Category - Avoidable Contact

A weekly opinion column by Dubspeed Driven staffer Jack Baruth

Avoidable Contact #25: Exploring the pyramid of speed — the real costs and stories behind entry-level sedan racing.

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It’s sad but true: when I was a kid, Internet access pretty much didn’t exist. I didn’t even start reading USENET until 1990, at which point I was already eighteen years old. In the pre-Web days, if you wanted to know something, you went to the library. If you were lucky, the answer was in a book. If you couldn’t find a book with the answer, you were more or less screwed. For example, my elementary-school library had a copy of “The Car Book 1971” that had all the prices of new cars from 1971, and I memorized the book to the point that I could instantly recall the prices and specs of every new car sold that year. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the same book from 1972, which meant that as far as I knew, there were no cars sold in 1972. Or they were all free. Or they were all $1,999. There was simply no way to know.

The arrival of the Information Age has made that kind of knowledge starvation a thing of the past, with a few exceptions. One of those exceptions is information on amateur and entry-level-professional sedan racing. Those who talk about it on the Internet don’t really know; those who know aren’t telling, for a variety of reasons we’ll discuss below. When I started my racing “career” a few years ago, I had to learn about the costs and difficulties of racing firsthand, at my own considerable expense, and my conversations with other racers have indicated that this state of affairs is nearly universal.

Universal it may be, but it isn’t right. So in this episode of Avoidable Contact, I’m going to give you a brief tour of amateur and entry-level-professional sedan racing. Specifically, we’re going to talk about requirements, costs, and results. I can’t put you in the seat of a real race car — only you can do that for yourself — but I can at least give you a reasonable idea of what’s involved. There are resources, both print and Web, which claim to tell the truth about the costs of racing, but trust me: most of them are either pursuing an agenda or making bizarre assumptions regarding your access to things like frame jigs, TIG welders, and $100 Hayabusa engines. Since most people can’t actually do things like “knock together” an SCCA GT-2 tube chassis, a lot of the advice and information that’s out there might as well be fantasy.

To keep things simple and comparable, most of the costs discussed here will be “rent-a-ride” costs; I will discuss ownership costs in a future column, assuming there’s any interest. We’ll start with the 24 Hours of Lemons and go as far as the Speed World Challenge. So, without further ado, let’s climb to the top of the “Pyramid Of Speed” and see what’s there.

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Avoidable Contact #24: The man who saved BMW.

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“…so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A Dark Knight.”

It feels more than a little trite and melodramatic to begin this column with a quote from a Batman movie, but if the auto business has any profession which lends itself to celebrity culture, it is that of the stylist. Harley Earl set the template: physically enormous and personally outrageous, he created our modern notion of the automobile as aesthetic object. And while there have been many flamboyant “superstar” designers who followed in his footsteps, from Tjaarda to Stephenson, history will surely acknowledge that a few men managed to accomplish more than merely sketching a pretty shape. Bill Mitchell brought us the 1961 Chevrolet, which set a visual template for modern sedans that persists to this day. William Lyons fathered the XJ6, perhaps the greatest sporting sedan design in history, even if he didn’t actually draw it. Alex Issigonis invented the “small car” as we know it today, and Giorgetto Giugiaro rationalized it into the unmatchable first-generation Golf. Marcello Gandini created the supercar; Jack Telnack revitalized the Mustang and with it an entire generation of automotive enthusiasm.

Years from now, when the smoke of history clears, another name will be added to that list of designers who were capable of re-imagining the automobile. Born and raised in the American Midwest, Christopher Edward Bangle joined BMW with a rather singular goal in mind: to create what would be only the second major design direction in the company’s history. His complete and utter success in this task has permitted BMW to become a major player on the global stage; along the way, he rewrote the design language for the entire auto industry.

Such is the man’s star power that, like George W. Bush, Bill Gates, or the Almighty Himself, Bangle is regularly blamed for or credited with the accomplishments of others — but it isn’t necessary. His own successes are enough. To understand them, and to grasp why it is possible to respect or even admire the man himself without particularly loving his creations, we will have to take the advice of David E Davis and open our hymnals…
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Avoidable Contact #23: Airbags killed the AM radio star.

