October 6, 2014
The Stephen Cox Blog is Presented by McGunegill Engine Performance
September 23, 2001 was a bright, beautiful Sunday at Hallett Motor Racing Circuit’s 2-mile road course just outside of Tulsa. I was sitting on the second floor of the scoring tower finishing a breaded tenderloin sandwich with extra pickle trying desperately to figure a way to beat Larry Childs.
Larry was a truly great driver in addition to being a genuinely nice guy. I was driving Jeff Saulsberry’s well-prepared Datsun 240Z in the GT-2 class. To add insult to injury, Larry’s team also fielded a 240Z, meaning that he was essentially beating me with my own car.
I had qualified second in GT-2 and fifth overall in a field of about 30 cars. As an Indiana oval driver I didn’t have a lot of sportscar experience, but we had gone faster in every practice session all day and were quicker than most of the V8-powered GT-1 field. My car owner and crew chief was a magician when it came to going fast on a small budget. Saulsberry gave me a perfect car. Not a good car – a perfect car. But I still couldn’t beat Larry Childs. Where he found the speed I’ll never know, but Childs was smoking me by more than two seconds per lap.
Despite chewing very slowly, by the end of my breaded tenderloin I was no closer to figuring out how to beat Larry Childs. I got up from my table entirely vexed, resigned myself to second place and forgot the one glorious thing that makes auto racing so great… anything can happen on a given Sunday.
I’m no Larry Childs, but a life on short ovals tends to polish one’s skills on starts. The green flag dropped and I blew past a car in the first turn, placing me right on Larry’s tail. We were third and fourth overall, trailing a pair GT-1 cars, while fighting for our own class win in GT-2.
The rest of the field faded behind us as the race wore on. I had closed the three-second gap but it wasn’t enough. Try as I might, I couldn’t pass Larry Childs. The man was just ridiculously good. Inch by inch he began to pull away and I could do nothing to stop it. Eventually his car was out of sight.
Our car was still fast and a second place trophy is better than none at all, so I worked my way through the backmarkers and did my best. Late in the event I saw another lapped car ahead of me. I was gaining on him slowly. It was a white car. Looked like a Datsun 240Z. Son of a motherless goat. It was Larry Childs.
In what universe was I catching Larry? Something must have been wrong with his car but there was no time to figure it out. Driving like an idiot for two laps put me on his tail. I drafted onto his bumper on Hallett’s long main straightaway, but Larry was trying hard to maintain his lead. Too hard, as it turned out.
He drove deep into Turns 1 and 2 and slid high (driving the track clockwise on this occasion). Not expecting to get another chance, I banged the transmission into third gear and stomped the accelerator right where I wasn’t supposed to – in the center of the corner. My car went sideways and drifted in front of Larry, taking most of the track for myself and leaving very little for him. It was more of a mugging than a pass, really. Racing is a very selfish sport.
Once past, I overdrove the car desperately, hoping to put distance between myself and Larry in case his mechanical woes disappeared as fast as they had materialized. I drove so hard that I began mixing it up with the wildly powerful GT-1 cars for the overall win. Larry faded from my rear view mirror, undoubtedly choosing to save his machine from whatever mechanical gremlin had cost him the race.
When the checkered flag fell, I placed first in GT-2 and third overall for my first-ever road course win, finishing ahead of a man who was many times my better. Larry was so good that when Sopwith Motorsports was contending for a championship three years later, he was the first guy I called for advice (which he generously granted). I raced against Larry Childs for several years but cannot recall finishing ahead of him in a fair fight even once. Sometimes you just have to get lucky.
Although I know very well that I wasn't the best man on the track that day, as I write this, the gold and green winner's trophy from September 23, 2001 still sits on a cabinet to the right of my desk. It is surrounded by other trophies from other days and other years. Victory lane photos hang behind it. Plaques hang above it.
But every now and then I see that trophy and remind myself not to give up, because on any given Sunday…
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