Norman and Dianna Lassa have an eight-millimeter film showing me as a toddler "driving" their 1954 Buick Super Riviera. I'm sitting on Dad's lap, a huge smile on my face as my little hands grasp the roulette-size steering wheel. It's time to return the favor, even though lapping Road America in a thirty-three-year-old Mazda RX-7 is not Norm's fantasy -- at least, not at first.
When he followed up the Buick, a Pontiac Safari, and three Oldsmobiles with his only sports car -- the first time he took my advice -- Dad didn't expect to keep it this long. In the ensuing three decades, the RX-7 never had a full, proper workout, although I got opposite-lock launching onto an on-ramp with it when it was new and I was in college. Dad has always been generous with the car.
In the early '80s, RX-7s dominated the IMSA GTU class at circuits like Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, sixty-six miles northeast of my parents' home. The state's other legendary sports venue, Lambeau Field, is another fifty-seven miles north. Set in Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine, Road America has fourteen turns in its four miles, but that doesn't begin to describe it. The circuit is hilly, wooded, and stunningly beautiful. It's America's Nürburgring, or maybe its Spa-Francorchamps, and has hosted virtually everything but Formula 1. Spectators also like its campsites, Johnsonville brats, and Spotted Cow beer. In 1955, Road America replaced street racing in Elkhart Lake, neither of which Dad attended until we saw a couple of events together in the 1980s. The most recent was a vintage race in June 1987, when I was leaving a reporting job at the Quad-City Times to go work for the San Diego Business Journal.
Today, the RX-7 has just 92,500 miles on the clock. In this millennium, it has served mostly to shuttle my dad to the New Berlin Hills golf course for his weekly game. In preparation for this trip to Road America, Dad has detailed his remarkably clean, original car and assures me it's ready to go. I pull the semiautomatic choke lever for its cold start-up, and we're off.
"Have you ever rebuilt the clutch?" I ask, launching the car high off the third pedal.
"No, I don't think so."
"How about the brakes?"
"Yes, they were replaced a while back."
So long as the clutch holds out, I figure we won't need the brakes much. We meet up with photographer Mark Bramley and arrive at Road America just before noon. PR guy John Ewert introduces us to instructors from Hooked on Driving, which stages events to teach enthusiasts how to safely track their sports cars at seven-tenths. The school lets us have the circuit during its lunch hour, and we use it for photography and for me to show my dad the racing line.
"That's exactly what I would do," he says.
We return in the early evening, as Hooked on Driving finishes up. A late-afternoon shower delays us a bit, but the track is drying quickly when I drive with Dad for our first hot lap and try to figure out the best way to hustle this car around the circuit. With these brakes, it's definitely slow in, fast out. The 12A rotary plays along like it's a new engine and sounds determined, its brapp rising in pitch before each upshift shy of the 7000-rpm redline. The spindly shifter serves long throws. The unassisted steering still feels rubbery after all these years, although it's precise and provides fabulous feedback. The handling is good, with minimal understeer and just enough compliance.
Dad gets behind the wheel. He's pretty good about the racing line but doesn't come close to using the whole track. On the long downhill straight leading toward turn 5, he's trying to find the RX-7's top speed, despite the Mazda's federally mandated 85-mph speedometer, and he's accelerating a bit too deeply past the braking signs for my taste. Coming out of the Carousel, around Canada Corner and 13, he misses a few shifts. After a few laps and more photography, the sun starts to set.
"I got to lap Road America!" he shouts to Bramley and Ewert, his smile as big as mine some fifty-three years ago in that Buick. It's all Dad's fantasy, now.
Ewert encourages us to keep lapping until we need headlamps, and the 12A is roaring its lone-wolf howl at the most beautiful track in the world. I'm trying to help with calm but steady instructions. He's still not using the whole track, but Dad's lap times are improving. Norman Lassa gets it; the joy of tossing around a car that has more handling than speed at the right racetrack. He'd have kept going well into the morning -- and would even have skipped his golf game for more laps. As for me, I can only hope that I've been as patient and caring with my track instructions as he was so many years ago when he taught me how to drive a manual transmission.