Click here to visit the Tribute to Matt Kempe page.
Team SE-R.net wins the first Ultimate Streetcar Challenge but
pays a terrible price.
Comments and videos by Mike Mager
The two-day event consisted of three competitions: a carshow, held on Friday, Feb. 25th, and a drag race and autocross, both held on the 26th. With each event weighted equally, the overall winner (of each class) would take the title as "Ultimate Streetcar".
The cars were separated into classes based on drive axle and engine type. We competed in the FWD 4-cylinder class along with a few Integras, one of which was a Honda-sponsored supercharged Type-R driven by National autocross champion Mark Allen, and several other Hondas, Mitsubishis, and even Saturns! Of all the cars, it looked like the supercharged Type-R would prove to be the toughest competitor, especially in the autocross as it was making 50+ more horsepower than we were and the driver was a national champion.
The Car Show
Master Detailer Aaron Labeau from San Diego went to work on the exterior of Mike Kojima's pristine '95 SE-R. Using his assortment of clay bars and magic potions, Aaron made Mike's stock paint look like a custom job, according to several judges, while Carlos Gutierrez did a fantastic job detailing the interior of the car. With not a single visual detail overlooked and the plethora of aftermarket parts installed on the car, Mike came away from the Car Show feeling quite confident that he took the win (results were not announced until the end of the event).
That night, a caravan of SE-R enthusiasts was making its way down from the Bay Area to L.A. to participate in the event. The three-car caravan was Kit Wetzler, Andy Radin, and Sheening Lin (who was to drive the car in the autocross) in front in a rented Maxima, Kit's friend Brian Augustine in a Saturn he was planning to sell, and Matt Kempe in the rear, driving his Classic [1991 SE-R] with Andrew Phan as a passenger. The caravan headed eastbound on a stretch of I-210 between I-5 and Hwy. 134. Just past the Wheatland Avenue exit, Sheening swerved to miss a dead dog in the middle of the fast lane. Brian swerved and missed the dog, as well. Matt, unfortunately, swerved but hit the dog and lost control, hitting the outside guardrail and ricocheted back onto the freeway, coming to rest perpendicular to oncoming traffic. The dog and the guardrail took out both headlights leaving the black car virtually invisible. At that point a Ford Ranger broadsided Matt's car at 65mph. He died instantly. Andrew was asleep at the time and pinned in the wreckage. He suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck and some broken ribs. Andrew was taken to the hospital and listed in serious but stable condition, and is expected to fully recover.
Saturday morning a few of us had gathered at Mike K.'s house. Sheening, Andy, and Kit showed up, all of them looking exhausted. They told us what happened, and no one could believe it. When asked whether we should continue, Sheening said, "Matt would want us to race and win." It was decided that we would run this race in Matt's memory.
The Autocross Practice
Around 11:00 A.M. the practice sessions for the autocross began. Each car was allowed 4 practice laps. Several of the cars seemed very cautious the first time out, but Sheening raced with great determination. After the first practice run, he had the fastest time.
After each run, adjustments to the car were made as necessary. Everyone helped out to make prepping the car as smooth as possible. It was pretty exciting to see the large "pit crew" around Mike's car checking tire pressures and temperatures and adjusting the suspension. If we all had matching uniforms, you would've thought we were professionals!
The second run was even quicker than the first, but the 3rd was a little slower. Going back to the previous settings but firming up the suspension in the rear made the 4th lap the quickest.
The Drag Race
After the 4th autocross practice, the cars had to make their way over to the drag area for the first of two scheduled drag runs. Before doing so, we had to get the car ready for drag-mode, which included changing tire pressures and hooking up the NOS bottle.
With vinyl lettering that read "IN MEMORY OF MATT KEMPE" on the doors of the car, Mike Saiki drove the car to the staging lanes. Around 20 of us were anxiously waiting in the stands, but our wait continued for a couple hours as cars kept breaking on the track, causing 30-minute clean-up sessions each time. Eventually the Ultimate Streetcars started to run. Although Mike is an experienced bracket drag racer, this was his first time driving the car, so we were all a little nervous. However he quickly dispersed of those thoughts by running a 13.4 @ 104! Our closest competitor, the supercharged Type-R, ran a 13.8 @ 103 immediately following Mike's run. Everyone was excited.
With the first drag race in the bag, it was time for the real autocross. Again, each car was given 4 laps. The supercharged Type-R was proving to be stiff competition, running low 36, high 35 second runs, whereas Sheening's best during the practice sessions was a 36.4. But even with the terrible events that unfolded less than 24 hours ago, coupled with a lack of sleep for the past 36 hours, Sheening drove incredibly, netting a 35.999 on his last run which earned us the second place spot overall for the autocross.
Due to all the accidents on the drag strip, the second drag race had been cancelled. This was great news for us! After the autocross had finished, all the competitors and many of the spectators gathered around the tower for the awards ceremony. The first award was presented to Mike Kojima for the winner of the FWD 4-cylinder drag category! Everyone applauded as Mike humbly accepted the award. With tears in his eyes, he dedicated the award to Matt and asked that everyone pray for both Matt and Andrew.
Then the organizers of the award said, "Wait, you're not done." They announced that Mike Kojima was also the overall champion of the FWD 4-cylinder class and handed over a huge 3-foot trophy! Mike thanked several of the people who helped make the win possible, including Rob Cadle, Ken Nord, Mike Saiki, and Sheening Lin.
This marked the first time an SE-R had ever won a National Import event. Although exciting, it was a bittersweet victory, and it was hard to rejoice too much. Matt's loss is a tragic event that affected everyone there. But as Sheening told Mike that morning, "Matt would want us to race and win." And we did just that.
Team SE-R.net would like to express its deepest condolences to the Kempe family and we wish Andrew Phan a speedy recovery.
Matt, you will be missed.