Dateline: August 25/26, 2012

Our finest hour?

Two, make that three, weeks have now passed since the checkered flag flew at Michigan International Speedway, concluding our second semi-triumphant, incredibly caloric, and completely irrational Chump Car race weekend of 2012.  Frantic last-minute thrashing on the new racecar, bump drafting for hours at speeds over 120 mph, and no less than three team trophies all make the race footage highlight reel; yet ironically, while I have this mountain of good material to work with, I can’t stop reflecting back on what “our” means.  In retrospect the race was nice and all, but it was “our” that defined the entire weekend from start to finish.

“Our” certainly started with the usual small cast of characters and a crappy $500 race car, but “our” now includes folks that have never been a part of “our” before.  “Our” was reinvigorated by old friends getting back in touch with the team and coming out to show support (and push dead cars down pit lane!) after nearly a decade or more away.  “Our” was bewildering inasmuch as there are now all these darn KIDS running around the paddock.  “Our” was re-defined in so many ways.  Mark may have naively thought he was building a second racecar for MIS, but what he was really building was the opportunity for more “our.”  So while the rest of the newsletter will focus on the action-packed nits and bits of the racing, in my most humble opinion, this weekend was nothing less than “our” finest “our.”

As it turns out, we had one hell of a race, too.

Caherty hits the wall in NASCAR Turn 3!

Sorry, just couldn’t wait to work that into the newsletter.  Now back to the chronological storyline.

Friday, August 24

There is nothing like waking up in the morning to realize that in twenty-four hours you will be driving a racecar that isn’t one yet.  The not-so-creatively-named “Saturn Gold Car,” stable mate to the original “Saturn Art Car,” sat in Mark’s garage, waiting for us to get out of bed to complete its transformation from a dilapidated, fifteen-year-old economy car to, well, a dilapidated fifteen-year-old economy car with stickers on the doors and a giant, hand-painted purple griffin painted on the hood by Mark’s ten-year-old son Evan.  Why a giant purple griffin?  Because the hand-painted, Nutter Butter-themed hood was reserved for Art Car installation, that’s why.  We are aesthetic purists after all, and you can’t mix and match things of this nature arbitrarily.

By three that afternoon, the metamorphosis was complete.  Sort of.  While mechanically the car was sweet, Matt offered to stick the vinyl numbers on the doors because at some previous point in time he had applied what appeared to be a full-size thunder chicken hood sticker from a 1979 Trans Am onto an unsuspecting 1983 Mustang II (or something like that – the details here might be a bit askew).  Sadly, he even had pictures on his phone to “prove” it.  In the end, the stickers looked like they were applied in a windstorm.  After being dropped in a pile of gravel.  At night.  By a penguin (penguins don’t have thumbs, you know, so don’t draw the conclusion that a penguin could pull this off even if it tried, Matt).  But I digress.

After a maiden blast up and down Ford’s “Merlin Way Ride and Handling Evaluation Road” without raising any dust at all, the Gold Car was deemed probably-track-ready-enough and was loaded on the trailer.  The Art Car received a few tweaks and adjustments before getting loaded up right behind.  Both survived the trip to MIS, passed technical inspection with flying colors (which speaks more to the expectations of the tech inspectors than the actual cars themselves), and were rolled into the garage for the night.  We were stationed next to the MFAF Integra (don’t ask, it’s a family newsletter) being campaigned by Rief, Lowell, Emerson, and some fourth guy (whose name escapes me, so if you are that guy, accept my apologies and keep reading).  Being as uncompetitive as we all are, it didn’t take long to throw down a side bet between the two teams.  Losers buy winners Dairy Queen.  High stakes to be sure, but that’s how much confidence we had that at least ONE of the Saturns would best the Integra.

Quite possibly the highlight of “our” weekend (not sure I speak for everybody here, but it’s me writing the newsletter) was the party Mark and Cindy hosted back at their place on Friday night.  Reminiscent of the Kart-2-Kart birthdays parties of days gone by, it seemed like the entire gang was back together.  Probably because the whole gang WAS back together.  Too much socializing and too much beer seemed like such a good idea until Saturday morning came a little bit too early…

Saturday, August 25

But back to the racing.  The track configuration at MIS was a combination of a relatively flat and slow infield section followed by a flat-out run along the high banking of NASCAR Turns 3 (you know, where PC hits the wall tomorrow) and 4.  If you have been following our racing exploits for any amount of time now, you realize that Saturns are not really known for their incredible straightaway speed, but can hold their own and then some when the track begins to get twisty.  As such, we were mentally prepared to get our doors blown off down the big straight by the BMWs and Neons sporting, at a minimum, 40 more horsepower than us, but hoped we could make it all up when the course tightened up again.  We were almost correct.

The plan was to run Mark, PC, Nic, and Matt through the Gold Car with Tom, Patrick, Mark, and James taking turns in the Art Car.  With the brand-new Gold Car taking to the track for the first time and the recently-repaired Art Car idling down the grid in tight formation, the team was on proverbial pins and needles wondering what could go wrong on the pace lap.  A collective sigh of relief was heard as both cars proceeded down the main straight, through the twisty bits, and returned (driving in perfect Saturn tandem team formation, I might add), for the green flag two laps later.  Miraculously, both cars went the distance, finishing up their stints without a lick of trouble.  Lap times indicated the pair was running decidedly mid-pack hot laps, but consistency and good fortune landed both cars in the top 10 by the time the first series of pit stops came around.

