Cat ears and whiskers make for a fun ride at the Rust Belt GP presented by Autoweek07/26/2019
The furry cat ears gave it away. I was told to look for a “white neon dressed up like Hello Kitty” – and there it was. I was greeted by Scott Severance who extended an invitation to have me drive the car and it was clear from the start this team was a family affair. Scott and his brother Greg quickly walked me through the car, a stock 1998 Neon whose greatest upgrade appears to have been a K&N air filter and a set of whiskers.
My girlfriend made it to the track early and setup the perfect track side campsite with the dog and some other friends from Detroit. The fireflies were out in full force, grilled hot dogs and other track bites never more than a few feet away: Talk about a great way to enjoy a day at the track.
I was introduced to the whole family, Greg’s son Mark who would be racing for the first time, Doug and Steven who would all be piloting the little Team Sakai Kitty Neon around the track as well as their brother Chuck who owns the car but wasn’t able to make the race.
My first stint in the car lasted about an hour and a half. The car was…not fast, but it was a hell of a lot of fun to throw into turns. Brake markers be damned, the car’s limited top speed and low weight meant that just a quick hit on the brakes would load up the front enough to chuck it into the turn, adjusting the brake pedal by small increments to direct the overall angle of the car. Alternately, just wham on the gas pedal and ride the glory train of understeer-y comfort that is a small lightweight front-wheel-drive car all the way to exit.
Once my hour-long stint was done, I came in, unplugged from the cool suit (WHAT A THING!) and decided to go sit in the hammock and listen to the cars go by.
I did my very first race in a Lemons car way back in 2013. I’d traded work hours for seat time in my boss’s Lemons car and when the clutch seemed to be failing, I happily offered myself up to run it till it died. Nearly three hours later it was still running and made the finish. The accessibility and general friendliness of the Lemons series make for the perfect place to go out, have some fun, and go wheel-to-wheel like a real race car driver. When the threat of destroying someone’s very expensive and real race car turns into the fear of ripping off a beautifully tacky POS dressed up as a bird it kind of takes the edge off. Are you battling with the aspirational Andretti’s of the world? No, but you are having fun.
Where else can you be deep in a heated battle on track, carefully picking your lines, having your rival pass you and then pass them back again, only to be brought back to reality by realizing your track frenemy is a battered and frankly gross looking Monte Carlo? Or think “where the hell did that Gremlin just come from? Damn that’s thing’s looking good…”
The second day the team graciously threw me in the driver’s seat for the closing stint. With a full tank of gas and some fresher looking tires I headed out for my last chance to peel off some laps at Gingerman Raceway’s 2.2-mile road course in western Michigan.
The Team Sakai Kitty car held up even after getting tapped by a wayward Civic evoking a certain cigarette brand (is that legal!?), who in turn was tangled up with an ambitious MR2. Did my best guys! Sorry for the dent.
With about 20 minutes to go the car developed a very bad vibration while turning right, then also when turning left, and then the gas gauge started getting precariously below the bottom line. Pushing hard in corner resulted in the car cutting out so I backed off, straightened out the turns and started using fourth gear. I had been given strict orders to bring the car home “driving or on a hook.” Sounded familiar and they are orders I’m always happy to oblige. The hook sounded like a very hot option but with shredded tires and no gas, I brought the car home, driving.
The checkered flag couldn’t have come soon enough. An assortment of patched and battered cars came back out for the last few laps to be able to say they finished. The Gremlin that cornered with all four wheels on the ground yet strangely still at a 45-degree angle made it, as did the suspiciously LS-sounding Cadillac, and the V8 RX-7 with a honey badger still attached to the roof. The point of the race is fun, and it was had by all.
Scott summed it up when he invited me to race with the team: “We have no chance of winning anything. We are there to race to the best of our abilities and have fun doing it.”
Right up my alley.
I’m hoping to see Team Sakai at the track again soon!
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