A couple years ago I started asking people if they knew of anybody who needed another driver for a race. I was asking specifically about Lemons races; I didn’t know about ChumpCar or WRL. I had no idea what would be expected of me should it happen, no idea what it would cost or how much time I’d need to devote.
I just knew I wanted to drive in a race.
One day at HPR I talked to a guy with Petty Cash Racing. He said I could drive with them for something like $1200 a race. I suspect this would have been an “arrive and drive” deal. I would be there as a client rather than as a member of the team. I didn’t want to spend that much, so I kept asking.
At last year’s Eiskhana, I chatted with Ed and mentioned I was interested in driving Lemons. He connected me with Dennis. I wanted to drive in a race last year but I just couldn’t make it work. I had ruled it out by mid-April, but had a pang when he tried to line up a Road America trip later in the year. I was delighted when he made another attempt this year.
“Real Racing. Real Tracks. Real Cheap Cars.” ChumpCar operates dozens of events across the country each year. The rules make it prohibitive to have nice cars. This keeps costs down. That doesn’t make it cheap, though.
I’d put it on a par with owning a hot air balloon. I crewed on a balloon twice, ages ago. Back then, the balloons (envelope and gondola) went for about ten grand. Add a truck, maybe a small trailer. Get a bunch of folks to help out by giving rides, maybe four at a time. For the hot air balloon you need more people – somebody has to drive the recovery truck to where ever you land – but in the grand scheme they look similar to me.
For ChumpCar (and Lemons and WRL because many cars run in all three series) the car is going to be twenty or twenty five years old. Add a roll cage and fire suppression, a trailer and truck to tow it, and all the supplies and spares to keep it running (particularly tires and brakes), and even with a “real cheap car” it adds up.
The races are generally held over two days, with six or more hours of racing each day. A six hour race on Saturday and another six hours on Sunday is a Double 6. Seven each day with parc ferme rules for a 14, or twelve each day for a 24.
Road America has been hosting events since the fifties. It’s arguably the premier track in North America. Its 4.048 miles of track are draped over the terrain of Kettle Morraine near Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin. It’s a fast track, with three long straights: Road America Straight, Morraine Sweep, and Kettle Bottoms.
It is one of the few circuits in the world that is still in its original configuration. For years I watched ChampCar run there, and it was always a favorite in the various racing sims I’ve played over the years. I was quite excited about the opportunity to actually drive there.
Our event was a Double 7. For our race, we’d be using the chicane after the Carousel. Not only are there three long straights, there isn’t anything like a hairpin. That means the track is better suited to high horsepower cars. We wouldn’t be driving a high horsepower car, though.
ChumpCar works on a points scheme with anything over 500 causing penalties. Dennis has a 1988 Mazda RX-7, which starts at 350 pts. He’s swapped a 1.6 liter Miata motor in place of the rotary. That’s another 75. Add an oil cooler and a suspension upgrade and we’re at 525 points. This resulted in a 3 lap penalty. We weren’t too happy, but some people had it much worse. There was a BMW there with a 45 lap penalty.
Being an RX-7 with an MX-5 motor, Dennis calls the car an MX-7. It weighs something like 2400 pounds and the motor puts out perhaps 115hp. It’s not going to win any drag races, but with Dunlop DZII tires she handles pretty well. They’re turning low 2:20’s at HPR. Lower horsepower than the Elise, but handles very similarly.
The team was Dennis, Phil, Lauren, and myself. Dennis is the “team owner”. It’s his car, truck, trailer, and gear. Phil is a hot shoe driver and ace mechanic. He’s only raced once before, but he’s logged quite a few track miles. Lauren and I are race rookies. Lauren has raced karts and bikes (both bicycles and motorcycles, I believe) but never cars. Although she has only tracked cars a couple of days she did attend an SCCA course. I, of course, have never raced and never taken a racing class.
With seven hours of racing each day, we’d get 1:45 each. Pit stops would be a minimum of five minutes (by rule), so we’re really get more like a hundred minutes of seat time each day. At the pit stops, we’d have to switch drivers, fuel the car, and do whatever minimal maintenance we’d need to deal with – topping off fluids, washing the windshield, checking the tires and brakes, that sort of thing. We weren’t allowed to touch or inspect the car while fueling was going.
The driver change is perhaps the most complicated part of the pit stop. The exiting driver takes the wheel off, hangs it on a hook, then loosens and unbuckles the harness. The incoming driver opens the window net, disconnects the exiting driver’s radio and helps the exiting driver out of the car. Incoming driver adds or removes seat cushions as necessary, gets in the car, and buckles up. The exiting driver connects the radio and helps the new driver tighten the straps.
