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2002 Runoffs (Testing)

First of all, I want to thank all of you that have sent your condolences and best wishes. Although the crew took away my belt and kept me away from any sharp instruments on Friday, they had relaxed their surveilance by Sunday afternoon. We can't control events, but we CAN control how we react to them.

We had made some major changes to Lucifer since the last race(s) at Savannah in July, so the idea was to run the test day on Friday to get used to the additional horsepower, freshen my skills at Mid-Ohio, then load the car in the trailer and wait for the Runoffs week to start on September 15. Johnny Miller (driver of the AutomationDirect Jag in the Trans-Am series, builder of my car and arguably one of the top five GT pilots in the country) was there to also drive the car to provide feedback on my driving - give me a baseline to compare against to see where we had the most room for improvement. The first session was damp but drying, so we used that as a shakedown session to make sure everything was working correctly. We left on the year-old tires for the second session and I was to make five or six laps, then turn the car over to Johnny to see what he thought. We would compare his data traces to mine during lunch, then we'd work on the car and/or me during the afternoon sessions before finishing up with a "whatcha got?" session on sticker Goodyears at the end of the day. We'd then use those tires for qualifying at the Runoffs.

I started the second session and turned a best lap of 1:34.1 despite traffic and fluctuating oil pressure.  I brought it into the pits while the guys checked it for leaks, added two more quarts of oil and Johnny got in. He made one lap and brought it back in for additional oil, then took off. His first hot lap (which really was still a familiarization lap) was a 1:31.4 (still on the old tires). Mike Eakin & I looked up to see a cloud of smoke as Johnny got to the end of the front straight going into the left-handed Turn One. Given the fluctuating oil pressure we'd experienced earlier, Mike & I both thought the engine had blown when we saw the smoke from the locked up tires. Then parts started flying. I kinda staggered off the war wagon and headed toward One (Mike had already started that way at a trot) when Johnny came back on the radio saying the throttle had stuck and wanted (demanded) to know who had worked on it last (which was me). Having just hit a tire wall at 120 mph, it's quite understandable that he was excited. Quinn & AJ (who were there with Paul Newman but were part of Miller Racing in 2000 and had a vested interest in Johnny and the car) asked if Johnny was okay. I think I kinda nodded yes and related what had happened.

After getting the car back to the pits, we determined that the rod to the throttle pedal had flexed sideways and was (still) lodged behind throttle stop bolted to the firewall. The data showed that Johnny was running 116 mph and stopped at a peak of 3.9 g's when he hit the tirewall. As I wrote before, the tirewall did what it was supposed to do. At the time I was stunned that an entire year's work had been snuffed out in seconds. This was the year we were gonna take the best car we'd ever had - one that was capable of running with the big dogs - to the Runoffs. This was to be the culmination of a 30-year dream. To paraphrase from Vin Diesel's character at the end of "The Fast and the Furious" (as he sat in the trashed Charger after nailing the semi), "That's not the way I had it planned."

The following is an excerpt of a note that Mike Eakin sent to the team on Monday:

= = = =

Yes, we are lucky Johnny walked away from it.

I know Butch, Dennis, and I all have thought a million times since noon on Friday, whether we should have somehow figured out how to prevent it. Who'd a thunk? Johnny's guys built the car, and they didn't catch it. But, believe me there was not a throttle pedal stop at Mid-Ohio that wasn't checked before noon that day.

Unless you were there on the wall watching it happen, you cannot picture how sudden and violent it was... and that was just Butch's bank account going to hell. Lucifer hitting the wall was even faster and more violent.  Downright scary. It was really terrifying until Johnny came on the radio cursing the whole crew.  You can't fathom how sweet that sounded.

The extent of the loss didn't set in for me until Saturday afternoon when I was watching the big boys qualify.  In the SE we don't get to see that many top quality GT1 cars put on a show simultaneously.  It is very impressive.
It was while they shook the earth qualifying that it struck me that not only should we be out there, but that legitimately we had something for them.  I think that is the biggest loss.

= = = =


It WAS disappointing that we didn't get to show what we could do. I had run a 1:34 before turning the car over to Johnny and he ran a 1:31.4 on what was basically a warm-up lap and said afterwards he thought the car could do a 1:27 with the setup just like it was. I may not have been able to run his times, but I sure could have gotten a lot closer once we identified where the major differences were. We were on year-old Goodyear 430's and had planned on doing the last session on sticker 210's to scuff them in for the Runoffs.  Besides not being able to show that we could have been on the front row in September, I'm seriously disappointed that I didn't get the chance to learn from Johnny. It's always been about getting better.

The car can be fixed. The design of the accelerator pedal and/or throttle stop will be changed. I've trashed cars before and hopefully I'll have a chance to trash them again. Where I made my mistake was allowing so MUCH ride on this single event (the 2002 Runoffs) and focusing so much of my life on it. The racing budget is tight right now, but it doesn't cost anything to take the car apart. The economy will eventually recover, Home Depot stock options will be valuable again, we can always win the lottery, sponsorship possibilities are out there, etc. In the future we'll run events that are FUN regardless of their impact on qualifying for the Runoffs (Daytona, the June Sprints and VIR immediately come to mind) and if we make it back to Mid-Ohio then fine. If not, it'll still have been a fun year. Cliff Ebben remains my choice to win it all (he qualified on the pole with a 1:29+ and won the race on Sunday) and he's running an early 90's Rocketsports chassis with C-5 bodywork.  It's not like Lucifer will be outdated next year or even in the next five, so hopefully we'll get another turn.

Monday morning I got a note from my son Pete saying that it (the crash) sucked. He then went on to relate some news that helped put things into perspective. As some of you may remember, in February of 2001 my granddaughter Ashley (Pete & Heather's oldest) had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. The doctors in Pensacola told us that there was no hope and we needed to choose how (then) four-year old Ashley was going to die. Refusing to give up, Pete & Heather sought additional opinions and found a team of doctors in New York that said the folks in P'cola were wrong. About the same time Lucifer was meeting the Turn One wall at Mid-Ohio, Ashley was in surgery having her mediport removed - the last vestige of the chemotherapy and ordeal that they had been undergoing for a year and a half. The removal procedure went well, she was her normal, bubbly, active self by the afternoon and, contrary to the original prediction, the doctors are now telling Pete & Heather they need to save for Ashley's college education and wedding.

I'm done feeling sorry for myself...