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Satisfying a need for speed

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Photo: April Corbin

Michele Abbate likes to go fast, and tonight I’m buckled in beside her for the ride.

“You don’t want to ride with me on my first run,” she says as we stand beside her Mazda Speed Protégé. “I go slow.”

Beside us, three people overhear her and start laughing. “Michele,” one of them says, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you go slow.”

Abbate laughs. She doesn’t disagree.

It’s Saturday night and we’re at the second summer event of the Las Vegas Region of the Sports Car Club of America. Here, slow isn’t really an option.

Michele Abbate gets ready to start the autocross course.

Cars of almost every make and model are competing to get the fastest time on a temporary course marked by orange traffic cones. It’s a solo event, which means the vehicles go one at a time, as opposed to racing on a track against other people. According to one of the organizers, 66 cars have registered and shown up for tonight’s event – a solid showing.

Abbate runs the course in just over 33 seconds. At each autocross event, a driver typically runs three or four times, depending on how big the group is. As she preps for her second run, I strap a borrowed helmet onto my head and buckle myself in beside the 21-year-old UNLV student.

She asks me if I’m ready. I’m honestly not sure how to respond.

At the starting line, a man stands with a green flag and signals when it’s safe to go. A few seconds after the green flag is waved, Abbate takes off. My head bounces back against the headrest. I grip the armrest on the door to avoid falling over as we round the first corner. The windows are down and the wind whips our faces.

Autocross (also known as SOLO) involves setting up a temporary course with traffic cones. Competitors race against the clock for the fastest time.

After a short straightaway, we jolt to the left and back to the right. Confused by what I register only as a sea of cones, I wasn’t prepared for the zigzag. I’m swaying in my seat and trying to steady myself. The track is bewildering, but it’s exhilarating, too.

Next to me, Abbate is steady as a rock with her arms at 10-and-2 and her eyes laser-focused on the cones ahead of us. Thankfully, unlike me, she sees a track through the blur.

Later, when we’re not drifting through the parking lot, she explains my reaction is common. She had a similar reaction when she first rode with her brother. “I remember the first time I went,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘How do you know where to go?’”

The initial confusion didn’t stop her from immediately wanting to become involved, though. “I was hooked,” she says.

Now, Abbate knows that all the participants walk the course before driving it to become familiar with the curves and cones.

SCCA Las Vegas Region Chairman Rick Kostelaz instructs first-time drivers about rules and safety procedures.

All first-time autocrossers are taken aside and explained the rules and procedures thoroughly. When they work the track, picking up cones that cars knock over, they’re paired up with someone experienced. Event organizers often ride with them during their first runs to help guide them along, and they encourage the newcomers to ride with them or other experienced riders before they drive the course themselves. All drivers and riders must wear a helmet, and all workers wear reflective vests. Accidents are a rarity. Still, everyone who drives is covered by the group’s insurance policy.

This attention to detail helps convince property owners to allow SCCA to host events on their lots. Rick Kostelaz, the SCCA chairman for the Las Vegas region, concedes that even with these precautions in place, the pitch can still be difficult. Tonight’s event is at the Buffalo Bill parking lot. Their next event, scheduled for Sept. 27, will be held on a flight line at Nellis Air Force Base.

“This is the safest sport for people who love to drive fast,” Kostelaz explains.

SCCA has classifications for almost any type of vehicle, go karts included.

Exactly who are the people who love to drive fast? Perhaps predictably, most of the participants fall between the ages of 20 to 30. However, Kostelaz is significantly older – he’s been involved in similar groups for decades. His wife, Barbara, has been involved for two decades – she started in her 40s.

And the Kostelaz family aren’t the only ones who don’t fit the racer profile. Among the attendees are a pregnant woman who raced and a 15-year-old with a learner’s permit who plans to start racing as soon as she can.

Kostelaz admits that his hobby isn’t for everyone. “You love it or you don’t,” he says. “We have people who come off their first run and say, ‘That was the most fun I’ve ever had,’ and we have people who never come back.”

For the people who come back, Kostelaz says it’s just as much about the competitive spirit as it is about the love of high speeds, squealing tires and roaring engines.

For Abbate, it seems to be both.

Back on the course, she peels around the last corner and we screech to a halt. Her head immediately whips to her left to check out her score: It’s in the 33-second range again. “Same time,” she says disappointedly. She must be talking to herself, as I’m still getting my bearings straight from the ride.

Kostelaz is right: For the dedicated driver, as soon as one run is over, you start thinking about the next one.

Abbate explains she just upgraded her suspension, and she’s still getting used to it. She runs a few more times, all of her times within a few tenths of a second from each other. She’s not content with consistency.

In autocross, this number means everything.

“When I’m driving, I don’t think about it. I’m so in the moment,” she says. “Then, I see my time and I just think about that. How can I improve? How can I make my time better?”

Kostelaz concurs.

“I’ve yet to come off the course and say, ‘That one was perfect,’” he says. “You can always do better.”

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