Saturday, May 12, 2012

Our First Chumpcar Race

For the backstory, look at previous blog entries. 

Our attempt to go Chumpcar racing has been 2 years in the making, only because of the lack of interest in people joining the team. Troy and I have been the only ones involved, despite lots of people saying they want to do it. My friend Hank, who runs a race car shop, and is a founding member of the"squirrels of fury" racing team, was asking for drivers. I told him I could provide 2 drivers, but we had to use my car. After a little discussion with the rest of the team, they decided that would work. That left Troy and I only 2 weeks to finish all the work on the car. We had driven it at an autocross, but never worked on it after that. We also had to order a bunch of parts, tires, lights, etc., but one big event had to happen first. Hank said the first thing to do was to put the car on the chassis dyno and run it wide open for 1/2 an hour. That was my first clue that they might not have much confidence in my car. Since they race water cooled VW’s, I foolishly thought they would have some experience with air cooled cars, turns out that was not the case. When the car put out 86 H.P., and 120 ft. lbs. of torque, they were just shocked. I would have thought by now that every Gearhead knew the potential of an old VW. I realized then that despite every Camaro and Mustang driver having his doors blown off by a bug at some point, they never repeat those stories to their buddies, so the myth continues. With the Ghia only weighing 1700 lbs., the power to weight was pretty good.
Unloading the car
 We got to the track on Friday for tech. Hank wasn’t there to hold my hand, so we got in line anyway. The whole idea of tech just makes me incredibly nervous because it’s always so arbitrary. Sure enough, the tech guy says he doesn’t like my fuel cell. I tell him I bought that specific cell because there is a page in the rule book that says “these and only these are the fuel cells we will accept.” He says “It doesn’t have an SFI sticker.” Same thing they said about my Nomex underwear. But it does say 100% Nomex, and it’s from a name brand manufacturer. My stomach is in knots, and I just want to start screaming at the guy, but I’m cool, I say nothing. The tech guy says “this engine looks awfully clean?” I tell him you can’t buy a 50 year old used bug engine anymore. They don’t like the bumper/nerf bars thing I built for the front. I explain that without it, a 3 mph impact will push the nose all the way into the fuel cell. Does it seem likely the lightest car in the field is going to push other cars?
We finally get through tech, and I kid you not, they wrote in the logbook that my car is “Vintage Scrap”.
So that’s done, and now we are officially in the race for Saturday.

Sunrise over the Mothership
We arrive early Saturday morning and do some last minute stuff, it’s freezing ass cold and it looks like it could rain any minute. Troy insisted we get windshield wipers installed and working, and right now that seems like a genius idea. There is a Squirrel drivers meeting, and then an overall Chumpcar drivers meeting, and it’s time to get in the car.
I’ve never worn a HANS device before so there is some struggle with getting that on, and once in the car it’s freaking me out that I can’t seem to move my head or even find a place for my head to be. I am 6’ 4”, and 250 lbs, so a Ghia has about as much room as coffin for me. I try not to think about that mental image. 

I am sitting in line waiting to go out, and I’m so nervous I just want to get out and run away. We finally get going, full course yellow, and everything is good. The only way to know when the race is on is when there are no yellows, so I’m watching the flags. I warm up the tires a little, and the brakes, and we’re off.

Within 3-4 laps, I am completely comfortable. I struggle a little to see hard left, but the double Volvo mirrors work great. Out of nowhere, the Formula Roadster shoots by me. Scares the crap out of me, I realize I need to watch the mirrors better. The car is excellent in the corners, the brakes are amazing, and I’m really not giving up much on the straights. There are 4 or 5 cars so much faster that I just point them by when I see them coming, and a handful that I am passing like the fast ones do me. But the fun part is the cars that are barely slower than me. I catch up to them, watch them like a predator with prey, and then I find a good place to get by. I made several classic out braking, stealing the inside line passes. Awesome. 

The highlight of my drive is when my buddies’ car, a 240z, comes out of the pits and onto the straight right next to me. He is faster down the straight, as you would expect, but not by a lot. We go through turn 1 side by side at about 90-100, we are approaching turn 2, which is about 40-50 mph. I watch his brake lights, and I do not lift off the throttle until after I see them. I shoot past, go into turn 2, and do my best to make sure he has no good chance to pass me back. He is not amused, and is right on my ass all the way around the back half of the track. Once we get back the main straight, I wave him by and slow down a hair. Awesome. 
Karmann on Track

I learn a lesson a little later, fortunately without disaster. Going down the straight, I see some friends of mine coming up. I wave them by, but the guy doesn’t go by. I wave again. I keep looking in the mirror, and then I look forward to see that I am way past the braking point for turn 2. I nail the brake pedal and the car is sliding all over. Somehow, I stay on the pavement and I don’t seem to have flat spotted the tires or anything. We have a clock on the dash, so I’m checking that to know when my 2 hour stint is up. The problem is, having never driven the car before, we have no idea when it will run out of gas. I had what I thought was a great idea when I installed the fuel cell. It ended up being tipped a little towards the rear, but instead of putting the pickup at the rear, I put it in the front, the high end. My thinking was that it would run out when you are on the throttle, and when you let off, the fuel would slosh forward and the pump would pick it up. It worked perfectly. There was a little bobble as I came onto the back straight when I still had 10 minutes left in my stint. I put it in fourth and cruise all the way to the pits.

