Date: April 12, 2013
Location: Watkins Glen, New York
Track: Watkins Glen International
Event: ChumpCar Dual 7.5-Hour Enduro
Entrants: 96 ChumpCar Competitors
Objective: Turn ChumpCar's World Upside Down
Warning: certain portions of this newsletter may be slightly exaggerated, or, in some cases, blatantly untrue. After all, if you can't win, you may as well be entertaining. Read to the end to decipher truth from fiction.
Not Off To A Great Start
While it didn't end all rosy, it didn't start all rosy, either. Imagine, if you can, the logistical nightmare of assembling team members from Florida (delayed flight and missed connection due to some insignificant part that holds fuel in the airplane), Texas (delayed flight, delayed connection, rental car flat tire), Michigan (late-night dash by PC across Ohio at two in the morning), and Wisconsin (no delays - how did that happen?). Oh, and then there was the vignette about Larry driving his new-to-him Lotus Evora from Atlanta, Georgia, and being towed by an Amish buggy the final 15 miles to the track. Does Lotus still use Lucas wiring?
In spite of these difficulties, Nic, James, Patrick, Mark, Tom, Matt, and Talbot (look - a new guy!) managed to convene at Dinosaur Barbeque in Rochester around 9:00 PM on Thursday night for local beer and general travel lamentations. The night ended far too early, as the team was to be "wheels up" (more to follow) and heading to The Glen on Friday morning at 9:00 AM.
The drive to The Glen on Friday morning was cold. And wet. Much like the rest of the weekend would turn out to be. Joined by Tim (look - another new guy!) in Rochester, the caravan pulled into the track, unloaded the cars, and waited for clear weather before heading out for practice. And waited. And waited.
* interlude music while waiting *
On the mechanical front, the racecars were *nearly* ready for the event. The Art Car was sporting a bright red fuel cell for the first time. This effectively quadrupled the value of the Art Car (not exaggerated), but more importantly added a much-needed two gallons of fuel capacity. It also looked cool as hell which we hoped would serve to intimidate our competitors. On the downside, it also vented raw fuel vapors directly into the passenger compartment which nearly asphyxiated three of the four drivers on Saturday. The drivers of the Gold Car had no such worries as their fuel cell was not installed in time, but were pleased to find that Mark, Matt, and Rob had replaced the rear windows with Lexan in an attempt to improve aerodynamics. However, the benefit of the rear Lexan windows, developed during countless hours of testing in Ford's wind tunnel in Dearborn, would be short-lived, as it would later become necessary to remove them for Sunday's race (more to follow).
* end interlude music while waiting *
And waited. And waited. By 4:00 PM on Friday afternoon it was clear that the weather wasn't going to cooperate, so James and Nic took just a few token laps around the course to figure out the basics. The cars fared well, were rolled back into the garage, and were cleaned up for Saturday morning. The garage door was closed and the party headed down the hill into town find something to eat. All in all the day was a complete washout, but we were happy that at least nobody flipped a car over or anything (more to follow).
After voting down Pizza Hut as a viable dinner alternative, someone recommended we try the House of Hong. While it provided an interesting mix of Chinese food and vintage Watkins Glen race memorabilia, the live country music was a little out of sync with the "Signs of the Chinese Zodiac" paper placemats. Eclectic comes close, but not quite close enough, to describing it accurately. Odd is probably a better word, but after two beers odd morphed into surreal. Even the Hongs dig The Glen. That's cool!
With Willie Nelson still stuck in our heads, we motored to the historic Glen Motor Inn for the night. Managed and owned by a really cool local guy named Vic (a former Can-Am team owner and racer himself), we spent more time staring at the vintage racing memorabilia lining the walls of the lobby than brushing our teeth and turning out the lights. There is really something to be said for a town that defines itself entirely by a ribbon of pavement that is 3.4 miles long and 36 feet wide.
The drive to The Glen on Saturday morning was cold. And wet. Much like the rest of the weekend would turn out to be. The team headed into town for breakfast at Burger King with Saturn ChumpCar fueling expert PC still fresh from his 2:00 AM arrival. While were we fascinated by the vintage racing memorabilia strewn around the restaurant (pick up the theme yet?), the behind-the-counter incompetence was rivaled only by the airlines the day before. Consequently, we left and joined the locals down the street at Dunkin Donuts for our individual morning sugar and caffeine rituals.
The driver rotation for the Art Car was determined to be James-Tom-Patrick-Mark, while the Gold Car was slated to host Matt-Tomas-Nic-Larry. Turns out neither car would actually support that plan, but now I'm getting ahead of myself. At the green flag, the rain was falling, the wind was blowing, and the Saturns were randomly stuck somewhere around 50th place or so.
The first lap was almost uneventful. Somewhere in the middle of lap 1, Matt radioed into the pits to let them know that the in-car five-pound fire extinguisher had come loose from its mounting bracket and had become a very effective lateral accelerometer. In other words, it was flying around the cockpit in harmony with Matt's steering inputs. The unscheduled pit stop to secure the projectile took the Gold Car from around 50th place to around 90th place only four minutes into the 7.5-hour long race. But the fun was not over yet.
