Autocross enthusiasts fuel need for speed at rally in Crows Landing

gstapley@modbee.comAugust 10, 2013 

    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government

— Alan Miller zig-zagged with barely controlled lunacy, his Corvette lunging and whirling and fishtailing in an insane 51-second blur of motion. The screeching from his Hoosier race tires rivaled the adrenalin-fueled screeching from his 67-year-old mouth.

"There is no logic to what we do out here. We're nuts!" Miller screamed just past the checkered flag Saturday morning. "It's crazy, but it's crazy fun!"

And that was a practice run.

This morning, 250 salivating drivers will rev their engines for the real thing — autocross racing at its best, at a widely anticipated venue despite not having been used for this hugely popular sport in two decades.

Runways at the former naval air base are made of the densest concrete, a much better surface for rubber car tires than comparatively mushy asphalt found at most autocross courses. Also, the abandoned air field is huge, has virtually nothing to run into should drivers spin out, and no neighbors to complain about noise and exhaust.

"I drove 13 hours just for this," said Annie Gill of Seattle, who has won a half-dozen national autocross championships in various racing categories in Lincoln, Neb., also held on concrete similar to that of Crows Landing. She drove a Honda S2000 in Saturday's "test and tune" event, a noncompetitive preview to today's action.

"It's real grippy," Gill said of the surface. "And everyone here is superfriendly and helpful."

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Stanislaus County, which owns the property, hasn't been as friendly over the years. Liability and security hurdles were too much for car enthusiasts to conquer at the air base, which officials want to transform into a jobs-rich industrial complex.

Circumstances have since changed.

Since the demise of Gerry Kamilos' West Park proposal a year ago, the county has not found another suitor and the base remains largely unused, except for high-speed law enforcement vehicle training. Vacant structures have been removed, and top-level turnover brought open-minded Monica Nino, although Friday is her last day as the county's chief executive officer before taking the helm at San Joaquin County.

'Good for the community'

Stanislaus County will be paid a few thousand dollars' rent plus a few dollars for every race registrant this weekend.

"I'm pleased that the county finally realized this is good for the community," said Sheriff Adam Christianson, who lobbied county administrators and came Saturday to bask in high spirits.

"This is a great family event," he continued. "It brings people from all over the country and they bring their money (to spend). And it's fun."

The weekend's event is sponsored by the regional chapter of the powerful Sports Car Club of America, based in San Francisco. The club boasts a $10 million insurance policy, although autocross — the club prefers to call it solo — has an extremely low accident rate.

"I drive like a maniac," said the irrepressible Miller, "but there is almost no danger. You might hit a cone, but that's all you'll hit."

Drivers whiz one by one through pylons on a curvy course, trying to post the best time among others in a racing class, or to beat their own previous times. Classes range from everyday family cars to souped-up, heavily modified muscle cars and even go-karts, which Modesto's Dave Thomas called "diabolically quick."

With his political connections, Thomas helped open the door for the Sports Car Club of America. Organizers initially hoped for a decent turnout and were blown away to fill every available slot.

Drivers often negotiate turns in about 45 seconds at many autocross courses. Today's layout at Crows Landing, blessed with almost no limits, is expected to require about 90 seconds — a relative eternity.

"This is like heaven, to have such a big space," said Bryan Nemy, the club's event chairman. "It's a real treat for people used to running on postage-stamp lots."

"There is so much buzz about this," said Mike Wood, who drove a recreational vehicle from Alamo and parked it on the tarmac. "This is a perfect venue: big, flat and grippy."

Children can compete in go-karts. Other classes welcome both genders, while some are only for women. Most participants lack no confidence.

"This (surface) fits my driving style very well," said Gill, trying her best to make a passenger vomit on the track. "I have no shortage of aggression."

Geoff Clark heard the news and motored from Seattle, passing up a closer Canadian national autocross event because it's held on normal asphalt, in British Columbia. Saturday's test-and-tune at Crows Landing allowed him to adjust tire pressure and shock absorbers in preparation for today's runs, which will help him get ready for the upcoming U.S. nationals in Nebraska.

"We love the concrete," he said, smiling.

"It sticks like glue — unbelievable," said Miller, a Patterson resident and retail nursery owner. He may have had the shortest drive of anyone to Crows Landing and was positively giddy.

"You get addicted to this stuff!" he gushed.

County leaders are watching

Drivers, who work one-hour shifts at volunteer stations to keep down costs, pay $35 each day to compete. Winners get bragging rights.

Organizers and drivers know that county leaders are closely watching. At Saturday's pre-run drivers' meeting, Nemy reminded people to clean up trash, drive at slow speeds when not on the course and spend money at local stores and restaurants.

"We want to make a good impression," said Chris Boynton of Belmont, who came a day early to help mow weeds and erect temporary signs. "We want to show the local community that we can have a nice, safe event."

Sports Car Club of America statistics suggest autocross participants are older, more educated and make more money than most of the population, although anyone can sign up and race. Diehards might come as much for camaraderie, several said.

"You're really not in the car that long, so it's about socializing," Wood said.

If all goes well, organizers hope to pitch a contract that could bring 30 racing events next year.

"This has been a dream for so long to get Crows Landing," Nemy said. Its racing future, he acknowledged, "depends on how we do this weekend."

On the Net:

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or (209) 578-2390.

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