I jump out, the guys put 10-1/2 gallons of gas in the car, and the next driver (Kyle) goes out. My girlfriend has downloaded a live timing app for her phone, and tells me Kyle is faster than me. That’s OK, I came in 3 spots up from where I started, kept the car on the track, and didn’t wear it out. His stint goes by without incident, and he comes in right at about 1:40. Kyle says he loves my little car, and tells me that he can outbrake almost everybody.

Dave goes out, and he is even faster than Kyle! People are coming over and saying how they can’t believe how fast the Ghia is. I am so smug. That will show all the non-believers!
Dave comes in at the end of his stint, and we send Troy out. The engine is jerking up and down and I can tell immediately it’s the front transmission mount.  He makes 1 lap, and comes back in complaining that the throttle sticks. We jack up the car and I see that that I never installed an aftermarket trans strap. What the hell? I am an idiot. 

I announce that we are done because the throttle control will be too compromised to be able to drive the car. Hank says “we’ll just strap it down.” Why do I get the feeling he’s done this before? He grabs a cargo strap, ratchets it around the tranny, and declares the car good to go. While he is working on that, I am trying to get the throttle cable back onto the pedal. Somehow, it’s all bent to hell and unhooked, which is why Troy came in at an idle. Troy gets in again and takes off, we have to push him because the car shakes so bad when he lets out the clutch. Troy is putting in really slow lap times, but he stays out the whole 1:40, we have no communications, so we’re all wondering what’s going on. When he comes in, he announces the car is running on 3 cylinders. It’s my turn to drive again, so those guys fiddle with the car while I get belted in. They tell me I’m good to go, so I take off. The car is still running on 3, the shifter is moving around in my hand. The other cars are going by so fast, I am just a hazard. This is not any fun at all. I go right back to the pits. I tell Troy I have no interest in driving the car anymore, does anyone else want to drive? He says he will drive again since he is the only one suited up. I start helping to diagnose the problem and we finally notice the linkage has fallen off the right Kadron! It wasn’t running on 3, it was running on 2!

Now Troy is running some decent lap times. This might just work out after all! He puts in a full stint, and comes in for gas. We put Jay in the car, jack it up and tighten the cargo strap. We decide that will be standard procedure now. Somewhere around this time we swap the rear tires side to side since the right one is pretty worn. His stint goes without any problems, and things are looking good. Other teams are having fatal problems, and each one gives us a better chance of a decent finish. Kyle gets back in and takes off. We still have to push the car from a dead stop, and we have an arrangement with the guy who checks the timer as you get back on track, he lets the car through without stopping and one of us takes him the timer.

Kyle is only out an hour when he comes back in. The car is making a horrible racket, and smoking oil pretty bad. A big chunk of the exhaust is missing, but worse than that, a pushrod has broken and punched right through the pushrod tube. That’s where the oil was coming from. We are truly done for this time. That’s OK, it’s almost dark, we had a good run. Hank looks at me and says ”you brought a spare engine”, and then just walks away. Son of a bitch! Alright, I’ll change engines. Troy and I get to work, we have it done in 10 or 15 minutes, but it won’t start. We start changing wires around, then put in the distributor from the old motor, finally I think to check for fuel. It has fuel coming to the carb, it’s just a stuck float valve. We smack it a couple times, and it’s good to go. Kyle goes out for another hour or so.

Troy is going to take my turn as the last driver for me because I’m just too tired. The problem is, there is a full 2 hours left in the race, and we know the car can only go 1:40 or so. We wait and watch the cars go around. About 20 til midnight I realize the engine we put in the car gets really good gas mileage, so maybe he can go the distance! The poor little Ghia is so slow now I see it get passed 2 or 3 times every time they come around. But every few laps means we finish ahead of some team who isn’t out making laps. Finally they throw the checkered and we are done. 

16th out of 24. Not much to brag about, but we finished. The car ran way better than anybody expected, and that was fun. I learned a lot about road racing, and endurance racing in particular.  

I learned that “Idiot Proofing” is even harder than I thought, because everybody becomes an idiot when the race is on. We should have diagnosed our problems in a fraction of the time it took. I learned that the car is neither fast or reliable, but it’s really fun to drive. I confirmed I am more of a race engineer than driver, and that I only like driving in the twisty parts, both things I already knew. The one thing I wanted to determine was whether I wanted to take up road racing, and the sad thing is, I’m still not sure.


  1. Hey at least you had the guts to try and that in it's self is a huge win in my book!

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