Two people refuel the car. One places a pan below the car. While one person pours two jugs of fuel into the car, the other stands nearby with a fire extinguisher. Both are in full gear – suits, gloves, helmet with the visor closed. After all the fuel is in, any other necessary work can be performed.
At this point, all this is mostly theoretical to me. Lauren and I had only gotten in and out of the car one time before we actually raced, and we’d never done a pit stop.
Our first travel day took us from Denver to Davenport, Iowa. I’ve been fortunate that for all my road trips since we moved back to Denver, the drives to and from my destinations have been as important as any other aspect of the trip. This was not one of those trips. We were on Interstate highways pretty much the whole way. They are great roads for getting from place to place as long as you aren’t interested in what’s between the places.
Dennis, Phil, and I were in the truck. Lauren was flying in from California and would meet us there. The truck is a big diesel pickup with a smaller than expected fuel tank. Due to heavy headwinds, we were stopping every two hundred miles to refill. The long drive gave us a good chance to visit; to get to know each other better. Visiting was necessary, as there is pretty much nothing to look at through Nebraska and Iowa. About the only new thing to see on I-80 is all the windmills in Iowa.
In Davenport, we had dinner at Gramma’s Kitchen. Dennis wanted a steak and Phil wanted a beer. I’d have eaten a salad if they’d had a nice one on the menu.
Phil asked the waitress “What kinds of beer do you have?”
“All of them,” she says.
Phil says, “I’ll have an IPA.”
The waitress goes a bit blank, then says, “We have Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, Shiner Bock, …” They have Sam Adams, but nothing like an IPA. A recurring joke on the trip was “We have all the beers!”
“Does this go on our permanent record?”
Friday was check in and registration. This takes place outside the track; we wouldn’t go through the tunnel until Saturday morning.
Registration opened at 3, but we got there about two hours early. We parked the truck and trailer with the other early birds and wandered over to look at the track between turns 13 and 14. I wandered down to a flagging station to get a picture of the track and see there’s a gap in the fence there. I tell the guys “you can get on the track here”. “Should we walk it? We’re probably not allowed.” What the heck, we’ll just take a quick look. Once on the track we head downhill toward Canada Corner. We walked along Kettle Bottoms like tourists, wide-eyed. A maintenance guy on a little tractor went by and waved at us. Gee, he didn’t make any indication we weren’t supposed to be there so we kept going. We made it to the chicane after the Carousel before track officials arrived. Our presence here is strictly verboten: we’re in deep doo doo.
Dick, the security guy, asks us for our IDs. “You with ChumpCar?” “Yes”. “You shouldn’t be here, it’s a maintenance day, the track is closed.” By the time he finishes writing our info in his memo pad, another car comes by with a track manager. While Dick filled her in about us, a third car went by. She instructed Dick to take us back to the main gate. On the way, I ask Dick “Is this going on our permanent record?” He didn’t recognize the reference. Or Dick has no sense of humor. For a while we were sweating that we’d get a penalty from ChumpCar. We didn’t think they’d eject us from the event, but I can’t say we didn’t worry about it a little.
Back at the truck, we make the acquaintance of the teams around us. The guys in front of us were from Texas. We shot the breeze with them for a while. After a couple of minutes, one asks me “Are you the guys who got in trouble for walking the track?” These guys were in the third car we saw. They had somehow talked somebody into giving them a ride around the track. On the main straight they saw somebody in bigger trouble than us – somebody else had driven their car onto the track (not their race car).
On our left was a team with a TR-7. They have it decked out in a James Bond theme. It’s number 700 instead of 007. One guy says, “Check out our license plate”. I walked to the back of the car. He pushed a button and the European style plate pops up revealing another plate behind it. I didn’t see that a little water nozzle also deployed. I got sprayed and sported a nice big wet spot on my left thigh. A few inches to the right and I’d have looked like I peed my pants.
Finally 3pm rolls around and we get registered. We take our gear – suits, helmets, shoes and socks to safety tech. On the way there, I see that I have a little tear in my suit from the sharp edge on the CG lock in the Lotus and worry that it will fail. It wasn’t that close of an inspection – just looking at the safety labels, and I pass with no problems.
A short while later they open the gates. Although we were early, we end up in the middle of the line. We drove into the paddock through the tunnel, headed up the hill and found a paddock spot. We were assigned a pit spot and assumed we had to take the same number paddock spot, but we could have parked a couple of spaces closer. We unloaded the car and took it up for inspection. They gave us a pile of sponsor stickers to put on the car and we were done.
Aside from our run-in with the “law”, there was a lot of waiting around. One of the topics of discussion was fast we might be lapping. Dennis suggested four minute laps. I was thinking we’d be faster – a 2:20 lap at HPR is over 60mph and Road America should be faster. Just how much faster was anybody’s guess. We all looked forward to finding out just how fast we would be.