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Shotgun Rider

Adventure

By Andrew Huang

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There’s nothing about Mike “Junior” Johnson or this Ohio fairground parking lot that prepares me for the violence to be visited upon my body.

I suppose the cacophony of rumbling, screaming V-8s should have clued me in, but I’ve been at the Goodguys 19th PPG Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, all day. Most of that time has been spent in the autocross paddock, separated from the parking lot course by just 20 feet, a chain-link fence, and some concrete jersey barriers. After a couple of hours, those unmuffled engines have all but faded into the background—they don’t sound as aggressive, unruly, ready to pounce as they might be rumbling down a quiet residential street on a Sunday evening.

But even close to the autocross action, things seem remarkably tame, not unlike a friendly football tailgate. The paddock is all smiles, with some good-natured ribbing and trash talk thrown in for good measure. The only differences are that there’s no alcohol—the only source of intoxication is from the sweet potent aromas of rubber, motor oil, gasoline, sunbaked asphalt. And the tailgaters aren’t just spectators, they’re also the main show—drivers, mechanics, technicians.

As drivers take turns on the autocross course, I think, "Well, 60 miles per hour isn’t that fast, is it?" And Johnson—he’s in his element. He's joking with spectators, hopping from car to car, bouncing with childlike exuberance. He’s completely at ease, as befits a 10-time SCCA national champion and owner of the Evolution Performance Driving School in Glen Allen, VA. There's nothing that suggests my impending autocross ride-along should cause anymore excitement than a grocery run.

His C3 Corvette, backed up near the fence, crouches under a tent. Only a few stickers and logos mar the otherwise feathery silver paint. It’s a silver ghost. A dame. A classic beauty in a paddock where eye-grabbing blues, intimidating matte black, and a whole host of vendor logos coat fenders, hoods, doors, and rear quarter panels. But as understated as it is, the Corvette still exudes a restrained aggression.

It starts with the wide rubber. The footprint of the BFGoodrich Rivals is well-hidden underneath flared fenders and accommodating wheel arches, but there’s only so much you can do to disguise 315s in the front and 355s in the back.

He bought the ’71 Corvette almost four years ago, but it’s taken almost three years to build. “This is a car I grew up with. My stepdad and all his friends had badass Corvettes, Camaros, and Vista Cruiser wagons,” says Johnson. “So to me, when I found this car, it was like, ‘Let’s do this!’ What I didn’t realize is, out of all those cool cars my dad and his buddies built, I ended up building something way badder.”

“This is a car I grew up with. My stepdad and all his friends had badass Corvettes, Camaros, and Vista Cruiser wagons.”

The first thing Johnson did was replace the fenders. “We put in four-inch wider fenders in the rear from Custom Image Corvettes,” he says — a necessary move to fit the wide tires. There’s also a complete front- and rear-end suspension from Van Steel, along with a custom set of shocks from Mission Control Suspension. “They built a set of shocks for me which are much smaller than anything they do. Then we put in an LS3 with a big cam, a really light flywheel and clutch."

“The motor that came with the car was out of a ’78 or a ’79—a smog motor—so it had no power. The first time I took it to an autocross, my wife Kandy was like, ‘Oh, that’s so embarrassing.’ I got out of the car and it didn’t even sound good,” he recalls.

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“If I could do it again, I’d do an LS7. It’d cost me more for the initial motor, but I wouldn’t have to do very many mods. It’s easy to get that same amount of power with less work, and it wouldn’t be as nasty. This car…it’s just nasty when you’re driving around town,” Johnson says.

It’s a different story on the autocross course. As we wait at the start line, Johnson revs the LS3 to keep it from stalling. It’s loud and hot inside the Corvette—the air conditioning doesn’t work—and I can feel the entire chassis trembling through the vintage Kirkey racing seats. Johnson is still all smiles—as far as I can tell through his helmet. He’s buckled into a harness, but sitting shotgun, I’ve only got a lap belt.

Johnson lays down on the skinny pedal before the starting signal has even fully registered in my mind, and right then, I discover the practical differences between our methods of restraint. My head snaps back—there’s no headrest on my seat—and I’ve barely brought my eyes level when Johnson stomps on the brakes, shedding speed to set up his entrance into the first turn. My head and my torso snap forward, right before the hard left-hander sends my helmeted head into the side of the door frame. I’m being jerked around like a rag doll.

No, 60 miles per hour isn’t fast. But the combination punch of zero-to-60-and-back-to-zero—a dozen times through this course—and the lateral acceleration going through each turn is enough to thoroughly recalibrate my sensation of speed.

And when I can peel my eyeballs from the inside of my head long enough to see the next turn, I know in my gut that we’ll never make it. I find my leg involuntarily twitching in the passenger foot well, stabbing for a phantom brake pedal. I hazard a few glances at Johnson. He’s cool as a cucumber, gleefully working the ‘Vette up to—and sometimes just past—its limit.

