By Langlee King
Growing up around race cars led 26-year-old gearhead Steffen Clark to where he is today: Preparing his Subaru for the 2017 SCCA Solo Nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska, this September.
“Driving is a huge hobby and stress outlet for me,” Clark says. “Not only for the time having fun in the car, but also for the friends who I attend and travel to events with.”
A self-proclaimed “southern guy” from Roanoke, Virginia, Clark was born and bred with a passion for motorsports. His father, a former race car driver, helped him discover his calling at a young age.
“My father, and his love for road course racing and autocross, got me into competitive driving and motorsports,” Clark says. “The summer of my 18th birthday, my dad decided to take me to an autocross event and let me drive his 2003 Subaru WRX. From that point on, I was hooked and competed in full seasons.”
Motorsports are not just a hobby for Clark, but rather his career. With a background in motorsports engineering and fabrication, he has worked full time at O’Reilly Auto Parts for the past two and a half years where he is a commercial manager.
“I use autocross as a way to promote O’Reilly Auto Parts,” Clark explains. “Many of our fellow autocrossers are customers of mine.”
The entire motorsports industry is a labyrinth of many smaller sports. While Clark does not exclusively compete in one category, he is mainly involved in autocross. He also has experience in road course racing, karting, and motocross.
“My favorite part about autocross is the people,” Clark says. “Pushing your car to the limit is always fun, but the autocross community has some of the nicest and most helpful people you will ever meet.”
Autocross is an entry level motorsport. Drivers compete one at a time against the clock to set the fastest lap on course. Courses are laid out with cones wherever a large-enough area of pavement can be found. All across America, autocross organizations turn various airport runways or stadium parking lots into their race courses for the day.
The Sports Car Club of America is the largest national organization that hosts autocross events. According to the SCCA, it is composed of 117 regions, each holding local events. The Blue Ridge Region (BRR) of the SCCA is based out of Roanoke, Virginia. It has a handful of top notch drivers, including Clark, competing from across Virginia.
Clark is a standout character at any BRR-SCCA autocross. He holds a position on the board, forcing him to work diligently to ensure success of the events. Other times, he can be found goofing off by running around the site in a Tyrannosaurus rex costume.
Clark graciously lets others ride along in, or even drive, his bizarre project car — a 1991 “hacked” Mazda Miata. The car looks more like a dune buggy than the sleek convertible it started out as; all you see are four wheels, two seats, two pop-up headlights, a hood covering the engine and a bright orange roll cage.
“I was bored,” Clark says about why he decided to embark on the project. “[My friend] and I wanted something we could tear apart and do whatever we wanted with.”
Additionally, Clark owns three identical 1984 Dodge Colt Turbos and a 2007 Toyota Tundra. In June, Clark learned firsthand just how dangerous these “toys” can be. After getting back home from an autocross and unloading his 2006 Subaru WRX off the trailer, he hydroplaned on his race tires while driving at the speed limit and crashed into a ditch. Luckily, Clark was not injured; however, his prized possession was totaled. At local autocrosses, the WRX regularly won first place in the A Street Prepared class.
The SCCA divides cars into different classes based on their raw capabilities. Cars only compete directly against other cars that are capable of running the course at a similar pace. Relatively unmodified cars are classed A-H Street, while other classes exist for heavily modified cars.
After his crash, Clark decided to purchase a 2014 Subaru WRX STI. Unlike his old WRX — a D Street car modified to compete in A Street Prepared — immediately after purchasing the STI, Clark decided to modify it so that it would be competitive at the national level in B Street. Modifications include new shocks, sway bar, brakes, and exhaust. He had less than one month to prepare the car for his first national autocross event in Bristol, Tennessee, in early July.
“Trying to get a new car ready in a short amount of time can be hectic,” Clark explains. “Buying parts, installing them, and testing what works and what doesn’t takes time and patience.”
Despite the circumstances, Clark managed to finish an impressive second out of eight at Bristol. The event was part of SCCA’s Solo National Tour, meaning it was essentially a practice for Nationals.
Tour events typically have around 300 participants. According to the Motorsports Registration Database (MotorsportsReg), Nationals itself is capped at 1,350 participants. The 2016 SCCA Solo Nationals had 1,304 participants, making it the world’s largest ever motorsports event.
Over the span of four days, September 5-8, competitors will have three attempts to run their fastest lap on each of two courses. The fastest times on each course are then combined. The difference between winning a trophy and going home empty handed can be as little as a thousandth of a second.
With the deadline to register for nationals quickly approaching, Clark is currently the only driver registered to compete in B Street with a Subaru STI. Some participants are registered to compete driving Honda S2000s, while the majority of drivers will be showcasing the power of their Chevrolet Corvettes.
Will King, another board member for BRR-SCCA, competed in B Street in his 2005 Honda S2000 at the 2016 SCCA Solo Nationals. He learned the national style courses, which are typically more wide and open than most local courses, heavily favor the Corvettes.
“At Nationals, he’s going to have his work cut out for him against the Corvettes if the weather stays dry,” King says. “But in Nebraska in September, there’s always a threat of rain. He’s got enough talent to make use of his all-wheel-drive. My best advice for Steffen is to learn a rain dance.”
This will be Clark’s first time attending Nationals. No matter where he places, this will serve as a learning experience to help him improve his driving.
“Firstly, I want to go out and have fun, but I’m hoping I can come away somewhere mid pack or maybe even in one of the trophy positions,” Clark hopes.
Competing at Nationals represents both the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and the beginning of a career as a nationally competitive race car driver for Clark. His fellow autocrossers have nothing but hope and excitement for him as he gears up for the challenge.
Langlee King is a junior communications major at Virginia Tech. She aspires to become an elementary school teacher upon graduation. In her free time, Langlee enjoys autocrossing and playing with her puppy.