Aide feels need for speed

Kevan Chapman, communications director for Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), does something few other Capitol Hill aides do to blow off steam. The 26-year-old routinely races his car.

He started racing in autocross competitions in 2003 when an old college friend suggested he try it. “The pavement was in terrible shape, there was this big airstrip, it totally tore up my tires — I loved it,” Chapman recalled.

In autocross, racers drive on designed courses, often on inactive airstrips or unused parking lots, reaching speeds of 60 mph around tight corners, sometimes marked by the orange cones you often see lining highways. To avoid accidents, racers typically drive the course singly, with the winner is determined by time. Competitors drive the courses in almost anything, from Volkswagen Beetles to high-performance muscle cars.

“It’s very, very rare that anyone gets hurt,” Chapman said.

Unlike NASCAR or drag racing, autocross is more driver-oriented than vehicle-oriented. There are courses a Volkswagen Golf will run faster than a Corvette, Chapman explained. “It’s about how you maneuver and anticipating what’s next,” he said. “Most people spend one to two hours learning the course before they run it.

Chapman, a Grand Rapids, Mich., native, drives a two-door Mitsubishi Mirage coupe, usually “the slowest car” on the track, he said. And that is after he modified it with a high-quality air filter, a larger exhaust, and a high-performance suspension. But his car is more competitive now than when he began this relatively new hobby.

“When I started, my car was stock, so it was pretty gutless. I was getting slaughtered in stock class. Once I competed in [the street-touring class] I could modify the exhaust, the intake and the suspension,” he said.

Chapman said he races for fun and the sense of exhilaration he gets when driving. In his first season competing, he got four or five events under his belt, including a race at Gratton Raceway, where state police officers test their cars.

“It’s a very demanding course, and [potentially] dangerous,” Chapman said. “I was extremely intimidated watching people lose control and go into the grass. When I [drove the course] it was the most conquering, powerful feeling.”

Chapman said racing has had positive effects on his life.

“It’s what you want it to be,” he said. “I guess the only way it has impacted me is it’s taken down barriers for me in other things. When I first heard about [autocross], I thought, this is crazy, I will be laughed out of this place.”

He also believes autocross improves his driving in everyday situations. “If you autocross, it will undoubtedly happen that you will lose control and spin out. You have the confidence to know that if your car goes into an uncontrolled slide or a spin [while driving normally], that you can control the car,” he said.

Chapman got engaged in February, while on vacation in Cancún, Mexico. His fiancee, Jessica, supports his racing, but does not always like how much time it takes him away from her.

“My fiancee hates it sometimes,” he admitted. “She’s torn. She likes to ride along [as a passenger], and she’s ridden along with some other people with high-performance cars and likes that even better, but [autocross] takes a lot of time and it’s hard being gone all day Saturday.”

Chapman has not yet competed in an autocross competition in the District because he was only hired as Ehlers’s communications director two months ago. Before that, he worked in Grand Rapids as a reporter and producer for the local NPR affiliate. The opportunity in Washington was one he couldn’t pass up, but the new position has thrown kinks into many of his life plans.

“It totally screwed up our wedding plans. We have no idea when we’re going to do it,” Chapman said. Jessica is still in Michigan, taking care of the house they recently bought and working out the details of their big day.

Chapman is enjoying working in Ehlers’s office, and soon his fiancee will join him in Washington. And the next time he races? He thinks she just might, too.

“She’s been involved enough times to try driving herself,” he said. “She has always been a little tentative about it, but the next time we do it, I expect she’ll drive the course herself.”