chumpcar enduro – part IV

Chumpcar 24 Hour Enduro – Pikes Peak Raceway June 11-12 2011

”If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” – Yogi Berra

 The night finally yielded it’s awful power to the day, as it always does. The black sky broke apart, and was displaced by deep blue and purple hues. Slowly at first; then red, orange and yellow were added to the sky’s pallete. Quite suddenly, the sky lit up. Dawn had broken, revealing the survivors still circling the track at a blistering pace. The light offered relief from the fearsome darkness, and the drivers picked up the pace. The race was now in the final few hours.

 At the pre-race drivers’ meeting Saturday, they told us that there might even be a couple of spectators in the stands. We laughed at the joke, because there just aren’t many spectators who go out to watch amateur road racing. All of the family and friends who turned out to support their teams would have pit passes. The stands, built to hold tens of thousands of spectators would remain completely empty.

 And then they were spotted. At 7 AM on Sunday, two spectators were observed high in the upper rows of the bleachers. The race marshalls checked them out, and determined that they were unarmed and apparently harmless. The racing continued uninterrupted.

 We ran all six of our drivers in the hours after dawn, until the end of the race. Each of us in turn put in our one-hour driving stints, pushing our home-built machine through the corners. Pushing is just the right word, too. Our MX-7, with a precision “piece of string” and tape measure alignment, running on crapped out highway rubber did nothing but push. Nothing short of getting seriously out shape in a corner would get the rear-end to even “think” about stepping out. The handling was only remarkable in that it was completely benign.

 As we soon discovered, the loose handling and plowing would make it fast on the banked oval. It was there that most of our passing attempts would succeed. On the six infield turns, the plowing left us wishing we had tried a bit of a different suspension setup, and thirsting for at least a BIT more power. Any, even the slightest bit of acceleration there would’ve been a welcomed improvement. Still, we were racing, and we continued until the very last lap. My final stint ran through the 23rd hour, and Dennis finished out in the 24th, taking the checkered flag. We had met our goal: we had raced for 24 hours and had finished the race.

 At the awards ceremony, our team was called upon to receive our sixth place award. Dennis stepped forward to accept our ball caps and certificate of accomplishment. I proudly donned my cap, knowing that this was one special hat. On it was written “Cometic Gasket”, but underneath it there was so much more. For in my head, the memories of what we had done were just beginning to take hold. Those memories will long be remembered with satisfaction and a smile. I had found my hat.

 We gathered together as Dennis, our Captain held up the certificate. Seeing it, I couldn’t help but get a bit teary eyed, and straightened my shoulders a bit. For there, written on the green certificate, in large bold type were the words:

 “$25 towards any purchase of  Cometic Gasket or StreetPro Gasket Kits.   Please include $8 for shipping and handling. Expires 6-5-12”

More was written as well, for handwritten in the upper right corner with a Sharpie pen was a very special dedication to our Team’s effort. In neat letters, it said: “6th place”. Wow!

 We had come a long way together, to build the car and then race it. At every step, the outcome was uncertain. But we had come together as a team, and now we were quite proud to be just another bunch of Chumps. It doesn’t get any better than that.

endurance racing – part III

Chumpcar 24 Hour Enduro – Pikes Peak Raceway June 11-12 2011

”I expected an epic adventure and a grueling race. What I experienced was much more than that.” – Charles.

We arrived at the track midday Friday, to make our final preparations. The green flag would drop at 11 AM Saturday morning, signaling the start of the race. It would be another 24 hours after that, before the checkered flag would be waved. The garage and paddock slowly began to fill, as the teams rolled in with their crapcan racecars in tow and proceeded to set up.

 Many of the teams had brought stacks of new tires. Required by the rules to run DOT street legal tires, with a minimum mileage rating of 200, that was exactly what they brought.

 We had 12 used tires, some of which were pretty old and tired. Four of our tires had a wear rating of 620. It’s hard to imagine what kind of rubber it takes to make a tire that hard, but recycled superballs are probably part of the recipe. None of our tires had any kind of a performance rating, unless “M+S” somehow means “Mighty Sticky”. We brought them because they were free, acquired after months of scrounging in friends’ garages.

