ChumpCar Road America – Part 3

Race 2

Sunday morning was sunny with scattered clouds and a bit of a breeze. The forecast was to be a bit cooler than yesterday, with a better than 50% chance of rain starting after two. The possibility of rain factored into the driving sequence. Phil was game to take on the rain, so he volunteered to be last. Dennis needed go earlier because he had to start packing the trailer for our departure. The final determination was for me to be first, Dennis second, Lauren third, Phil running anchor.

We arrived at the track a bit before the 8 o’clock drivers meeting, which only took a few minutes as there was nothing much to add after yesterday. Evidently nobody did anything unique out there that needed to be called out to the general group.

Yesterday I had planned to start the lap timer on my phone and leave it in my pocket hoping I’d get some good data logged. In all the excitement of my first stint in a real race, it wasn’t on the top of my list and I forgot all about it. Being first in the car was helpful for me as there was no driver change. The day got started without any drama and I remembered to turn on the lap timer.

They have us go on the track at a quarter till so we could do a formation lap to check everybody’s transponders. There is no starting grid; it didn’t matter where I went out relative to the other cars. I was slow getting on track and I ended up “tail-end Charlie”, which was okay by me. I was so late on the track I didn’t catch the field until the lap was nearly done. Being last meant I wouldn’t be getting dive-bombed by twenty or thirty faster cars in the first lap or two.

One more lap around and then the call came through on the radio: “Green! Green! Green!”

I guess a number of the other drivers in the slower cars had the same idea as me, hanging out in the back of the pack. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to pass a half dozen cars on the first green lap. A couple of them were faster cars, though, not yet warmed up. They got back around me the next lap, along with a couple cars that came out of the pits late.

On the first three green laps, cars immediately in front of me had issues in the chicane after the Carousel. The first lap an MR2 went too deep and was in the dirt. On the second lap two Miatas nearly came together. One driver gave the other a thumbs up, but I’m not sure it wasn’t ironic. The third lap was a repeat of the first but with a different car. Nothing like a little excitement to get your blood going in the morning!

Things quickly settled down and I found myself running similar speeds to a Dodge Neon painted up like a Holstein – a black and white cow. I was faster than he was in the turns but slower on the straights. I got by him on the outside on the Carousel and kept him behind me for a few laps. But every time we’d get to the end of one of the three long straights he’d be right up on me. I was disappointed when he managed to get by me. I took it as a challenge and made a real effort to put some pressure on him. I was confident I was faster than him.

It was a good dice. I forced him into a number of errors in the turns but wasn’t able to capitalize on any of them until I had a good run on him into the Carousel, where I passed him again. The next lap he went into the pits and I was looking forward to having some laps without him slowing me down. Imagine my dismay, then, to find the Holstein in front of me a lap later, after their driver change. Their second driver wasn’t up to the standards of the first and I dispatched the cow car quickly.

On the second half of my stint I was able to get a few laps where I wasn’t busy dicing or getting passed and I was able to concentrate on improving my times. I made a bit of a breakthrough on turn 1 and felt I was much faster there than yesterday. I was hoping to make a similar advance on turn 2. I managed to get it right a few times but not consistently. I was happy that fewer of the fast cars were able to catch me in the twisty bits between turn 5 and the Carousel.

Like yesterday, I managed to put together some consistent laps and managed a 3:15.8. Woo hoo!

Too quickly I was told my stint was over and it was time to pit. The driver change went better today – I managed not to forget to take off the wheel. I did bang my knee on the way out, but it went better than yesterday.

The lap timer worked flawlessly. It logged my best lap as 3:15.75 while the unofficial time displayed for us was 3:15.808. As the speedometer in the car doesn’t work, we had no idea what sorts of speeds we were attaining until now. I managed a top speed of 106 on the straight going into turn 5, and about 100 on the other two straights. I was going 80 to 85 in the Carousel.

When Dennis was on track, I took the camera and went to turn 5 to see if I could get a decent picture. I sat in the bleacher there for a few laps then tried another vantage point. I didn’t see much of the track this way, but didn’t want to be away from the pits for too long.


Dennis negotiates turn 5

Dennis had some excitement on his stint when a car ahead of him went off in the Carousel, head first into the wall and bounced back sideways across the track. This turned out to be the team next to us in the paddock – a black Maxima. Later Dennis radioed in for us to get brake fluid ready for some maintenance. We checked things out; didn’t need to add any brake fluid but the left front tire had some chunking on the outside edge. We replaced the tire and sent Lauren out on the track.

She surprised us by coming back into the pits a couple laps later. She said that after the Carousel the steering wheel wasn’t straight. She wondered at first whether she had just not put it on correctly in the pits, but then going into Canada corner she didn’t have any brakes. She managed to use the transmission to slow herself down and make the turn. Then she was feeling like the front left wheel was coming off and she limped back to the pits. We jacked up the car (when I say “we” here, I mean Dennis and Phil) and looked for a problem. I will only mangle the description of the problem, so I’ll simplify and say that it was a problem with the wheel bearing. It ended up being terminal and our day was done.