With Matt back out on course, it was James' turn to amuse the pit crew. On about lap 4, the Art Car's engine temperature gage began to rise and steam began to fill the cockpit. Upon pulling into pit lane, the steam completely engulfed the car and was really quite a spectacle, especially from the driver's seat. Turns out the upper radiator hose had decided to part ways with the radiator, emptying all of the coolant onto the engine block. Instant steam generator. The diagnosis, repair, and refill took the better part of three laps to complete, dropping the Art Car so far down the leader board that the Gold Car actually passed it for position. A second unscheduled pit stop for the Art Car on the very next lap to top off the coolant only added to the dilemma, with both Saturns now battling for last place. But the fun was not over yet.
Eventually both cars got into a rhythm, with Matt and James running nose to tail for a bit before the next driver change. Lap times were competitive with cars running toward the top 20% of the field, but were a solid five to six seconds off of the leader's pace. Another lap was lost on the Art Car due to loose right-front lug nuts on about lap 20, but otherwise the stint ended for both drivers without any more drama. But the fun was not over yet.
At about this time, Larry finally made it to the track with his Evora, the only car in the paddock that could have matched the leader's lap times. But that sounds like I am whining. Maybe I am. For driver stint number two, Patrick and Tomas did their thing, consistently moving both cars through the field without "causing confusion and delay" (identify the source of that quote and why it was used here and you will receive absolutely nothing in return except a congratulatory e-mail). Smart/lucky driver change timing combined with timely caution periods allowed both cars to move up approximately 20 positions or so over the next two hours. And then the fun really began.
With Nic and Tom driving the third stint, the following transmission came over the radio:
"This is Nic. I am ok. But I am upside down." That is not exaggerated.
This naturally needed further explanation, which Nic attempted to do over the radio with predictably miserable results. Turns out that adrenalin combined with prolonged inversion does not make for coherent conversation. On the flip side (sorry, couldn't resist), while hanging upside down in midair waiting for the car to be righted, Nic looked to his right and found the missing shift knob he had ripped off at TWS. It became dislodged in the roll and was sitting on the roof next to his helmet. There is always a silver lining.
Thankfully, Nic checked out just fine with medical and joined the rest of the team in the garage to survey the damage while Patrick motored around the track in the Art Car. The story (as told by Nic) involved the Gold Car rolling over 180 degrees onto its roof in Turn 1 as it was hit not once, but twice, by an errant Honda. Naturally, the in-car video had run out of battery power about five minutes before the inversion event, so we can neither confirm nor deny this part of the story. While the rollover didn't create all that much damage at first glance, it was quickly discovered that as the car slid along the ground, inverted, the asphalt wore a hole through the hood, engine cover, and timing chain before coming to rest. This was followed by all of the oil leaking out. Of course losing all of the oil was academic, as the timing-chain-turned-slider-peg had already damaged the engine beyond repair.
Continuing on with the post-mortem assessment, the windshield was shattered, the right-front steering/suspension arm was broken, and two wheels were gouged beyond repair. The leading edge of the roof was squished against the roll cage, all of the left-side body panels were gouged as they slid across the ground, and the rear-view mirror had been sheared off. Side note: we now have enough data to calculate with great precision that the expected service life of a ChumpCar Saturn rear-view mirror is far less than one full race weekend. We go through more rear-view mirrors than brake pads. Seriously.
So at this point, most normal people would say something like, "Boy that sucks. Let's load it on the trailer and have a beer." Other, less rational people might even go so far as to say, "Boy that sucks. Let's load it on the trailer and have a case of beer." But where is the fun in that? With the gears turning in his head, Mark sized up the problem, went to the trailer, and pulled out the spare engine, the spare suspension components, the spare wheels, and yes, the spare rear-view mirror. Suddenly, everyone knew it was going to be a long night.
With the race continuing to run in the background, Larry took the final stint in the Art Car. The fuel vapors were described as "overpowering" at the beginning of his stint, but after he was informed that this was normal (not normal meaning "safe and expected behavior" but normal meaning "we think Larry will survive the next 90 minutes without permanent brain damage") he put his head down, his nose up, and brought home a 21st place trophy. While that doesn't sound horribly impressive, recapturing nearly 70 positions from the early-morning drama was a small consolation to the team. There was no time to celebrate, however, as the Gold Car makeover had already begun.
It took three cases of beer, five pizzas, two bags of pretzels, one bag of beef jerky, three bartered (and day-old) Whopper sandwiches, and the better part of eight hours, but in the end it worked. Enough. There is far too little space in this newsletter to describe all of the heroics that went on that evening, but highlights included Matt and Talbot removing the windshield with a sawzall, Patrick spending 60 minutes vacuuming glass out of every nook and cranny, James rebuilding and aligning the front suspension, and Mark trying to decode the spaghetti-like mess of the wiring harness (why we picked the color-blind guy to do this still confuses me). Rumor has it that Nic was even seen hugging and caressing the new engine prior to installation, but we have no evidence of this. Except for a whole bunch of pictures, that is.
