Posted Thursday, June 28, 2012 at 2:35am

A Championship Ride

The rollercoaster ride continues..

A battle for a championship in any kind of motor racing competition can be a rollercoaster ride of emotion, results and hard, hard work. Even wins along the way can be pocked with enormous disappointment, broken parts, brilliant service work and dumb luck.

That’s been the championship chase story for Lauchlin O’Sullivan and co-driver Scott Putnam as they battle for the 2012 Rally America Super Production category title. Not only is it the toughest competition in the national championship it’s arguably the title a manufacturer values most because the cars are closest to the ones available for sale Monday morning in a showroom near you.

But here’s an example of the rollercoaster O’Sullivan and Putnam have been riding. In four events this year they’ve won two events, finished second once and didn’t finish at all in a fourth. They’ve been among the fastest overall even beating highly developed Open category machines and internationally accomplished drivers visiting from distant lands. And they’ve battled incessant car problems that could whither lesser men to tears.

Consider these comments after the Oregon Trail Rally where the team disintegrated into a humbling DNF and minimum points. Not a good outcome when points are incredibly valuable in a six event championship.

“I have not had good luck here,” Putnam said after OTR, “so maybe you can blame the finish on me.

“With Lauchlin the last three events have resulted in blown motors. Last year’s was quite exciting in that we had a fire and couldn’t get the hood open. So that is three blown motors, a roll, a head on collision coming off a live stage and one failed clutch.

“This year we suffered a failed motor at the end of Saturday and were two parts short from being able to continue.”

Yeah, it can be that frustrating. Even more so when the battle is with 2011 Super Production (SP) class champions Travis Hanson and his father Terry Hanson, the co-driver on that team. Going to the fifth of six events in the championship, O’Sullivan and Putnam are leading the SP standings by nine points over the Hansons. The fight at the New England Forest Rally could be a classic. Last year the Hansons won the SP class finishing third overall. O’Sullivan and Putnam didn’t finish at all retiring with a blown turbo.

There’s that roller coaster again! In fact, the ups and downs of a championship chase are illustrated perfectly in the results of the last two events for O’Sullivan and Putnam.

At Oregon, the team’s DNF, there was an indelicate moment when the car simply surrendered after a litany of problems. Rough roads hammered on the skidplate that protects the underside of the car from the rocks and ruts on a rally stage road. That hammering eventually dented the skidplate, which pinched the downpipe on the turbo, restricting the power in the engine ultimately blowing it up. And the leg bones connected to the ankle bone… etc.

What’d they do then, sit by the side of the road and weep?

“We stood there with our tow rope hooked up, ready to go,” Putnam said later. “A couple of cars go by and, lo and behold, one stops! Lauchlin scrambles to get the cars hooked up and I slam the trunk lid, we both jump in and work to get strapped in as our good Samaritan starts yanking the car forward.”

This is a unique thing in a rally. Teams can help each other because the main competitor in the contest is the elements themselves. You help someone else because you may need someone else’s help another time.

“This is very intense mind you, as in the back of your mind you are waiting for the next car to appear and this is a one lane road. We finally get going and accelerate up to speed. Mind you, we’re ten feet or so behind the vehicle towing us and are still racing.”

Think about that for a moment. You can’t see for the dust and rocks being sprayed by the car that’s towing you to the end of the performance section at speed.

“I start reading the notes so we have an idea of what’s coming up,” Putnam said. “Then the problem arises of what to do when entering an acute turn. We don’t want the cars to mate. We end up acting as the brakes for both vehicles, with a little cracking the whip on both cars as we slow down and go through the turns. The funny thing is that both drivers quickly pick up on what the routine is and pretty soon we are merrily cruising down the final miles of stage.

“First thing I did when we got back to service in a little Oregon town called Dufer was purchase him a case of beer. What a guy!”

A few hours later the team learned they were two parts short of being able to continue and had to retire. The opportunity to gain championship points on The Hansons who didn’t make the trip to Oregon was lost. You can’t waste opportunities in a championship chase.

The story was very different a month later at the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally (STPR) in Pennsylvania where The Hansons returned to the championship as well as one of the fastest SP drivers in North America, Ramana Lagemann, a former Subaru factory driver. The competition at STPR was defined in splits of seconds and clarity was brought to the championship.

“Throughout the event, whenever Lauchlin complained about the car being slow, we were actually fast. Then, again, on the stage that felt fast and aggressive, Ramana took 20 seconds out of us. Go figure. This rally, Lauchlin complained a lot so we were very, very fast!”

It didn’t help that three of the fastest in the championship were all competing together. Making matters more difficult was the longtime friendship between O’Sullivan and Lagemann. It made the competition between the two that much more intense. It was a perfect time for the car to get on the rollercoaster and surrender its braking system to the rally spirits. O’Sullivan was driving on gravel at speed while fighting for bits of championship seconds with no brakes. You had to be there…

Nothing like a little drama! Front brakes, no rears, and the front brakes you had to pump furiously to get them to work. “We cruised to the stages taking stock of what we had to work with.” Even the handbrake wasn’t working.

Putnam’s contribution to the ride was to call the turns earlier to give O’Sullivan an early warning system on what was coming up.

“We were using allllllllll the road,” Putnam remembered, “occasionally going wide or smacking into a bank as trajectories now carried us through the stage. Lauchlin is working his ass off. In addition to the usual cacophony of sounds of a rally car in its element, I hear him constantly pounding the brakes looking for that point where they’ll eventually work. Finally we cross the finish, exit the control and find a spot to pull over behind Ramana and learn we’d gained six seconds back from him!”

In the end O’Sullivan and Putnam won the class by 14.1 seconds over Lagemann and co-driver Chrissie Beavis. The intense competition allowed them to finish fourth overall and 1:47.6 out of a third place podium finish after two days of stages. The Hansons had their own problems and were third in class but more than four minutes further back.

“Maine is next,” Putnam said. “This event is a car breaker with watermelon sized rocks dotting the stages. They are spray painted florescent colors so you can see them right before you hit them. In 2005 Doug Havir and I hit a rock that sheared the wheel, tire and suspension clean off the car.

“Of bigger concern at the moment is that Lauchlin is about to become a dad. The due date is essentially the same as the event.”

It’ll be a rollercoaster ride until the championship is settled. No matter who wins!