The first thing you notice when you get on site is the boneyard. To get to the paddock area, you drive around the perimeter of the course, cordoned off from the rest of the world by an army of skinny orange pylons and lengths upon lengths of yellow safety tape, and through the aircraft graveyard itself. Once past the planes, you take a left turn onto the taxiway that runs parallel to the runway, and find a place to paddock your car on the taxiway itself, preferably as close as possible to the grid area.

Myself, being one of the later arrivals, I ended up parking a bit away from the grid. I hadn’t set foot on the site until early Saturday morning, whereas most of the other folks, including my codriver, had been on site since Friday evening.

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I didn’t quite have the same luxury. I had planned on leaving Michigan early enough to at least roll into Blytheville by Friday evening, but a last-minute work meeting scheduled from 3-4pm with an Important Person meant that I would have a late start to my travels. As soon as 4pm hit, I hopped into my car and shotgunned the 10-hour drive down to Arkansas.<!—more—>

The rescheduled Pro

Several of my friends from the Detroit Region would be competing that same weekend at the Bowling Green Match Tour down in Kentucky. This was a slightly more reasonable 8 hour drive instead of 10. The Bowling Green Match Tour was also originally on my schedule of events, but the Blytheville Pro Solo had to be rescheduled from its original date and it just so happened that the rescheduled Pro fell on the same weekend as the Match Tour.

The Blytheville Pro was originally slated for the weekend of March 7th and 8th. The hope was that, despite the early date on the autocross calendar, the weather would be cooperative and we could kick off the Pro Solo season in the Eastern half of the United States early.

So, while it was still snowing outside and the roads were covered in ice, I prepared my Miata for its first National outing. Most critically, I ordered two sets of summer tires, one set being my old standby, a set of Hankook RS3 V2 tires, and the other set a gamble on the latest and hottest rubber, a set of Bridgestone RE-71Rs. I mounted both sets of tires on my two sets of wheels, borrowed a friend’s truck, and made preparations to trailer the Miata down to Arkansas.

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Then Blytheville got dumped with snow. The Thursday before the event weekend, a notice was sent out to competitors that the March Blytheville Pro Solo was a no-go, and that the event would eventually be rescheduled. Rats.

Someone pointed out that I was expressing disappointment in that I couldn’t drive down in snow and ice with a truck and trailer to compete in bitter cold in the middle of an airport concrete pad. Looking at it this way, I suppose it does make my sanity look a little suspect...

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A short while later, it was announced that the Blytheville Pro would take place on the same weekend as the Bowling Green Match Tour. When push came to shove, I decided that I would rather do a Pro Solo than a Match Tour. So Blytheville it was.

What is Pro Solo?

Most people are familiar with the concept of autocross, but comparatively fewer people know what Pro Solo is. In Pro Solo, you are still dodging cones, but the format is a variation on a theme to the standard autocross format, with some novelties thrown in that ultimately make it my favorite format.

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First of all, the start is riff off of your standard drag strip start. There is a Christmas Tree that counts down and signals the start of your run. There are a set of timing lights at the 60’ mark, such that 60’ times can be measured and recorded. Before the start, there is a “burnout box” for warming up tires, if you chose to do so.

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There are two mirrored courses, or as close to mirrored as possible considering the site limitations. To account for any inconsistencies between the two courses, you do both sides at a time, and your score for the event is the best left side time plus your best right side time. Each competitor gets three sets of runs consisting of four runs each: two on the left and two on the right. In each set, these runs are done essentially back-to-back-to-back-to-back, with no allowance to return back to grid to do things like setup changes or tire management.

What this means is that, for about 10 minutes on Saturday morning, 10 minutes on Saturday afternoon, and 10 minutes on Sunday morning, you have these bouts of intense focus in which you are doing your best to time the lights and hone your course runs. I enjoy having the ability to take my runs one after another, which gives me the opportunity to try new things and immediately see what worked and what didn’t. I enjoy staging up at the Christmas Tree next to an opponent and trying to beat him or her off the line and to the first corner. I like that I have a crack at the same courses over the course of two days, which means when — not if — I mess up on Saturday, the weekend is not lost and I have a chance to redeem myself on Sunday.