In one of the biggest news stories of the weekend (you know, after the news that PC hit the wall in NASCAR Turn 3), Bill arrived on the scene.  Historically, pit stops have not been a highlight for the team, as fueling has always taken far too long, resulting in time lost on track.  Generally speaking, it takes about 5 to 6 minutes to load the needed 12 gallons of fuel into a Saturn.  Unless your name is Bill.  Armed with the newly-developed and aptly-named Saturn-Chump-Car-Rapid-Refueling-Device (a piece of tubing from Home Depot that we originally wanted to call “Bill’s Magic Hose,” but thought, hey, this is a family newsletter), Bill, with a look in his eye usually reserved for people about to come mentally unglued, managed to git’er done in something closer to 90 seconds.  All weekend long.  I think I heard him at one point actually say “git’er done” while performing his magic.  With fuel jugs flying around the pit stall in record time, both cars were back on track all weekend without missing a beat.  Bill is SO the man.

For the next few hours, both cars continued to march their way up the leader board.  Consistency, good luck, attrition, and Bill’s Magic Hose (you have just witnessed a mid-newsletter executive decision to no longer refer to it as the Saturn-Chump-Car-Rapid-Refueling-Device) came together to move both cars up into the top 5.  In the Gold Car, PC managed to stay off the wall and Nic managed to overcome acute, short-term caloric deficit syndrome to hand the car off to Matt with one hour and forty-five minutes remaining.  Over in the Art Car pit, though, all was not so sweet.  It started when the car stopped running towards the end of Mark’s stint.  Because we still haven’t found out just how to make the two-way radios work reliably in both cars, the first indication the team had of the situation was the Art Car sitting at the entrance to pit lane.  Not moving.

Leaping like a flock of gazelles  (middle-aged gazelles holding fuel jugs and torque wrenches, that is), every available warm body in the pit box ran down to the ailing racecar and, rallying around the example set by Steve (our token AARP gazelle), pushed the car up pit road for diagnosis.  While Mark and James did the driver swap dance, the car-no-run culprit was diagnosed as a wiring issue.  A wiring issue that was not fatal, but required approximately 10 minutes to fix, dropping the Art Car down two places on the leader board.  By the time the car left the pits for the final stint, it had fallen to fifth place, with the Gold Car two laps ahead in third.  And then history was made.

After a few minutes of circulating the track independently, the Art Car and the Gold Car ended up running nose-to-tail.  This quickly became nosetotail.  Then just nosetail.  Bump drafting down the front straight at 120 mph, Matt and James figured out that two Saturns are faster – significantly faster – than just one.  Three taps along the bottom of the apron was enough for both cars to increase their top speed into Turn 1 by more than 5 miles per hour.  A highlight reel of Saturday’s bump drafting action can be seen at the link that follows:

Slicing and dicing up through the field, Matt and James ran in tight formation for the next hour.  It almost got boring: turn, slow, turn, slow, bump, bump, bump, pass inferior racecar without aerodynamic advantage, repeat.  Ok, not really, but at one point, a Chump Car official even stopped by the pit box just to “make sure we knew what we were doing out there” and left satisfied that we were not going to inadvertently take each other out.  Not sure how we convinced him of that, but don’t tell anybody.  The Saturn freight train quickly became the talk up and down pit row, with other teams stopping by to check in on the action.  And so all was going great until the Gold Car suffered its first teething pain of the weekend.

Perhaps due to 60 minutes of getting whacked, or perhaps just because it’s a $500 racecar, the exhaust on the Gold Car fell out of its rearmost hanger and succumbed to gravity with about 20 minutes to go in the race.  The good news is that it stayed mostly intact as Matt dragged it around the course and was easily repaired in the pit box, but the three precious laps lost in the interim were enough to wipe out any chance of a second-place finish.  The end result, however, a third-place podium finish for the Gold car and a fifth-place standing-next-to-the-podium finish for the Art Car, was good enough to make for much rejoicing in the paddock, but more importantly secured free ice cream at DQ.  Team MFAF (figure that acronym out yet?) ran into problems for a good part of the day and were not running at the finish, but claimed they would be back faster than ever in the morning.  This, naturally, made for an added round of heckling and taunting in advance of Sunday’s race.

This is turning out to be a very long newsletter.  If you are still reading along, you get bonus points for making it this far.  PC’s about to hit the wall.

