An Interview With Autocross Legend Mary Pozzi

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In the world of Pro Touring and autocrossing, there are a few stars. Those people that are consistently fast, beating the pants off most racers, yet offering up a smile and advice to their competitor. One such person is Mary Pozzi. While she may be a woman, she’s a serious threat for anybody whenever she sits behind the wheel, but sweet as pie off the course.

We wanted to find out more about Mary so we sat down with her to talk about her career, tips and how she defines “Pro-Touring.” Grab a cold one, sit back, and enjoy the read.

Lateral-G: Define “Pro Touring” for us. What’s your definition, and what’s your definition of a “Pro Touring” car?

Mary Pozzi Camaro 23Mary Pozzi: “To me, a ‘Pro Touring’ car is one that can be driven in almost any environment and weather conditions. It’s a car that puts a grin on your face when you turn a corner at speed or nail the throttle. It’s one that has manners, is tractable-yet demonstrates power and handling when asked, and is compliant. There are many variations of ‘Pro Touring’ but all have a common theme of placing handling and braking right up there with power and speed. A ‘Pro Touring’ build can be any type of car, import or domestic, but it should have a V8 with aftermarket suspension, brakes, wheels and tires. And it should exude coolness in spades …”

LG: Tell us how you got into racing, and specifically autocross?

MP: “This one’s easy as I was dating a guy back in the mid-70’s and he knew I loved to corner-carve so he invited me out to a local autocross event. Even driving a lowly Mercury Capri, I was hooked. Ditched the guy but kept the sport and while frustrating at times, autocross (or more commonly referred to as Solo) has been my mainstay for automotive competition. I thought about getting into wheel-to-wheel road racing but after researching and finding out just how much money was involved, that thought lasted about two minutes!!”

Pozzi's 3rd-Gen Camaro from back in the day...

Pozzi’s 3rd-Gen Camaro from back in the day…

LG: Can you tell us about your experience? (as far as what you’ve done behind the wheel and such)

MP: “You really know how to make one feel ancient with that question as looking back, I realize that off and on I’ve been involved with Solo for about 40 years and this is about two-thirds of my life. When I was starting out, there were a handful of female autocross drivers that were competitive with their male counterparts across the country. As more and more women tried their hand at dodging cones, their confidence and level of improvement soared which means the sport of Solo has quite a few ladies that can spank, or ‘skirt,’ the guys and we look good doing it. I’ve always been of the mindset that if someone else can do something, I can too. Doesn’t matter if it’s washing a window, trimming a tree, or driving a car at speed. Whatever it is you’re using to complete that job hasn’t a clue if you’ve got testicles or ovaries and (usually) being an inanimate object, it does what you’ve asked it to do. If you ‘ask’ properly, you’ll succeed.

“I was very heavy into Sports Car Club of America Solo back in the late-70’s and all through the 1980’s, and drove a wide variety of cars in several different classes. The Capri was replaced early on for a ’72 Datsun 240Z and that car brought me two National Championship titles. During an inopportune and unplanned rebuild that coincided with these same Championships, the Z-car was shelved and I got to drive one of the most fun cars … a CP Ford Shelby Mustang. Two more Championships were won with this car and then it, too, chose the month before Nationals to grenade itself. Enter the Cobra and yes, it was a real-deal ’63 Cobra that was the most difficult to drive of all the cars I’ve been behind the wheel of. No power steering, rudimentary suspension, and Goodyear slicks made for a unique combination and the only way I could steer the damn thing was by throttle and to raise the front tire pressures up to 50 psi. And yep … another Championship.

Mary Pozzi Camaro 20“The subsequent years were spent in more boring, yet fun, cars such as a Mazda RX7 GSL-SE, Dodge Omni GLH-T, and several Chevrolet 3rd-gen Camaros. Of all these cars, I owned only three of them in whole or part. And yep … a few more Championships along the way. In 1990, I decided that I didn’t want to compete at that level anymore and took a seventeen-year vacation from Nationals and autocrossing in general as another hobby got in the way … horses. I must tell the readers that if your kids say ‘Can we get a horse?’ … RUN far and RUN fast. It’s an expensive sport and especially so when you move up the levels of competition seeking … yes, more National Championships. I trained and showed my own horses as an amateur-owner so saved a bit more than the folks that kept their horses with trainers year round but still the old adage of ‘If you want to make a million dollars with horses, start with TWO million’ still applied. I finally pulled the plug on that “hot horse mess” in 2006 and never looked back.

