June 1987. After over 12 years of marriage my wife wakes me up at 0-dark-thirty one morning and says, “I’m pregnant.” Apparently, it’s written in the wife handbook that one must get up early, take the test, sit on the edge of the bed while the husband is peacefully dreaming and announce to him that our peaceful lives as DINK’s (Double Income No Kids) is over. If there were ever two people more unprepared for kids, I’ve never met them. I n February of 1988, the world welcomed our firstborn, my daughter, and 19 months later our son. I sat Janie down and said, “Okay, after twelve years you finally have this figured out?” I had no idea what she was doing, but I told her to knock that off! After careful review I determined that I certainly hadn’t done anything differently… this was clearly her fault.
We decided that I’d work and support the family so Janie could stay home with the kids. I did manage to sneak out for one last grand adventure in September, 1990 when I drove the Alaskan Highway to Delta Junction, over 4,200 miles total from Fort Wayne, helping a friend move up to be near his kids. I was in my late thirties, working two jobs and had two kids, two dogs, and a tiny little house.
Thanks to a bit of travel I was doing while serving on the Board of Directors of ASE, I ended up in Phoenix in 1991 and got an opportunity to attend a session at the Bondurant School of High Performance Racing (an excellent school by the way… you will do things with cars you didn’t even know were possible by the time they get done with you). I came home with a burning desire to go road racing — with the same two kids, two jobs, two dogs, a tiny little house, and a 1983 Olds Ciera. It’s all I had, other than the aforementioned burning desire.
I knew I couldn’t afford to drag race anymore, my motorcycle period was behind me (and why tempt fate with two kids who were depending on me), when a friend took me to an SCCA Solo race one weekend. This looked fun. Racing around a parking lot against a clock and yourself. No one would care if I showed up in a four door Olds and just drove around, right? Okay, they didn’t really care, but I DID get made fun of.
After the first weekend, I was hooked. I knew I was never going to be a Solo Racer dude, but I had what I had, and I thought I could have fun anyway so I started looking for ways to improve the car.
I should explain that this car was a 2.5L four-cylinder automatic four door. If you looked up “underpowered hound” in the dictionary, there was a picture of my car right there. Hey! TWO KIDS, remember? One breadwinner! Cheap, too! Didn’t burn much gas! No collision insurance! Okay, I’m out of excuses…
I rounded up a Ciera GT steering gear because I just didn’t have enough strength to turn the wheel five thousand rounds to make a turn, a GT stabilizer bar because it rolled like it was going to use the doors as outriggers, and GT rims so I could put on wider tires. I bolted everything on and it pushed like a fat lady at a free buffet. I’m serious — all the weight was on the front end and it was bound and determined to go straight and there was nothing you could do to stop it.
I saved up some money and bought a set of Yokohama R008 tires for it (essentially slicks with a couple of grooves cut in to make them “DOT legal”), put four new gas shocks on it and installed a five point harness (so I could feel the car through those cushy old-man seats). I set the toe-in to toe-out and gave it as much negative camber as I could get in it and not rub the struts. Next, I changed the final ratio in the transmission so it would go from a slow, painful crawl away from the start to a medium slow-walk out of the blocks. The only place I broke the rules was when I lowered the rear a bit because those cars looked like they were running downhill when they came out of the factory. No one at the car club knew because what kind of an idiot would parking-lot race a Ciera? T here was nothing to compare it to because everyone else had more sense than I had. And a lot more money.
I had more fun with that stupid car than I can ever describe. It still pushed, but it was predictable. You knew when it would start and you could tell when it would recover. It was still a Ciera, but that car would corner so hard I had to add an extra quart and a half of oil in the crankcase to keep the oil light out on turns — and God help you if you didn’t fill the tank before you went out because at anything less than a half tank it would run out of fuel in a turn because the gas would stand up in the tank and uncover the fuel pickup. Not knowing a thing about chassis dynamics, I had it set up so stiff that it cornered nearly flat, and, up to the point where my R008s gave up, it would generate a surprising amount of G-force.
I was pretty much in the lowest class you could be in and there were some underpowered sporty cars out there that consistently beat the pants off of me, but it was still fun. I remember that one of the club founders jumped in the car one day and asked to go for a ride. I figured, why not? It’s not like he’s going to hurt my performance! I limped off the line and managed to get up a fair head of steam (for a Ciera) before I hit the first turn. I remember him over there stomping the floorboards trying to brake as I entered the turn at full throttle. He slammed into the passenger side door and I heard him mutter, “Damn, this son-of-a-bitch does corner….” I grinned as I lifted just a bit and it pushed its way through and recovered just before plowing through the cones. Later I saw him talking to other club members with real race cars. I always wondered what he told them. Probably only that he confirmed what they already suspected — that I was a half bubble off plumb.
After the first season or two, I got in a bad habit of leaving the Yokohama tires on the car because it was a lot of work to take them on and off and I didn’t drive that far to work. My trip to work included a 90-degree right-hand sweeper that I took every day. It was a brushed concrete, single-lane curve with fairly substantial curbing and I kind of made a game out of doing a late apex entry and zooming around that turn. I had it pretty well scienced out and I knew that I could turn in a little faster than 60 mph and floor it straight through the turn. Yes, I know. Not smart. Back up a bit and see “racing” and “Olds Ciera” in the same sentence and tell me how you didn’t know that already. Anyway, I’m past my fortieth birthday, I’m prematurely gray, and I’m driving a Ciera — my life is pretty much over as it is.
Nearly every morning, I ran into a youngster driving a fairly new IROC Camaro on the same route I take to work. Sometimes I’m ahead of him, sometimes he’s ahead of me. You can see this coming, right? If he’s behind me, he’s dropping back, running up on me… dropping back… he even passed me a few times to show me what a stud he was. Bear in mind these are narrow two lane city streets with a 30 mph speed limit. One morning, we’re on our way in and he’s behind me. The turn I mentioned is a half mile ahead, there’s no traffic and the Camaro kid is taunting me again. So I just keep increasing speed… 40…50…..60. I’m watching my rear-view to see if the fish has taken the bait, and he’s right on my bumper. He’s going to show me a thing or two . . .
I hold the left side of the lane setting up my late entry, signal that I’m turning right so he doesn’t try to come up under me and hit my turn-in right on the button.
The last I saw of that black Camaro, it was dinging rims and tearing up sidewalls bouncing from curb to curb like a pinball.
You shouldn’t screw around with old men driving Cieras.
*Lead image courtesy © Aldas Jewell.