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Tom Nehl National – 03/11/01

I had originally planned to start my "Runoffs Virgin No More" campaign at Kershaw in February, but a family emergency (and ugly weather) made the Tom Nehl National at Roebling Road in Savannah our first event of 2001. Besides being the season debut for the B.K. Racing Corvette, this was also the first time we’d run the new car on a track that I know well. To say the least, I was anxious to see if I’d forgotten how to drive over the winter.

Besides myself, fellow SEDIV GT-1 drivers were Ron Farris in a late model Camaro, John McNaughton in his C-4 Corvette and William MacFarlane in his third generation Z-28. The surprise entry, however, was Tim Cowen’s Mustang from Ohio. Many of you know that Tim sat on the pole at the 2000 Runoffs and led the most laps before finishing second in the race. Ends up they’d entered the Trans-Am at Sebring and figured on earning some National points along the way. Besides being really nice guys, they would give us "Southern Boys" a heads-up, same weekend comparison with one of the best teams in the nation.

To put things into perspective, the race record is a 1:11.378 set by former National Champion Flip Groggins in March of 1994. Keeping it short(er), Tim turned a 1:11.183 to take the pole, Bill Reid’s GT-2 Toyota was outside front row with a 1:11.693, Ron Farriss was third with a 1:12.227, I was fourth at a 1:12.282 and MacFarland and McNaughton shared the fifth row of the 20 car field with identical 1:20.466’s. In discussions with my crew, we decided that I’d learn more by following Tim & Ron for half the race (if I could) than I would by making a banzai start and then trying to hold them off for 23 laps. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The plan worked "almost" to perfection. I slotted into third behind Tim & Ron at the green (Bill had already said he didn’t want to mess up our race and was willing to let us go) and followed them pretty easily for the first two laps while the tires came up to temperature. Ron was four car lengths ahead of me and Tim had maybe eight on Ron when I noticed a lot of smoke in the air as Tim entered the Turn 4 righthander behind the paddock. Since we’re running about 135 mph before braking to enter that corner, I had almost enough time to think "oh s**t" before I hit the oil and went for a ride in the boonies (Tim & Ron both made it the corner – experience DOES count). It seemed to take an eternity for me to clean out my drawers and rejoin the race, but now instead of being in third place with the leaders in sight I’m 15th or so, half a lap behind with dirty tires and Desert Storm blowing around in the cockpit! Being flexible, we were now just looking at running consistent laps and learning to deal with traffic.

Bottom line is that I picked my way back through the field and moved into second place in GT-1 when Ron’s oil pump belt broke on lap 7 (don’t know how bad he hurt it). Around lap 15 or so I passed the Toyota to move into second place overall and was the only car to finish on the same lap with the winner. John McNaughton was third in class (5th overall) with a best lap of 1:18.764 while MacFarlane completed 16 laps before parking it outside Turn 6 (14th overall, 1:19.807). Farriss was officially a DNF but led briefly and turned a best lap of 1:12.50.

In the final analysis, Tim set fastest race lap at 1:12.117 and we had a best of 1:13.050 – I don’t know that we could have hung with him without my spin, but we woulda been in the hunt. The team was pretty excited as well and as I reminded them, this was really our first race together. The car’s still in one piece (albeit a bit dusty), we earned National points, we ran heads up with a serious National Championship contender and they knew we were there!

Next up is Road Atlanta on April Fool’s weekend.

See y’all at the track…