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“All I need is a nice basic car. Something like, maybe, a Saturn or something.” This unassuming, if perhaps ungrammatical, combination of sentences has come to be a long-running joke in my family. You see, one of my relatives married a woman back in the Eighties and subsequently provided her with a string of relatively upscale whips ranging from an Infiniti J30 to a Siebener BMW. Every time it was time to go looking for a replacement, however, she would ardently protest to anyone who would listen that “All I need is a nice basic car. Something like, maybe, a Saturn or something.” My relative ignored her and kept shoveling the Audis, Bimmers, and Infinitis her way, and each time she would accept the new ride reluctantly, reminding us about her preference for “a basic car”.

Some fifteen years after their marriage, this woman told me at dinner, “You know what I did today?”

“No. What did you do?”

“I rode in a friend’s Saturn to lunch. You know, I’ve talked about how that’s all I really want.”


“It was horrible! It smelled weird, the windows rolled up by hand, it was cramped inside, and it was really noisy, like something was wrong with it.”

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Avoidable Contact #22: The rise and sad fall of Car and Driver.

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Story by Jack Baruth

Hey there, Mr. Average Car Enthusiast! Do you like watching Top Gear? Of course you do. I mean, what’s not to like? They have cool, super-sarcastic reviews of new cars, some on-track hooligan behavior, and wacky “comparisons” between Bugattis and scooters. Everybody loves TG. Well, I have some good news for you. There’s a magazine out there, and it’s, like a hundred times cooler than Jeremy Clarkson, Captain Slow, and The Guy Who Crashed the Jet Car could ever be. Their reviews are better, because most of the reviewers have a background in automotive engineering, wheel-to-wheel competition, or both. The writing’s funny yet informative. Instead of screwing around on an empty track somewhere, doing trivially easy stunts and “racing” against their own times, these guys build real racecars for real race sanctions, not to mention a series of outrageous engine-swapped project cars. They test tires under controlled conditions and report the results honestly. They’ve developed completely new methodologies for performance testing, making their results the most consistent and reliable in the history of automotive journalism. There’s even a considerable amount of authentic, documented civil-disobedience-mixed-with-raw-stupidity in each issue. Best of all – and this is what separates them from Grassroots Motorsports, the reading of which affects any genuinely literate man in much the same manner that the sound of nails scratching a chalkboard does an elementary-school teacher – they’ve recruited nearly every great writer in the industry to contribute monthly columns ranging from the aggressively erudite to the simply heartbreaking. Trust me, this is all good stuff.

The best part of all? It’s totally free. Are you ready to start reading? Sure you are. Here’ s how to get started: Go to your local library and ask for the microfiche department. Once you find said department, file a request for “Car and Driver, any year from 1970 to 1990.” Load the film into the microfiche machine… and if you’ve never read anything from the Golden Age Of Car And Driver, prepare to be amazed. Those of us who are over thirty-five know that Ozzy Osbourne wasn’t always a shambling, disconnected shell of a man picking up dog crap and mumbling incoherently through a series of humiliating interludes; the guy used to be the effing Prince Of Darkness, screaming his lyrics with violent passion, biting the heads off bats, rendering parent-teacher associations speechless with terror. By that same token, it’s hard for my younger readers to understand that C/D wasn’t always a complete joke of a publication, that it wasn’t always a mishmash of tossed-off sarcasm and WeatherTech advertisements, thinly disguised press releases and threadbare prose, incomprehensible comparo-test results and Ten Best lists sorted in order of perceived dashboard quality. It’s been years since I met a young person who took the magazine or its content seriously. Today, the kids are all watching Top Gear or reading EVO, slavishly imitating Clarkson’s sarcastic style or quoting Dickie Meaden’s fast-road observations verbatim, not understanding that the English stuff is mostly entertainment, not journalism.

Enough is enough. The announcement that Csaba Csere is walking away from the Editor-in-Chief position has brought C/D temporarily back into the Internet’s itinerant spotlight, and before the magazine disappears for good from the enthusiasts’ collective consciousness, I feel compelled to explain why it was once great, how it lost that greatness, and why its days are all but over.

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Avoidable Contact #21: Oppose the “bailout”? You’re a moron.

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Photography by Dave Everest

SMACK! My right fist banged off the arm of my pumpkin-colored Natuzzi recliner as the swelling bloodthirsty tide of righteous f***ing indignation crested in my feverishly twisting heart. In the space of a moment I’d redone all the tendon and ligament damage so patiently healed over the course of the past month, an injury suffered in a last-ditch but ultimately successful attempt to keep my completely sideways Neon race car off the man-killing concrete wall in Putnam Park’s final turn by dialing in steering corrections faster than my hands could accomplish without literally ripping the sinew from the bone. The pure adrenaline which had then twisted the wheel into a blur of spokes now bulged my eyes from their sockets. I was going to find this guy and beat him until he couldn’t stand. I would pull him up by his neck, flick out my titanium-gold-nitrided Kershaw assisted-opening knife, and cut his eyeballs out, one at a time, taking care to pop each optic nerve off with a delicate finishing flourish. And then I’d really get angry. Death would be too good for this guy.

