Tales from the Pace Car – “The Pace Car Lights are OFF!”

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“The Pace Car lights are off” – Tom F.

A phrase heard during most any race. We had a slight different take on that phrase at the 2015 Trans Am race at Brainerd.

A little background; I’ve been Pace Car driver for this event for 4 years. It is usually a pretty boring job. You do a lap at the beginning of a race and sit and wait for any Full Course caution condition. If one is needed you head out on track, ahead of the lead car to keep the field in order while some situation is attended to on track. Then you pull off and the starter waves another green flag to let the drivers start racing again.

Sounds simple, right?

During the 2013 race there was a little bit if Pace Car related drama, I had Kelley Huxtable, an official from Trans Am, riding with me as the communicator. The communicator’s job it to talk to race control via radio. During that race we had many full course caution laps. We had so many laps on track that we ran the BIR Corvette’s fuel tank down to fumes. We had to perform an in-paddock refueling exercise during the race that also included us figuring out where the fuel door release button was hidden inside the car. I saw Kelly this year and we joked about that being the most drama one could probably have with a Pace Car.

Yeah, right….

This year placed Will Huxtable (Kelley’s husband) in the Pace Car with me. As soon as Will sat in the car he said “Do we have a full tank of gas?” “Of course” I said, hoping that this would be an easy day as Pace Car driver.

The pace lap of the race was very straightforward. We pulled off the track at Turn 13 and parked in a position that would allow a quick re-entry to the track if needed. All 3 groups in the race took the green flag and Will and I sat and watched the race unfold while listening to the race control dialog on the radios.

About mid-race we heard reports of several disabled cars on-track – this was turning into a very eventful race! Then we heard the race control person ask timing and scoring for the number of the lead car. Will said “They only do that if they are planning to send us out in front of the leader”.

I moved the shifter into First Gear and waited for direction. A group of cars came into view. The lead car was lapping slower traffic and was buried in the middle of 6 or 8 race cars. Word came from race control for a full course caution and for the pace car to pick up the leader. No sooner had I turned on the lights on the light bar when Will yelled ”GO!” I remember thinking – I hope they see us. I dropped the clutch and accelerated towards the pack of snorting Trans Am cars.

Since we couldn’t get out in front of the leader it meant we had to catch up and pass them. Of course the race cars were told over their radios to slow down for the caution but an 850 horse power Trans Am Corvette going “slow” is still probably going 100.

I caught the lead group of TA cars between Turn 1 and Turn 2. It was awfully cool to feel like I was racing being that close to those machines at a fairly good rate of speed. I passed the last of the group and pulled in front of Amy Ruman’s Corvette before we got to Turn 3. Mission accomplished, or so it seemed.

As we accelerated out of Turn 3 I heard a noise overhead, quickly followed by an object appearing very closely in the rear-view mirror. The object was the Light Bar bouncing around on the rear deck of the Pace Car! Evidently the burst of speed that we needed to catch the pack was more than the suction cup grips could handle. The light bar soon fell to the ground, dragging on the pavement still tethered by its power cord.

Fearing the unit has smashed itself to bits I remember wondering if a Pace Car had ever brought out a Surface Flag for debris on the track. I didn’t really want to set that precedence.

I mentioned the “event” to Will who calmly relayed the dilemma to Race Control. As we approached the next turn I noticed Will looking out his window, assessing the situation. I can only imagine what Amy Ruman was thinking since she had a front row seat to this high speed comedy. I was told later the spectators in the area were more than mildly amused.

The next series of events may have looked like a brilliant adaptation of an “Around the World” Yo-Yo trick but it was simply dumb luck. As we rounded the left-handed Turn 4, the light-bar flung to the right-side of the car. Allowing Will to more easily reel in the still blinking, errant light bar. Duncan would have been very proud.

Like a Boss, Will deftly fished the light bar through the passenger window, placed it on his lap, put his clip-board on top and calmly resumed communicating with Race Control. I punched the 4-way flasher button to replace the Light-Bar function and asked “What speed do they want us at now?”

And just that quickly we were back to the business at hand……



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