Article by Ross Carlson. Photo by Kathleen Bohning.
This past weekend I drove in my second race and my first full 24 hour endurance race. I won’t keep you in suspense, our team finished in 2nd place. 10 laps behind first and only 2 laps ahead of third. Over a total of 1030 laps. That’s a margin between 1st and 2nd of .1% and from 2nd to 3rd of .2% Over 24 hours. Yes, it was close.
I’ve been driving on tracks for about 5 years now. I started in a Nissan 350Z and then moved to a Subaru Legacy Spec.B that I heavily modified for the track (she was a really fun car). My current track car is a Lotus Exige, basically a race car that is street legal and is completely amazing on the track. I do mostly open lapping days, where you go drive at race speed but don’t actually race (I wouldn’t want to risk hitting another driver in my Lotus). I also do a number of club events (BMW, Z Car, Lotus, etc) where I instruct students of all levels. Only last year did I finally get a chance to race wheel-to-wheel in a 24 Hours of Lemons race. It wasn’t a full 24 hours (9 day one, 6 day two) and was much more about the fun/party than the competition. The being said the thrill of racing wheel to wheel definitely infected me and I’ve been looking forward to doing it again ever since.
Enter Chump Car. The idea is you buy a $500 car and turn it into a racer. You spend what is required to make the car safe: a full roll cage, racing seat, harnesses, fire extinguisher, etc. You’re obviously required to wear a helmet and are also required to wear some sort of head and neck restraint system. I, and a large percentage of drivers, wear the HANS device (Head And Neck Safety) that was designed after Dale Enrehart was killed in a NASCAR race. While it’s uncomfortable I wear it in my Lotus as well and won’t drive hard without it. So while you can upgrade safety equipment in any way you’d like you aren’t allowed to spend more than $500 to “make it go”.
When building the car you are allowed to do things to make it faster that don’t cost money. Essentially you strip everything from the car, and I mean everything. Carpets? Nope. Headliner and door panels? No thanks. You take it all out, all wires, windows, weather stripping, everything. In goes the roll cage and safety seat/harnesses and that’s it. You can easily remove up to 1000+ lbs out of a car by doing this. That completely changes how the car handles as now you have a very light car with a relatively powerful engine (when compared to it’s weight). Our Chump Car racer, the beloved Smurf, is a 1984 BMW 325e. There are two very important bits of information in that name, first the “25e”. That means the motor is a 2.5 liter inline 6 cylinder engine. The “e” stands for economy and if that doesn’t sound good for racing you’re right, it isn’t. With a scorching 121hp (when new, 27 years ago – she now has less than 100hp) and a redline of 4500 rpms (a friends mini van has a 6500 rpm redline) she’s not exactly over powered. The good news however is that “3″, meaning this is a BMW E30 chassis car, one of the best chassis ever built and still raced in many series worldwide. But virtually never with the “e” motor (the “i” or “is” is far more desirable).
You are allowed to make minor, inexpensive upgrades based on your car and it’s condition. Difference series have different rules and yes, there are teams that cheat and either run cars that are above $500 or upgraded in hidden ways. Many times this does the teams no good as they have mechanical problems and lose valuable time or can’t even finish the race. This is the beautify of Smurf, she just goes and goes and goes. She’s consistently quick, just not fast. Teams can be assessed penalty laps by the judges if they deem the car to be outside the rules and spirit of the race. And that spirit really is a bunch of guys having fun where it’s not the team with the deepest pockets that wins. We stayed very much legal as an E30 BMW is considered a $500 as is – so no upgrades are allowed at all. Brakes are considered safety items so you can run pretty much any pads you’d like. There are also limits on tires, basically good summer performance tires are all that’s allowed (no racing slicks).
The first thing you realize when auto racing is that it is very much a team sport. Your mechanic is quickly your best friend. Lee, our resident genius, had the car in fantastic condition when we arrived. While we did have 2 minor mechanical issues (faulty ground wire and a throttle cable came loose) Lee expertly handled both issues in a matter of minutes. Seeing him upside down in the car fixing the throttle cable with a ziptie was great. Remember, this is Chump Car.
The racing. The racing is amazing. Yes, the speeds are much lower than I drive in my Lotus. But since we are all on a fairly level playing field the racing is extremely close. There are 2 basic classes of teams. Competitive and the guys simply having fun. No matter which camp you are in you’ll have an amazing time. Teams that have cars break on the 10th lap still have a great time. Most teams have a theme and while the racing is real no one takes it too seriously. We fell into the competitive group but as we rarely take anything seriously the main focus was on fun.
