As soon as her divorce was final, Juliann Pokorny joined the Sports Car Club of America, blew $40,000 she didn't have on a top-of-the-line Audi TT, then ran it in every autocross race she could find, from Burlington, Wisconsin, to Peru, Indiana, to the parking lot at Triton College.
That was July 1999. Four years later Pokorny is the reigning B stock ladies' national autocross champion. Standing outside a barn in Lake Forest one afternoon in July, she was attaching new parts to a 1990 Mazda Miata. Inside the barn her boyfriend, Jason Saini--the 2003 B stock open-class national autocross champion--constructed a roll cage for a '95 Miata. They were readying both cars for other racers to drive in a Miata Cup road race in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, the following week. Before that event, in which Saini would also compete, the couple had a one-day job at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. They'd drive up in their 48-foot trailer--which holds a Weber grill, a futon, and a long rack of tires in addition to their Honda S2000 and another Miata--and teach a batch of novices how to put pedal to the floor on a 1.9-mile road track with 11 turns.
Autocross isn't run on such a track: it's a race against the clock through a course made from plastic cones--like taking a driver's license road test at 70 miles an hour. Also called solo racing, it's been around since the early 50s, longer than many of the auto sports that have proliferated in the cable era. But there are no walls to hit, no other cars to smash, and most people have never heard of it. Autocross is racing's entry level: anyone with a car, a helmet, and $35 can compete. No modifications are required, and for fairness's sake cars are divided into performance levels, so an Escort isn't competing against a Porsche. Pokorny and Saini's B stock group includes the Porsche Boxster, the Mazda RX-8, the Nissan 350Z, the BMW Z4, and the Honda S2000, the car they both won their championships with.
At last year's nationals Saini's cumulative time over three races was 113.291 seconds. Pokorny's was 117.435, which would have put her 27th in the open class--no trophies, but not bad in a tough field. Still, she says her victory feels hollow: "Jason had to beat 39 people to win. I had to beat 2," she says. "I think there should be a novice class, not a ladies' class."
Few women compete in auto racing of any kind, and most of those who do are accompanied by brothers, boyfriends, or husbands. So in her first autocross season Pokorny, a woman flying solo, stood out. She met Saini and his friend Brad Lamont at one of her first races, in the spring of 2000. By July, Saini was coaching her. The Audi, says Pokorny, "was hard to drive. Because of the turbo it was all-or-nothing--all of a sudden your neck's snapping into the backseat. And I was not smooth with the gas, not smooth with the power. Jason got into the car with me and it was, 'Oh my god, what are you doing?'"
Saini, who's 31, got hooked on racing as a spectator at age 12, when his family went to see Indy car races at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport. But he found his destiny behind the wheel four years later at the Cleveland Auto Show, where Ford was showing a race car. "My friend and I snuck into the display and took turns sitting in [it]," he says. "This was a real road-racing car--there's no carpet, and there are all these gauges and switches and knobs, and the roll cage is all around you. I just sat there and was like, This is where I belong."
Saini's parents disagreed. His father, an engineer who'd emigrated from India, thought he should get a real job. So though Saini began autocrossing in the family Escort when he turned 18, he stopped once he started working in Internet cable and network design. He didn't race for five years, and only took it up again the year before he met Pokorny.
Pokorny, on the other hand, grew up with racing mugs and plaques mixed among the good dishes on the buffet in her family's dining room in Lake Forest. Her mother had been an SCCA road-racing champion, and in the 50s her father, a construction worker, and his chums would go out to the Edens late at night, block off some entrances, and hold drag races along the brand-spanking-new expressway. But both Pokorny's parents stopped racing when she was born.
She learned about autocross in 1992, when she was living in Rogers Park. A neighbor had an old BMW on blocks. "We had $75, but we were gonna build this car," she says. "It didn't have an engine in it! We were so clueless." What Pokorny really wanted to race was motorcycles, but the man she married didn't give her much encouragement. That didn't keep her away from the track. "I flagged and I did safety," she says. "I was on the other side of the Armco [the galvanized steel railing around a course], as it were."
By the time they divorced Pokorny was 30. "I figured I'm too old to race motorcycles--that's crazy," she says. "So let's go race cars."
At the end of her first season Pokorny drove out to the SCCA Tire Rack Solo II Nationals, the autocross championships held annually in Topeka, Kansas. (This year's start September 14.) Saini and Lamont were there too, the former racing a Volkswagen Corrado, the latter a Mitsubishi Eclipse. "We all got our proverbial butts handed to us," Pokorny says. "My Audi was up against Porsche Boxsters and monster BMWs. Jason was up against Integra Type Rs and other faster cars, and Brad's car was too heavy." At the end of the week they got together over fajitas and margaritas, and Saini and Lamont talked about teaming up to buy a Honda S2000. "I'm like, hey, do you need a token chick on the team?" Pokorny recalls. "Dividing a car payment by three is a lot easier than dividing it by two."
