Driving a race car to its absolute limits, bumping and grinding at speed with dozens of rivals, and actually finishing a race without a penalty, crashing or being disqualified is no small feat. Winning by out muscling other aggressors, for an hour with skill, luck and pit strategy is remarkable. When it all comes together, few things bring more satisfaction; it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
My most exciting race was run in the rain. Every time I crossed Start/Finish line, my car did a 360. This was at Sonoma, where just a few feet the drag strip ran over the road course. Other racers had it even worse. Many like racing on a wet track or in the rain and despite winning this race, I do not.
Most of my races were won with ture-grit. I didn’t have a risk meter on my dashboard, and never let up or conceded an inch. Qualifying was not my strong suit, I needed an opponent near me in a real race to motivate me.
We take the matter of crashing and burning in stride. You can’t buy aversion to risk or train for it. Racing is the most dangerous of all sports, incidentally. People who do it, love it. I love it. Typically, racers have the Thrill-Seeking gene, are hard-wired for adventure and have the (overused) Need for Speed. I always drive best when I was having fun, and I had fun. And, yes, there are racing groupies.
With twenty-one or more fitly prepped race cars running flat-out on a road course of less than three miles, driven by tightly wound adversaries putting a fender on you in the straights and around corners — bound to occupy the same real estate — something has to give. That’s what National Autosport Association (NASA) is all about. And with competitors in (the more prominent series of road racing) from many countries, road racing truly an international sport, and we race in the rain.
Once that green flag drops, I turn into an entirely different person, friends become foes, cars in front of me are obstacles I must overcome, I’m super aggressive, don’t know where that comes from, I just know it’s there. I’ve passed cars who were blocking me by going off the track to get around them. I’ll let my Hard Charger award speak for itself.
There is something about road racing that brings out my predator instinct, my determination to win. I was lousy at sports in high school, but matured to became competitive once the U.S. Army taught me discipline and toughness and how to best survive in combat.
The goal in racing, of course, is to get out front and stay there. When trying to pass a car, or get the lead, pretend you’re going after one of those cowardly mass murderers, get past them for national security reasons. (Once, when I was racing, I actually pretended to be chasing the Unabomber, who had yet to be caught.) Don’t remember if I won that race, though.
In most sporting matches there is a 50/50 chance of winning (think: football, baseball, basketball) no such odds in racing, more like one chance in 10 or 30, depending on the number of contenders in your class. Finishing second or third matters for points, but nothing’s like first.
In another sport, say football, one could play with a spurt of adrenaline or aggression and succeed. In racing, those traits are important, but don’t let machismo outweigh common sense. Driving while pissed usually doesn’t result in a good outcome, and racing above 10/10s is very risky. And controlling emotions is critical, like when getting taken out on the first lap by another driver or having a tire go down when leading. You may be doing a TV interview when you’re really torqued, but you must make your sponsors proud, and keep your composure, hard as it is to do.
I was in the best physical condition, for racing, since my intramural basketball days at the University of Denver of the late-70s. I did weight training with a chest press machine, aggressive hiking, and yoga-type breathing exercises.
The evening before an event, I would fall asleep, visualizing each corner of the track where I’d be racing. A racing strategy? Not really. Because once the Green Flag drops, the BS stops. Your plan will probably be worthless before the first lap is run. Mike Tyson’s “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” is a good metaphor for racing, too. Trust your race car and your instincts, control your emotions, don’t over-analyze, drive at 10/10s & Have Fun.
I got national press, international even as European Car is distributed in several countries.
Kunzman was also a California gubernatorial candidate in 1993. ... Intangible benefits of racing and winning, plus I needed help with all those trophies. She's squinting because she's tired of seeing the male racers gawking at her. Except me, of course. (Swan archives)
I’ve had the privilege to run on the following tracks: Nelson Ledges, Ohio and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Watkins Glenn, New York, Road America, Wisconsin, Charlotte Motor Speedway North Carolina (Track events only).
I’ve raced at the following Calif. tracks: Laguna Seca (recognized as one of the best in the world) Sonoma Raceway (NASCAR races here) Thunderhill Raceway Park, Willow Spring International and the now closed Crow’s Landing.
Even with the intense competition, all drivers going flat out (but no oncoming traffic) and corner workers, it was relatively safe with an ambulance and helicopter on site. (All of our race cars had roll cages, five-point harnesses, window nets, fuel bladders, automatic fire extinguishers, and other safety features.)
If you’re afraid of wrecking or don’t trust your car or equipment, you’re unlikely to do well. I never had a serious crash on a racecourse, although shortly after I retired a fellow racer that I knew, was killed at Sears Pt. (Sonoma) in 1997 (intrusion).
If you’re happy with any result, except 1st — you’re not a real competitor. I placed (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) in about thirty of the forty-five races I ran in two different series.
I didn’t exactly retire on top, as many in sports say you should, but I was still winning, with my proudest moment being named the first NASA Hard Charger.
I retired from racing in late 1995 after Dave Allen (my partner) barreled rolled # 67 in practice at Thunderhill’s turn 3, essentially destroying the car. Dave’s only injury was minor when our well-mounted camera came loose and flew into his right hand.
There was another painful moment when he wrote me a check for $20,000, our previously agreed-upon value. (Car might have sold for $25,000) I didn’t exactly make out, I had about $30,000 in #67 and the latest in suspension upgrades courtesy of Bielstien®, a new sponsor, just before the wreck.
Once I received my national competition license, I never had a DNF (did not finish) because of mechanical issues, and I had a blast for three-plus years in my baby — my BMW.
I was one of just a few drivers over forty; some were seventeen. Other racers thought because of my age, I’d been racing for thirty-five years, not just a few. I was getting way too old for the sport. Nearing age fifty despite my maturity; seventeen-year-olds, who probably started in go-carts at age thirteen or earlier, could and would make you look foolish.
In my three-plus year’s racing, I won money from SCCA, NASA, automotive parts, and so forth from sponsors. All told, I broke even.
I was running at full bore, door handle to door handle, fender to fender, at 125 miles-per-hour or more, on a road course, bumping and grinding — trying to win — fighting to maintain speed and control in Andretti hairpin, Rainey corner, the corkscrew, Canada corner, keyhole, carousel, Big Bend, the chicane, and other fun and technical corners. All the while having more fun than I thought possible — more than I could have imagined.
Yes, I began missing it immediately.
When I’m in long medical procedures like an MRI, where I have to lie dead still for forty-five minutes, I replay the tracks I’ve raced, corner by corner.
Driving Tom Kirkham's authentic Shelby Cobra 427 S/C, Utah 1991. I was the only one he let drive the $2 million, give or take, monster. (Kirkham archives)