Racing bug's bite leaves itch time unable to relieve

Ellicott City's Blacker left sport in 1970s, but he's back, driving at RFK

Auto Racing

July 16, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Joe Blacker was driving through Washington last week and swung by RFK Stadium, where the Cadillac Grand Prix will be held this weekend. He couldn't resist taking a look at the newly designed, 1.7-mile racetrack.

"I wouldn't say I snuck in," he said, without trying to conceal the smile in his voice. "But I did drive it. I just went over to check out the logistics and these guys were there doing construction. I showed them my driver's card, and they let me take a couple laps."

The track at the stadium parking lots is a mystery to most of the drivers who will be competing in the three-day event that begins Friday. Only Cadillac driver Wayne Taylor, who did most of the test work at the new facility, has a true familiarity with it, a situation he smiles about.

"The other drivers will be very envious," Taylor said after a recent visit in which he gave rides around the course.

Blacker shrugged at Taylor's advantage. "Wayne is going to break [down] during the race," Blacker said. "I'm not worried about him."

But even if the track were as familiar as the drive home, Blacker and every other competing driver would take advantage of any opportunity to drive the winding road course.

That's how it is for drivers, whether they are competing in the LMP 675 class in the American Le Mans Series, like Blacker is, or in the Trans-Am or World Challenge series that will run support races on the program. Once this sport grabs hold, it doesn't easily let go.

Blacker, who lives in Ellicott City and will drive a 1,750-pound Pilbeam MP84 with his longtime co-driver, Jimmy Adams of Suffolk, Va., knows. He was once safely out of the sport.

"I started driving Skip Barber cars in the 1970s," Blacker said. "But it was the '70s. You couldn't race if you didn't have money, and in those days there wasn't a lot of money in racing, so I gave it up and started a business and raised a family."

The business, Audio Associates in Columbia, which handles the design and integration of large-scale audio systems in stadiums and casinos, is doing just fine. But after getting a divorce in 1990, Blacker wanted to get back into racing.

After being invited to a Skip Barber alumni race in 1993, he found himself hooked all over again.

"It's all about the physics of the engineering and having to do something with it," Blacker said. "There is a whole universe out there to learn. You have to analyze and put your conclusions into practical application within 30 seconds and hope you're right.

"That's what I like about it. That and walking around the paddock and seeing everybody. It's like being a jazz guitarist for years. You develop special bonds with the people you play with."

And as he thought about it, Blacker, who will turn 48 Monday, determined the reason he got into racing in the first place was probably the same reason he got into guitar playing.

"The lives racing-car drivers and guitar players led seemed very romantic to me," said Blacker, who has a degree from the Berklee School of Music, as well as one in engineering. "The Beatles were popular when I was beginning to play, and it was like, play the guitar and get the girl. Romance. I have an appreciation for that aspect of the sport."

When he got back into racing, he said, he didn't think he'd be competitive. But since then, he has climbed the ranks from Vintage car racing to Sports Car Club of America racing to the IMSA-sanctioned American Le Mans Series. He was second in points in the SCCA Northeast Division. He won Formula B titles two years in a row in 1997 and '98 and won the 2-liter FIA title in 1999 with a Lola 298.

And then he decided to consider racing a production car. This season, his team is third in points.

"Not bad, considering this is our test year," Blacker said. "Next year, we're going to put out a real effort and go for the championship."

Race facts

What:Grand Prix of Washington.

Where:Adjacent to RFK Stadium.

When:Friday through Sunday.

Who:Sports car competitors from the American Le Mans Series and three other racing series.

Format:Endurance races of set time or distance.

TV:Saturday, CBS (chs. 13, 9), 2:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m., NBC (chs. 11, 4).

Schedule:Friday, 9 a.m. to 7:05 p.m., practice and qualifying. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1:10 p.m., practice and qualifying; 2:30 p.m., Trans-Am race; 4:15 p.m., Star Mazda race; 5:25 p.m., World Challenge race. Sunday, noon, American Le Mans Series race.

Tickets:202-432-7328.

Parking: No on-site public parking. Spectators should use Metro rail (Stadium-Armory station) or free shuttle from parking at USAirways Arena in Landover.

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