Chumpionship Race Report

by Andy

The ChumpCar National Chumpionship. The biggest race of the year in ChumpCar, and we were invited. A lot of hard work went into preparing for this event. An additional roll cage bar was added, changes were made to the suspension, and a larger more powerful motor was installed. Of  course this process wasn’t without major set backs. Hours of time were spent troubleshooting what I believed to be a head gasket failure. Luckily, it turned out to be just air trapped in the motor. Lesson learned, filling the cooling system is an art. I never stop learning. Besides the hours of labor, a lot of money was dumped into preparing for this race. Between the motor, entry fees, tires, and suit rentals, our team spent more than $3,500. By auto-racing standards, this is cheap, but by MY standards, its expensive. But the opportunity to race at the Nationals was worth the cost.

Thursday, September 2nd

With the car strapped to the trailer, and the bed of my truck full of the tools and spare parts I hoped I wouldn’t have to use, Lauren and I set out early Thursday morning, bound for Des Moines, Iowa, home of the Heavy Metal band Slipknot. Things started out smooth enough, Lauren and I were just 20 miles shy of our hotel and close to midnight. Suddenly, the truck started to pull hard to the right, and I checked the rear view mirror to find the trailer fish-tailing behind me. My heart stopped as I watched my race car clinging to the trailer as it began slide hopelessly from side to side. In an instant, I envisioned the trailer detaching from the truck, taking my car with it, and ruining any chance our team had to participate in the big race. I braked firm but controlled, and brought the truck to a safe stop on the side of highway 80. Lauren had awakened by this point, and read the expression on my face, seeing that something was NOT good. I got out of the truck with a flashlight and began inspecting the tires on the trailer, as large trucks  barreled by at 75mph. When I got to the passenger side, I discovered the shredded trailer tire.

The trailer was graciously lent to me by a friend, and while I appreciated his generosity, I really wish he had a spare tire for the trailer. Of course it didn’t occur to me until just then that a spare was a good idea. Hindsight really is 20/20. My biggest concern was that I had a race to get to, and I knew that making it to the tech inspection in time was vital. In a foreign state, with seemingly endless rows of corn, I had no idea how I was going to find a trailer tire, get it installed, and still make it to the track. I pulled out my tools (which I never thought I’d need for the trailer) and removed the obilterated wheel. Luckily I saw that there was no damage to the rim. For the next 8 miles, I drove 30mph with 3 wheels on the trailer. And to be honest, none of the tires really looked like they had much life in them. At the first exit, I pulled off to a hotel that looked like something Dean Koontz would write about. Dust coated the windows of the main office, and the neon “Vacancy” sign flickered and hummed. A possum even ran by, with mud matted into its fur. Oh this is a great place to stay. For better or worse, the office didn’t appear to be open. So, I stopped by the gas station and put some extra air in the single trailer tire which was taking the burden normally shared by the tire that was now scattered across the highway in…Nebraska..Iowa? I didn’t even know what state we were in. It really does all look the same. Anyway. We got back on the highway, and continued the remaining 12 miles to the Hotel 6 we had planned on staying at. We arrived and checked in at the front desk. I asked if there were any tire stores near by that might carry trailer tires, and the receptionist mentioned that there was a semi- truck repair facility next door. After getting Lauren to bed, I decided to walk over and peer in the windows of the shop and see if they might carry small trailer tires. When I got there, I found that they were open! A 24/7 repair shop in the middle of nowhere. Sweet. I checked with the gal at the front desk, and sure enough, they actually had the right size tire in stock, and if I wanted they could get it mounted now! Wow, that is good luck. So by 3am, I had a new trailer tire and we were ready to go for the following day. Incredible.

Friday, September 3rd

The rest of the trip out to the track was uneventful. I arrived with plenty of time to get my car into tech, and found my parents, Jack and Claudia, my brother Travis, and his girlfriend Alliene already set up and ready for us. It really is great to have the whole family in on this experience, and I was happy to see them all set up and ready to help us unload.

