BEFORE THE BATTLE BEGAN – Fred Kelley, either hugging or choking Wade Chamberlain at the Saturday driver’s meeting, extended the battle for the 2007 Cumberland Cobra Cup down to the last .039 seconds, in an overtime runoff match race, marking a rise from field fodder to Top 5 for the Capital Area Cobra Club in the Miller Lite Cumberland Airport Autocross Series. Photo by Ethan Connor.
Fast and Curious
BACK IN THE DAY – Bob Johnson and his Ford Shelby Cobra at the Cumberland Nationals, held at the Cumberland Regional Airport in 1964. Photo Courtesy of National Road Autosport.

(Editors Note: One of the joys of being involved in the Cumberland Airport Autocross Series is a commitment to true grassroots club competition. That’s why you find a slightly different feel to Cumberland fields and our event reporting…a perhaps why you find a certain underlying disinterest in classifications! Nothing wrong with them, somebody’s got to do that part. For National Road Autosport, this is all about the people. Cars are only the mechanical manifestations of our bliss. We enjoy helping people enjoy speed in a safe and professional setting. The article below about the 2007 Pumpkin Carve is reprinted from the Capital Area Cobra Club forum. We share it because it marks the coming of age for a bunch of guys who build cars in their basements and first came to Cumberland in 2004 with the goal of not running last. Three years, many hours and more than a few dollars later, they ran first. This is their fifteen minutes of well deserved fame, next year it could be you.)

THE BEST FOR LAST: CACC At the 2007 Cumberland Airport Pumpkin Carve Autocross
© 2007 Ben Lambiotte

You’ll pardon me, if I wax a little rhapsodic about the last Cumberland event of the season. It was the stuff of legend. Nearly 100 drivers came to Cumberland, through a deluge that spilled the rain of six months’ drought, like a biblical portent. Through the rain, fog and gloom they came. To race, in this historic shrine to the memory of grassroots motorsports as it once was. As in days past, it was the final climax of an entire season of intense homegrown racing.

CACC drivers came in their numbers, some in trailers, some under leaky soft tops, and some open to the raging sky. Everyone there dragged themselves from a warm hearth and home. From all over the mid-Atlantic they brought their cars and their A games. The crisp Fall air fairly crackled with electricity. The entire field was there to end a fantastic season with a bang; no one could take anything for granted.

Our club’s three best drivers, in fierce competition, but also in brotherhood, battled it out, not only for the top club honors, but, as soon became apparent, for the very fastest among the 98 car field. In the same spirit, the rest of us raced as hard as we could, and did well. CACC drivers at every level constantly pushed each other to greater heights.

But all also came to learn the end of a story that has unfolded over a year of great autocross action and adventure. In the end, only one could be fastest, and only one could win the coveted Cumberland Cobra Cup. And the magic is that no Hollywood scriptwriter could pen the cliff-hanger ending, and no pre-packaged spoiled sports celebrity paid hundreds of millions could show more heart and sheer competitive spirit than the guys we eat breakfast and wrench our cars with every day.

Skip to the end, if you just want to know who won. It’s the button on right with the down arrow. Just scroll down. But the glory of this tale is in the telling, because this was a weekend of high drama, and bright, rich images and memories to be savored, that none there will soon forget. I’ll be as brief as I can, but you have to forgive me. There is a lot to tell, so this is unusually long. I'm a little punchy because I sat down to the keyboard and banged this out shortly after driving home and putting the Cobra away.

Lend me your imaginations, and I promise I’ll shut up all winter.

I. The Deluge

For me, it began with a storm. For much of last week, a massive weather system pumped warm wet Gulf of Mexico air North, setting off torrential, drought busting rain, in a 2000 mile long 600 mile wide band from Florida to new York, with DC and Cumberland, and everything in between, smack dab in the middle.

After hemming and hawing, I realized that if I drove the nice comfy heated Mach 1 in the Pumpkin Carve, my times would not count toward the championship standings. Dubiously glowering at the “super Doppler” radar that looked like a Rorschach blot on my flat screen, I decided to man up, don my old motorcycling rain gear, yank the open cell foam cover off the Kirkey so it wouldn’t be soggy all weekend, and head out.

