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  • Russell Soto

SPEC-Tacular Peformance: Michigan Road Racing At Its Finest

“Welcome back! Thanks again for coming this way to learn what’s being going on these past few weeks, and also for the folks that have been following me in social media. Last time I gave you a high-level run down of where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing this past year – and I also promised I’d be posting here more regularly.

To say that a lot has been happening would be an understatement. It turns out that Eastern Michigan – where I reside – has a much richer motorsports community than I ever imagined. From the cradle of the American automotive industry, I have access to some of the best tracks in the world – Mid-Ohio and Michigan International, as well as grassroots temples of speed like Waterford Hills Road Racing. I’ve been able to test sprint karts as well, although powered by Briggs LO206 engines, instead of the old Rotax and IAME power plants of old. If I’m up for it, Road America and Indianapolis make for reasonably close weekend trips. But it’s at Waterford Hills where things have been happening for me lately. There’s a little bit of history to tell you about here.

Southeastern Michigan is home to the Oakland County Sportsman's Club (OCSC), and a group of its members started to run their cars in time trials, using a dirt road course they build themselves. This became the Waterford Hills Road Racing circuit, which in 1958 started running amateur road racing events, sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). It is a picturesque, but challenging and technical 1.5-mile-long course, with a variety of corners and elevation changes that remind me of Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.

I would’ve never imagined this, but this track has seen its share of world-class drivers, and none other than Sir Stirling Moss broke lap records in a Lotus Elite around this very circuit back in 1961. What a place to make your mark in motorsports!

Sir Stirling Moss at Waterford HIlls in a Lotus Elan, 1961 (photo credit:

My relationship with Waterford Hills started with meeting Alex de La Torre, the driving instructor for the club’s racing school, and one of the finest racing drivers you will ever see. With over 30 years of road racing experience, Alex has seen it all. With an urgent need to fulfill my SCCA license requirements, Alex put me in the cockpit of a Spec-Miata for one race, which admittedly did not go that well because the first time I even saw the track or car was for qualifying. Still, it was a great experience although paling in comparison with what would come next.

You might remember this from my previous blog...baptism of fire

August 26th and 27th saw the club’s penultimate race of the season and this time I’d be driving a Spec Racer Ford. These cars are closed-wheel, open cockpit machines closely related to prototype racers, made up of a tube frame chassis covered by a fiberglass body. The “GEN2” (or second generation) cars are powered by a Ford 1.9 liter 4-cylinder engine making approximately 180hp, derived from the Ford Escort, mated to a 5-speed, h-pattern manual transmission. With a weight of only 1,670 pounds (including the driver), the cars achieve a top speed of 135 MPH on Hoosier radial slick tires.

The smile says it all...

Because of work commitments, I could only do Friday practice and the Sunday races, completely missing qualifying on Saturday. This meant that I would be starting from the back for Sunday’s first race – this didn’t bother me, because on Friday I felt great affinity and connection with the car the first time out.

During the first Sunday race my connection with this car helped me run through the field, passing car after car until I found myself in second place, in pursuit of my mentor Alex, the man who holds the lap record for that track.

Ever so close...

For the feature race I started in P2 behind him, and proceeded to pass him and hold the lead until we encountered lap traffic. No matter – second place behind Alex is like a race win, to be honest, and the .8 second difference gave me a very quantifiable picture of exactly where I stood with these cars the first time out. Especially satisfying was the fact that when I looked behind me, I saw that no one was even close to the times Alex and I were achieving, which speaks well for my progress as a driver…little did I know how well.

Front row for Sunday feature

Fighting with my mentor - Enjoyed the lead for several laps!

September 22-24 marked the 6th and final race for the club, and this time I was able to go for the full three days of seat time. Saturday again saw me win second place behind Alex, and I was extremely happy to see that 1 second difference between us etch away ever so slightly. One of the greatest lessons a driver can learn is that that last second is the toughest to make up, the one that requires a lot of fine tuning and commitment, and that ultimately defines victory. For the Sunday, I had to switch cars due to a cracked engine mount, which meant that the first race was spent getting to terms with a gearbox that was slightly different, and so a disappointing 4th place was all that was in the cars. Not to worry, in a few hours there would be a big smile on my face.

On the sidelines...but not for long.

For the second race the starting order was based on the previous race’s fast times, so once again I slotted in second behind Alex for the rolling start. While I timed the start well, I wasn’t able to make a first lap pass, but was still able to run Alex very close for a few laps. This time, I concentrated on being smooth and conserving the momentum needed to extract fast times from a car that, after all, does not have endless reserves of power. Faithfully following the advice of the man in front – and also observing and applying what I saw him doing – I was able to keep the gap more or less constant, even if I had to resign myself to see the quicker driver ever so slightly opening a gap. Thirty years of experience was laid out in front of me like the ultimate textbook to learn from at – literally – high speed.

Was I going to close the gap and catch him? No. At least not on that September afternoon a couple of weeks ago. But a look at the times at the end of the race told the story, and the biggest takeaway – that just on the second weekend with these cars, my fastest lap was now only 2 tenths of a second from his fastest lap. That, my friends, is a VICTORY for me.

No one was prouder or happier than Alex himself. Just as Stevan McAleer before him, I consider him the best instructor and mentor I could have at this point, and with his guidance I feel I’m making up for the time I’ve lost in my development, mainly due to lack of funding. More than a “rabbit to catch,” he has also become a trusted friend.

Obviously I intend to become quicker than him – and when that happens I guarantee you his smile will be the biggest one in the paddock. For sure this will be a long road, and I’ve lots to learn. But when you want to master something, there’s one important thing you need to do: Always try to find someone better than you, and learn from them - that’s how you grow.

Until next time!

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