With the car unloaded, I headed straight to tech inspection. Everything went smoothly, as expected, and the tech didn’t seem to concerned that I had upgraded the motor. This is probably because he was at the last race and saw how slow my car was. Jumping from 1.8L to 2.2L isn’t enough to raise any concern. With that out of the way, we organized the garage and stared at the car. We really didn’t have any work to do, and we were waiting for the rest of the team. They weren’t able to get Thursday off, so Friday at noon, they began the long haul out to Iowa in a rented RV. Not the cheapest way to roll, but that’s another story. During the wait, my Dad and I got the great idea that we really needed a roof scoop to keep the driver cool. It was hot and humid, and we knew the extra airflow would be appreciated by the rest of the drivers. So off to the hardware store for a dryer vent and some red spray paint. After an hour or so of work, we ended up with a pretty good solution.

Yea, airflow baby, and plenty of it. This turned out to be a bad idea, but more on that later. Once we finished with the roof scoop, we walked the track to discuss driving lines, and get a feel for what we would be getting ourselves into. Unlike Pike’s Peak International Raceway, the oval is STEEP. The banks are much more angled, and its intimidating to walk the track, knowing that we will be taking these turns at 100mph. The skid marks and paint transfer on the walls didn’t help much either. But all in all, it was a great track, and we were excited to race!

With that done, we went back to the garage to check out all the other cars, and try to relax before the big day. There were a lot of very well sorted cars, and a few that made you scratch your head and wonder. A very Chump-worthy group. Also, the trophies were very cool. I really wanted to come home with one.

At a little after 1am, the rest of the team arrived, safe but tired. We said our hellos and goodnights, and went to bed to try and get some sleep before the big day

Saturday, September 4th RACE DAY!

I woke up early to the sounds of generators, race car motors, and heat. It was hot already?! Thank god I installed a roof scoop. The team ate breakfast and finished preparing the pits, then met up for the drivers meeting. The nervous excitement kicked in as I drove the car into the hot pits, and got ready to race. Then before I knew it, the green flag dropped and we were off!!

Immediately, I was NOT happy. We took a gamble with our tire choice, and it did NOT pay off. The tires were terrible. They had no grip and broke loose very unpredictably. Completely unacceptable tires for a 24 hour endurance race. Thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of labor were spent preparing for this race, and tires were going to ruin it for everyone. After my one hour stint, I came in with a terrible attitude, and the team could feel it. This was not at all how I wanted to start, and I felt an immense amount of responsibility to get this issue resolved quickly. Right after I got out of the car, Fuggi (teammate and driver) and I took off into town in search of better tires. Iowa isn’t all bad, but when you are in a hurry, and already in a bad mood, their casual driving style is absolutely maddening. When the light turns green, most people go. Not Iowans. Nope. They inspect the green light, you know to make sure it is really green. Then they inspect the intersection to ensure it is free obstruction. Once that is done, they begin the process of sending signals to their right foot to gently depress the gas petal. But wait, they should probably check the light color one more time. Yea, still green. FRICKING GO!!! It drove me nuts.

After over an hour of checking with Tires Plus (which was closed), “Joe-Bob’s Discount Tire Hut”, and “Tractor Tire and Supply Depot,” we had found nothing. There was a Walmart there too, but their idea of a “high po-formace tire” was them there Goodyear Eagles. Woo wee! Disappointed, we went back to the track empty handed and more angry. The tension in the pits was obvious, and I knew I was not helping things much. And of course, it had started to rain, HARD. The kind of rain that can water thousands of acres of corn. Not only did this make the tires even more dangerous, it turned our cool little airscoop into a water funnel. Based on my Dad’s description of his experience, it sounded like he was inside a dishwasher. Each driver that left the car soaking wet and cursing the terrible tires. Fuggi even managed to do a 90mph donut on the infamous Turn 2. I had to fix this. Luckily I had brought a set of worn tires from the previous race, and my dad drove off to Walmart to get them installed on the spare set of wheels. I hoped they would hold through the remainder of the race. In the back of my mind though, I knew they wouldn’t. However, getting a good set of meats on there improved moral drastically. We lost time with the tire fiasco, but we were finally competitive, and our lap times proved it.