My friend Doug and I left Friday at about one, me in the Cobra on my wide Nitto R compounds, and my friend Doug chasing me in my Mach 1. First priority was getting to Larry’s to tone down an unruly experimental alignment. Within minutes of rainy misty Friday afternoon crazy city traffic, after pulling out onto Beltway, the Lucas “Rube Goldberg” wipers failed, leaving me to meander along in the right lane, peering through a RainX dappled windscreen. This became totally obscured as the semis passed, splattering ten foot roostertails of spray in their wake as they screamed by in their own cocoons of mist, tall as houses, with me at eye level to their lug nuts.

The fat slick tires with massive amounts of toe out jerked the car into every groove and irregularity of the soaking wet pavement, juking the car terrifyingly. On 270 madmen careened around me in the standing water, one guy in a red ricer skidding off the road into a median gully and back on, across two lanes, and Doug tells me he looked like he was going to bounce off me like a pinball. I saw a red blur peripherally only, oblivious to the chaos, just keeping every ounce of my attention focused on staying on the road going reasonably straight, counting off the familiar miles to Larry’s shop one agonizingly slow one after the other. Finally, we made it, in over twice the time it usually takes.

I was soaked and rattled when I first arrived at the shop. We got the alignment done in about 2 hours. Larry and Doug checked the wiper motor, found the wiring plug loose. coated the terminals with dielectric grease. Miraculously, it lived again. Back in business.

By then it was after 4, and raining harder than ever. I had a choice to go to Fred’s and mount some old street tires I have at his place, or push on. I admit to being a cad and forgetting to call Fred and let him know I was just going to beeline it. He had laid out the tires and prepped his lift for me and everything. But I confess I was in survival mode and not thinking about much else other than getting the drive over with. My apologies to him and Mrs. Fred, who waited anxiously by the fireside, wringing their hands with concern for my peril, until Fred called Larry and he told him I had blasted off straight for Cumberland.

Once on the road, it was a good news/bad news situation. Good: the car ran much truer and straighter. Bad: the weather deteriorated further, as Friday afternoon bailout traffic slowed to a gridlocked halt, under a cockpit-filling driving rain, and we crawled through Frederick’s rush hour traffic, then Hagerstown’s. Worse: The flippin’ wipers failed again, as a premature darkness enfolded around us. As night fell and deepened, the cold seeped from the frigid aluminum seat right through all layers of clothing and raingear, as I sat on a sodden pillow to fruitlessly cushion my coccyx.

Wet. Cold. Dark. Windy. Foggy. Scary. OK, enough about the trip. In the end, it took about 4 hours from Larry’s to reach Cumberland.

The Greenbrier never looked as good as the Best Western Braddock Inn that night. I spotted Pinky’s car, sporting a mascot goose decoy, who stood silent vigil on his hood scoop through the night. After checking in, I poked my head in Gausthof’s and found several Virginian CACCers cheerfully dining and, you guessed it, already drinking. Elder, Zimmy, Greg “K-Mart” Keller, Koi-Boi Wayne, Pinky, Chipper, and Joe Drumheller. I got out of my wet clothes and into a dry martini as we joined them for a well earned dinner and a few drinks, to steady my frazzled nerves.

When I related the harrowing tale of my journey, Pinky and Chipper could sort of relate, even though they had tops. Zimmy dryly remarked “ Lucas, the inventors of the intermittent wiper.” I think Elder or Chipper scrawled some other ageless witticisms on a moist bit of napkin, which has likely since been misplaced, but to be honest, I was a bit too groggy from the crash of a four hour adrenaline jag to recall. Something about our Rubenesque maitre de stuffing herself into one of Pinky’s tank tops. . . . Then Herb and brother Sandy arrived, and took our places as we turned in.

II. Day One – The Gathering

Saturday, Day One: After a fitful night, full of anticipation, we got up in fog-shrouded darkness to get to the Airport before registration set up, to make sure we got in the fightin’ 3rd run group, the home of CACC. Headlights and highway lights reflected off the wet pavement and puddles as we drove out in a fine mist. Many trailers were already there.

Wade arrived just after dawn in yellow fisherman’s bibs and jacket, looking like he just stepped off a “World’s Most Dangerous Catch” crab boat. Then “Shortpipe” Hubble arrived. Then Larry. Then Fred with his trailer, and Alex Kelley in the Miata. Later Sam Drumheller showed up in his new to him Mustang.

The gathering of the clan.

