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February 2008

BY ANDREW BORNHOP

TOPEKA, KANSAS--THE SPORTS CAR CLUB of America’s annual Runoffs are a well-deserved shot at national glory for some 600 SCCA amateur road racers competing in 25 classes that range from production-based Showroom Stock to open-wheel formula cars. It’s a great event that’s had some diverse winners over the years. Formula Atlantic, for instance, has seen both the oldest and youngest SCCA national champions. In 1995, Dan Carney was just one day shy of 77 when he won the title, and in 2005 a 16-year-old kid from Ohio won the Atlantic crown. His name: Graham Rahal.


And at the 2007 Runoffs-held for the second time at Heartland Park Topeka, but revised to be a bit faster-one winner especially worthy of note is Don Knowles of Pittsboro, North Carolina, an amiable 60-year-old gent who captured the T2 national championship in wire-to-wire style driving a bright yellow turbocharged Pontiac Solstice GXP. Although Knowles, the 2006 SSB winner in a standard Solstice, had the pole position, his new GXP had blown its turbo in morning warmup, meaning his Phoenix Performance crew had to pull a turbo off a road car and scramble to get ready for the race. They did, and after the first few comers, Knowles never looked back. “I knew that if I got to Turn 1 first, I’d have a chance to control my own destiny,” reflects Knowles. “The Runoffs are so quirky. People drive so aggressively. If you can get the lead.. .well, you really do want to get the lead.”


Knowles, who is a four-time Runoffs champion, is far from your typical club racer. He’s never been a full-time racer, as a family and a 30-year career with the U.S. government-most recently as the Associate Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior--tend to hamper such pursuits. But his accomplishments in 30-plus years of racing are extraordinary.


His first win at the Runoffs came in 1978, driving a Saab 99 CL in Showroom Stock B. Two years later, he was part of R&T’s winning team at the inaugural 24 Hours of Nelson Ledges enduro, where Editor-at-Large Joe Rusz remembers that Knowles pretty much “carried the team” to victory. Through the 1980s and the 1990s Don stayed away from the Runoffs but did race in the Playboy and Firehawk endurance series, which he says helped keep his career alive because he simply didn’t have the time to prepare and tow a car to the races. Instead, he’d just have to get himself to the races, where his speed, smoothness and keen tactical skills helped make him the winningest driver ever in 24-hour races, with 14 around-the-clock victories. In total, Knowles has more than 35 wins in five professional series, not to mention 19 wins in the SCCA Escort Endurance, where he is the all-time record holder. So how do today’s Run offs compare to those of 1978? “Well,” Knowles replies, “I think the biggest differences are the data acquisition and driver education. And tires. There’s a vast amount of knowledge in the paddock, both engineering and mechanical. Nobody ever adjusted shocks in the late ’70s.. . and everybody now has data acquisition. I won’t say that everybody uses it well. But I do think a lot of people now are dig-ging around in their laptops between sessions, thinking about how to go faster.


“When I first started, you’d go to a driver school and people would say, ‘YOU look a little slow here, try harder.’ Data acquisition al-lows you to break down ‘try harder’ into ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ Or it might teach you that you don’t have to go any faster in these six turns, that you are on pace in these comers and what you really need to work on is the brake release and tom-in for Turn 1. It might be that you’re ‘over-slowing’ the car. You’re slowing to 70 and you really only have to slow to 80. And so you need to think of the corner as a sweeper and not a stop and go. Brush the brake, don’t spike it, And then turn in and continue your decel with front tire scrub, and then roll on the throttle, and see how that works. People talk about driving now in a way that not many people talked about it in the late ’70s.”


If it sounds like Don’s an instructor, well, he is. In addition to being a personal driver coach for five current drivers, Knowles, at the behest of John Heinricy-the GM Performance Division engineer who has several Runoffs titles to his credit (including the current SSC crown in a Chevy Cobalt) - visits GM’s 2.9-mile 20-turn Milford Road Course four or five times a year to help train GM engineers to be better drivers and become certified to test cars on tracks such as Road Atlanta, Virginia Inter national or the Ntiburgring’s Nordschleife. Knowles says that to build better cars, testers must be able to drive at the limit while having enough “band-width” in their brains to properly analyze what they’re studying. “What they need is track time. They need somebody to coach them on how to use the car to its potential,” explains Knowles, who says that Solstices are used to learn the track and 206 Corvettes on street tires to fine tune car-control skills (and try to get within 2 percent of Heinricy’s time to receive the highest certification).


So, will the cagey 60-year-old Knowles - a guy who raced Gremlins and Opels and Saabs back in the 1970s and can still smoke most drivers of any age on the track--come back to the Runoffs in 2008 and seek a fifth national title exactly 30 years after winning his first? “I hope so, I assume so,” says Knowles, who believes his GXP has all the dynamics of a good race car. “But as 2007 proves, with our first race being in July, call me in May and 1’11 have a better idea. There’s a chance that if we do go back, it won’t be in a GXP? As much as I would love to, my head tells me that Joe [Aquilante, owner of Phoenix Performance] would be inclined for us to go back in something different.”


>> How sweet it is: Don Knowles, celebrating his T2 win at the Runoffs, where the Pontiac Solstice GXP was the car to have.  Knowles also won in 2006, in an SSB Solstie fitted with the ZOK package.