It was disappointing that Phil and Lauren didn’t get to drive, but the car and all the drivers were still in one piece and everybody had a good time, so nobody was really complaining.


Exiting turn 14

The silver linings for the day were that we didn’t get rained on at the track and we were able to pack up and be on the road headed home a couple of hours early. Frankly, we were expecting the day to be cold and wet, but although the morning was a bit on the cold side with a bit of a breeze, the day was sunny and comfortable.

I mentioned some of the folks we met while waiting to get into the track on Friday. In the paddock, we had some neighbors with a giant rig with two cars. They were from Wyoming. They consider HPR their home track, even if it is “out in the middle of nowhere.” As opposed to Gillette, WY, right? In the pits we were neighbors with a team from South Dakota who also visit HPR regularly. It’s cool to see we weren’t the only long distance warriors.


We missed the rain at the track, but it found us as we were crossing into Illinois. The truck stop restaurant we ate at had a sign proclaiming they had been voted the healthiest menu. Don’t know who did the voting, but I wouldn’t have thought it above average for a truck stop restaurant.

We spent the night in the same Davenport hotel as before. In the same room, to be specific.

By Sunday, Phil and Dennis were tired of my stories so we listened to a bit of George Carlin and a bit of a Malcolm Gladwell book, Blink, on disc.

A wide variety of topics were discussed in the many hours in the truck. Sunday we sort of did a project post-mortem on the trip, what we should have done to be a better team.

I think it’s an interesting issue. Our mistake with Lauren’s radio in Race 1 cost us a lap. We might have made the podium had we not botched it. We also almost made an error during refueling. Dennis had nearly put the nozzle in when Phil was still attending to the car. I stood there thinking “He’s not supposed to start until Phil’s done” but took no action. Luckily, Dennis caught himself in time. But perhaps the biggest error was to not take the wheels off the car and checking everything out.

Dennis used to fly planes. With that history, it seems to me a natural that he work on some checklists for the races. Starting with, maybe, a list of possible checklists! I’m not likely to do more than one of these a year, so it would probably be good if I could practice a pit stop. To do it right would require all four drivers, and everybody would have to do each job at least once.


On the way home Dennis asked me how I would compare this race to my club days. My immediate response was “I’ll have to conduct further research!”

I’m not sure it’s fair to compare this Road America race to a club day or an open lapping day. The big appeal of this race, for me, was the venue. I would love to drive Road America in the Elise but that’s not too likely in the foreseeable future. Driving somebody else’s car there is a fine substitute. So it might be more fair to compare this trip to the track day portion of my Portland trip.

There are more differences than similarities. The similarities are that I’m on a road trip to a new and exciting track. The biggest difference is that I’m in a different, slower, car. Instead of being alone, I’m part of a team. I’m not just bombing around the track, my laps are toward a goal and I’m running a much longer session. Although it’s a race, it’s seldom I’m ever in a position to move up or down in the standings, so in that regard is it much different than a lapping day?

I enjoyed the track immensely. I feel like I could have the track figured out pretty well with a couple dozen more laps. I never put even two wheels off and managed for the most part to avoid the nasty rumble strips in turn 5 and Canada corner.

I look forward to having the opportunity to do a similar trip in the future – a road trip to a distant track. Maybe something in California?

I had a great time, I look forward to doing another one. Thanks to Dennis for making it all possible and to Phil and Lauren for the great companionship.

And last but not least, a hearty thanks to Tina and Mike for putting us up, and putting up with us.

ChumpCar Road America – Part 2

Race 1

The day started with a drivers meeting at 8:15. It was much like the drivers meetings for all the club days or open lapping days I’ve attended. Nothing particularly stands out in my mind about it, except that they indicate slow (i.e. non-race) vehicles on track with a red cross rather than the usual white flag. These would typically be presented alongside yellow flags. The tow trucks are there because somebody went off. These are experienced corner workers; like for my track day at Portland Int’l Raceway, these guys have flagged big-boy races.

The Race started at 9. Phil is first in the car. Cars are actually sent out a few minutes before 9 so they can do a lap or two to check that the transponders are working as they pass the start/finish line. There isn’t a green flag as such – the course is green when the yellow flags are put away. We get under way pretty much on time.

Dennis has ChumpCar’s timing and scoring app installed on his phone so we can see how things are going. It gives us the number of laps run, last lap time, and fastest lap time. Phil puts down some nice laps, is pretty quickly under 3:20 per lap. By the end of his stint, he has recorded a 3:12, which turns out to be the fastest lap for the team.