Dave Williams was back on his feet, five weeks after having a bionic knee installed, sporting a gnarly seven inch scar on his leg. As the usually jovial driver’s meeting started, the place took on a reverent and ethereal air. Just as the clouds began breaking up and the fog melting away in wisps over the mountaintops, John Felton asked the assembled to remove their caps and observe two moments of silence. One for two couples who had perished tragically in a plane crash near the airport the previous week, including a Cumberland man who sat on the airport board, and was pivitol in giving NRA a chance to revive amateur racing at Cumberland, and another for an old line Corvette racer who had passed on. John observed that it would be just like the latter departed to chase away the clouds for us. And that is exactly what happened. By the time the first run group was over, the sun was out in a patchy sky, and a crisp wind kicked up to dry off the tarmac. At the driver's meeting, Dave presented Jim Harris with the Corvette club cup, for a solid season as the top bow tie driver. As to the Cobra cup, Dave called Wade and Fred forward, and explained the situation. He wanted them to square off for a pugnacious "Tyson" style photo op, but in true CACC wiseass style, they hugged instead.

As we ate breakfast at the airport diner, the prime topic of conversation was the possible configurations of the club final. Let’s see if I remember it right: Wade would have to beat both Fred and Larry to win the Cup that day; if either edged him, we would have to wait until the next day to know who took the crown.

The course Saturday was run in a reverse direction from recent usuals, starting at the hanger, looping back down toward a slalom toward the State Police chopper hanger, around a hairpin and down the usual fast long straight with one shallow chicane and hairy kink at the end, followed by another straight section, a cross over, around the back side of the runway back through the cross over, followed by a short slalom, and finishing with a series of speed-killing S turns into the finish.

“Paris” and Lee Tilton, and Steve Marsh one of the Pennsylvania gelcoat Cobra drivers, toughed it out in the cold wet first run group. David, not unusually, had a tough time keeping his snarling Z-06 glued down to the damp cold track, in newly destickered trim for an emissions test. As if peeling the racing stickers off would fool anyone. Because of or despite his usual flamboyance, take your pick, he posted one clean 59. Steve bested that for a clean 58. Lee got a bit lost, taking the Stevie Wonder award away from Chipper. Alex K ran the 2d run group, and, despite his usual genetically inherited smoothness and coolness under pressure, had some dramatic slides and one incredible recovery, only just missing sliding sideways right through the gate to avoid an off course. His first day’s best was a 57.7 clean. Sandy Smith also drove in the 2d, piloting the Smith Saleen to best that with a 54.3.

As the 3rd run group gridded up, the tension was palpable. It was anybody’s guess among Wade, Fred and Larry who would ace the other. Also, the CACC group was studded with consistently fast drivers -- Tink, Chipper, Pinky, Herb, and the rest, all separated from the others only by very small increments of time. Group 3 was also packed full with a pantheon of formidable other non-Cobra drivers, including Karl Loeper in his bad-ass Camaro, and self-effacing Ken Bane, with his snorting, blown Fox body ‘Stang, and the legendary Dr. Mike in the sleeper “Farm Use” Corvette. K-Mart was amazingly fast even in his tiny red rice steamer. All in all, run group 3, composed mostly of XP cars, was a very, very tough neighborhood.

Pinky started out in trouble, breaking his battery and cutoff switch terminals loose in fishtailing through the front slalom his first run, but getting field expedient repairs done and back on the line by the second run group. Larry, Fred and Wade all coned their first runs, but got everyone’s attention with times in the 49s and 50s, which no one had yet seen.

Larry raised the bar dramatically on his second run, laying down a 48.81 clean. From that point forward, it was clear that this was about more than just the club title and more than the XP class; this was a serious bid for the fastest of the fast.

Fred answered that wake up call with a 48.85, just 4 hundredths off the pace. Wade took the kink very fast, breaking traction in spectacular fashion on his second run, but getting with the program and defending his title on his third for a 48.5, beating Larry by a razor thin 3 tenths.

The intensity was building and infectious, as the rest of the group stepped it up, too, with breathtakingly tight interclub competition at every level. Here, Tinky with a 50.1, there, Chipper with two consistent clean runs in the mid 51s, Pinky then matching Chipper run for run, and Chipper finally squeaking by Ron by a mere .04 seconds! Herb driving smooth and hard for a 52.8, and then Hubbell coning out and not quite getting over with his best second run at 53.2. And I daresay Elder and I duked it out a bit. I beg to report that your humble traitorous wretch overcame with my modest 300 horse steed the patriarch’s big block monster, with my top 54.5 to his best clean run of 55.3. Koi-Boy and Dervish in his Coupe, too, were within 2 tenths of one another, with Joe posting a 55.3 to Wayne’s 55.5. Intensity. Top to bottom. Everyone pushing the other. My friend Doug drove my Mach 1 to a low time of 58.2, steadily taking time off.

