Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Last Run (guest spot)

My fellow competitor in racing and in writing, Steve Ulfelder, is filling in for me as I'm in the middle of a house move and I have a new book out.  Here's a bit about the track.
By Steve Ulfelder

With Simon being such a passionate and accomplished cyclist, I thought I would guest-blog about my own experience with a similar activity. Be warned, though: this does not end well.

I ran for the last time the other day, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I ought to be heartsick, but I’m not.  

Backstory: I smoked my last cigarette Sunday, January 5, 1992, after a robust career that began at age 14, matured into a pack-a-day habit, and lasted 17 years.

The following day, still in jittery-jitters withdrawal, I wheezed over to the health club, joined up, and spent 10 minutes walking on a treadmill. Soon I mixed in a minute of running (feeling, of course, like I would die). Then two minutes, and so on.

Before I knew it, I was running 5Ks on the treadmill at a pace that didn’t seem like a big deal to me then (7.5-minute miles), but sure does now.

To compress the story, I’ll just say that running became a very important part of my life, culminating with a slow but successful Boston Marathon in 1999.

Ah, but that marathon did something unfortunate to me. I hadn’t trained properly, and I ran the last five miles looking like a cross between the Tin Man and a zombie. I injured my lower back, both knees, and both hips.

I didn’t get follow-up medical treatment (young and stupid), but I know those injuries launched my long, slow withdrawal from the sport. Before the marathon, I thought nothing of a 6- or 8-mile run. But I’ll be damned if I’ve run more than a 5-miler since.

As years passed, I kept running. But my routine 4-miler became a 3-miler. And every-other-day running tapered to thrice, then twice a week.

Finally, about six years ago, even the 3-miler felt like too much. So, for that matter, did running on streets and sidewalks. I adapted by using the treadmill in the winter and the local middle-school track in good weather.

I’ll confess here that somewhere during this period, my pace dropped from not-bad-at-all (I could run 8.5-minute miles all day long) to respectable-for-my-age-group (10-minute miles) to … sad. For the past few years, I’ve been chugging around that middle-school track at a 12-minute-mile pace. And I’m a reasonably youthful- and fit-looking guy. Most people who see me run assume I am recovering from some sort of grave injury. Twelve-minute miles are, frankly, embarrassing. But I’ll be damned if I could run any faster consistently.

Which brings us back to those injuries. About three years ago, I suffered one of those mysterious soft-tissue lower-back injuries that people my age get. I tried all the usual stuff to repair the damage, including rest – but not enough rest, apparently. Despite my snail’s pace and my diminishing abilities, running was such an important part of my life that I kept on chugging. And still that lower back wouldn’t heal. Huh. Go figure. (Dumb, right?)

Finally, though, a few things changed in my life and schedule that flat-out prevented me from running, even on a treadmill. I made up for it by hitting the gym, working with personal trainers, and learning other ways to stay fit.

It worked! I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been. Also, miracle of miracles, my back healed almost completely.

So last weekend, with some rare free time and a beautiful day, I laced up the old Asics and hit the local track …

… and knew within five laps that the running was harming my lower back. I’d felt no pain for months, and here it was again, that nasty burn located in the complex bundle where hamstrings, hips and spine come together.

I took a couple more laps out of pure stubbornness.

Then I quit.

That night and the next day, sure enough, my back hurt like fire. Time and ibuprofen made it better, but the message was clear: I’m not cut out for running anymore.

As I said early on, my feelings are mixed.

It’s been a hell of a long time since I felt like a real runner, with that smooth stride and lungs-a-working and confidence that I could hold my pace as long as necessary.

Moreover, the last 20 years have produced much great research on fitness, and I know ways to stay fit that don’t produce a ball of pain in my lower back.

But there is something pure about running as an athletic endeavor. I think it’s this: Running is binary. You are doing it or you’re not. You can fake weightlifting, and you can fake cycling (in the gym, anyway – how about those folks who choose the recumbent bike and pedal at a stately pace while reading the paper?).

