(Words and Photos by Scott Liggett) One of the car shows I went to this past summer was the Goodguys “Day In The Hay” that was held in Lincoln, Nebraska in July. I found out about the show through work at BluePrint Engines and I wasn’t really that interested in going. To be honest car shows don’t peak my interest very much. Power Parking isn’t my cup of tea, unless I am going to a show with friends. Then, my bosses told me that Robby Unser and Al Unser Jr were going to be there racing the Speedway Motor’s Team Speedway Nova. Now, I was really interested and got my ’65 Impala SS into fighting shape to race. I really wanted to see how professional and successful race car drivers handled a car on the autocross. BluePrint Engines has been working with Speedway Motors for years building crate motors offered through Speedway.
I first tried out the autocross back in 2008, during Car Craft’s Anti-Tour, where we stopped at the Goodguys Car Show in Orange County, CA. Even though I thrashed to the point of exhaustion and dehydration to get the car running before that Anti-Tour, I ran my car close to a dozen times that day. It was stupid fun even though my car was anything but a handling machine. That wasn’t the point anyways. The powers at be within the Good-Guy’s hit on something. It was about getting people to drive their cars at the shows instead parking them and sitting in a lawn chair all day. It has been a big success for them and it has created a whole new type of racing series.
When I showed up at the Goodguys show in Lincoln, I was focused on just running. I wasn’t even thinking about looking at all the cars at the show. I only wanted to drive hard and have fun. Prepping for an autocross isn’t much different than prepping for a drag race. You check the fluids, tire pressures, and remove anything in the car that isn’t bolted down. Checking the torque of the lug nuts and the suspension parts for anything wonky is a good idea as well. The car then gets checked over by the tech team and signed off to run. It’s pretty low key because they want people to have fun.
I usually have nerves on my first run of the day. That day was worse as I hadn’t had time to walk the track before the runs started. This may seem silly until you try running on a track you have never been on before. Watching from the sidelines does help a bit but you can’t see the lane and turns. I was going a bit hard for my first run as well and well.. I nearly took out the timing equipment at the end trying to figure out which was the end. No one was impressed. I could hear the announcer exhale that I didn’t destroy the timing equipment and end the day for everyone after it had barely started.
My ’65 Impala has big block springs and Koni adjustable shocks on the front. I had them on the softest settings to soften the drive of the dirt road I had lived on. While day to day driving was better, the nose dives into the asphalt every time I hit the brakes. I got out the tools, jack, and got busy adjusting the shocks to the kidney killing setting.
As I was finishing up the shock adjustment and cutting up my hand on my inner fender, my boss, sales manager Pete Stout, came by and asked if I wanted to meet the Unsers. Sure!! I grabbed a few paper towels and electrical tape as a makeshift bandage, then followed him over to the Speedway Motors race trailer. The Team Speedway ’65 Nova was getting worked on by their crew. Al Unser Jr was standing on the trailer’s ramp calm and chilling. Robby Unser was pacing around like a caged tiger. Two minutes after arriving at the trailer I knew these autocross events were not something “just for fun” at the car shows. These guys were serious racers and this was a real competition. The entire team had a laser beam focus that comes from hating anything less than winning.
I was introduced to Robby by Speedway’s Marketing chief. Robby was polite, but he was prepping for his next run, so it was brief. I wasn’t much of a distraction as both Robby and Al were making runs with hapless passengers. I chatted with their marketing chief a while longer. He showed me the new ’73 Camaro they were building for Al so he and Robby each had a different car to drive. At this point, Pete Stout came up and asked if I would like to ride with one of the Unsers. I jumped at the chance because I wanted to see up close how a pro driver handled this course.
By this time, it was my turn to run again and I had to hoof it back to my car, jump in, and line up to run. My second run was so much better, picking up more 3 seconds. After the run, I noticed a ton of oil under the car. Opening the hood showed my fuel pump covered in oil and dripping on the ground. The old pump wasn’t keeping the oil in the engine anymore. The diaphrams obviously had worn and perforated to the point that at high rpm and under heavy braking, it just spewed oil every where. I knew I couldn’t keep running like this.
I figured I would run just once more and call it a day. I didn’t want to be dumping oil all over the track. That last run came came with a twist. BluePrint Engine’s President, Shawn Sterling, suggested I ask if Al Unser Jr if he would like to ride with me. I was thinking no way, but was wrong, he said sure. I was shocked. I had to remind myself to breathe.
