How autocross saved Zack Barnes, and how he's paying it forward

Images by Sean Rice

How autocross saved Zack Barnes, and how he's paying it forward

SCCA / SportsCar Magazine

How autocross saved Zack Barnes, and how he's paying it forward

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That year, Zack loaded up and headed to Topeka for the Tire Rack Solo National Championships at Forbes Field. But his wasn’t the normal “rookie” trip, Zack explains. It also possibly helped set the groundwork for his future commitment to the sport.

“The Hollis’ volunteered me as one of the course setup chiefs behind Andy Hollis – and that year was a complete disaster,” he says. “I remember the wind was blowing and it was freezing cold as we were trying to chalk the course – then it started pouring rain and the course started coming up, so we parked Corvettes idling over the spots to get the resin to set.”

The competition side didn’t go as planned, either. “At the time, we thought we were hot stuff,” he says. “We showed up with a 2001 Honda Prelude that had an LSD and we were racing in STX. The car was PAX’ing in the top 10 [locally], and we thought, we got this.”

But, it turns out, Zack and his co-driver Andrew VanderPloeg didn’t. “I think I finished 31st out of 34,” he says, but through this process he realized his performance didn’t actually matter. “I met all of the people and realized I didn’t have to go [to Nationals] to compete for a trophy – the community that I’d lost from the mountain biking side, I could have a similar or better one in autocross.”

Zack’s competition journey wound from class to class, car to car, co-drive to his own build, and so on, with success here and there. But really, the most notable things were happening in the background. Along the way, Zack had become the vice-president of Spokes, and then he moved to Houston for work.

“I don’t want to step on any toes,” he says, “but when I moved to Houston, Houston Region kind of sucked. They didn’t have any social scene, they were fairly stagnant, and it was run by a bunch of guys who were always serious business – a Region is a place to build a core and have fun.

“Toward the end of ’08 I kind of stepped in and took over as the Rookie Chief — I handed that to Daniel McCelvey, and he handed it back. So, for a good seven years one of us was the Rookie Chief, and he was the Solo RE for two or three. But I’d like to think the culture the Houston Region spun is not directly from me – it’s indirectly from me changing things to more of the Austin Spokes way. Now Houston is sort of a Biergarten annex.”

For the uninitiated, the Biergarten has become a mainstay of the SCCA Solo National Championships paddock, hosted by Spokes.

“Around 2009 or 2010 I joined the Prepared committee, probably at the pressuring of Tom Holt and Steve Hudson,” Zack says of his volunteering assuming National-level flavor. “After a year, I became secretary, then after two years as the secretary I took over as the Chair. I stepped off at the end of 2015. As I stepped off, I think Brian Conners asked if I wanted to come over to the SEB, and I said no.”

But a year later, he took that position on the SEB. “I didn’t miss the rules committee thing, but I have a voice. I think the world of Solo is going to see an upheaval in the next few years, and I think my voice is important as kind of that middle ground — a late-30s guy who’s been doing this for a while. I see that the sport has to change because technology is changing, and I think I can contribute to that conversation. So, I signed on.”

It’s all too easy to look at modern car technology and get frustrated. As Zack points out, if you remove the car stereo from some modern sports cars, limp mode exerts its ugly head. Then, there are self-driving cars. Technology, he says, is marching along at an accelerated pace, and motorsport has to determine its own future.

“About two years ago, Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, said that we’re entering the most dynamic period in automotive technology ever, and that things are going to change in automotive technology more in the next five years than they have in the history of the automobile, as cars become their own entity,” he says. “We’re already seeing that on the Street level [of Solo] as cars come in with all sorts of electronics.”

But Zack’s not fearful of the future; rather, he’s overtly bullish.

“I’m never a doom and gloom guy,” he insists. “Racing isn’t going away, but the skill set necessary to race is going to change.

“I’ll point to electronic power steering racks. [Solo’s] Prepared and Modified classes are very analogue, but electronic power steering is beginning to play a part in those classes because it’s small, compact, and it makes the cars easier to drive. Now, it requires all kinds of engineering and tuning to get it to work, but some guys are doing that. Electronic power steering hasn’t been around for that long but it has trickled its way down already. Megasquirt has already started doing traction control. There are aftermarket ABS systems, and they’re super duper expensive, but I don’t see the cost staying that high for that long.”

Technology, he notes, always gets cheaper, “and it’s always going to trickle down with time. There will always be racing, even when there are self-driving cars. People will be modifying those to beat someone else. I don’t see technology eliminating the sport — racing will always be there in some form.”

Zack’s involvement in the autocross community has now spilled into other aspects of his life, with him heading up the Hurst Street Zombie Company, a two-warehouse-strong storage and work facility for enthusiasts. During the week of our photo shoot, Zack was not only moving into the second warehouse and competing in a weekend Houston Region autocross, but he was also instructing at one of SCCA’s Street Survival schools.

Through all of Zack’s involvement ranging from the Houston Region to the SEB, his big push is the event he went to early in his SCCA career. “I haven’t missed the Solo National Championships since 2005,” he says, likening it to a notable event he went to in 1999. “Nationals is kind of Burning Man for autocrossers,” he notes.

But it’s more than that, especially for Zack, who’s a unique combination of carefree appearance, adrenaline junkie, sports fan, detailed Solo rules pontificator, and diehard Solo Nationals fanatic.

“I’ve seen Michael Jordan play, but I never got to play with Michael Jordan, and I won’t walk onto a baseball field and play with Roger Clemens or Ken Griffey Jr., but at Solo Nationals, you get to walk onto the field and see where you fit. That’s awesome! And maybe you can’t beat them on the course, but you can beat their [butts] at big wheel ProSolo. Sure, you’re going to finish dead [freaking] last, but enjoy the experience – just go.”

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