 Our team: “Who’s on FirstRacing” built a car to compete in the crapcan racing series. In the Chumpcar series, “Theme” is optional, but all of the competitors dress out their cars a bit. Peer pressure, and perhaps a few bonus laps, set every team busy developing a theme. Ours was baseball. Our hood was a diamond, complete with bleachers. The bleachers and spectators in them were composed of words, and those words were many of Yogi Berra’s “Yogiisms”, such as: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

 On the roof was a giant baseball, signed by the Yankee’s Hall of Fame catcher. Yogi’s autograph was just a clever forgery, albeit a pretty good one. And at the center, on the pitcher’s mound was a photo of Abbot and Costello. Overall, it looked pretty cool. We didn’t get any bonus laps, though. In fact, I never saw a single team get a bonus lap. The race results were determined straight from the lap timers.

 We had two crew members, who volunteered to help our support our effort. Greg brought an RV, to give us an air-conditioned place to decompress. Jeff brought clear thinking and a timer: we made him our pit boss. We immediately put them both to work, and they graciously helped us for the next two days. I almost said “tirelessly”, but by the end of the race, they were probably more tired and sleep deprived than  the six drivers amongst us.

 Spectators and competitors of auto racing often talk about the machines. We do so because the cars are what we can see, racing around at a blistering pace, while their drivers are hidden from view. Besides, cars are cool!

 You might’ve seen Disney’s “Cars”, or even the sequel. All of the characters are cars are full of spirit and alive. It’s a familiar story, and Lightning McQueen wears a great big smile on his face. McQueen’s the star, and has no need for a driver because he IS the driver.

 Our Mazda was also a happy little car. But not by the skillful use of animation to tell a good story. Our car came alive because we were inside driving it. McQueen was just fine on his own, but our car needed a little help. We had six drivers applying every bit of skill and courage they could deliver. All of which left us wondering: would that be enough?

 

racing in the dark – part II

Chumpcar 24 Hour Enduro – Pikes Peak Raceway June 11-12 2011

”OK, this will work. I can’t see, but then I realized, I don’t need to see to get around corners. It was like a Zen moment or something.” – Steven

Our sealed beam headlights were old, tired, yellow, and dim. They might have as well have been the original lamps, installed 23 years ago. Maybe they actually were! We had considered adding a couple of lights, but lighting is expensive, and our intention was to comply with the rules. Little did we know that million candlepower headlights were exempt from the price cap, since they were considered a safety item. The rules are not at all clear about this, and our interpretation of them turned out to be mistaken.

 Nearly all of the competitors had run in the series before, and a few had done so many times. There were only a handful of other Chumpcar virgins, like us. Our unfamiliarity with the series had led us to make some erroneous decisions, a few of which would make our race far more difficult than it might have otherwise been. Significantly, one of them was to rely on the original sealed beam headlamps.

 “The hands follow the eyes” is a basic tenet of road racing. You will soon be where you’re looking, so be sure to look for a happy place. Don’t look too long at that wall, or the car pirouetting into the dirt. Don’t just look over the hood: look up and out. Find your markers. Look for your line; your racing line, and you will follow it. Seeing is absolutely essential, and quickly interpreting visual clues leads to good situational awareness.

 With that awareness in mind, the hands and feet can smoothly apply whatever control inputs are needed to stay on course. Rapid and smooth inputs are continuously applied to change the racecar’s course and velocity. Brake and throttle are smoothly applied and released, and of course steering, which is the primary control input. When performed well, it’s very much like a dance. There is a rhythm to it all, and there’s a simple equation that sums it up: smooth=fast. Whether or not they know the latest steps, and they usually don’t, all racecar drivers are good dancers. Some of them are even musicians: all of them have rhythm.

 Children, especially young children, have a store of knowledge about things that are soon forgotten as they grow. We raise, feed, and comfort them. We protect them, and with gentle love, try to lift them out from the difficulty of being very young and small. We heal their wounds and soothe their fears. There is a particular fear that all children know: they know that the boogeyman awaits them in the dark.

 It was during my second driving stint that the sun set, and the lights came out. You could say that was when the lights went out. The track only had lighting available near the pit areas, and the rest of the track was soon plunged into darkness, or worse. All of our lights were working, but sadly, would not be giving a stellar performance tonight. Soon, the onrushing track ahead nearly vanished. It was then that the boogeyman came out to play.

