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Weekend Racer Aims for the Grand Prix Trail

By Francis J. Connolly

Gordon Medenica will never win the Indianapolis 500. But the German-born Medenica doesn't let that bother him--he has his eyes fixed on a completely different star in the galaxy of motor racing. Medenica may be willing to leavy Indy to the Unsers and the Foyts, but if he has his way he will become one of the few Harvard alumni to burn rubber in the rarefied atmosphere of the European Grand Prix circuit.

What's Good for America

For now, though, Medenica is slogging it out at the bottom of the road racing ladder, driving his Formula Ford in amateur races sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). Up against dozens of other drivers who spend each weekend with visions of Watkins Glen and Monte Carlo dancing through their heads, he hopes to pick up enough racing savvy to make it worth the slow and expensive climb towards the road racer's ultimate dream--driving a Formula One in Grand Prix competition.

The world of Grand Prix racing is not what most Americans, accustomed to the stock cars of Darlington and Daytona, might expect. While Medenica's Lola T-340 will never turn world champion Niki Lauda green with envy, it is still a far cry from the souped-up stock cars made famous by the "good ol' boys" of the NASCAR speedway circuit.

A Sleek Animal

A Formula Ford is a streamlined fiberglass beast, housing a 100-horsepower Ford Cortina engine inside a 13-foot-long frame. Capable of averaging speeds of over 90 mph, it is built to withstand the sharp turns and hills that distinguish the road racing course from the banked ovals of the stock-car loop.

Medenica set out last weekend for Connecticut's Lime Rock Park, ready to tackle the SCCA's first regional race in the New England championship series. Since he began his racing career in 1974, Medenica had never finished better than 12th in a regional, but this year he began harboring big ambitions.

One reason for his confidence is the recently-purchased Lola, a vast improvement over his former car, which last year carried him into the pits for repairs more often than it brought him over the finish line.

Another is the addition to his team of Dave Aronson, a freshman who spent last summer work with the late Formula One driver Mark Donohue. Along with two of Medenica's classmates--Fred Boyd and Chris Yerkes--Aronson rounds out what is probably the only all-Harvard pit crew in the SCCA.

Still, Medenica and his crew are not out of place at Lime Rock. The track doesn't belong in the same universe with the half-mile ovals of the stock-car league; since much of the 1.5-mile racecourse winds through hilly countryside, it is hardly an ideal place for the beer-guzzling spectators who grace the speedways of the more popular circuit.

Most of those in attendance come to participate in the race, and the overall atmosphere is one of nervous expectation and serious preparation. It is, as Medenica notes, "a youthful, affluent, basically hedonistic crowd," looking for more out of the day than a simple spin around a country road.

A Costly Proposition

This serious approach reflects the high cost of the sport. "The surest way to make a small fortune in road racing is to start out with a large one," Aronson maintains, and the figures bear him out. A good Formula Ford will run about $8000, and a driver will have to spend at least that much during the seven-month season for maintenance, travel costs and entry fees.

Medenica estimates that, without sponsorship from any outside organization, he will have to limit his activities sharply by the middle of the summer. And since prospective sponsors are usually only interested in the big-name drivers of more advanced, higher formula cars, he is not alone.

The road race crowd, then, is composed to a large extent of doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals better able to absorb the high costs involved. "It's a kind of Walter Mitty-type thing, but in a fairly affluent crowd," Yerkes explained before the race.

Walter Mitty obviously never envisioned the whole picture, though. If the race itself is an exhilarating experience, the long hours of preparation that precede it can be enough to try the patience of the most devout car-jockey.

Medenica began the weekend early Friday afternoon, retrieving his racer from its garage in Concord and then towing it along on the four-hour trek to Lime Rock. The next step was a few hours of sleep before rising at 6 a.m. Saturday to beat the crowd to the registration line.

Bad Karma

Bad luck seemed to plague the effort, though. After a series of official delays, the time for Medenica's first practice run came--and went--without Medenica. A faulty battery kept the car out of the trial, preventing him from establishing a good practice time that might have put him near the top of the starting field.

After a rain-soaked second practice, Medenica found himself placed 15th out of 18 starters. A strong effort in the monsoon weather brought him in seventh after the rain-shortened ten-lap race, but he fell one position shy of garnering points towards the series championship.

Still, Medenica was not dejected after the outing. Racing, he explained, has an intrinsic appeal apart from the glory of finishing first or breaking a speed record. "It's like beating your head against a stone wall because it feels so good when you're finished," he said. "The whole process is a pain in the ass, but when it's over you still feel like you've accomplished something."

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