Everyone was finally having a good time, and I was really happy to see each driver turn some impressive lap times. We are a consistent team and as other cars crashed out on the track, or came in for repairs, our place in the group kept climbing. We started the race in 34th place, out of 47 cars, and by the last hour of the first night, we had moved into 18th place. Considering that we were up against all the best teams from across the US, we were very happy to be well into the field. What makes it even more impressive is that we were not invited because we won. We didnt even get close. We were invited because of our team spirit, and how our team embodies the spirit of the event. So we really were out classed. Two teams were just ahead of us, and within striking distance. Team “Car 54 where are you” and “The Red Baron.” I was scheduled to drive the last hour and finish off the night. It was 10pm, and had just stopped raining again. The track was slick in places, with standing water. Because the track was still wet, headlights were doing very little to light the way. Coming into the road course for the first lap, I promptly slid of the track into the grass, recovering just in time to miss the gravel pit. I got the car back on track, then completely missed the chicane. Adrenaline had got the best of me, and I was so focused on going fast, I was being a bit reckless.

I pulled myself together, and entered back into the course. And as luck would have it, I pulled in right behind Car 54. I sinched down the harnesses a little tighter, shifted into a higher gear and mashed the gas pedal. I was determined to pass this guy. He was in a 2nd Gen RX7, so he had me on the straights, but with the slick conditions, I had him in the turns, with a substantial advantage.  Turn 3, coming into the road course is a dangerous turn. You are coming off the back straight of the oval, hitting 100mph and right about the time you need to lift throttle and start turning in, there is a hump in the course, that upsets the balance of the car. By the time the car settles, you have started turning in. As the radius of the turn decreases, and you hit the braking point, there is a second hump that makes the back end of the car feel like its lifting off the ground. If you slide off the track at either of these areas, the wall is not far away. If you make it, you have to get on the brakes hard to complete the tight corner. It was very tricky, specifically with the wet surface and poor lighting. I knew that if I wanted to pass Car 54, and STAY passed him, I needed to do it on that turn, then pull away in the rest of the road course. My plan was to stay right on his ass in the road course, and draft behind him in the oval, staying as close as possible, then take him on the inside of the aforementioned turn 3. With AWD, and better brakes, it should be possible. My first few attempts failed. Id either lose to much speed on the oval, or traffic on the course would prevent me from being able to take the inside line coming into turn 3.

Finally, I had my chance, I tucked under him a bit coming out of the road course, and he tried to stay low but we collided with a satisfying crunch. Rubbing is racing though, and when he backed off, I gunned it into the oval. He passed me back, half-way through turns 1 and 2, and I tucked in behind him, letting the benefits of drafting keep me close on his tail. As we approached turn 3, out of the lights, and into the dark and slick road course, I dropped inside. No one else was there to block me, I had this line all to myself. And it was dark, man it was dark. Traveling at 90mph or so, I entered into the darkness, not completely able to make out the undulations of the track. I felt the first hump, and kept my foot to the floor. I knew I should be lifting now, but I stayed on it anyway. Then the right side of the track started to draw closer, signaling that the turn was beginning to tighten to the left. When I saw this, I was still going full speed ahead, and I knew that I was going too fast, and had missed my previously determined braking point. I kept a relaxed grip on the steering wheel and started pressing the brake firm and smooth. I hit the second hump, and the back end of the car stepped out, tires squealing. I tried to ignore the outside edge of the track, but in my peripheral, I could see the grass, the gravel pit, and the wall. I focused on the apex of the turn, kept my foot on the brake, pressed in the clutch, blipped the gas with my heal, and downshifted. By the time I had released the clutch I had slid almost perpendicular to the track, but as I slid the apex came into view, and the nose of the car was pointed in the right direction. I counter-steered and mashed the gas. All four wheels clawed forward while the car slid sideways, and I just barely nicked the tire barriers, but I made it. I completed the turn, and had great speed going into the next long right hander. By the time I had exited the road course, Car 54 was far behind me. He would almost close the gap on the oval section, but was never again able to pass me.

I didn’t have much time to relax though, as The Red Baron was right in front of me. The Red Baron was a Porsche 944, and genuinely a faster car than mine, all around, but I was still determined to give him hell. I stayed right on his tail, even bumping him once, just to let him know I wasn’t going to give up. Finally after several laps on his tail, my inside line on turn 3 opened up, and I dove down to pass him. Just like the last pass, I rode the ragged edge of grip, barely keeping control of the car as I made the pass. But he wasn’t ready to give it up. Before the next turn, he cut underneath me and took back the place I had gained. We did this for the remainder of the hour, and the race ended for the night with him ahead of me. But I didnt care, it was some incredible racing. I sought him out after the race and we shook hands and laughed while swapping stories. He said it was the best racing he had experienced in many years. When I found the driver of Car 54, he felt the same way, best racing in years. I finished the night extremely happy, knowing with only one previous race under my belt, I was a part of some amazing racing.

