Rubenzer seeking third Formula Ford title

Scott Rubenzer made his first start in the Runoffs in 1977.

Scott Rubenzer's second victory at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs already means more to him than his first, and you can bet he would love a third.

But Rubenzer probably doesn't have another 24 years to wait.

Friday afternoon would be just fine.

Rubenzer, a 60-year-old from Brookfield, is one of about 600 people competing this week in the largest club-level road-racing event in the world, and he's the defending champion in Formula Ford. Twenty-eight titles will be decided over the course of 24 races Friday through Sunday at Road America in Elkhart Lake.

"I feel pretty good," Rubenzer said of his chances.

"Better than most years."

And that's a lot of years. Rubenzer made his first start in the Runoffs in 1977, won the Formula Vee class in 1985 in his ninth try and has competed in the event 22 times.

Along the way he built a business, helped raise two daughters - a racer-turned-mom and a black belt in karate - and competed a little outside the club ranks (any or all of which could explain the white hair).

Still, the memories of that first national championship victory are as fresh as Thursday morning's final qualifying session.

"I qualified second, led the first three laps, then a guy . . .  passed me into Turn 1 and got up to Turn 3 and spun, and I had to spin to avoid hitting him," Rubenzer said. "Half the field spun. It was probably Lap 3.

"I hooked up with somebody and started reeling people in. We had worked up to third or fourth, maybe, and there was a full-course yellow for an accident. Marched to the front. Held everybody off.

"I always thought at that time that winning the local points championship was almost a bigger deal."

Twenty-five years ago, amateur road racing in the Upper Midwest was like short-track stock-car racing in Central Wisconsin, filled with strong fields and fierce rivalries. To beat them regularly was a challenge.

That's one of the factors that make Rubenzer's second title more valuable to him.

The regional competition is still good but not nearly as deep, he said. An event such as the Runoffs brings together 35 of the country's best, and to beat all of them on the same day is quite an accomplishment.

One other reason last year's victory is memorable for Rubenzer is because of the way the race played out.

Tim Kautz and Tony Coello got away from a bottled-up start, but Rubenzer recovered and began reeling them in from third. Midway through the race, though, his engine began to slow and its temperature rose. The fall leaves that lend beauty to the Kettle Moraine countryside aren't nearly as pretty to the protective screens on the ducts to a race car's radiator.

"There were two laps to go; I wasn't gaining anymore," Rubenzer said. "I was in maintenance mode, trying to make the thing live."

He was four seconds behind the leaders, maybe five, but had a big gap to fourth place. Considering the hot water spraying from the overflow onto Rubenzer's neck, third would have been great. Better than a blown engine, certainly, and better than any finish he'd had at the Runoffs in more than two decades.

"Then the last lap comes to be, I come through Turn 13, see some commotion. What the hell's that?" Rubenzer said. "I see the two leaders had tangled."

A few seconds earlier Kautz and Coello had been dicing for the lead with a half-mile to go when Kautz checked up for a lapped car and Coello launched over him. By the time Rubenzer saw them, the leaders were spinning and sliding, Kautz off the right side of the track and Coello in a sand trap to the left.

"The waters parted," Rubenzer said. "Scott drove through the mayhem and won the race.

"I got lucky that day and won, but I've lost them that way, too. I didn't feel too bad. You have to be in position, no matter what the circumstance. It works both ways. I've been doing it long enough to know what goes around comes around and eventually it works your way."

Now if eventually it would just come a little sooner next time.