Avoidable Contact #121: In which a Radical is rescued, and raced, and crashed

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Jack Baruth

If someone spins out in front of you, is it your fault? In 20 years of racetrack driving and 15 years of racing everywhere from Lemons at Flat Rock to MegaLAP at Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit, it had never occurred to me that such a thing could happen—but the great thing about racing is that you’re always learning, or at least should be. So while I’m not certain that I totally and completely caused a Formula Enterprises car to spin out in front of me and break the nose of my barn-find Radical PR6 in its second-ever day of wheel-to-wheel competition, I’m also not certain that I’m completely innocent of all charges.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

The story so far: Last June, occasional Hagerty contributor and auto enthusiast Chris Tonn told me that he’d found a Radical sports racer for sale in Virginia for the princely sum of $12,000—including trailer! “And it’s even lime green,” he noted, referring to my fascination with green cars, motorcycles, and bicycles. (That all started in 2006 when I got into a paddock squabble with Rene von Richtofen, but that’s a story for another time.) I contacted the seller and arranged to buy the car, which looked like this:

Jack Baruth

It was a PR6, or Prosport 6, serial number #003. What’s that mean? Well, the original Radical Clubsport and Prosport cars were single-seaters powered by 1000-cc motorcycle engines. In Europe, they could be used as street cars, but they’ve never been legal to drive on public roads over here. After the turn of the century the firm more or less abandoned that product and started making two-seaters that kind of resembled a prototype racer, powered by everything from a Ford Duratec V-6 to a raging 10,000-rpm V-8 made from two Hayabusa four-cylinders. The Radical SR3 two-seater, the firm’s most common product, is now in its third or fourth generation and it’s madly popular, featuring in one-make racing series around the world. I’ve driven an SR3 in the past. It’s a lot of fun. Very friendly to drive as well. Our magazine editor-in-chief, Larry Webster, has one. I’d like to join him in that exclusive club of SR3 owners, but half-decent used examples are in the $30,000 range and their 1500-cc Powertec engines are expensive to keep running. New ones cost four times that.

The PR6, by contrast, is a simpler device, a product-improved version of their Prosport single-seater released in 2006 and sold in relatively low numbers, mostly in Europe, before being abandoned in favor of the entry-level SR1 two-seater. They had their heyday in competition—a PR6 won the SCCA Runoffs once, about 15 years ago—but now they’re mostly sitting in barns, the way mine had been when I arrived to pick it up.

I cannot say enough good things about the seller, who had acquired it several years prior as a project. Not only was he completely up-front with me about the car’s condition, he even offered to “make things right” if the engine turned out to be bad.

“Eff that! For 12 grand, I’ll take my chances,” I quipped. I dragged the little sports racer back to my prep shop, Jon Shevel’s Albany Autoworks in rural Ohio, and told Jon to work on it whenever he had time. My wife, the infamous Danger Girl, was in the process of winning her NASA regional championship, and I didn’t want the project to steal any of Jon’s resources from supporting that effort.

Over the following year, Jon found out the following: The block was cracked, severely so. The shocks were iffy, and their rocker points had worn deep grooves into the frame, which would need re-welding on all four corners. The ultra-trick flat-slide carburetors were gummed solid and contained damaged parts. Much of the wiring was corroded or missing. Everything that could rust had rusted.

“On the positive side,” Jon noted, “the trailer should work pretty well for our ChampCar E30, after I replace an axle, run new wiring, swap in some plywood, replace the skylight, and weld the door bars.” We started to make jokes about the car: I hope the trailer doesn’t get stolen, but if it does, I hope the Radical is in it. Still, both of us wanted this car to run. It would be a new frontier for Jon; he’s worked everything from Lemons to IMSA LMP3, but he didn’t know these little sports racers at all. And we weren’t going in totally blind. We had an eight-page factory manual to guide us, plus some advice from the delightful Robert Burgess of Radical Canada and Francesco D’Avola at Team Stradale when we needed it. Last but not least, the good people of the Radical Owners Forum helped me figure out how to source tires to replace the original and no longer available 13-inch Dunlops.

From South Carolina’s KWS Motorsports, I bought a bone-stock 1299-cc motorcycle engine. Bolt On Power in Detroit rebuilt my carburetors; the owner gave me a very long lecture about their previous condition even though he knew it wasn’t my fault, probably because he just had to tell someone about how much effort it had been. John Berget of JB Racing Tires sold me eight used Hoosiers for $60 each, because I figured I could disgrace myself on track just as well on $60 tires as on $350 tires. New belts came from Charles Espenlaub at Safecraft, because I don’t trust my much-damaged body to anyone else’s belts if I can help it. Jon installed a fire system to current SCCA specs.

We arrived at Mid-Ohio this past Saturday not even sure if we could get a log book for the car; I’d read the rules for the P2 class, but I wasn’t sure our car was in good enough shape to make it through the inspection. And this was after Jon had put in hundreds of hours on it! Happily, a logbook was issued. Now all I had to do was figure out how to drive the car for the first time. In an SCCA qualifying session. On a wet track.

Unbelievably, I wasn’t dead last. But I was slow. There was so much to learn, everything from the peculiarities of shifting to getting the brake bias correct on the fly. Oh, and I did mention the carburetors, right? I’ve never seriously run a carbed car on track, let alone a fussy flat-slide bike-engined creature that would stall if you gave it full throttle immediately the way I would in, say, a McLaren 570GT4, which does not have carburetors. I know all you old hands are laughing at me, but fuel injection has been part of race cars for a long time. The Spec Racer Ford I’d just run at Waterford Hills had FI, for Pete’s sake, and it was old enough to be President.

Oh, and I didn’t have second gear. That’s okay. Still had five usable ones.