No, 60 miles per hour isn’t fast. But the combination punch of zero-to-60-and-back-to-zero—a dozen times through this course—and the lateral acceleration going through each turn is enough to thoroughly recalibrate my sensation of speed.

And then we’re through the final turn, the ‘Vette’s rear end hanging out just a little, though I’m feeling much more sideways. Johnson stomps on the brakes one last time and we come to a halt. He revs the engine as we wait for the final time to flash up: 31 seconds and some change. Johnson explains he’s still learning the course, figuring out where he can push and shave time. He’ll get his time down to 00:26.948 before the end of the weekend.

Me? I’m sweating and shaking and it’s all I can do to swing my legs out of the ‘Vette and stand up straight without burning my calves on the side pipes.

I immediately go looking for another ride.

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Casey

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What does it mean to be "smooth"?

Terry Earwood

Q: What does it mean to be "smooth"?

A: A huge part of "being smooth" is literally how your hands and feet adjust the controls. The first time I rode with my current ex-wife, after a few miles in her Durango, I asked how many throttle pedals or cables she had replaced in the last 6 months, for she was on and off the gas 17 times every 30 seconds! (I actually timed it!)

It was as if she was thinking, "Here’s some gas, let’s see how far this shot goes.” She'd coast a minute, pop the gas again, etc.

Good news/bad news. She thanked me profusely for pointing that out (I’m joking), but she did clean that up!

Instead, she swapped it for "steering response!" I would literally reach over and grab the wheel to show her we did not have to saw at the wheel every 3 feet.

It was a lot like popping the gas pedal: "Let’s steer right, oops too much, let’s go left!” So I advised we go back to popping the gas, since power steering pumps are more expensive than throttle cables. She actually was a pretty good driver, awesome with a manual tranny, but has now moved on to another driver coach. Or whatever. We’re still friends.

I'll also never forget a lesson my Dad taught me: "Pretend you have a nearly full glass of water on the dashboard. Be smooth enough to never slosh out any water.” My Dad had great cars, from Lincolns to Porsches to Jaguars, and he never ever put a scratch on one the 71 years he drove. And he drove quickly. We always compared “elapsed time, from say, Atlanta to Sebring. He was smooth, because he loved to drive, so he paid attention to details.

What are easy ways to become a better driver?

Terry Earwood

Q: What are easy ways to become a better driver?

A: Besides bolting on a set of BFGoodrich tires? 

Everyone you know wants to be the best driver you have ridden with, or at least that should be his goal. I know it’s been mine for over 50 years.

And we’ve all ridden with someone who makes us very nervous for many reasons.

You’ve heard the term "plan ahead" all your life, and that sums up this advice.

First, let’s look at what physically drives the car.

The hands do the steering (and maybe shifting!) and the feet accelerate or slow down your BFGoodrich tires. Where does their initial input come from? Yep, your vision. The hands and feet can (or should) only react to what the eyes are looking at. If the eyes aren’t looking far enough ahead, the hands and feet are reactive, not proactive, which results in jerky inputs to the wheel and sudden acceleration, or worser, sudden braking!

On the racetrack, we sorta "rifle-vision" our next reference, as car placement (the line) is critical for fast (safe) laps. We don’t have to worry about traffic lights, pedestrians, soccer balls, and cross traffic (for the most part). But we look far enough ahead (through the corner, not at the corner), to be sure we’re gonna stay on line, and to see when and how much power to add!

The street, however, presents thousands of issues we must deal with on a daily basis, so in order to be safe, we need to use our eyes much harder!

Number 1: In traffic, try to drive 3 seconds behind the car in front of you. This gives you plenty of reaction time should the car abruptly brake, or swerve, or spit out his rear differential suddenly. As the rear bumper of the car you’re following clears a stationery object—like a mailbox or maybe Jeff Cummings' Bronco—simply count "a thousand one-a thousand two-a thousand three" and you should arrive at the object. At 30 mph, it’s not very far, but the faster you go, the gap automatically becomes bigger!

Number 2: Back to the eyes. You should be able to see 12 seconds ahead of your car at all times. This is a key part of being smooth. A 12-second lead gives you plenty of time to change lanes, slow down smoothly, alert the folks behind you with turn signals, pull the chute, etc. This trick, too, is speed conducive.

Try to pick out the next large object in your natural vision, like a bridge. It should take you 12 seconds to arrive at the bridge.

At night, it's pretty easy. Look for the next object your headlights pick out, and slowly count to 12. If you get to the object under 12 seconds, you’re going faster than your ability to be smooth should something pop out.

Number 3: Scan your mirrors every 3 to 7 seconds. This is a key step in your new situational awareness. (I know—the dictionary defines "situational awareness" as “Looking for toilet paper before you sit down”.)  But if you’ve been in the mirrors within the last 7 seconds, and need to make a quick lane change, you have a pretty good idea if there is someone in that spot, or not. Is that Crown Vic getting closer? Is he changing lanes when I do?

Adjust your side view mirrors away from the car. In other words, move them just off of your rear fenders, which will give you the view of another half-a-lane of interstate you don’t have now.

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