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Secondly, at the end of the regular competition Pro Solo runs, there are the Challenges. These are, essentially, bracket races. There are a couple of differences, of course, to account for the fact we’re dodging cones, not going down the quarter mile. You may win your match if you break out, but your dial-in will be adjusted to account for your new found speed in future rounds. Red-lighting the start defaults the win to the opponent, except for when both red-light — in that case, the person who left the line last wins the match. Otherwise, it’s all the same as before, except with the Christmas Tree taking into account the dial-in times, which allows different cars from different classes to run heads up. Both drivers start on a side, then swap sides to end up with a single combined left and right side time; lowest combined time wins the matchup. There’s an element of tension as both drivers round the final section of the courses and can actually see each other running towards the finish line, which makes Pro Solo much more interesting spectator-wise than your regular autocross.

You can get into the Challenges by either 1) driving very fast and qualifying that way against your many other Pro Solo competitors, or 2) getting your name drawn out of a hat (my preferred method, as I’m not actually all that fast).

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The Challenges are a lot of fun to participate in and a lot of fun to watch. It’s a fun little addition that you don’t get on a Champ Tour (though you can experience a similar bracket racing challenge in Match Tours).

The car, the drivers, and the class

I would once again be driving my 2009 Mazda MX5 Miata in STR, after deciding last year at Nationals that I was willing to give the car and myself one more year of development and driving to see if I could crack into the trophies at Nationals for 2015. I had run the car at a local Detroit Region event, as well as one event back home in Central Illinois, but the car was essentially unchanged setup-wise from Nationals last year with the exception of the RE-71Rs shod on the wheels.

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Also from Central Illinois was my codriver, Emanuel. I met him several years ago when I first began autocrossing with the Champaign County Sports Car Club. As a decent wheel, I had high hopes that he could adapt to driving a car he had essentially never driven before. (He did drive with me at the Peru Tour many years ago, but the Miata was in Stock class configuration then, a far cry from its current Street Touring class form.)

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The bogey for the class was Ricky, hailing from Texas and driving an S2000 CR. I also met Ricky several years ago, back when he was temporarily relocated to Illinois for work. Having crushed the competition at the College Station (Texas) Champ Tour, he had already established himself as one of the folks to beat in STR. I had no illusions of being able to beat him outright, but I hoped that I could at least sort of keep up with him.

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Ricky and the vast majority of the rest of the class were in Honda S2000s, the smart choice. A Nissan 370Z was present, a wild card that could benefit from the right course thanks to a meaty powerband and the new crop of street tires that do a better job than ever of masking a car’s weight. There was another Miata, an NB, that was present, but it was in a limited state of prep, making its first appearance as an STR car, having been recently transformed from E Street trim. I was the only Miata there who had a competitive amount of preparation done.

As I walked the course, however, I was confident that the Miata could do well. The run down to the end of the course was fast and flowing, favoring the big power of the Honda S2000 and Nissan 370Z. However, the run back towards the finish was a series of aggressive sweeping S-curves, something that favored smaller and more nimble cars like mine. If I drove things correctly, any ground I lost in the first half of the course could be made up in the second half of the course.

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That is, if I drove things correctly. For someone like myself, that is far easier said than done.

Competition runs on Saturday

Of the two of us, I was the first to drive for the Saturday morning session. I pulled up to the staging area, did a burnout in the burnout box to warm up the cold tires (because when you’re offered a kosher opportunity to do a burnout, you take it), and staged at the start line for the left side of the course.

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My first run was patently awful. Not only did I hit a cone, but I also missed a gate, resulting in a 10-second off course penalty (a difference from regular autocross in which an off-course results in a DNF for the run). I pulled back around for my right side run, and nailed a respectable low 46 second run.

Pulling back around for the left side of the course, I red-lit the tree. Oh boy. It was another sign that I just wasn’t going to be able to clean up my act on the left side of the course.

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I finished my set of Saturday morning runs on the right side, pulling in a competitive-for-the-moment 45.5 second run. Thanks to a lack of clean runs on the left side of the course, after the Saturday morning session, I was sitting pretty far down the class standings.

Emanuel managed to do better, edging me out in the standings after the Saturday morning runs were done. He was quick and adapted well to the car, but was having serious cone troubles, having hit five cones across three runs on Saturday morning.

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I wasn’t worried. The nice thing about Pro Solos is that things are never decided on Day 1 of the event. That’s not to say that you can screw about on Saturday, but generally, unless it rains or is super cold on Sunday, Day 2 is the day when the event is won or lost, so a bad Saturday doesn’t spell doom for your entire event weekend if you should suck.

