This past weekend marked the start of the 2016 Autocross season at Cumberland, and the return of the “Long Course” at the June Historics event. But what would normally be a cause for excitement and happiness was bittersweet. The first Cumberland weekend of the year is something I usually look forward to with eager anticipation, but in the days leading up to it, I was feeling something a little closer to dread. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely wanted to be there this weekend, to eat and drink at Henny’s, to stumble out of bed at the Best Western at an ungodly hour, and to drive the course slower than all my friends out on the tarmac. I was looking forward to all those things.
What I wasn’t looking forward to was the hurt and pain all those things would bring, because of what was missing from them. Or rather, who was missing from them.
As Fred Pfeiffer said at Saturday morning’s drivers meeting, “We need to talk about Wade Chamberlain.”
If you’re reading this, then you likely knew, or at least knew of Wade. He was the fast-driving, beer-brewing, beer-drinking, corn-eating, winking King of Cumberland. He was the kind of guy we all want to be a little (or a lot) more like in our lives, on and off the track. Basically, he was the best of us. Why he deigned to slum it and hang out with losers like us, I’ll never know, but I’ll always be grateful that he did.
I wouldn’t have become friends with Wade if not for autocrossing in Cumberland. We raced together in the DC area, but it wasn’t until Paul and I started staying at the Best Western and hanging out at Henny’s that we got the chance to really get to know the people who would become our close friends, guests at our wedding, and our autocross family.
A Cumberland race weekend without Wade was going to hurt, there was no way around that. There are echoes of him all over the place, from stray bits of popcorn on the floor at Henny’s to his number 22 spot in grid. On several occasions during the weekend, I thought I saw him (because it’s only natural to see Wade Chamberlain at a CBE event), before catching myself and realizing my mistake.
When Paul and I walked into Henny’s Friday night, I half expected to find him waiting for us at our favorite table in the back, pint of Yuengling in hand. He never showed, but several of the old regulars did, and we ate open-faced turkey sandwiches and raised a glass (or several) in his honor, following Wade’s tried and true advice of “You drive the opposite of how you feel in the morning.” Or, as we called it, the Chamberlain Principle. Mike Moran even had the brilliant idea to take a shot of Wade’s own personal Kryptonite, SoCo and lime. I think he’d have appreciated that—once he stopped gagging.
On Saturday we were lucky enough to be joined by Wade’s wife, Beth, and his father, Bill. Like she did for so many Henny’s evenings, Beth added some class to the proceedings. I’m so glad they were both there as we honored Wade, and saw firsthand how much he meant to all of us at Cumberland, and how deeply his loss is felt. After the usual drivers meeting speeches, we turned to the course and listened to audio from Wade’s final lap on a Cumberland course, an FTD time at last October’s Pumpkin Carve. It was a fitting tribute, hearing Wade do what he did so often at Cumberland—drive faster than everyone else.
Additionally, the organizers announced that Wade’s number at Cumberland, 322, has been officially retired. And to make sure everyone gets the message that no one will be permitted to grid in his spot, they marked it with a 22 XP sign.
In my earliest days of Cumberland racing, I gridded in spot 324, parked right next to Wade. I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but I was intimidated by him then. He set FTD in a Cobra. I was trying to avoid DFL in an automatic Honda Fit. But he treated me like a competitor and an equal, and he put me at ease at a time when I was an anxious novice autocrosser. I even got my first wink from Wade back then.
This weekend I gridded in that 324 spot again. Paul, filling in for the much-missed Ben Lambiotte, took 320, and together we sandwiched Wade’s spot. When I got to the line for my first run on Saturday, we paused at the time Wade would have been starting his lap. After a few moments of silence, Mikey turned to me from his starter’s spot and said, “To be fair, Wade definitely would have finished by now.”
I suppose this hasn’t been a real recap, but the weekend wasn’t about FTD, and it wasn’t about PAX (sorry, Larry Casey). It was about tradition, and honoring a member of the CBE family. One of the many, many things that suck about losing Wade is that we just got racing at Cumberland back last year. We had three events last year to “get the band back together,” and now we have to do it without him. That’s not right, and it’s not fair.
Cumberland Autocross won’t be the same going forward, and we’re never going to be able to fill that Wade-sized hole. But getting together with good friends for racing, drinking, and laughing feels like a damn good way to honor his memory.