My next run didn’t come up for about an hour. During that time I hung out at Speedway’s race trailer talking with Al a bit. They were chasing the Summit sponsored ’64 Corvette coupe being driven by young Josh Leisinger. But, that day they were saddled with old, worn tires. The sizes that fit the Nova, almost every brand, were back ordered last summer. The crew were trying different tires, but the traction wasn’t there to beat Josh in that Vette, but hey never gave up. I was amazed how focused everyone on Team Speedway was towards a goal even though Robby and Al were racing like taxi drivers with one passenger after another on every freaking run.
I got to meet Josh during the lunch break. He got in his car to take back over to their trailer, but left his exhaust pipe behind. He realized quite quickly that something was wrong when his Vette was quite a bit louder. Since I was wearing my gloves, I picked up the hot pipe and carried over to the trailer. Yeah, I’m a nice guy. My selfless act did get me a tour of the race trailer and the Summit Racing Corvette the Leisinger’s were racing. That car was a ’64 Corvette in name only as there wasn’t a single thing that Duntov designed on this purpose built car. It was impressive, simple and effective in it’s design.
My turn rolled around right after the lunch break. I asked Al once again if he was brave enough to ride with some guy he just met. We hopped in my beat up ’65 Impala and rolled into line behind the others. He asked me what had been done to the car, I shot off the basic suspension mods. I explained that I wasn’t pushing the old 383 really hard, only 5500 rpm, but that came before end of the first straight away.
My heart was pumping, not because I was racing, but because of the obvious. I didn’t want to screw up with Al in the car. I remembered Alan Shepard’s prayer, “Please Lord, don’t let me screw up.” The light went green and I hammered it. All I wanted was a clean, smooth run. My my big, heavy Impala I have to patient in the turns, or I will just go straight no matter how much I turn the wheel. Once the nose sets, the Impala goes right around, and I hammer the gas to straighten her out. By the end of the run, all the cones were still standing and I felt it was a great run. My time had proven it. The best of the day, by a long shot. Al was smiling and giving me the thumbs up.
Since I signed up late to be a passenger with Robby or Al, I was last on the list. I had a lot of time to kill. I ran around the Goodguys show on the other side of the fairgrounds to shoot some pictures. Brian and Chad are sticklers for that kind of thing. It is very easy to forget about the actual car show part of Goodguys shows when you are concentrating on running the autocross. I literally sprinted through the show grounds snapping away about half the pictures I normally take, then I blazed a trail right back to the autocross area. (That’s cause you are the man Scott! – Chad)
With a lot of time waiting, I concentrated on learning a few things from the pro racers. Al Unser Jr is such an approachable guy, even though he’s a world renowned championship race car driver. He was so gracious to answer the questions I had and talked about strategy to winning at autocross. It never really dawned on me what an opportunity this was for me.
Before I came to work at BluePrint Engines, I was a chauffeur in Los Angeles for fifteen years. Being around and talking with celebrities was just an occupational hazard. I had driven A-list actors, rock stars, pop stars, celebutants, reality stars, even race car drivers. I met great drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr, Ryan Newman, and Michael Waltrip. They were all great guys too. I was so used to being around people that many people would completely gush over; I wasn’t even thinking about how cool it was spend some time talking about taking corners, apexes, and throttle control with such an amazing driver. Who gets to do that? I didn’t even ask to get a picture with him. I was in the moment and missing it.
In a little bit, my turn to get a ride with Al came and it was one of the last runs of the day. The Team Speedway’s Nova had BluePrint’s small block 454 crate engine in it. These are rated at 575 hp and 560 torque. The guys at Team Speedway added a dry sump system and slightly different cam grind, but this engine was nearly the same as in BluePrint’s catalog. They were flogging the snot out of it all summer and in the Nova, it hauled the mail.
Al rolled up to the line and I tried to relax in the passenger seat. I am a lousy passenger in this kind of situation. Too many years as a driver, I guess. The lights went green and Al hammered the gas. That little Nova took off like a shot and was insanely fast in the tight turns of autocross. It also lifts the inside front tire in every turn. From the passenger seat, it felt like the car was on the edge of barrel rolling across the track. The only thing that kept me relaxed was I was with one of the greatest drivers in the world. I tried to watch his line through the turns and was surprised how close it was to my own. I liked that. I felt like I was doing something right. Al killed it on the run, but it still was a few hundreths of a second off Leisinger’s best run. It was like 10 seconds faster than mine. It was stupid fun, and I highly recommend it if you get the chance.
As the sun began to set, the cooler winds were picking up as I headed home. I was rolling down the freeway when it finally began to sink in. What a cool day it was. I felt lucky to spend time with such a great racer and great man. I immediately thought about all the things I could have asked. I missed the chance. If you ever get a chance like this, don’t miss out. Dive in, because it is something you will remember the rest of your life, and that chance may never come again.