You can’t fake running.

Steve Ulfelder is the Edgar-nominated author of the Conway Sax mysteries, including the new Shotgun Lullaby. You can find him at, on Twitter @SteveUlfelder, or on Facebook at SteveUlfelderAuthor.





Monday, June 24, 2013

Death in Racing

by Tammy

I was doubly shocked to hear of the death of Allan Simonsen at the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend.

First, because of the death itself. So early in the race, no contact with other cars, not even on the fastest part of the track. On the other hand, Le Mans is not a track with lots of safety improvements ... mostly because it' snot really a track. It's modified country roads.

But second, I was shocked because on Friday night in Pasadena, CA, I had dinner with one of my editors and talked through ideas for the book I'm currently working on—about another 24 hour race, the one in Daytona. As we brainstormed about death toll means and motives for murder (it's what we do), she asked if someone could be killed in a car on the track, murdered to ramp up the tension. To make the situation gut-wrenching for Kate.

So I sat in my hotel room that night (I attended the California Crime Writers Conference over the weekend) and envisioned a scene in Kate's first stint in the car (in the race's third hour, most likely) where she's the first one past a terrible accident. One in which the driver dies soon after being removed from the car. Because that would give me the opportunity to explore how Kate will react. How she'll go on. How the race and the teams will go on.

And then, Saturday morning (my time), Allan Simonsen had a terrible impact with the guardrail at Le Mans. A different race. A different track. Reality versus fiction, again. And I was shocked.

I have no real conclusion, just a lot of jumbled emotions. I'm saddened by the loss of Simonsen, as I am by the recent losses of Jason Leffler, Dan Wheldon, and others. I'm reminded once again that I am unlikely to make up anything that hasn't happened in real-life racing—or maybe I'm reassured that even the "wild" ideas I have will be believable. (At least my racing scenarios. Perhaps not my murder plots). It's said that truth is stranger than fiction. Maybe it's simply as likely as fiction.

And sadly, ultimately, I'm reminded of something I said last week: physics will always win. Rest in peace, racers.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Eco Racing

By Simon

Eco racing seems to have gotten a big boost in the guise of Formula E, an FIA sanctioned race series to start in 2014 featuring electrically powered cars.  The FIA is hoping to have ten teams with two drivers to each team.  The races are likely to take place on street courses around the world, with Rio and Rome being two such cities.  The cars are capable of 135mph and battery powered.  The cars are little heavy, weighing around 100kgs more than a F1 car on account of their batteries. 

The only problem with the series is the cars themselves.  The races are an hour long, but the battery packs only last 25 minutes, so drivers don’t have tire changes, they have car changes.  The plan is for the drivers to jump from one car then run a 100-metres and get in their second car.  It sounds a little hokey, but not as hokey as each team being lumbered with having run four cars for two drivers.  For me, it’s a really bad selling point.  It shows how far we haven’t come with electric vehicles.

However, I’m interested to see where this championship goes.  As much as I love my gas-powered cars, I know something’s got to change.  I think electric vehicles will be the future, but I don’t think the “battery pack” approach is the way to go.  I hope developments like this will lead to technological developments that will mean we’ll have an alternatively powered vehicle that is just as flexible their gas powered counterparts.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Safety in Racing

by Tammy

Racecar driver Jason Leffler died last Wednesday in a sprint car accident on a dirt track. There's speculation that something broke on the car, which is what propelled him into the wall, and we know that he hit the wall hard twice. He died from blunt force trauma to the neck (that's basically hitting something, not simply damage from deceleration forces), and I saw one suggestion that the first impact damaged the integrity of the car's cage, which allowed Leffler to be hurt in the second impact, or in both.

What I'm finding interesting, however, is the more subdued response to his death compared to Dan Wheldon's, for instance. After Wheldon's—which was in a much more public forum and happened to (let's be honest) a much more famous driver—there were tribute laps and weeks of discussion about how to make cars and tracks more safe. The response to Leffler's death seems to be less dramatic.