 What seemed a very long time later, our pit held up our number 86, signaling one hour, and I came into the pits. Our race strategy was to try and extend each driving stint upwards from an hour, to 75 minutes. I had come in after just an hour, however. Exiting the car, I offered my explanation as calmly as I could manage, “I couldn’t see anything out there.”

 Dennis, our team captain climbed aboard next and quickly roared off of pit road. An hour later, we signaled to him, and he pitted without hesitation.Flipping up his visor, his first words were spoken with emotion and conviction, “It’s INSANE out there. I couldn’t see a thing! One hour stints!”

 We needed to improve our lighting. The lack of sufficient lighting was a mission critical problem, and we needed to resolve it. We had very few options available, and we used all three of them. We cleaned the headlights and windshield, and began to use the high beams exclusively. Ed was up next, then Charles, Steven, Brian, and then me again, as I was sixth in our rotation.

 Each of us in turn roared out into the black maw of the darkness. Each driver returned from their driving stint with some very colorful remarks about what they couldn’t see. Nearly all of us had to do it twice. The second stint was a bit easier perhaps, since by then we all knew how to survive the blackening conditions. None of us would in any way describe it as “easy”.

 Many of the other teams were having difficulties with the darkness as well, and the six turn infield course was pretty much a dust storm throughout the night, revealing many agricultural excursions. Considering that June 12th is one of the shortest nights of the year, it sure lasted for an awfully long time. In defiance of the danger and the dark, we found ourselves laughing.

 

crapcan racing – part I

Chumpcar 24 Hour Enduro – Pikes Peak Raceway June 11-12 2011

A friend said, “Sixth place: that’s not too bad”, and I replied, “No, it’s not bad at all: it’s outstanding!”

 Our team, “Who’s on First? Racing”, was formed in December 2010, to compete in “The 24 hours of Lemons” and “Chumpcar” road racing series. Our goal was simple enough, and success easily defined: complete an endurance race, and cross the finish line.

 In our first race, we succeeded in doing that and by our reckoning, a wide margin. We raced in the 24 Hour Chumpcar enduro last Saturday at PPIR. After 24 hours of racing, we had covered 1,238 miles and 8,568 corners in 952 laps. That was good for a 6th place finish in a field of 30 cars, only 14 of which had survived to take the checkered flag.

 Lemons and Chumpcar are two different national racing series, both started in the past few years. They have very similar rules, and a racecar can be built to race in both series. The essence of the rules require a $500 “crap-can” racecar, built to compete in endurance road racing. All safety equipment is excluded from the price cap, and the personal safety gear for just a single driver exceeds that limit. Our team was composed of six drivers, and two crew. Most of us are Miata drivers, and all of us are “Chumps”.

 In December, our Team Captain purchased a 1988 RX-7 that had “some engine problems.” After troubleshooting, we soon discovered that the primary problem was that the engine had very low compression. If it had been any lower, it might have been better described as a vacuum. We decided to rebuild it, although none of us had any experience with a rotary. All of us were willing to learn, however.

 We completely disassembled the engine, putting all of the parts into clearly marked, and organized boxes and baggies. Once inside, it became obvious what the source of the problem was. The 13B rotary engine had been severely overheated, causing the rotor to gouge out the rear rotor housing. The housing now looked a bit like an oversized ruffles potato chip. It was quite dead, and far beyond resurrection.

 Required by the “crap-can” racing rules to remain within the $500 budget, we replaced the dead rotary with a 1600cc engine from a wrecked Miata, built in 1989. We picked the engine because it was available cheaply, and it allowed us to comply with the rules. It was a desperate move, but we figured that no penalty laps would be assessed for decreasing the car’s horsepower, especially by 25%.

 The project required transplanting a short round engine with a long skinny one. We succeeded, replacing the 146hp rotary with 110hp of fire-snorting ponies. To do so, we completely rewired the car, using the wiring harness, ECU, and even the steering column and instrument cluster from the wreck. Four months of weekends later, we had a working racecar and dubbed it  “The MX-7”. We had hoped to build a reliable, well handling, and reasonably fast racecar. While we were successful with the first two items, we failed with the third. The car isn’t fast at all: it’s overweight and underpowered. Only two of the 30 race entrants were slower, and one of those had a better power-weight ratio and all-wheel drive!