Around the fourth runs, things started getting wild. Perhaps not wishing to go down to a turncoat, Elder overcooked it as he roared through the kink, sliding sideways at speed and then off the track, plowing large furrows into the swampy turf, and then gamely climbing his snake out the muck back onto the course to finish, much to the dismay of the organizers. Not to be outdone, Tinky screamed through the kink, lost it, and slid off even deeper into the course, literally shooting about 25 yards straight off the track into the wet grass, avoiding a concrete manhole stanchion that would have opened up the underside of his Coupe like a can opener opens a can of Star Kist.

Despite “both feet in” and brakes locked, he plowed tracks through the mud for an alarmingly long time, jouncing up and down visibly. Unbelievably, there was no damage. Elder and Tink got the Spring harrowing done early this year. Mennonite farmers, submit your applications to Cobra, Inc.

Larry and Wade, too, lost it in their last runs, paving the way for “Mr. Smooth,” Fred Kelley, to put it all together on his very last run, coming from behind to answer Wade’s best time of 48.5 with an incredible 48.0. That sealed Wade’s fate that day, and we all watched and waited as the rest of the field ran the fourth run group, but fell short, making Fred FTD. We were all quite out of breath.

Crunchy made a grand entrance at the end of the day. He warmed us up with plastic cups of something served surreptitiously out of his trunk like a bootlegger, and was well met. We were glad to see him among us and not by the side of the road somewhere, having lost track of him Friday.

There was a huge bonfire at Doc Mike’s that night, as we warmed ourselves on the cold night, under a nearly full October moon, a strong wind scudding the few remaining clouds off to the East. We reflected on the drama of the day. What was on the minds of the top contenders?

Wade would have to fight on until the bitter end, up against a hard luck streak with a number of clean runs you could count on one hand over the last 20 runs in various outings, and two very tough customers pressing him. Fred too, was separated from ultimate victory by yet another day during which he could take nothing for granted and make no mistakes. For upstart Larry, a podium finish in the Cup was assured, but disappointment at having tossed away his last two runs after a solid start that placed FTD victory outside his grasp.

I missed Fred before he set out for home, and heard the familiar whistle of Wade’s blower as he took off. I left Larry staring pensively into the glimmering embers of the fire, as I roared off into the cold night. Later, he joined us at the bar. He had obviously been doing some thinking there by the fire. Calm and circumspect, he remarked “I’m not competitive; I just hate to lose.”

III. Day Two: Redemption and Rising

Sunday dawned colder but much dryer. After dealing with a loss of air in the driver’s side tire of the Mach 1, we adjourned to breakfast. There we learned that Wade had done a quick points calculation, and that he once again needed to beat both Fred and Larry that day to win decisively, but that there was a prospect of a tie. If Fred beat Wade and Larry, Wade lost. But if Larry won, and Fred lost, there would be a tie between Fred and Wade for the cup honors.

Unseemly talk swirled around Larry, who was now cast in the role of spoiler. Offers of tires and other remuneration, threats of violence and bodily harm, cajolery. . . . you name it. Even the waitress at the airport diner seemed to conspire to shake his confidence. After a dozen people who came in and ordered got their breakfast before him, his arrived minutes before we had to walk the course. She apologized for treating him badly, and he said, sardonically, its okay, I’m used to it. To which she replied perfectly serious, “well, if you’re used to it, then I don’t feel so guilty.”

Sunday’s course was similar, run the other way around from the direction it was usually run, but there was a 90 degree box at the hanger end of the first slalom, and the long straight was shorter, as there was a fly-in breakfast down at the hanger end, and the section after the kink a bit longer. They also straightened out the S turns at the finish a bit.

Pinky and Crunch ran in the dreaded first “cold” heat, along with Dave Tilton. All posted decent times, promising a faster course then the day before. Crunchy delivered a 46.9 and Pinky, who had some trouble staying stuck, a 48.1. Tilton picked up several notches from the day before to finish with a smoking 45.9, beating the odds that he would not have a clean run. Heat 2 saw Sam and Alex, the junior section, running together. Alex bested a red Fiero to take the CP class with a 49.42, and Sam came up with a 50.62, to Sandy Smith’s 48.79.