There are fifty cars on in the race in four classes. We’re in class A, which is the slowest class. Our opponents in this class are mostly Miatas. We have a Miata engine in a heavier car, so we’re at a bit of a performance disadvantage, plus we’re carrying our three lap penalty. There are only a handful of Class A cars competing and we’re confident we can finish on the podium, but three laps is a lot of ground to make up.

Phil’s hour and forty minutes is over pretty quickly for us and quicker for him, I’m sure. Lauren is in the car next. Like me, she’s never driven the car before and we only practiced getting in and out of the car once. Because we’re fueling the car, our stop will last a minimum of five minutes by rule. In theory, this means we shouldn’t feel hurried. Theories are wonderful things, but the reality is that we all feel pressure to do things quickly. If you’ve never practiced something and try to do it fast, you’re likely to make mistakes.

Our mistake for Lauren was failing to do a radio check before we release her. We try to talk to her but get no response. We don’t know if she can hear us or not, but we certainly can’t hear her. That leaves us no option but to call her in by showing her the pit board. When she comes back in, we find that not only was one of the connections undone but the radio was on the wrong channel. Dennis fixes these problems, a quick check tells us everything is working, and we send her back out. This mistake essentially costs us another lap.

Judging by her lap times, she didn’t take long to settle into the car and get a rhythm. Before long she’s turning laps consistently in the 3:25 range. I’m up next, and I’m starting to get a bit anxious. I’m due in the car about 12:30, and by 12:15 hadn’t even given lunch any thought. One of Dennis’s daughters has brought a big spread of food out for us and I manage to eat a brat before I have to get in the car.

There are more right turns than left turns, and the big right turn is the Carousel. Dennis and Phil decided that we should swap the tires from left to right as the left side will be showing much more wear. The tires are directional, so I’ll be running them the wrong way. Doing this is only a problem if it rains; with the tires going the wrong direction they’ll be very bad in the wet. The weather is sunny and dry so it’s not an issue; rain isn’t in the forecast until tomorrow afternoon.

Lauren and I do the driver change while Dennis and Phil swap the wheels. The driver change is a bit quicker in spite of me not being able to see the buckles with my helmet on. It feels like forever before I’m strapped in, but the car is still in the air when I’m ready. Then it’s time for fuel and I wait patiently and compose myself. Fuel in, they release me and I head down pit lane, stop to have the timer removed from the car, and enter the track.

Almost immediately I’m swamped by faster cars. What have I gotten myself into? On my club days, we can only pass in limited places, and with a point by. On open lapping days it’s open season and I thought I was prepared for this, but it’s a bit of a shock at first. To add to the discomfort, I don’t really know where the braking and turn in points are or even which gear to be in, so I’m trying to figure all that out at the same time.

By the second or third lap Dennis is on the radio telling me I just did a three thirty something. After those hectic first few laps I start to relax a bit. The guys in the pit can’t see where I am (unless I’m on the front straight), so sometimes they’re on the radio at inconvenient times. There are places on the track where I can’t hear them, just static. When I get a message when I’m being passed by two cars in the middle of a turn I understand why Kimi Raikkonen might say “Leave me alone. I know what I’m doing!”

Several laps later, I feel like I’m getting into a groove. Dennis tells me I’m turning laps in the 3:17 range and I feel I can continue to improve. I’m starting to feel comfortable; I’m thinking that it’s all about confidence and I’m getting more confident.

I’ve driven the track many times on the computer, but that pales in comparison to the real thing. Television and video games don’t do the terrain justice, but at least I know how the track is laid out. Some turns I figure out quite quickly; they become simply a matter of practice. On other turns, I have to change my approach as I get faster and I don’t get them figured out the first day. And then there’s the Carousel. No other track I’ve been on has anything like it. It seems to go on forever. Nobody passes me in the carousel, but I make a pass there, which induced a bit of a pucker factor.

Dennis radios me that I’ve been out an hour. On lapping days, I’m usually out for a half hour at a time. Last week at HPR I did over three hours in my car, but it was a half hour at a time. This hour seemed to fly by. My stint will be over all too quickly. It is over all too quickly.

When it’s my time, I exit the track and go up the hill in pit lane. I stop for the official who puts an egg timer on the hood of the car. Then I head for our pit. I stop the car and manage to get unbuckled. I climb out of the car, forgetting to take the steering wheel off. I feel like an idiot. Although it’s a bit on the chilly side, I’m fairly drenched in sweat. But I feel great – I feel I could go another hour.

Dennis is last in the car. He quickly gets up to speed, and regularly turns 3:15 laps. When we’re not in the car, we take turns on the radio. But mostly it’s just waiting around. Dennis’s daughter’s family brought some good food – I snacked on fruit salad and drank lots of water to stay hydrated.

At the end of the day we were fourth in our class, 26th overall. Most of the cars behind us had mechanical problems.


L to R: Dennis, Lauren, me, Phil


ChumpCar Road America – Part 1

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.

The Track

IMG_1872sRoad 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.


“Look where we are!”

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.


Canada Corner panorama

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.