And suck I continued to do. For the Saturday afternoon runs, I managed to clean up a single left side run and record a 46.5 second run in the books. I coned away a more competitive 46.1 run, which sucked, but there was always tomorrow. Either way, I was definitely much slower on the left side of the course than I was on the right side of the course, and I was scratching my head to figure out why.

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Emanuel cleaned up his act as well, hitting no cones and only grabbing one red light. However, of the two of us, I still managed to go faster across all runs for the entire day, resulting in me higher up at the end of the day’s standings, and being the first of us to drive on Sunday morning.

Ricky had a lead on the class, but it was by a pretty narrow margin of 0.3 seconds. It appeared that he had work to do in order to nab the STR class win.

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But Sunday always brings surprises.

Competition runs on Sunday

Sunday morning: the chance for redemption. Or in my case, missed opportunities.

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Unfortunately, I was staged in grid to start on the left side course, the course that I had trouble with all weekend long. I had hoped to start on the right side course, to give my tires and my freshly-awoken brain enough time to warm up for the all-important left side course runs, but it was not to be. I would have to be 100% on my A-game from the get go, as I couldn’t afford to throw away a good left side course run.

Some heavy breathing exercises as I approached the staging area and a luscious burnout later, I was staged at the Christmas Tree for my last four competition runs of the weekend.

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Immediately out of the gate, I was much faster and much smoother. I don’t know if that could be attributed to the late-night video viewing session I did earlier, or the good night’s rest that I had gotten, but immediately, my scratch time was better than yesterday’s by 1.5 seconds. Unfortunately, I coned the run away.

But no matter, I still had one more chance. After cutting a competitive 45.0 second run on the right side, all I had to do was clean up the left side for (minor) fame and glory!

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I backed it off just a little bit in hopes of avoiding those pesky orange things, coming in with a scratch time of 45.0 seconds on the clock. But as I rolled back around the staging area for my final right side run, there was a heartbreaker from the announcer: the run would have been good enough for second in class, but... there was a cone.

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

At that point, it really didn’t matter what I did on the right side of the course. Good thing, as I red-lit the start.

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Emanuel managed to drop over a second on his right side course time, but couldn’t improve on the left side either.

As thus, I finished a woeful 6th in class while Emanuel was right behind me in 7th. Woeful, considering that I had 2nd place wrapped up until I decided to go hit some cones. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, but in the end, no one cares. They will see that I was 6th place and conclude, correctly so, that I suck. ‘Tis true, ‘tis true.

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The big surprise was the sudden burst of speed that Ricky had found on Sunday morning. While he was only leading the class by 0.3 seconds the day before, he had demolished the class to the tune of a 1.8 second gap between 1st and 2nd place, thereby eliminating the rest of the class from qualifying for the Super Challenge. (The rules stipulate that any cars that are more than 1.5 seconds behind the class winner are automatically ineligible for the Super Challenge. If I had cleaned up my left side runs, I’d be within a second of Ricky — still an eternity, no matter which motorsport you’re talking about — and I could have qualified for my first-ever Super Challenge. Double dammit!)

It was not until Emanuel and I pulled into impound that we discovered one of the reasons for Ricky’s newfound speed. After congratulating Ricky on his amazing win, Ricky hinted at me to take a look at his tires. Lo and behold, he wasn’t running the Hankooks anymore. He was running the Bridgestones. While driver familiarity with the course definitely played a major role in Ricky’s dropping course times, there’s no denying that switching tires to the Bridgestones (a tough decision for Ricky, as it means forgoing Hankook contingency as Bridgestone has no contingency for Pro Solos) also played a major role. Add this little tidbit to the growing pile of evidence that suggests that, after one year, the Hankook RS3 V2s are no longer the top dog in the street tire wars.

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The Challenges

Ricky ended up being the Top Qualifier for the entire Pro, so naturally, he made it into the Super Challenge, the bracket for drivers who were actually fast and showed well on the PAX. The remaining fast ladies who didn’t make it into the open Super Challenge were put into the Ladies Challenge.

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Then, there was the rest of us. There was still one Challenge bracket to be filled, and it was one where everyone had equal skill in getting in: the bracket would be filled by drawing names out of a hat (or in this case, a decorative clay pair of swim trunks).