“In 2005, I decided on a whim to drive over to a local autocross event ten miles from my house to run and see if I could dust off the cobwebs of many years of not competing. I’d gotten married and as I predicted that I would suck, was hoping no one would remember the old Mary nor the last name of Rice and put two-and-two together with Pozzi. As luck would have it, almost everyone hadn’t a clue I’d ever done this before and I was able to fly under the radar … until one of my friends that hadn’t taken a lengthy vacation from Solo could add and realized who I was, and promptly ratted me out. C’est la vie!! That event was so much fun and I did well. I also realized I missed the environment and the people, not just the cars and competition side of things. It was a kinder and gentler sport and I resolved that if I returned to Solo, I would have less expectations and not place tons of pressure on myself to win. It’s a sport where your self-worth shouldn’t be the result of how well you did the weekend before as that’s bad stuff. No one wins all the time and while we’d like to, good competitors share the success and celebrate it when someone else does well.

“My last visit to the SCCA Solo Nationals was in 2008 in a (gasp) Ford Mustang Shelby GT. And yes, I managed to eek out an eleventh National Title. I’m hoping to bring the Camaro to Lincoln, NE this year for the new CAM (Classic American Muscle) class as it was created and specifically targets our ‘Pro-Touring’ type of cars.

“I can say this for certainty that the level of driving skill and professionalism of every Solo racer is leaps and bounds over what it was back when I started almost 40 years ago. Instead of a handful of women that were competitive, per se, now there are several in every single class that can get the job done! No class is a gimme and every single Championship is earned.”

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LG: What’s the best tip you can give somebody trying to learn to autocross, or better their autocross times?

MP: “I usually say that ‘The Driver Mod’ is the most important as cars do not drive themselves. The best advice I can offer is to take advantage of the dedicated Autocross Schools such as Evolution Performance Driving School or those offered by local clubs and SCCA, of course. Even arranging with a good coach at the events can help and if you can’t do this, have someone watch you from the sidelines. Data logging and acquisition, and videos of your runs, can also help. And, of course, seat time as there’s no substitute for this.

Pozzi's Camaro getting digitized for Gran Turismo.

Pozzi’s Camaro getting digitized for Gran Turismo.

“Many newcomers think that they’re there for our entertainment and if they make mistakes, we’re pointing fingers and giggling like little schoolgirls. This, fortunately, is furthest from the truth as us experienced folks never forget where we came from and that we were in this same arena at one time. We’re here to help make that transition from newbie to someone that can do well at an event an easy one; all people have to do is ask. Hitting cones, going slow, and going off-course happens and it’s not an issue. And yes, even the pro’s manage to occasionally muck things up big time.

“For the experienced autocrossers that are looking to shave a few tenths here and there, Danny Popp (an autocross alien in his own right) says it best … ‘ALWAYS forward and NEVER straight.’ By this, he means that if you’re going sideways or lighting the hides up creating an Olympic-sized smoke billow, you’re NOT going straight nor forward and your autocross course time will suffer. Being smooth means often looking very boring and almost all of the fastest autocrossers don’t LOOK fast. They do look smooth, however, and I can’t stress how much being smooth and maintaining that forward motion everywhere you can will lower an autocross time creating a Rock Star run.

“Other ways to shave those precious tenths is to work on looking ahead and ‘through’ the corner, turning corners into elements and from there, into an entire course, driving ‘the line,’ and lastly, getting closer to the cones. If you’re a few tenths behind, work on improvement on the corners you feel need it and NOT the entire course. If you’re doing some of the corners and elements well, don’t change those. And when you walk the course before you drive it, walk it from the same position as you’ll be in the drivers seat. Get down on bended knees and ‘see’ your line from the height you’ll be behind the wheel. There’s all sorts of ways you can ‘be the driver’ before you ever turn the ignition key and drop the clutch to start a run.”

LG: On that same note, what’s more important…the driver, or the car?

Mary Pozzi Camaro 19MP: “They’re both important but like I mentioned earlier, the car can’t drive itself. My advice for those that have their cars in a drivable state is to bring it to an event ‘as-is’ and drive it!! Don’t get discouraged by those that have better-equipped cars, have gobs of driving experience, or National Championships. Drive what you have now as you’ll be gaining experience behind the wheel and will learn the limits of your car no matter the level of preparation it’s in. Each car has limits and I tell people I coach that I want to see what the car can do, NOT what it CAN’T do. By this I mean if you put the car in a position where it can’t get around a corner without wadding itself into a ball or sliding off course, the run becomes moot and you have yourself, not the car, to blame. All cars can be autocrossed but some are suited much better than others for the job. The fine tuning and development of a good autocross car takes time and patience because the track surfaces vary, weather varies, and the courses nor conditions will never be identical. The car has to be very tunable for the given conditions that day and experienced drivers know what adjustments are needed before they ever turn a wheel on that track. By driving your car throughout that development phase where you add parts and systems hoping for improvement and speed, you’ll know better what works and what does not. You’ll have months and years of learning your car step-by-expensive step and this alone will further that ‘driver mod’ in leaps and bounds.”

