The more that David Dodge learns about his car, the more of a threat he becomes to his foes.
The local auto racer realized in February that his 1991 Mazda Miata's front and rear springs had been installed in reverse. Once he fixed that problem, the vehicle handled immeasurably better.
He figured out that if he shaved down his tires, the car went faster. The increased grip led to increased speed.
And now Dodge is learning when to smile and what to say after accepting first-place awards.
The North Medford senior captured four key Spec Miata class victories in July and August en route to winning a regional series championship. The title sealed a berth into the Mazda Shootout, an annual event held by the car manufacturer that invites national champions from amateur sports car racing to compete for a fully sponsored year in the Mazda MX5 Cup Pro Series.
The Shootout will be held later this fall. In order to qualify for the sponsorship — which gives drivers $75,000 to hand-pick a race team — the 17-year-old Dodge must demonstrate excellence on and off the track.
"You have to prove you can sell yourself and sell a product, and also prove you are fast and consistent," Dodge says.
The opportunity would be life changing, he says.
"It's the first step into the pro series," Dodge says.
Dodge took home the crucial season-ending triumphs at Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows, Calif., in mid August. A month earlier, he claimed the pole position and earned two wins at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
The late hot streak allowed him to make up more than 50 series points in the Teen Mazda West Coast Challenge and vault him into the Shootout picture. Entering the final weekend, only five points separated three drivers.
"If I didn't win those races we'd be out of the championship," Dodge says.
It took some trial and error to get the chance. When Dodge and a friend turned the Miata into a legitimate race car when Dodge was 14 years old, the springs were installed in the wrong spots. As a result, the car spun out easily.
Dodge corrected the problem in February after comparing part numbers on his stepfather John Sause's car with his own. Sause also races.
"Sure enough, I caught it on accident by just looking at each part and seeing where each spring went," Dodge says. "I take great pleasure in analyzing parts."
Now the car handles as smooth as fine silk as far as Dodge is concerned.
"I went from the back of the pack to the front," Dodge says.
This isn't an unusual revelation by Dodge, who's had very little handed to him during his career. If there's a problem with the car, he pops the hood and makes his own diagnosis. His family has served as his team, assisting with maintenance and operations.
"I could not be any more grateful for them," Dodge says of his family, recalling the final day of racing at Thunderhill Raceway Park when he borrowed Sause's vehicle because the differential in his car was damaged. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com