From the time 3rd heat hit the grid, times started plummeting, again. The course was faster. Larry started the bidding with a 44.241. Fred replied with a 44.240, a thousandth of a second faster! Wade clocked in with a 44.8. By the third run, Larry had a 43.5, Wade a 43.2, and Fred a 43.7.

The rest of the group, once again, kept the pressure on each other: Gary finishing up with a lovely 45.1, Elder stuffing me good with a 46.4, and Doug Smith acing out Pop’s 46.8 with a 46.4. Hubble overcame a coolant puking issue, to post a 46.9. I finished two tenths behind Pinky’s best time for a 48.3, barely avoiding embarrasment by squeaking past K-Mart's 48.6 in the rice burner. Wayne and Zimmy were close; Wayne besting Corey’s 51.9 with a 50.6, with Corey piloting Elder’s car, and even sliding it sideways once.

In his fourth run, Larry responded to Wade’s 43.2 by pushing down to an incredible, 42.88. Fred, too posted his best time in the fourth run, falling just short of Wade’s 43.2 with a 43.3. But Wade could not seal the deal. As so many have been this year, his last two runs were marred with flying cones and sliding tires.

In the end, the fates converged so that Larry beat both Wade and Fred, producing the perfect agony: a tie for the club championship. But, as everyone knows, there can be only one.

While Fred and Wade extracted themselves from their cars, we hastily conferred with Mark Boggs and Dave Williams. It was decided quickly. A sudden death run off. One run, best time wins. To neutralize the head game advantage, not only sudden death, but silent death. Both men were to line up at the start. First off to be decided by coin toss. The PA to remain silent and scoreboard to remain blank, and no one to know the winner until both cars had run.

It all came down to this moment. A crowd gathered in front of the timing trailer, as people streamed over from the pits. A hush fell over the crowd as the PA went silent. Fred won the coin toss, and was first off.

Only the roar of his mighty stroker was heard as he streaked smoothly through the course. Like the consummate racer he is, he reached down, on this, the last run of the last event of the year and pulled out his best time of the weekend.

Then the defending champion rolled up to the line; the signature whistle of his motor piercing the air. In this clutch moment, Wade showed what a champion is made of. All the dirty, bad runs he put behind him and brought in an edge of the seat, clean run.

Who was faster? The human eye certainly could not tell. . . .

As we sat in the timing trailer, tabulating the results, the restive crowd closed in, murmuring in anticipation. We could see Wade and Fred approaching, brows furrowed, demanding to know the score. The PA crackled into life, and Dave Williams did the honors, first announcing Fred’s score: a 42.884. Wade, like the gent he is, immediately turned to him, and heartily shook Fred’s hand in congratulations. But wait; Dave then announced Wade’s time – a 42.855! The defending champion had redeemed himself by a heartbreakingly close less than four hundreths of a second!! What an inspiring moment; equal to any sports epiphany I have ever witnessed.

Fred drove with speed and finesse, and brought with him the intensity of a born racer, and Wade defended his title against long odds. Both put CACC drivers at or near the top of standings. But that does not diminish Larry's accomplishment. He finished his first season at the top of heap, causing the tie that resulted in the dramatic runoff, with a time in the 42s, which would not be bested at Cumberland that day. And with that accomplishment comes the promise of even more drama and excitement next season. Who knows what next year will bring? This was the real deal, folks, made all the more dramatic because we know and love, warts and all, all of the players on the stage.

That Cumberland Cobra Cup is more than a chunk of Lucite. It is a symbol of the spirit of competition, shared experience and fellowship that binds this incredible club together. It has been hard won, and is well deserved by Wade, who showed us all grace, good humor, and perserverance in the face of adversity.

Now I know why I come to Cumberland. To not only see, but to experience, grassroots racing in its purest form. People putting cars together, and then coming together to pit themselves and their machines against each other, head to head, driving in the tire tracks of the legendary greats. Dave told me that they have now run more events than the original Grand Championships from 1953 through 1971. Wade, Fred, Larry, and all of you, have now written your names with those of the Cumberland legends; Yenko, Penske, Shelby and the rest.

Thanks to all of you, and to the NRA organizers (especially Dave, for the early results), and to all of our fellow racers, for giving us this golden slice of life. Plot and plan and modify all winter, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store next year!

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