The proliferation of “crapcan” racing series like the Chump Car World Series and the 24 Hours of LeMons has opened up endurance road racing to a wider audience. Is it really true that you don’t need a multi-million dollar budget and the fanciest or fastest car available to go endurance racing? Sort of. Even though the door has been opened to a wider audience, at its core, this is still racing. And, as we know, going racing with any car, brand-spanking new or a shitbox, can get very expensive.
Two weekends ago, I joined up with Maximum Attack Motorsports to do the second 24 Hours of LeMons race of the 2014 season held at New Jersey Motorsports Park on August 9 and 10. The name of this event was “There Goes the Neighborhood.” We entered a familiar car, a Mk3 Volkswagen Golf 8V ABA. While slow on straights compared to the other cars in the field, it was still competitive enough that a decent finish was not out of the question.
The first LeMons race of the season, The Real Hoopties of New Jersey in May, was an interesting one. Our team ended up getting too many black flags for on-track penalties such as contact, going off track, etc. In LeMons racing, after a certain amount of black flags, your car is parked and not permitted to return to the track at all. This happened to us in May. And, worse, we got parked MINUTES from the final checkered flag. Needless to say, we were looking to avoid the same fate this time around.
The driving team was again composed of familiar faces – myself, Brandon, Ed and Dave. We would have had a 5th driver available, but that did not materalise. Because of this, the team asked me if I would start the racing on both days. Despite the series name, a large majority of LeMons races are two-day events (Saturday-Sunday) and up to 15 combined hours in length. Additionally, because only 4 drivers were available, each of us would have a longer stint on-track. Secretly, I was scared out of my mind. But, wanting to project confidence, I instantly agreed to be the starting driver.
This go-around, I felt more relaxed and comfortable in the car. I guess that comes with experience and seat time. On the Saturday of the event, getting suited up, belted in and performing final car and radio checks was almost routine. I knew what to expect and could focus on the task at hand. Then, I pulled out onto the track. Heart rate and breathing rose, but I still maintained a calm and cool head…
Until about 30 minutes into my stint. On the Thunderbolt course the race used, turn 1 is after a long straightaway and, in our car, can be taken at 60+ mph. Prior to reaching this turn, a Chevy Camaro was barreling up the front straightaway, catching me at a fast rate. Knowing that he was faster and not wanting to ruin both our races, I left him a lane on the inside of the turn to allow him to pass. He did not use that lane, and hit me twice, punting me into the runoff area. Thankfully, I got the car slowed down before I would have hit the tire wall. Almost instantly, I thought of two things:
- The car was badly damaged.
- What were the LeMons judges going to penalise us with because of the contact? (we did not get a penalty after all)
I limped the car back to the paddock for the team to try to repair the damage. It was agnoising to sit in the car and wait, completely unable to help my teammates. But, it was also fascinating to watch the team work quickly, methodically and in unison to affect repairs. It was also highly amusing to watch the tools chosen for the job put to use – a sledgehammer, breaker bar and tin snips. It turned out that the car was not affected from a drivability perspective, but only suffered minor body damage. After a 10 minute repair, I was back on track. Luckily, the accident was followed by a Red flag and race stoppage due to a BMW experiencing an oil fire and runaway engine; crapcan racing for sure.
So, we ended up not losing much track position.
By the end of the 1st day, we were classified in 25th place overall out of 126 cars. However, the car was battered and bruised by additional incidents of contact with other competitors. At least 3 additional colors were now on the car on top of the regular gray/black/red motif. Seeing the body damage afterward further reinforced what the car had been through.
On day 2, I jump back in the car to start. Being in 25th place, our goal was to not only reach the checkered flag, but improve our standing as much as possible. As my stint progressed, everything felt normal. We had a long green-flag period which let the field string out, allowing open track to drive at (or in my case, close to) 100%. Towards the end of the stint, I gained 6 spots to 19th. Then, I started hearing a scraping noise from the right-front wheel area. I thought it was a tire rubbing the already damaged fender, so I kept going. It got progressively worse and worse, however. Suddenly, my steering went awry – I had to turn the wheel almost 45 degrees left to keep the car going straight. Additionally, the scraping noise got louder and louder.
Diagnosis – cracked and split right-front lower control arm.
I was absolutely heartbroken. We did not have a spare available, either. What happened next was a miracle, of sorts. Using some bolts and a metal plate, my teammate Ed pulls the control arm off the car, finds another team in the paddock with a welder, and somehow welds the control arm back together. When it was re-installed on the car, the alignment was almost identical to before. Unbelievable. I then help Dave buckle in and he goes out after about an hour in the paddock.
He literally marvels at how amazing the car is handling. I’m in disbelief, thinking that this patched up control arm stood no chance of making it to the end. But, this being a car that somehow cannot be broken, it soldered on.
Mid-way through Dave’s stint, we got a radio call that 5th gear broke while going down the front straightaway. Crap. Even in a slow car like ours, we still got enough speed that 5th was regularly used. Now, not only did we have to run the engine basically at or above the redline for that fast part of the course, all of those metal fragments from 5th gear were floating around the transmission. If the fragments hit any of the other gears, it was basically curtains for it and our race.
We get to the final driver change, and the car is still running. It does not sound healthy, but we decide to go for it all. Ed jumps in for the final hour or so of the race. Nearing the finish, I finally start thinking “we’re actually going to finish!” Not so fast. We get a black flag with less than 5 minutes to go until the checkered flag. I believe it was for going off course and putting four wheels in the grass. Ed pulls the car into the penalty box, but we expect him to be back on track quickly. But, all that we hear is radio silence. The checkered flag falls, but I did not see our car on track. We had been parked.
Gutted. This was now the 2nd race in a row where we did not take the checkered flag because of a penalty. However, despite all that happened to us during the weekend, we still finished 38th overall out of 126. It was surprising and almost unbelievable that we finished that high up in the order.
Teamwork and cooperation play a major role in any sort of endurance racing, amateur or professional. Instead of one person handling the duties of driving the car, there are multiple. This changes your perspective when driving and how you drive, because when something happens, everyone on the team is affected by it. It alters driving strategies and responses to on-track incidents. It was a joy to go racing with Maximum Attack Motorsports, because of not only the encouragement and enthusiasm for racing, but for how well everyone worked together to achieve the common goals of keeping our car on track and finishing as high as possible. I’m already itching for next season’s races. Word from over the grapevine is that a new car is in the works…