Sunday, August 26

On, Sunday morning, history was made again.  Picking right up where leaving off on Saturday, Patrick and James started the bump draft routine on Lap 2 and proceeded to play bumper cars for an hour and forty-five minutes.  We are pretty sure this is the first, and only time, that brothers have accomplished this feat at MIS in Saturns.  I’m still convinced that our mother in the grandstands was not necessarily on board with me running into Patrick once every 90 seconds at 120 miles per hour, but she was a trooper and didn’t run out on track to make us stop like I feared she would.  An uneventful round of driver swaps, once again facilitated by Bill’s Magic Hose (Mark and Matt, you NEED to bring that up at work), kept the Saturns inching up the leader board.  Until the Art Car inched up the wall.  But, before we go there, a montage of bump drafting footage from Sunday’s race:

Deep breath.  Here we go.  In the middle of the third stint, PC decided to, in his own words, “try something new.”  The something “new” was a passing move he had seen the night before as we watched our in-car video from earlier that day.  Apparently he observed a few of us making “sweet” passes on the inside of Turn 7 heading onto the NASCAR banking and fancied himself doing the same on Sunday.  So, when the opportunity came to make a move on the inside, PC took the bull by the horns and charged with the Art Car down to the apex first.  Problem is, there is more to making that move than beating the other guy to the corner.

Carrying just as much speed as he ever had but finding himself on a much tighter line than in his previous 100 laps, PC ran out talent and grip simultaneously.  Racers in the room know this as the “early apex phenomenon” and have all learned at some point in the careers that it generally entails hitting something hard enough that your wallet springs open and cash flies out.  Hoping to hit the SAFER barrier (new definition for SAFER: Saturns Ain’t Fully Elastic, Remember!), he missed and instead introduced the right front corner of the Art Car to the concrete wall.  And the right door.  And the right rear fender.  And his ego.  While not quite a dramatic as Mark Martin’s crash at MIS the weekend before where his car was split in half, the damage was considerable.  And, as it would turn out, terminal.  Now before you get all teary-eyed, be comforted by the fact that the Nutter Butter hood escaped unscathed.  There is always a silver lining.

The frantic thrashing in the pits slowly gave way to “That’s All, Folks!” with Porky Pig laughing somewhere in the distance.  As the Art Car was pushed behind the wall, the hopes and dreams of a second podium finish rested solely with the Gold Car circling the track with Nic behind the wheel.  Little did he know the pressure we had suddenly placed on him.  Twenty-eight years of collective Saturn racing experience (Mark, have we really been doing this for that long?  Isn’t there something else we should have been doing instead?) was coming down to the final 90 minutes of the race.  For this reason, the team decided that for the final driver change, Mark would take the wheel and make a run for the checkered flag.  It is, after all, his racecar.

Ninety minutes to go, running in third place, two laps down on second place (a BMW), and another two laps down on the leader (another BMW).  And Mark driving like a man whose racecar was just crashed.  Either way, it didn’t take the team long to realize that the BMW in second place was conserving fuel and we were making up time.  Fast.  Rob, calling the shots over the radio with the calm, cool demeanor of a seasoned professional, kept Mark informed just enough to keep the chase up without burning up the car.  The plan worked perfectly, with Mark making the pass for second place with 30 minutes to go.  And then, without warning, the race-leading BMW pulled into the pits.  Expectations began to rise.

When the race leader pulled back out on track, he did so a mere four seconds in front of the Art Car in second place.  The BMW in third place, smelling blood in the water, had also picked up his pace, resulting in a 1-2-3 dash for the checkered flag more typical of a sprint race than a seven-hour enduro.  While all of us in the pit box were wishing it were us behind the wheel in what would become an epic battle to the finish, we agreed that Mark deserved this opportunity more than all of us combined.  We sat back and watched the race unfold, fully aware of the size of the smile under Mark’s helmet.  It literally brought a tear of joy to at least one set of eyes.

To throw a wet towel on the fire, the BMWs ran away and we finished in third place.  Not really epic at all, but it’s hard to jazz up the situation, so I’m not even going to try.  That said, “our” team could not have been happier with the result and rewarded Mark with an ice-water-in-the-crotch shower as he exited the car at impound (Matt was aiming for his head, honest).  Of course it was mildly difficult to get over the fact that we had finished behind a car with antlers on the roof and Billy the Big Mouth Bass screwed to the fender, but hey, this is real racing.  It’s not always going to be pretty.

In case you are wondering where the MFAF Integra ended up (if you haven’t figured it out by now, it involves a Monkey and A Football), well, they neglected to reinstall their hood pins after the first round of pit stops.  This resulted in the hood flying open at over 100 mph.  While this is bad, it makes for a GREAT video which is somewhere on YouTube.  Although it crushed the windshield, A-pillars, and roof structure, it more importantly crushed their chances of winning back any Dairy Queen frozen treats.  We really wanted to feel sorry for them, but DQ is DQ.  No mercy, boys.  When you’re ready to run with the Saturns, give us a call.  When we’re done with our ice cream, we’ll call you back (insert sounds of lips smacking here).

That’s All, Folks!

Holy cow, this was a long newsletter.  And I didn’t even mention the…well…I think I managed to cover everything.  And some things twice.  Did I mention PC hit the wall in NASCAR Turn 3?  How about the debris flag thrown on the front straight for a trout on the racing surface?  Yep, first time for everything.

Texas World Speedway is coming up in December, and with the Art Car still in the ICU, it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s going to happen.  But regardless of what we race next and where it might take place, thank you, Mark, for making “our” weekend at MIS simply one of the best ever.  See you at the track!