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The Right Seat: Navigating The Silver State Classic

Posted in AMC, Domestic Rides, General, Racing Coverage, Rides by MrAngry | October 28th, 2012 | 1 Response |

*Photo courtesy of Jim McIlvaine

What if… it was a beautiful, cool and crisp Sunday morning…

What if… you owned a fast vehicle…

What if… you had 90 miles of deserted Nevada Highway before you… and…

What if… Jimi Day invited you to navigate for him for the 25th Anniversary Silver State Classic Challenge in his 1969 AMX fondly known as AMXess?


If you were me, you would double check that he was serious (yes, he is), you would double check your calendar (yes, you will miss the Reno Air Races, again), and double check with your husband that he wouldn’t mind (he is thrilled for you), and you would start packing.

*Article by guest contributor Saroja Cunningham.

*Photo courtesy of Jim McIlvaine

I had heard about the Silver State Classic Challenge (www.silverstateclassic.com) for years. The chance to flog your car down 90 miles of Nevada highway for bragging rights is right up my alley. Friends had run it. Some crazy guy in a modified NASCAR Dodge Charger averaged 217.5570 mph over the 90 miles with a top speed of 244 mph. This was going to be fun!

“We are running in the 110 mph class. You have to get us across the finish line within 0.1 to 0.2 seconds of our target time if we want to make the podium. If we finish a second off, we won’t make the top ten.”

*Photo courtesy of Jim McIlvaine

I arrived in Las Vegas convinced that I was in over my head. The whirlwind of registration, meeting Steve Waldman (the man who started it all 25 years ago), cleaning the car, and stuffing AMXess so full of gear that the tool bag had to go in the passenger foot well kept me distracted. We then headed to the press luncheon. Jimi said a few words on behalf of OPTIMA Batteries and the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Challenge. While he was at the podium, I heard him say these dreaded words:

“I would like to have my navigator, Saroja Cunningham, come up here and tell you what it’s like to be a navigator for the first time.”

WHAT? I have to speak in front of these (quickly counted) 150 people?? I didn’t recall seeing that in the disclosure statement that, in hindsight, I really should have had Jimi prepare for me.

It is said that public speaking is the number one fear for the majority of the population. From my perspective at that very moment, I agreed. I stumbled through, trusting that my enthusiasm for the sport of open road racing would carry me through and keep me from sounding like a complete idiot. Jimi promised that he would make me speak again at the awards banquet Sunday night.

*Photo courtesy of Jim McIlvaine

Then it was time to caravan to Ely, our base camp for the weekend’s festivities. After searching for fuel and discovering that neither the air conditioning nor the stereo was working, we caught up with the group and headed north with about 30 cars; including a group from Canada with a collection of ultra-high performance cars.

Near Ash Springs, a blip on highway 93 about halfway along the route with a gas station and convenience store, Jimi gave me the go ahead to drive AMXess the rest of the way to Ely.

*Photo courtesy of Jim McIlvaine

I am used to driving muscle cars; among them, a 1969 Road Runner that I bought when I was 16 and a 1965 Shelby at Willow Springs Raceway. Driving AMXess was nothing like either. Cruising up highways 93 and 318 was an experience in modern muscle. The LS3 engine rumbled pleasantly; while the D&Z built suspension gave AMXess a solid road feel. I comfortably drove “the Narrows” without slowing, wondering what it would be like coming the opposite direction at 110 mph. I got used to the feel of AMXess and how she settled into the speed. This was going to be FUN.

The 25th Anniversary festivities started in Ely with a Half-Mile and Mile shootout and a participant parade through town. A car show Saturday at a wonderful grassy field, and the Hooker’s Choice Award car show at the Stardust Saloon – who knew all this was part of the deal? It was exciting to see how much the people of Ely enjoy the Silver State Classic Challenge and how many volunteer to help.

