Tom Wilson
August 1, 2003

High-speed road-course action, show-car shine, and a manufacturer's midway were the attractions at the National Auto Sport Association's "Ponies at Speedway" weekend this last March. Part of NASA's year-long championship series, the weekend followed NASA's standard structure, with classes from motorcycle-engined "dwarf" cars to thundering late-model roundy-round racers hammering it out on the road course.

For we Mustang enthusiasts, naturally, the big deal was the second round of the American Iron '03 championship. This Mustang-dominated class does have a few Camaros in it, but it's mainly a Mustang free-for-all where 302, 331, 347, and 4.6 engines duke it out. Offered in the liberal-engine AI Extreme (AIX) version and the more heavily subscribed 9.5:1 pounds-per-horsepower AI class, American Iron is a sure crowd pleaser with healthy fields and close action. Factory support from the strongly involved Griggs Racing and Maximum Motorsport, along with numerous other contingency sponsors, means interest is intense both in participating in and watching this rapidly growing series.

Speaking of intense, NASA packages 20-minute open-track sessions during its race weekends, so nearly anyone can get in their car, get on the track, and have at it four times a day! At Fontana the road course uses slightly more than half of the big oval, including the 14-degree banking of Turns 1 and 2, as well as a rather entertaining infield section offering, among other things, two shorter straights; two notable moderate-speed kinks; a fun decreasing-radius, second-gear corner; and a devilish complex of setups, turns, and kinks leading back onto the oval. With the promise of such all-out, high-banked action, what 5.0&SF reader wouldn't want to give it a whirl? We certainly did, so we brought the magazine's '96 open-track project out for some hard-breathing exercise.

Also on tap was a Sunday-only car show put on by the Orange County Mustang Club. Obviously a Mustang-oriented event, it drew a smattering of non-Mustang entrants as well. Between the car show and the garages was a manufacturer's midway, where handling the goods and asking questions were the order of the day. In most cases, the people manning the booths were the same ones who designed and built the parts, so it was a great place to get a high-speed education or make a parts buy.

On-track action was mainly of the good variety. The combined AIX, AI, and CMC duels on Saturday and Sunday saw some great close-quarters dicing, especially in the opening laps. This led to the inevitable punting, shoving, and off-track avoidance/recovery maneuvers early on, especially on Saturday when front-runners Bruce Griggs and Vageli Karas took to the grass, letting John Lindsey and Guy Cunningham by. There was some shuffling of the field as Bruce and Vageli tried to work their way back to the front, only to have the red flag, and ultimately the checker, come out when Ed Varon got on his lid in Turn 18.

Sunday's racing was cleaner, went the distance, and finished as expected with Bruce taking the AIX win and Vageli the AI winner's wreath.

Wanting to simply get its feet wet with its first-ever spectator event, NASA didn't exactly flood the Los Angeles market with radio spots or hire the Goodyear blimp to advertise. As a first-year event, Fontana didn't draw on momentum from last year, so we weren't expecting a large turnout of the masses. And of course, by World Ford Challenge or East-Coast NMRA standards, Fontana offered elbow-room along the front-row fence, but there was definitely an interested crowd there. We were especially pleased to see a heavy influx of young enthusiasts, many off the streets and at a road-racing track for the first time. With the lowest-possible admission fees and excitement over all the action, they'll be back. So will we.

What's It Like Out There?Arcing inward like God's own fastball, the stack of tires guarding the corner apex slides slightly left in the windshield. The shifter is in Third and the throttle is pinned under foot as I feed in left steering and then a bit more to compensate for the torque arm's tenacious rear bite. As if scolding this impudent move, the steering shakes in my hands, the wind dying out of the front tires as the new inputs are prioritized and filed according to the laws of physics by the four contact patches. In this 4,000-pound street car with its air conditioning, my pot belly, and an innocent passenger belted beside me, this process takes awhile-a tenth of a second, say.

Oh, how small those contacts with everything slow and safe can be, especially in this, the neutral time. The wait. The road-racer's purgatory-where heroics peer into the abyss while balanced on the knife-edge of traction. "How far will the rearend step out?" asks that quiet, methodical corner of the brain where the Dispassionate Reasoner resides. The same one who's always two steps ahead of mere flesh and blood, the same disembodied soul that thus has the time to note the unique tinkling glass makes when the headlights hit the wall. I, the flesh and blood, wait. But already the Reasoner knows and unthinkingly I do not lift. The rear swings sweetly to the right with both the gentle grace of a loving wife and the unstoppable authority of 4,000 pounds answering Newton's dictum of a body set in motion.

Flash! The stack of tires flicks by the driver-side window as ahead lies the wide glory of Fontana's immense front straight. Cocked at a jaunty angle and offering nearly a mile of uninterrupted speed, this boulevard invites a moment's relaxation. I pull the T45 into Fourth, consider the mawing entrance to the 140-mph Turn 2 nearly a half-mile ahead, and the upshift into Fifth that awaits.

A fine day at work, this.