Avoidable Contact #105: The SCCA has already been where you idiots are going

Jack Baruth

So when you gonna tell her that we did that, too?
She thinks it’s special, but it’s all reused
That was our place, I found it first
I made the jokes you tell to her when she’s with you
Do you get déjà vu when she’s with you?

Okay, I admit it: When I think of “déjà vu” in a musical sense my mind turns either to the CSNY album of 1970 or Dionne Warwick’s subtle, sultry song of the same title from a few years later. But since I am a young person who hangs out with young people, like, all the time, I can now confidently report that the phrase also attaches to a new and highly popular song by just-turned-18 Disney factory pop star Olivia Rodrigo. The song refers to a plot point in the High School Musical TV series—or is it about Rodrigo’s own love triangle with a pair of other Disney factory pop stars? Alas, this is where my insight ends.

I have been told, by people who would presumably know, that this tune resonates with high school girls because it plays on their concern that the things they are doing with their boyfriends are neither special nor unique to them. I can relate to this, because I met my future high school girlfriend at a BMX track in a postage-stamp town where watching a bunch of teenaged idiots run into each other was the only available amusement on Wednesday nights. However, she already had eyes for a much handsomer, and much more accomplished, Expert-class racer. How did I win her heart? Reader, I married her. Just kidding. I told her I was rich, which I was not, and that my father had a BMW 733i, which he did, and that sealed the deal for the better part of two years.

In any event, no matter how many times she cheered me on to victory—it was exactly three times, beginning on August 20, 1986, I remember each one like it was yesterday, are you kidding?—I knew she’d done that before. It was their place! He found it first! It’s all déjà vu!

Let’s fast-forward to 2021, and a story I just heard about a popular new club-racing series. I’m going to try to anonymize it just a bit, so apologies in advance. This series has a very influential competitor who is very well-respected in other, more prestigious series and therefore helps drive business and interest towards this smaller pond in which they are a bigger fish. One of the smaller fish in said pond is a friend of mine. He’s quick-witted, quick-tempered, well-liked, the typa dude who can wrench a junkyard engine into a BMW overnight then put two ninety-minute stints in the next day without the aid of sleep or food.

So check this: Smaller fish is pulling into the paddock when his trailer contacts another trailer, and he gets into an altercation with the bigger fish over who, exactly, bumped whom. Words are exchanged. Tempers flare. The people who own the race series get involved, and they make a quick decision: Big fish stays in the series, small fish goes home. Simple as that. But on the way out of the paddock, small fish has a chat with a few other fish, and they relate similar incidents to him, where influence seemed to trump justice in the resolution.

Small fish starts thinking: How common is this sort of thing? and he drops me a line. I tell him that it is not just common, it is omnipresent in all forms of racing, everywhere from the crapcan enduros to the highest echelons of open-wheel competition. And I tell him that there is, in fact, only ONE sanctioning body in the whole world where a deliberate, almost parliamentary procedure is followed by a group of your direct peers to determine the merits of each and every dispute as far as it needs to be determined, whether that dispute is a bump on the track or a concerted, years-long effort to cheat your way into a National Championship.

That sanctioning body is the SCCA.

Yes, I’ve heard all the complaints about the SCCA before. The “Secret Car Club Of America,” filled with snobs and old people and cliques and absurd rules and absolutely zero fun. The stupid SCCA mandates everything from windshield materials to valve shim sizes to flared fenders. It doesn’t sell tickets to races or even admit the general public at no charge, preferring to tie the behavior of every person on the grounds to a particular competitor. The ruleset is thick with pages and also thick with dust. Over the past thirty years, it’s become a de facto vintage-racing club in which the two most popular classes, Spec Miata and Spec Racer Ford, have roots in vehicles from 1990 and 1984, respectively. The competitive balance assumes that everyone has the resources of a full machine shop and/or factory race effort at their disposal, so if you think you’re just gonna put a rollcage in your Civic and race it stock, you’re going to get beaten by snowmobile-powered cars with ten-inch wheels.

Much of this is true, or at least has roots in truth. But the SCCA has one tremendous advantage, shared with virtually no other entity in international motorsport: It is a true club. You’re not a customer. You’re a member. And the Club is governed by members like you, using a process developed over the course of painstaking decades to provide as much fairness as possible to everyone involved, even if said process feels simultaneously Byzantine and elephantine.