Sunday, September 5th Race Day #2

I woke early and began calling tire centers in Des Moines. Since I had finished off last night, I would have 5 hours to get new tires before my turn came up again. But after my stint the night before, there wasn’t much left of the tires currently on the car. I quickly found a tire shop that had some Primewell PZ900s. I had never heard of them before, but the tread pattern and wear rating were reasonable for our needs. And after a little sweet talking, I was able to get 25% off the price. I was back at the track just an hour after the race started. We swapped out the wheels, and got back to racing. And it looks like we did it just in time, as the old tires were worn out. The new tires ended up working very wheel. They were a bit noisy when they started to lose grip, but otherwise a very solid tire. Primewell…who woulda thought?

A big wreck on Turn 2 reminded us of just how quickly your race can be over. One of the cars slid up into the wall, and came back down right in front of Clown Shoe racing, who collided at high speed. The damage was severe enough to take Clown Shoe out of the race, and crushed the back half of “My Little Pony” all the way passed the gas tank. They spent hours sourcing and replacing that.

The day kept on for us without such dramatic issues, luckily. At one point or another though, everyone had a good scare, either spinning out, or making contact with other drivers. Its part of the experience, and im glad that everyone was pushing the limits. While I want to save the car, I also want everyone to get a sense of speed, and true competitive racing. After all, they have invested a lot of money in this too. The weather was beautiful, and everyone was having a great time. Can’t ask for a better day of racing.

Again, the last hour of driving was done by me. We had a real chance to take another place, and move into 16th. The problem was that the cars ahead of us were there because they were truly faster cars. Making up any ground in the oval would be really difficult. When Brian came in to the pit at the end of his stint, he commented that when the car hit the bumps on the inside of turn 2, he could clearly hear the tire rubbing the car somewhere, and he could smell burning rubber. We looked over the car real quick, and saw no obvious signs of wear. I strapped in and took off. I immediately heard what Brian was talking about, and it was clear something was wrong. I brought the car back in again, and checked it over. It looked like, due to a few of our fender-benders, one of the mud flaps was rubbing on the tire. We cut it off, and got the car back on the track. Nope. That wasn’t it, it was still rubbing. If I pitted again, we would lose a position, so I decided to just tough it out and drive through. I had to take it easy on turn 2 though, backing off the gas just a hair, and staying wide on the most dangerous turn of the track. I kept that up for an hour straight. The car in 4th gear, right at redline, 100mph. It amazed me that every time I checked the gauges, oil pressure and engine temp were holding steady. Impressive little motor. When it was all over, we finished 17th. A very respectable finish in a field of fast cars. It turned out that both the front and rear fenders on the right side of the car and pushed in enough where the tire would come into contact with sharp metal everytime the suspension compressed. We were extremely lucky to finish with that potential disaster looming so close. But we did. Over 1400 laps in 25.5 hours of racing. No mechanical failures, no major accidents and one hell of a race.

After the race was over, all the teams gathered in the garage and swapped stories. We had several teams come up and sign the dents on our car that they had created, and we swapped stories and laughter. We got a trophy, some prize money, and recognition from the crowd for our great racing and sportsmanship. Then, we packed up to head home.

And that’s it! The race of a life time, and the only one of its type. The National event was to much for a lot of teams, so going forward, ChumpCar will only be holding regional finals. We had the privilege of racing in the first, and last National level ChumpCar event.

A big thanks to my lovely wife, Lauren, for her support and sacrifice. Thanks to the drivers, Jack, Travis, Steele, Fuggi, and Brian for their hard work on the car, and for driving a solid race. And to Claudia, Lauren, Whitney, Alliene and Sandy. Also thanks to my Boss, Randy, for his fuel donation, and for letting us leave work in time to get to the race. This race was possible because of EVERYONE’s hard work, support and money.


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