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LG: What’s been your favorite car to race or autocross with?

MP: “Hmmmmm … with few exceptions, each have given me the giggles of joy yet the one that stands out most is ‘The Best Car in the Entire World’ which is my ’73 Camaro RS I have now. It’s a car that does everything really well with few exceptions. Anything resembling a speed bump or dip in the pavement like what you see with a driveway entrance or something for drainage is to be avoided like the plague. Autocrossing the Camaro is really fun as this car has no idea how large and cumbersome it really is and thinks it’s a Miata. Over the years, the car has truly become ‘the sum of the parts’ as it’s got the best engine (Lingenfelter), best brakes (Baer), best suspension (Art Morrison Enterprises), best wheels and tires (Falken Azenis RT615-K’s wrapped around Forgeline wheels), along with other cool bits and pieces, that money can buy.”

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LG: What are some of the mistakes you see a lot of “newbies” make?

MP: “Newcomers to our sport go through several Phases before they get to that ‘swing for the fences and come out alive’ part where National Championships are won … or lost. Phase One is just learning how to drive all over again and by this I mean looking ahead, hands softly on the wheel working it with your hands constantly seeking and positioning on that neutral area of 10-2 and 8-4 clock placement, and ‘feeling’ the traction limits with your bum, the ‘butt dyno.’ Specifically targeting the hands, I tell my students to practice this hand movement and positioning while driving on the street until it becomes second nature. Work the wheel with your hands. Don’t just keep them fixed, then enter a corner and turn the wheel until your arms resemble a pretzel! The hands should never pass that 12-6 positioning unless you’re in a slalom. Hands should be soft, yet they maintain a distinct hold and control over steering input and to do this I will ask my students to move their thumbs upwards and not wrap them around the steering wheel. A good friend and very accomplished autocrosser, Andy Hollis, said it best … ‘Hands follow the Eyes and Car follows the Hands.’ You have to have compliant and well-placed hands to get this done at autocross speeds. When coaching, I look for the little ways that speed is achieved and often this is basic seating and hand positioning.

“Phase Two is what I call ‘The Wild Phase’ as most people test, and exceed, those limits. They learn quickly what their car can, and cannot, do and hopefully will ratchet things back a bit before that next Phase. A lot of cones are hit and arms get tired from polishing cone marks out of the flanks of their cars. Unfortunately, some never get beyond this Phase and these are the ones that quit the sport due to frustration. They blame the car, the level of preparation, tires and the air that’s in them … everything except themselves. Drivers in Phase Two can be quite entertaining at times. Both on and off the course!  As an example of a solid Phase Two that never graduated was a guy that had a really good Porsche 914 that he autocrossed locally. He was kinda obnoxious, always talked about how good he was but we quickly realized he was ‘all hat and no cattle’ pretty quickly. One event, he lost it and turned into a puddle of competitive goo when a guy in a Datsun 510 straight-timed him. His solution … go out and buy a Ferrari. And he lost the next event. We haven’t seen him since …”

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“Stick, you BITCH!!!”

“Phase Three has drivers starting to think like a car treating it with respect. They sneak up on traction limits and start tasting what fast is all about. They start finding the driving line and learning proper apexing of turns. On a five-run autocross event, their times start off slow but get within a few seconds of the class-winning time by that last run. They’re almost there!!!

“Phase Four is when the total package starts coming together and tenths are sought. Each run is within a half second, maybe a bit more, from fastest to slowest. Few, if any, cones are hit. Drivers learn which cones on the course are ‘key cones’ and these are few when compared to the cones used for decoration and direction. We aren’t afraid to change things up a bit and take a different approach to a corner. We look for, and create, straightaways. We know our car’s limitations and strengths. And we are good …”

LG: Who’s faster…you or Mr. Pozzi? And do you two ever go head-to-head?

Mary Pozzi Camaro 10MP:“When autocrossing my Camaro, I am definitely faster on an autocross course but in deference to Dave, I have a lot more practice as I am usually at an event on any given weekend flogging the snot out of said Camaro. I know this car well. I know what it can, and cannot, do, and how far I can poke the tiger before getting bit. This knowledge is golden and it comes from years of experience driving the Camaro at speed. When we co-drove the same car back in the late-80’s, Dave was usually faster and looking back on things now, I can see I was still in Phase Three flirting with Phase Four. I drive much smarter and am way more calculating and analytical than I ever used to be. Old age and treachery kicks butt on youth and exuberance, right???