In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need a Club with a massive rulebook full of procedures and appeals and whatnot. Instead you would have a benevolent monarchy, which indeed is the best form of government. The key word here is benevolent. I’ll give you an example. A decade ago I had the pleasure of running a weekend in the Canadian Touring Car Championship, operated by a fellow named John Bondar. By virtually all accounts, John is a pleasant, decent, and transparently forthright gentleman. He runs his series on a ruleset that boils down to “Does John approve?” If you’re showing a suspicious amount of pace, no amount of citing the rules will get you off the hook. If you have beef with another racer, John will listen to both you and the other fellow with infinite patience before reaching a final, no-appeals decision.

Now, in theory John could start playing favorites and there’d be no way to stop him. Only his reputation for fairness keeps the teams in the paddock. So when he quits or sells the series, the matter of succession will be paramount. If the new guy can’t inspire the same respect, the whole kit and kaboodle implodes. The same is true for IMSA, which is currently led by John Doonan. There is a lot riding on the shoulders of one man.

When you’re talking about men like John Doonan and John Bondar, there’s little to worry about. The same cannot be said of the other monarchies that have sprung up around club and pro racing over the past few decades. Your humble author has raced in a half-dozen or more of those since 2007 and has been involved in several squabbles with other drivers that felt like they were decided based on who was more “important.” Believe it or not, it’s as frustrating to have something resolved in your favor because you’re a non-famous writer as it is to have it resolved against you because you showed up on an open car hauler and your adversary showed up in a Prevost. There have been other times when my dispute appeared to be resolved based on who showed up to more races—who was a better customer—or who was a more reliable volunteer.

(Yes, I’ve been in a lot of squabbles on and off track, and as The Last Psychiatrist would say, the common factor in all of my failed relationships is … me. I have zero apologies for this. If I didn’t like conflict with other men, whether it ended in triumph or despair, I never would have picked up a BMX bike, race car, or TKD pad set in the first place. I’m working on being a better, kinder person. If you’re interested in supporting this effort, I have PayPal.)

These less-than-benevolent monarchies, whether we are talking about enduro or sprint racing, are an active deterrent to competition. It doesn’t help that the “lesser nobles” of this hierarchy, people making and enforcing the rules, are often right next to you on track, in your class. I heard a story a while back about a “group leader” in one sanction who decided, in the final weekend of the season, to arrange the starting grid in Heat 2 by the lap time in Heat 1 instead of the finishing order, as had been promised. Why? Simple. It put him one place ahead of his championship rival at the green flag instead of one place behind, which is what he needed to win “his” championship yet again.

That’s pathetic, and it’s fatal to participation.

Is the SCCA always perfect, fair, or just? No—but it has developed a long and transparent appeals process in which the results are published. Compare that the adjudications I’ve had elsewhere, where the mere discussion of the results, or sharing of our evidence to third parties, was enough to get you sent home for a season. Needless to say, this doesn’t inspire confidence in anyone involved. By contrast, you may not like how the SCCA treats you, but it is rarely mysterious. I would feel confident building a car to any set of SCCA rules, knowing that I could have some faith in the future of my investment. I’ve never felt that way about any other sanctioning body, with the exception of SRO/Pirelli which is a semi-benevolent dictatorship with a long history of putting competitor interests first.

So what does that mean to you, the would-be club racer? Just this: Make sure your car is SCCA legal. It doesn’t have to be SCCA competitive: I’ve had a lot of fun running my 2.4-liter Neon in the STU class a full 6-7 seconds off the National track record pace. But make sure you can at least show up and take a flag with your club once in a while. That way, you have a place to go when your benevolent dictatorship of choice ends up being a little less, ah, benevolent.

The SCCA didn’t become a largely transparent and democratic organization by accident. They evolved their process the same way they wrote the rule book: by responding to problems, failures, and mishaps. Which is just another way of saying what Olivia Rodrigo is telling her old flame in “Deja Vu”: every place your squeaky-clean, tech-bro-style, high-buck enduro series or for-profit franchise system is going to go, the SCCA has already been there. And done that. And got the T-shirt.

This weekend, I’m going to run the SCCA Majors at Mid-Ohio. I have no expectations for the event other than the fact that I’ll probably struggle to make the mandatory minimum qualifying time—another rule made to address bad things that are currently happening elsewhere but were common across the SCCA back in Dionne Warwick’s time. Oh, and I suspect I’ll have fun. If I don’t, I figure things will be handled fairly. It’s a nice feeling. Wish I could have it more often, but feelings are unpredictable. Just ask Olivia Rodrigo, who trampled all over Joni Mitchell by naming one of her songs “All I Want” and saying:

I won’t fight for love if you won’t meet me halfway.

Come on, all you enduro-series zombies. Meet me halfway.

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