The Saturday race was uneventful. I shifted at 9000 rpm instead of the 10,500 rpm redline because the engine was brand new and needed some kind of break-in. I finished fourth in a 14-car mixed class, very far behind the leader. But I was the P2 winner, and I did get a checkered flag. So that was nice. But I was depressed about my pace, which was three seconds per lap slower around the track than my Honda Accord! (To be fair, I have the Honda Challenge lap record for Mid-Ohio Club, at 1:38.1, so it’s a very nice Accord.)

Day 2’s qualifying race was a little different. It started well enough, as you can see:

As you can see, I’m still learning how to drive the car, but at least I took a reasonably awake green flag, which didn’t seem to be the case for the race leader. Before I knew it, I was ahead of everyone! It was nice to lead the race, but I knew the formula cars had a lot more pace than I did and that I’d eventually have to let them by. On the fourth lap, I stayed out of the brake zone for the leading formula car but moved over between them so I could get slowed down enough. This apparently came as a big surprise for the second car, who had expected that I would stay in the corner and out of his way. He was seven seconds a lap faster than I was! I mean, he wasn’t at the time, because he’d taken the kind of start you normally see from Lemons novices driving Town Car limos covered with papier-mache to make them look like the Titanic, but he certainly had a lot of closing speed. So … well, let’s roll the video, shall we?

You can see him appear in my left mirror then put two wheels off before re-entering the track surface, choosing to try to make the turn, and spinning in front of me. I was furious when I hit him, because Radical no longer makes a nose for the PR6 and I had just crunched the only one I had left. He was angrier than I was. Said I was an amateur, which is not strictly true. Said I should stick to trackdays—but I don’t like attending the 8 a.m. drivers’ meetings at trackdays, so that’s not likely to happen.

This being the SCCA, a board of inquiry was hastily convened and I was summoned before it. I was told that I needed to yield to faster classes. “In a sedan race,” I pointed out, “that is 100 percent his fault; he has no right or expectation of being able to drive up the racing line at full speed with no interference from cars that are several lengths ahead.”

“He is a very experienced driver at Mid-Ohio,” I was told. And they made me feel really bad, like this guy’s spin was my fault. After talking to several other drivers, I got the sense that it had maybe gone down like this because he was a somebody in the region and I was a nobody. Admittedly, he’s a “somebody” because he was disqualified from the Runoffs for cheating and then had to disappear from the SCCA for a decade, but still. It’s fine. And in any event I want to be super-courteous to open-wheeled drivers on track. They have more to lose than I do. I just wasn’t expecting this fellow to “send it” from five car lengths behind me.

I lined up at the back of the pack for the third race of the weekend, having duct-taped the little Radical back into shape. I’d been miserable about the damage, but one of the many great things about SCCA is that you always have these experienced old dudes around, one of whom had wandered into my garage at lunchtime and said he would fix my nose for me in the weeks to come at a cost I can only describe as “ridiculously low.”

Prior to the race start, I kept thinking: Just yield to everything without fenders at all times, and go slow. At the start, however, I couldn’t help but grab a few spots, including the fellow whom I’d hit earlier in the day. “God **** it,” I yelled, “you keep saying you’re faster than I am, and you are, but you keep getting in my way!” And then someone else decided to spin in front of me, as you can see in this video of the race start:

That’s three cars looping directly in front of me in two weekends. Afterwards, the driver of the car told me he thought his spin was my fault, because I had “spooked” him in a previous corner. “You’re very unpredictable, very dangerous,” he said. Rather than respond like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, I added this to my list of rules for running in this mixed class, which now consist of:

Yield to everything without fenders at all times
Don’t pass anything without fenders, unless they’re cool with it

After reviewing the video, however, he allowed that maybe I hadn’t been as close to him as he’d thought, and we parted friends.

Anyway. Back to the race. With just three laps to go, the Radical finally showed some signs of being a barn find rebuild when it suicided its gear selector linkage bolt, leaving me with one gear, the third one, and forcing me to yield some positions (see the above rules). I finished sixth overall and first in class.

Despite the unfortunate nose crunch, I have to say this was a successful first outing for my little green car. My best lap time was a 1:36.1, which isn’t very good. I have to think that on new tires and with a little more trust in the aero, I can get down to 1:32 or better. Going any faster will require more power, which is absolutely possible within the rules. I have about 160 horsepower, and most P2-legal SCCA cars have 210 or more. I’m also 150 pounds over minimum weight, which is more my fault than the car’s.

More than that, I learned a lot about a form of racing that is very different than what I’m used to. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve become someone who makes the most out of every opportunity on track, by force if necessary. Whether it’s my Honda in PWC or my Neon in NASA, I’m always an equipment underdog trying to make it up with tactics, always finishing ahead of cars that are faster than I am, always surprising people with my wide catalogue of largely unpredictable passing and blocking moves. This is a different kind of racing. It’s a lot more like HSR or the vintage sanctions; you get out there, take a leisurely start, come up to pace after a few laps, then let the field sort itself out based on raw pace. I’m not sure it’s for me, honestly.

I have one more race in the car this year, then I’ll spend the winter making it faster and more reliable. I suspect that eventually I’ll sell it, buy a new Radical, and go to their Bluemarble Cup, where people bang fenders and cause drama just like my fellow idiots in Improved Touring. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to be respectful of my betters on track. I do have one question, however. As I was circling the track in third gear on the white flag lap, I saw my very well-respected and famous fellow competitor re-entering the track from a big spin. If I’ve learned anything this weekend, it was that I’d probably caused the spin, although I wasn’t on the same side of the track at the time. I’d spun him out from a distance, as Bette Midler would say. This is a power I didn’t even know I had, one perhaps only given to the most amateur of amateurs. So my question is:

How do I learn to do this to everyone?

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