 Recognizing that our racecar was slow by any standard, our racing strategy was to have fast pit stops, drive well, stay out of trouble, and survive. We were determined to take the checkered flag in the morning.

 

The MX-7: First Drive — Mostly Harmless

We’d successfully installed a 1.6 liter Miata engine in Dennis’ RX-7. We’d given up evenings, weekends, dozens of brain cells, and 38 or so horsepower in the process. Fearless Leader had managed to let a bunch of near strangers do horrible things to his car — without ever really getting in touch with his inner control freak. Despite our too many egos, we’d some how succeeded in not killing each other during the build process. The idea had occurred to at least a couple of us, but miraculously no one was even lightly strangled.

Now that the car ran and occasionally moved under it’s own power, there was an esprit de corps among the team members. It was nice. So we were off to High Plains Raceway to test the car.

Charles and Ed look upon the MX-7 with pride. Meanwhile, I contemplate the MX-7's incredible, almost unbelievable slowness -n- vauge-ish steering. At the moment this was taken, I'm pretty sure I was thinking that the answer is: Switch to VW Beetle Power.

Keeping with my “hanging back” strategy, I arrived late. Most of the guys were already there and were getting ready to take the car out. As they finished their test drives, each driver seemed to genuinely like the car. No one got out and immediately kissed the ground, but I think they were really just happy to still be alive.

“It doesn’t accelerate, it doesn’t go around corners, but other than that, it’s great!”

The only car I’d driven on a race track in my life at this point was my stock 1994 Miata. I’d gotten comfortable (if not terribly fast) lapping High Plains Raceway. I was still confused by turn 6 and was afraid of turns 4,  5 and 7.

Occasionally, I’d get hugely brave, do something really stupid, and suddenly find myself sitting by the side of the track facing backwards, inhaling a dense cloud of dirt. Brian was usually riding in the car during my moments of brave/stupid. In hindsight, I’m baffled at my own stupidity. On some level, I really believed that if I had a talented driver in the car with me, suddenly I’d become a talented driver. Time and time again, this turned out to be not the case.

I wasn’t going to die from racing… I was going to be bored to death!

I’d gotten used to my little Miata. So when I was strapped into the race car for the first time I discovered it was all wrong. My skinny little butt slid side-to-side across the seat in every corner. The steering wheel was too high; the clutch pedal action was straight out of a UPS truck; the steering felt slow and squidgy.

The car was slow. Really slow compared to my Miata. It was good for what seemed like 75 miles per hour max on the long straight at High Plains Raceway. It would accelerate reasonably well until until about 50 mph. Then it felt like an invisible drag chute was deployed. The ancient all-season tires didn’t stick in the corners, producing gobs of understeer. I wasn’t going to die from racing… I was going to be bored to death!  I came back from my test drive joking that “It doesn’t accelerate, it doesn’t go around corners, but other than that, it’s great!”

I didn’t like our race car, but I was pretty sure I knew what the invisible drag chute was.

Back in Boston, I’d raced sailboats. Slow, heavy, nearly pointless-to-race sailboats that were good for six mph flat out in a gale. Races were held Sunday mornings when, typically there was little wind. In the afternoon at races end, there was often no wind at all. This meant that making the ~600 yard trip back to the dock could take 30 minutes or more. Some of my competitors were able to get their boats to move in zero wind. They’d move to the front of the boat and get the stern out of the water. Smaller stern wake = less drag.

Our alleged race car was missing it’s rear hatch glass. As the air passed this part of the car, instead of flowing smoothly across the glass, it tumbled, creating a huge amount of drag. Big stern wake. Some air tumbled and then was caught by the vertical sheet metal above the bumper of the car. More drag.

I pleaded with Dennis to install a plastic back window. He seemed unmoved. I pleaded with him to re-install the glass rear window. He was extra unmoved.  The great part about having a ChumpCar team is that you have lots of buddies to help you drink beer and work on the car. The bad part is that someone always has a crazy new scheme to make the car go faster. Dennis was burned out on crazy du jour.