Racing is something I've been passionate about for as long as I've been interested in cars. As a kid, when anyone asks what you want to be when you grow up, most kids say they want to be an astronaut, a teacher, a fire fighter, or a doctor. Me? I would always proudly proclaim that I wanted to be a race car driver, much to the disappointment of my loving mother. As I got older, my dreams of becoming a race car driver began to fade until one beautiful Fall afternoon last year when I was shooting a track day for the Minnesota Ferrari Owners Club at Brainerd International Raceway. Surprisingly, there was a beat-up Ford Escort with a roll cage that was flying past all of these mega-buck sports cars! I didn't know what to think as I began snapping pictures of it.
A month or two later, I received an email from one of the drivers of this car inquiring about the pictures I'd taken. One thing led to another and I was asked if I'd be interested in racing with them the following season in the ChumpCar World Series! The premise of this series is to build up a race car with a value of $500 or less. The point of which is to make racing more accessible to average Joes such as myself. It was a bit of a rollercoster ride to actually get to the point where I am now: the team decided to build a new car from scratch and we found ourselves on a very tight timeline to build a car and make it race worthy, but we got there and had a great time along the way. Our first race this season, and my first race ever, took place on a cold and rainy (and sometimes snowy) weekend in April at Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI. For those who are interested in racing, this is truly hallowed ground and it was an honor to race there.
Friday morning got off to a late start as we woke up and started talking about the strategy for the day over a pot of coffee. There was a free practice session at the track from 12-4PM so while some of us ran some errands for food and other items we'd need for the weekend, the rest of the group went to the track to get the car set up and ready to drive.
After a few shakedown laps to make sure everything worked and to bed in the brake pads, it was my turn to hit the track for an out lap, a hot lap, and an in lap. This wouldn't be much time to get a feel for the car before the race but it was better than nothing. The car felt really stable and fast and it didn't take long to begin feeling comfortable behind the wheel at speed. One problem we ran into however was that at high speeds, air was pushing the hood up which not only looked goofy but was increasing drag and working like a parachute to slow us down.
After the practice session, we had to boogy down to tech inspection to make sure our car would be OK to race the next two days.
We passed tech with flying colors and managed not to get any penalty laps at all, unlike some of our competitors. After tech and registration, Jon and myself attended the newbie driver school to learn what all the flags meant, as well as the do's and don'ts of ChumpCar racing. It ended up being a quick meeting and then we headed back to the house for dinner and a few drinks before going back to the garage at Road America to finish prepping the car for the race.
We all went to bed that night feeling a mix of excitement and nerves, not quite knowing what the next day would bring.
The next morning, we woke up to a cold and cloudy day. I was excited to get into the car and race, but the prospect of standing around in this weather was a bit of a downer.
Unfortunately for us, day 1 got off to a poor start when we were black flagged before the first lap for having a Lexan front driver side window in place. It passed tech the day before and the regional coordinator said it was OK but one of the corner workers flagged us anyway and we had to take it out. As a result, we started the race a lap down from the rest of the field. Despite that, the car was fast and we began making up time right away.
Unfortunately, our black flag was a bad omen of things to come. About 2.5 hrs into the race, one of our drivers had an incident going into Canada Corner (Turn 12) where he started sliding sideways under braking and kissed the inside wall of the turn. He managed to just scrape a little paint off and didn't harm my GoPro which was sitting about 6" back from where he made contact.
A few laps later, the gearbox grenaded itself and the car came to rest at Turn 12 again. We eventually got the car towed back to the garage where we spent the next 2.5 hrs replacing the gearbox.
By the time we got the car put together, fueled up, and back out on track, there wasn't much time left but I still managed to get a few laps in before the checkered flag dropped.
After the race, we rolled the car into the garage and went to a racers banquet hosted by ChumpCar for a bit before heading back to the house for some more food and drink while comparing notes on the track and how the car felt. We went to bed early as to be well rested for Sunday.
The next morning we awoke to a very wet track and temps hovering just above freezing. A quick look at the forecast for the day and we knew that this was just the tip of the iceberg. More rain, sleet, and epic wind was on the way.
Given the pace we had the day before, we knew our biggest rival was going to be the Tubby Butterman Racing E36 BMW. We painted yet another target on the back of their car and passed them every chance we got!
Despite a few trips to the sand traps throughout the day, nobody could touch us for outright speed in the rain. At one point towards the beginning of my stint, the race was stopped due to lightning, hail, and a tornado warning in the area. We waited in the garage for about 30 min for the worst of the storm to pass before jumping back in the car and restarting the race behind the safety car. Over the radio, I asked our crew chief, Nick, to let me know when the green flag dropped so I could get a jump on the cars in front of me. I was still 3 turns away from the front straight when Nick told me the green flag was out so I mashed the throttle and started flying by cars. Going up the front straight, I kept that momentum and managed to get by most of the field and build up a healthy gap. What a rush!!!
Unfortunately, I gave it all back when I got a little overzealous when I carried too much speed into Turn 12 and beached the car. After a driver change a few laps later, another driver on our team did the same thing.
After that, we kept our noses clean and raced good, clean laps for the rest of the day, eventually finishing 6th for the day.
A few hours later, the race was done. We were cold, tired, and soaked to the bone but looking at our faces, you never would've guessed. We had a great time, learned some really valuable information about our car, and bonded as a team. We didn't win but it was still a very successful weekend.
It only took one weekend but I've gone from being a mild-mannered car enthusiast to a wildly enthusiastic track junky! I can't wait to get my next fix behind the wheel of a race car and I look forward to sharing the experience all over again with everyone here.