This race was several firsts for me. My first 24 hour endurance race. My first time driving in Smurf. My first time driving on Pikes Peak International Raceway. My first time racing at night. It all made for the most exciting 24 hours of my life. As there were 4 of us on the team each of us drove 6, 2 hour shifts. My slots were 1-3 p.m., 9-11 p.m. and 5-7 a.m. I was glad my first laps were in the daylight so I could learn the track. The track is a 1.3 mile “roval” – we used part of the NASCAR oval (about 2/3 of it) then you duck into the infield of the track for a 6 corner road course then back onto the oval. It took my first session to really get the track under me and honestly I was disappointed that I wasn’t picking it up quicker. After talking with our fast driver, Frank Amoroso, I realized I simply wasn’t pushing the car hard enough (was being too nice to Smurf). My next session began with a tiny bit of daylight remaining. The last thing I asked the team as I left the pit was “why aren’t my headlights on?”. Unfortunately for my next 2 hours they were…
Driving at night was amazing. After talking with Frank I knew where and how hard I could push – and push I did. I dropped my lap times by 5 seconds and was now running faster than almost everyone. In fact I was killing the field as everyone slowed way down at night as it was rather, well, thrilling. Coming off the oval in the daylight I could see the entry roughly 1000 feet away. At night, with my horrible headlights I could see maybe 100 feet in front of the car, maybe. There were only 5 small cones with a 2″ reflective band around them to tell you where the corner was. Sometimes I’d catch a car there and could use their headlights to see where to go. I generally don’t think of this sport as ballsy (nor of myself) but there is no doubt about it – it took balls of steel to drive flat out in the dark. Smurf also loved the night. The cool air breathed new life into her and all of a sudden she had extra power letting her pull out of corners so much better. In my 2 hour session I was only passed a total of 4 times (and lapped most of the other 20 cars 3-4 times). It was simply fantastic.
As we did 2 hour driver stints (the longest allowed) at each change there is work to do. The driver getting out of the car is helped by the driver getting in the car (disconnecting the radio, harness, etc). The exiting driver throws his helmet and gloves off to then help the new driver get all set. Seat, radio cable, harness, HANS. All the while another person in full fire gear fuels the car and the 4th stands ready with the fire extinguisher. You aren’t allowed to do anything to the car while it is being fueled, other than change drivers. Once fueling is done you can do anything else necessary; changing tires, checking the oil, fixing minor issues, etc. If you take fuel you’re required to spend at least 5 minutes (fueling takes about 3.5 minutes) so you can easily change 2 tires in that time.
As it came time to my 5 a.m. stint I was getting rather tired. I’m not a napper and as there was something to do every 2 hours I didn’t have much time anyway. Frank drove the stint before me and moved us from 5th to 3th place. 15 seconds after getting in the car I wasn’t tired at all as you become so completely and totally focused on what you’re doing everything else is tuned out. Are you hot, yes. Are you uncomfortable from the extremely tight harnesses, yes? None of it matters, the only thing that matters is driving. When I came out of pit lane I slotted in front of one of the Porsche 944s. Does that sound like a $500 car to you? Something that my little Smurf could actually race? Well Smurf and I rose to the challenge. For 1 hour and 45 minutes straight that 944 tried to get around us. For 1 hour and 45 minutes it failed. Remember, cheaters never prosper.
As the sun rose and I could see slightly better I started turning my fastest laps. I was able to move us from 3rd to 2nd place and put us 1 lap ahead of 3rd. Smurf was alive and and as the sun rose I handed her off to Lee. He killed it and moved us up by another lap over 3rd place. Going into the final session we were roughly 20 laps out of first and our faithful anchor, Gene, held our 2nd place spot extremely well (with a slightly less powerful Smurf as it was warming up). After the race Gene piloted Smurf into victory lane for inspection by the judges (final cheaters check). All finishing cars were legal (a Saab turbo rocketship came in first) so we moved onto the award ceremony. Our 2nd place trophy is a welded nuts and bolts warrior on a brake disk and it went home with our amazing 5th team member – Smurf. We also won 2 bottles of wine and $575 in prize money meaning that I am now officially a professional racing driver (riiiight). I am looking forward to the wine.
The entire experience was a death bed memory. From the racing to the friendships to the shear jackassery it was all amazing. I feel incredibly fortunate to be involved in this sport and hope I have many years of driving and racing ahead of me. If this sounds at all interesting to you I’d suggest finding a local driving club and going to a track day with them. You’ll be safe, you’re car will be safe and you’ll have an amazing time. My first day was with the BMW club (whom I now instruct with) and I suppose it’s where I caught the addiction. As I told a friend recently: “Do drugs instead. They’re cheaper and you won’t loose your life to them”.
They’re just not nearly as much fun.
[This article have been republished with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.]