out instances of where these parts of the novel were brought up at the time of its publishing you can certainly do so.  To me it seems a book about 15 years ahead of its time.

That said, The Caine Mutiny is also a supremely entertaining novel.  Largely without battles or military conflict one might think of in a book occurring during WWII, the Caine (a decrepit WWI era destroyer) is relegated to menial duties--towing targets, escorting other, more important ships, etc. It is the personal conflict between the crew of the Caine (and particularly the primary protagonist, Willie Keith and his close crewmates) and its Captain Queeg, that move the story forward.  Herman Wouk's portrayal of a nit-picking, paranoid, under-educated, over-promoted captain is one so famous that the term "Captain Queeg" has become synonymous with virtually any overbearing boss, and rightly so.  I would encourage any business person to read this novel and see if they don't recognize a few Captain Queegs in their own organizations.  In fact, the novel may be an excellent educational tool for businesses in teaching management that any rigid adherence to regulation, focus on the minutia of process vs. the evidence of result can be a significant detriment to a staff and its efficiency.

Lastly, the book is a great, if brief, love story.  Largely "book-ending" the novel as it were, the romance between Willie Keith and May Wynn is far from ornamental.  As Willie grows from spoiled, ignorant, prejudiced boy to a man who can see the "grey" areas that exist in relationships and life in general, so does his relationship with May grow from careless dalliance between an immature sailor departing for war to one of respect and true love for the whole person that May represents.

Couldn't recommend this novel more highly.