I started getting nervous again during the mandatory driver and navigator meetings. It hit me how much responsibility I had to make sure we crossed the finish line on time. I asked more questions, I checked over our course notes again, and being an engineer, I couldn’t resist staying up too late creating an Excel spreadsheet.

*Photo courtesy of Jim McIlvaine

Sunday morning arrived too soon. I put on my drivers suit (mostly for warmth) while waiting for daylight, and promptly at 6AM, the caravan headed south out of Ely. We arrived at pre-grid and were directed to park in rows according to our start position. Then we waited. Eventually the rows in front dwindled, and we were directed to the starting grid. As we waited some more, we double checked the GPS, stop watch, and course notes. Practice is important. We practiced synching the GPS and stopwatch dozens of times to help focus and pass the time as we waited. Finally, we were signaled to the starting line. And we waited – again. We were able to practice a couple more times with the official GPS clock, but by now, we were anxious to go!

And then we were up. “Fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine…” was real. We clicked our devices and were off. Immediately, I realized that my notes fluttering in the breeze was not ideal. Note to self: “next time, have rubber bands, more tape, and binder clips”. I started paying attention to the mile markers, getting used to spotting them and reading the small numbers. I learned that leaning forward into my harness kept my head from vibrating and it was easier to see the markers. I remembered to breathe.

*Photo courtesy of Jim McIlvaine

Were it not for our helmets, the stop watches, and our driving gear, we might have been out for a spirited trek down a deserted highway. But we had no “Sunday drivers” to worry about, nor did we have to worry about getting a ticket, just getting disqualified if we went over our tech speed!

The first marker for our time/speed check was nine miles in. I only had 5 minutes to figure things out. I hit the split button with us 0.14 seconds too slow. We needed to speed up, but by how much? I am an engineer. I wanted my calculator. I gave Jimi the thumbs up to speed up, but couldn’t figure out exactly how much. I let him creep to 112, and signaled to level off.

*Photo courtesy of Jim McIlvaine

We met the next three markers close to the target times. On the fourth, the clock showed we were 30 seconds early! I panicked. It was the third flag station, an important one. If the race had been stopped, this could have been our official time. While I tried to calculate the speed we needed to go, we passed the flag station… right on time. I had made a rookie mistake – checking the time at the mile marker, not the flag station. I wouldn’t let another mistake happen!

But I did. I missed at least one more marker, but remembered to relax and enjoy going through The Narrows at about 115 mph, where there weren’t any times I needed to take. Shortly after, with less than 20 miles to fix a mistake, I made a BIG mistake. I said some very bad words very loudly and hoped the in-car video didn’t pick it up. I signaled Jimi to speed up. We went through the next marker too early. I tried to think straight, signaled a slight decrease in speed, and prayed. Two miles later we were right on target, with only 3 miles to go. I signaled 110 mph, and clicked off the last three miles, one by one.

As we crossed the finish line I remembered to hit the “Stop” button. The stopwatch showed 00:49:05.45. Our target time was 49 minutes, 5.5 seconds. According to our stopwatch, we had crossed the finish line 0.05 seconds under our target. We wouldn’t know our official time until that night, but it was good to know that we were close.

*Photo courtesy of Jim McIlvaine

Though the official results revealed that our error was 0.2567 seconds, I was still proud to have placed 6th place out of 44 cars. The 110 mph class was the largest class for the 25th Anniversary Silver State Classic Challenge. The winner of our class had an error of 0.04 seconds, without a navigator.

Jimi, true to his word, dragged me up on the stage again, this time in front of 450 people, with two 30 foot screens of ME on either side of the stage. I checked my notes, muddled through, and was glad to get back to my table, where a stiff drink waited for me.

Next year I will be more prepared. I will have rubber bands, binder clips, and paper clips. We will have radios, so I don’t have to teach Jimi sign language. I will use the front tire as the target spot for timing, so my stopwatch will more closely match the official timing. I will enjoy every single moment, just like this year.

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One Response

  1. KC French says:

    Dang! Even with several mistakes, you guys did really well! Congratulations!