I suppose there are more reasons for that, specifically that dirt track racing is what it is, and will never be as regulated as the big-money series like IndyCar or NASCAR. I'm not saying no one cares, far from it. But the general consensus is that racecar drivers simply can't escape physics. Which is true enough.

Drivers, series, and tracks do their best to minimize the forces transferred to the driver's body in the event of a crash. The HANS (head and neck system, shown above), SAFER (steel and foam energy reduction, shown below) barriers, and the Car of Tomorrow were all mandated or instituted after Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001, in which he impacted the wall at -68 to -48 Gs. The CoT and SAFER barriers do a lot to absorb some of that force—as do tire barriers—but they can't do everything. (The HANS helps keep your neck where it should be and transfers force to the rest of your body.)

Leffler was wearing a HANS. So was Wheldon. But they weren't driving a CoT (those are in NASCAR). SAFER barriers didn't do Wheldon any good, because he flew above them (the ability to launch has been greatly reduced with the new IndyCar chassis, ugly though it may be). Leffler's local dirt track didn't have SAFER barriers, nor is it likely to put them in. Because that's not what dirt track racing is about.

Again, there's only so much you can do to outwit physics. Racing's history is littered with lives lost, famous and not-so-famous ones. I suppose it's only in the modern day that we have the luxury of being shocked when one of our current stars dies, because it's become so rare. Lucky us.

But every once in a while, we're reminded that there's really nothing about racing that's safe.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Checking In On Formula 1

by Tammy

I haven't been watching F1 much this year, I'll admit. But it seems like there's been a bunch of improvement. Would you all agree?

I mean, some things remain the same. Vettel has won a bunch of races (which just makes me go "meh"). Alonso is always up there. Kimi is pretty consistently around, and Hamilton, despite all predictions to the contrary, is consistently doing better than many might have expected.

But there's a bit of unpredictability too, right? Rosberg winning. The possibility of Kimi cracking a smile. How Massa will wreck this weekend. And you can't get more crazy-pants, "what will he do next" than Sergio Perez, right?

Sure, plenty of that's harsh, because I couldn't do what they're doing. But the problem is, I'm reduced to looking to the personalities to provide the weekend's excitement. That's still not cutting it for me. The racing just isn't as fun, for all that it's the most technologically advanced. Who's with me? (Yes, I'm in a missing-my-sportscar-racing funk. Hurry up, Le Mans!)

I will say, I've been enjoying the broadcasts, in part because of my old friend, Leigh Diffey (well, we used to be acquaintances). I appreciate that they sent the full on-air team to Monaco, for instance. And while I always liked Bob Varsha, I like Leigh's enthusiasm. So there's a bright spot.

What are you all thinking about F1 this year? What racing are you enjoying more/most?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Throwing Things

by Tammy

In a move that has made the rounds on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter a few times by now, IndyCar driver Will Power—after being wrecked by Sebastian Bourdais in Sunday's race at the Detroit Grand Prix—stalked along the side of the track and, despite the best efforts of the safety crew to restrain him, threw ... his gloves.

Now, I understand he was pissed. And Will Power has never been one to hide his emotions (the photo was from last year when he expressed his mild annoyance with Race Control, I believe).

But throwing his gloves? What did he think they'd do? Get caught in the air vents or something? Or was it just a symbol?

But it started me thinking ... what would I throw?

Would I go the Will Power route and throw gloves? Maybe? But it's not much of a statement?

Would I go the Tony Stewart or Robby Gordon route and throw a helmet? I don't think so; too costly.

How about the other Will Power route and throw double birds? That's more likely, honestly.

Or the [insert most any driver name here] route and throw a hissy fit? Yeah, also likely.

What about you all? What would you throw to the person who wrecked you and is still on track? Any other good ideas?

I might just have to put a good old tantrum and item-toss into the next book....