In the end the Gold Car fired up on the first try and survived Tomas' test run around the paddock parking lot with a flashlight duct taped to its roof. Everyone lent a hand in the ordeal, with five or six tasks typically going on in parallel. In fact, things went so smoothly that there was even time to reroute the fuel cell vent line in the Art Car to avoid further driver fumigation on Sunday. The only real snafu occurred when it was discovered that Mark had erroneously bought two packages of Nutter Butter cream-filled patties instead of the traditional Nutter Butter cookies. Nic may have flipped the car, but this was an epic fail. Since his car had just been crashed we gave him a break, but next time Cindy is in charge of the groceries!
The drive to The Glen on Sunday morning was cold. And wet. Much like the rest of the weekend would turn out to be. The team skipped Burger King and instead headed straight to Dunkin Donuts. Being a small town, the locals were already there discussing the race when we walked in. In no time flat, Nic was identified as "that guy that flipped over" on Saturday and was given a hearty round of congratulations. Turns out they appreciate that sort of thing and, much to his chagrin, Nic was made an instant celebrity with the staff. Not enough of a celebrity to get a free muffin or anything, but a celebrity nonetheless.
As it would play out, the Art Car would run a relatively uneventful race. Mark, Patrick, Tom, and James ran consistent laps, stayed out of trouble, kept all the fluids in the engine, and did not have to contend with fuel vapors in the cockpit. Another series of well-timed driver changes kept the Art Car toward the front, but at the end of the day the $5,000 - oops, I mean $500 - BMWs proved too fast for the little plastic fantastic. Starting 50th and finishing 19th was an intellectual accomplishment, but wasn't very emotionally fulfilling. It's kind of hard to be joyous over 19th place. Yea. Team. But at least the car stayed upright.
The real story on Sunday was the Gold Car. Without a front windshield, it would contest Sunday's race in open-air mode. ChumpCar al fresco! Unfortunately, this required the removal of the precision-engineered rear Lexan window. It was not missed on the Gold Car driver lineup that the temperature had fallen into the high 30's and a light mist was hanging in the air as we pushed the cars to grid. For this reason, Tomas donned no less than four Nomex turtleneck shirts prior to suiting up and strapping in.
This was a good thing, as it was literally snowing when the green flag fell. For this reason, someone decided to stuff about 100 pizza hut napkins from the night before in the Gold Car door panel so that the drivers could wipe their helmet visors clean as needed during the race. This technique, which seemed really smart to that unnamed person at first, failed dramatically on lap three when the entire stack of napkins came free and was blown around the inside of the open-air Gold Car at about 100 miles per hour. Fortunately they were never needed, but made for an interesting mess.
Without a fuel cell to boost the Gold Car's endurance, the five-driver rotation comprised of Tomas, Matt, Larry, Mark, and Nic battled the field, the elements, and the race gods simultaneously. On lap 2, the engine showed signs of overheating, necessitating a multi-lap topping-off of the radiator. This would happen not just once, but twice over the next few hours, but otherwise the Gold Car ran and handled as if it had never been rolled over. Which is frankly nothing short of amazing. Its lap times were every bit as competitive as they had been on Saturday, which is to say WAY off the pace, but it appears that you can't keep a good Saturn down.
Things settled down mid-race for the Gold Car, until Larry was shown a black flag for allegedly passing under yellow. This is normally a stop-and-go penalty, but when Larry pulled into the pit lane for his talking-to, there was general confusion amongst the grid workers as to why he was there. While they scrambled around trying to figure it out, Larry was instructed to park the car along the pit lane wall to await his fate, but apparently did so a little bit too assertively. It was at this point that a really, really big dude with an official-looking radio headset decided to literally jump onto the hood of the Gold Car and proceeded to give Larry a lecture through the opening vacated by the windshield the day before. It would have been an amusing sight had there not been a race going on in the background of which we were no longer a part.
Now, if you know Larry at all, you know he just sat there and took it without saying a word. Not. Letting his own personal arsenal of colorful language fly through the same opening vacated by the windshield the day before, he failed to impress the big, yelling guy and was issued a five-minute penalty for…well…we never really got that information. We just know that big, yelling guy decided the car needed to wait five minutes before heading out on track. We thoroughly expected an Incredible Hulk moment from Larry, but thankfully he never completely erupted.
The race mercifully came to a close for the Gold Car with Nic getting back in the seat, telling the car he was REALLY sorry for the day before, and riding out the final 90 minutes without any noteworthy activity. Or inversion. Or more big, yelling guys. The only sun of the entire weekend peeked through the clouds with a scant 20 minutes left in the race, just in time to pack up the rigs for the tow back home. In spite of the on- and off-track drama, the Gold Car came home in 34th place out of the 82 starting cars after being upside down the day before.
Not sure just quite what all this means, but there's got to be a moral to this story somewhere…but we are still too exhausted to find it. Hopefully we figure it out before our next outing this fall at Mosport. See you at the track!
See more photos in the slideshow below or in the gallery.