It was a single typed sentence that gave spur to my murderous rage. A single sentence that neatly encapsulates the sullen stupidity at the heart of so many so-called “automotive enthusiasts”. A single sentence that any thinking man would be ashamed to utter. It was, paraphrased a bit to protect the guilty:

lol american cars suck the last one im glad the last one i ever drove was a 1980 buick skylark that totally sucked

Putting aside the bloody infernal cheek of insulting the premium X-body compact, the friendly-looking, velour-lined small Buick known in contemporary advertising as “The little limousine”, can you see why I was angry enough to contemplate booking a last-minute flight to California (of course that kind of idiocy finds its expression in California) for the sole purpose of committing a bit of the old ultra-violence? This drooling moron wants the “Big Three” to sink into the abyss of history… because he didn’t like the 1980 Skylark? He’s deriving his perspective on perhaps the most dangerous moment in the entire history of the American middle class from a drive in a twenty-eight-year-old car? It’s too ridiculous to seriously contemplate – except for the fact that, judging by what I’ve seen and read of the Detroit “bailout” hearings, the elected officials of our government aren’t much smarter than Mr. Skylark.

It’s time to cut the crap, and that’s why this will be the shortest Avoidable Contact you’ll ever read. The “bailout” must happen. Without it, we’re all going to suffer serious consequences, and by “we” I mean you, me, the guy down the street, Mr. Skylark, and everybody who has ever spent more than five minutes of their life away from “World of Warcraft”. I don’t care if you love American cars or despise them; without the bailout, you’re in trouble, pal. You can take my word for it, or you can keep reading to find out why even the most testosterone-challenged, America-hating, hemp-wearing, Prius-pedaling tree-hugger needs Detroit to keep cranking out the American Iron.

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Avoidable Contact #20: Read this column and go faster, for free, without tuning your car, guaranteed.

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Story by Jack Baruth, photograph by Sideline Sports Photography

Nearly two decades ago, I had the unique privilege of attending Dr. John Romano’s ENG 131 class at Miami University. I say “privilege” because Dr. Romano taught me two important things. The second thing he taught me was that standards matter. Although I had received an “A” on every paper I had submitted in his class, he gave me a “B” at the end of the semester. Why? It was simple: he’d indicated that it was unacceptable to miss more than two classes, and I had missed three. Why had I missed three, you ask? I was in the hospital with some grotesque cycling-related injury. When I explained this to him, he explained to me that his expectations did not come with pre-printed excuse notes for “hospitals, sniffles, and unrepentant laziness”. This “B”, one of two I would receive during my time at the English Department at Miami, served as a harsh introduction to the real world, where nobody wants to hear your excuses.

The first important thing Romano taught me came during his lecture on the opening of The Canterbury Tales. “Ah, spring,” he sighed, “it promises so much, and delivers so little. Not unlike, I would say, many of you young ladies in this audience.” The reaction in the lecture hall was closely akin to what I suppose it would have been had Romano produced a Labrador puppy from one of the folds of his voluminous tweed overcoat, held it up to the sky, and snapped its neck. The shocked silence lasted for what seemed hours before the bespectacled, bewhiskered old professor smiled and resumed reading Chaucer in his ragged, creaking baritone. It would take me several dinner dates and a long “study session” with one of my distaff ENG 132 classmates before I realized that Romano had it exactly right. The payoff rarely meets the promise; the juice usually isn’t worth the squeeze.

Not so today, dear readers. I’ve promised you something simple: that if you read, comprehend, and implement the suggestions in this column you will, I repeat, absolutely will go faster. For many of you, the resultant benefits will exceed anything you could gain by spending thousands of dollars tuning your car; thus the photo above of a beautiful, fully-prepared, track-dominating 350Z being snuggled-up to by an absolutely bone-stock fifty-two-hundred-pound luxury sedan in VIR’s infamous Climbing Esses. I intend to deliver on this promise, so take a moment, clear your mind of your losses in the stock market, the pressures of work, and the burning question of whether or not Vanessa Hudgens was actually just fifteen years old when she took that camera-phone photo, and let us continue as Dr. Romano would wish: slowly, carefully, and with attention to detail.

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