“On a dedicated race track or at a track day, I’m seeing Dave’s taillights as he has bucketfuls of track experience behind the wheel of the Ultimate Pro Touring Car, a Can-Am Lola T70 roadster he competes with in Vintage Race events.”

LG: Tell us, how did the infamous “Stick … you BITCH!” come to be?

MP: “That was stealthily done by Jimi Day or one of his many minions that help run the OPTIMA Ultimate Street Car Invitational. Unbeknownst to me, someone put a GoPro camera in the Camaro back in the 2009 OUSCI for the autocross portion and as I tend to go Postal at times behind the wheel, I chose a moment to take that to an entirely new level. Many call this ‘Autocross Tourette’s’ and I had a World-Class case of it when the Camaro started sliding sideways causing me to verbally coax traction back from an impending abyss. I finished the run and promptly forgot about it.

“At the Premiere OPTIMA Batteries threw for us in January, 2010, they showed the uncut footage and all was laid out there for everyone to see … and hear. No bleeps or other censoring that night and I wanted to crawl into a hole. For the Speed TV footage, thankfully there was about 20 seconds of F-bomb bleeps which left lots to imagination. A friend made me some stickers which are kinda cool. Occasionally, I’ve been asked for a sticker and in the past five years, they’ve made their way throughout the world in addition to here in the states. They’re on military vehicles in the Middle East, on cars in Russia, France, Scandinavia, Africa, and South America. There’s one on an Irvine, CA cop car too.”

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LG: What’s the story with the GranTurismo game? I’m sure there’s a story about that too.

MP: “This one was quite unexpected and was started by Elana Scherr (formerly with Kahn Media and now with Hot Rod Magazine). About two months before SEMA, Elana asked if she could nominate my car for the GranTurismo award and when I said yes, she followed it up with “You won’t win but that’s okay.” The Camaro was in the Hotchkis Sport Suspension booth and I promptly forgot about the whole nomination thing until one of the judges came by, looked the Camaro over, talked to me a bit, talked to John Hotchkis a bit, and then said ‘You’re my Hot Rod pick.’

“I still didn’t put two and two together until John reminded me of the GranTurismo nomination and that the next step would be for the creator of the game, Kazunori Yamauchi, to personally inspect the Camaro and as one of the five finalists for that year’s Award, would choose which car would be selected to be included in the upcoming GT6 game. Two months later, this was starting to make sense.

Mary Pozzi Camaro 13“You see, my experience with video games started … and stopped … with Pong!! I played Pong everywhere Pong was able to be played and I was damn good at it. After Pong went to the great Pong heaven in the sky for video games, that was it for me. So forty years later when I didn’t seem too excited about Yamauchi-san taking a peek at my orange car, a couple of the Hotchkis team that were quite versed in all things gaming took me aside after wetting their pants and said ‘Uhhhh, Mary … this is THEEEE GUY!!!! He’s important. Don’t be such a noob!!’ I learned how to greet a Japanese male (for a woman, it’s bowing with hands over the groin if you really must know) and when presented with THEEEE GUY, I promptly produced a very proper estrogen-fueled bow and we started the interview via a translator. Kazunori Yamauchi was very nice and proper, and asked many questions about the Camaro, sat in it, handled the steering wheel and shifter, tested the pedals for proper positioning and the ability to heel-and-toe, and then said via translation, ‘This car I want to DRIVE!!’

“We all got to go to a cool party at the Cosmopolitan at The Marquee where the five finalists were each called up on stage and presented with a GranTurismo game console. Then Kazunori Yamauchi said ‘I choose … the 1971 ….’ and people went nuts. Being that my car is a 1973, I thought one of the other finalists had won but it was the Camaro that was shown on the screen and they’d gotten the year wrong. But then someone poked me and yelled ‘It’s YOU!!’ which was really hard to hear as the music was loud and we were crammed into the room like sardines.

“Anyways, that would probably have to be the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me and the Camaro. The gamers that follow GranTurismo appear to love the car so I guess I got the calculations right for all the measurements, angles, and all the other stuff the digitizing folks needed to ‘produce’ a finished product for GranTurismo6. That process to get the car in a viable state for the game was also amazing as they took sound of me opening and closing the doors, rolling the windows up and down, turning the headlights on, the turn signals, high beams, shifting … basically anything that could make a sound got recorded. I spent hours ahead of time making sure the Camaro passed ‘The Lick Test’ both outside, inside, and underneath. And I’m still kinda pinching myself unsure if this really happened …

“That’s the upside. The downside is the Camaro is so good, I can’t afford it. They have it priced at $750,000 in GT money …”

Editor: I would like to personally thank Mary for her time and continued support of Lateral-G and our sport!

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