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I was “skilled” enough to get my name drawn first. Hooray! My driving was not done for the day. The rest of the bracket filled, I grabbed my Miata and pulled it back into the grid.

While the rewards of winning the Super Challenge and the Ladies Challenge included small amounts of money and minor glory on SCCA websites and press releases, the reward for being randomly picked and surviving through the Bonus Challenge was far smaller but still hugely desirable: a free Pro Solo entry to a future event. This was my chance to redeem myself and my poor performance from the rest of the weekend.

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Also, unlike the Super and the Ladies Challenges in which the dial-in times are determined by the class winners, dial-in times for the Bonus Challenge are determined by each individual’s best time. All I would have to do is be consistent with my own driving, and I’d have a good shot at winning the Bonus Challenge.

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Things initially went well for me. For my first matchup, my opponent red-lit her start, thereby awarding me the automatic win. For the second matchup, the same thing happened.

Just by virtue of me not messing up my start, I found myself head-to-head with Dave, driving a Scion FR-S in C Street, in the finale of the Bonus Challenge. Two runs separated me from redemption and a free Pro Solo entry.

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Once again, I started off the match on the left side of the course, my weaker side. We raced off the start, both nailing good reaction times, and rushed through the course towards the finish. Dave beat me by a hair — just under 2 tenths of a second — but I was not concerned. I was sure that I could make up that time, and then some, on the right side course, where I was a far stronger driver.

That’s all fine and dandy, but the benefits of a better drive on the right side went straight out the window, as I managed to — big surprise — tap a cone on course, awarding myself a 2-second deficit from which to climb out of. No amount of driving on my part could overcome that, and Dave, driving a good clean race, nabbed the win.

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After shaking hands with Dave, I drove back to the paddock area to pack the tire trailer and car, swap wheels, and hook everything back up for the drive back home. Once that was all done, I rushed back to the grid area to watch Ricky and several other friends duke it out in the Super Challenge.

Ricky, unsurprisingly, made it all the way to the semifinals. He would be up against Brad, a new friend I made while shooting the shit with out on course during our corner worker assignments, who was driving an unlikely G Street class car, a Hyundai Genesis. I watched both head to the start line and eagerly watched to see who would make it to the finals.

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Ricky had an unbelievable drive on those two runs, beating Brad back to the finish line with much room to spare each time. With the combined left and right side runs, Ricky managed to break out by almost a full second. Which just goes to show how fast STR could really be on the 2015 Blytheville Pro courses. Which also goes to show just how slow folks like me really are in this class.

While this would normally be cause for celebration, Ricky was devastated. The massive break out meant that his dial-in would be adjusted just in time for his final matchup, which was Mark, driving a ground-pounding C Prepared Pontiac Trans Am and one of the most successful drivers in the sport. If anyone could recreate that Hail Mary run, I figured that Ricky could probably pull it off.

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Unfortunately, it was not to be. Mark drove a consistent race, and Ricky was unable to duplicate his earlier heroic runs. Ricky would end up placing 2nd in the Super Challenge.

Why you should go to Blytheville

Despite my terrible driving, I truly enjoyed my time in Blytheville. The host region was friendly and on top of their game when it came to hosting the event, the courses were long (for a Pro Solo course) and exceptionally fun, and I had some of the best pork barbecue I’ve ever had onsite from the local food truck.

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For those who have never run a Pro Solo, I’d highly recommend trying your first Pro Solo at Blytheville, if you can swing the travel. It’s comparatively smaller than the relatively nearby and massive Pro Solos in Ohio, and as such is easier to get into and more accessible for the more casual autocrosser.

And despite the “Pro” in the name, no, you don’t have to be a pro to compete in and have fun in a Pro Solo. While I’ll acknowledge that the format may not be to everyone’s tastes, I think a lot of folks will become diehard fans of the format (like I am) once they get a taste of it.

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Hopefully, Blytheville gets a 2016 date that isn’t threatened by ice and cold. Then again, ice and cold didn’t deter me from attempting to make plans to make it down this year in March. Such is the allure of Pro Solos.

If you come out to a Pro Solo, Champ Tour, or Match Tour around the Midwest, chances are I’ll be there. Come by and say hi to me! I’m in the little red Miata, STR car #90/190.

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Additional shots from the event:

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