By then Pokorny had a crush on Saini, but she didn't want to act on it. "I was playing the field, making up for lost time. Jason was the type of person that I really respected and admired, and I didn't want to have one of my careless flings with him," she says. Saini, for his part, was engaged, but his fiancee didn't race and wasn't happy about all the travel and expense. "The more you do it the more tires and the more parts you need to buy," he says. "She thought the money should have been going elsewhere."
He'd been interested in Pokorny since first seeing her in her Audi, but kept his interest to himself for obvious reasons. When they drew up the contract forming their team, Over6racing, they addressed romance along with finance. "No intrateam relationships," Pokorny recalls. "That's what we said." It was the first rule they broke.
A year ago Pokorny sold her condo in Rogers Park, quit her job in tech support, and moved back home to Lake Forest to devote herself to racing full-time. The office for Over6racing--the name refers to 6,000 rpm, the point at which the power boost comes in on the S2000--is in the front of the house where she grew up. A floor-to-ceiling blackboard is covered with a calendar of upcoming races and a checklist of needed parts. Two computers sit on desks by a window looking out on the driveway, where the long trailer's parked. One of them has a steering wheel attached to it. She and Saini have actually driven on one of the tracks re-created in Gran Turismo, and she says they find the PlayStation version pretty realistic. "OK, you're steering with your thumbs," she says. "But it's reflexes and how you react to a situation."
Though he still races autocross, Saini took his championship last year as the green light to move up to road racing, the next level in his bid to eventually compete in World Challenge races. Miata Cup competition is the most economical level of professional road racing--a raceworthy car can be put together for under $15,000. Even so, though Saini's won all three of his autocross events this year and has placed in the top five at practically every one of his rookie road races, his winnings don't begin to cover expenses. "If you count the value of tires as cash, this year I've won $3,000 to $4,000," he says. "We've spent between $30,000 and $40,000 at this point. At the level we're at you really can't make money."
World Challenge racing is high-profile road racing, where the rewards and the expenses rise accordingly. "A really good pro Miata car costs $25,000 to build, and you can win $2,000 in a weekend," says Saini. "You can win $10,000 for a weekend in World Challenge racing, but it costs $150,000 to build one of those cars. So the percentage is very similar, but World Challenge is on Speed Channel, and you can pick up sponsorships. And that's really where you can make money in racing." Over6racing has a couple of regular sponsors, among them King Motorsports in Sullivan, Wisconsin, and Speedniche.com, a home-theater company owned by a friend. But they need more, and that takes success on the track.
To finance Saini, Over6racing is building Miatas and renting and selling them to other racers. They hope someday to have a race crew and a fully operational shop with hired mechanics, but for the time being they're the mechanics and Pokorny is the crew, along with Lamont and anyone else they can scare up.
Pokorny, the team's owner, is a willing workhorse. But taking care of business has hurt her behind the wheel. "I'm a little rusty," she says. "Jason's had a ton of seat time with road racing, but my season's just starting as far as autocross." Last year she started racing in February. This year she started in July.
Both Saini and Pokorny will compete at the national autocross championships this week. The question for Pokorny is which race to enter. Teams, she explains, are allowed to run two people per class, "so last year Jason and Brad ran in the open class and me, the third driver, ran in the ladies' class." But this year Lamont will race with a different team, so Pokorny can run in the open class if she wants to. And she does.
"I want to run with the boys even if I'm gonna get my butt kicked, because it pushes me," she says. "If there are 40 boys in the open class and 5 girls in the ladies' class--"
"Because that's what it normally is," Saini interjects.
"I don't want to be first out of those five," Pokorny continues. "I don't want to be 20 out of 40. I want to be in the top ten, in the top five. I want to get closer to him."
Only one thing could push her to drive in the ladies' class again, Pokorny says: another woman. "The girl I beat last year feels like she's got unfinished business. She knows I'm running in the open class, so she's running in the ladies' class--to win. So I have a difficult decision. Do I be catty and go smack her butt, because I know I'm gonna beat her? And win another hollow ladies' championship because I'm sick of her attitude? Or do I put myself above that and run in the boys' class because I really want to see where I stack up against them?"
Saini says he thinks she should run in ladies' again: "If you've got a rivalry going, dig in, man."
"I'm thinking about registering in the open class and then changing my entry at the last second," Pokorny says. "Then showing up in the ladies' grid and having her go 'Oh!' Yeah look, girl, I know your game and I'm going to play it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.