I know I’ll stir up some feedback with this. My position is likely to be controversial.
ChumpCar racing is a bunch of drivers that don’t belong on the track driving cars that don’t belong on the track.
Sure, that’s a gross generalization and not all drivers fall into the stereotype. But it comes from an informed position. I’m a driver. I’m even comfortable saying I’m a good driver. Not great, but good. I prepare my own car and I’m comfortable saying I’m good at that, too. Again… not great, but good.
What I saw during my 1 hour stint in our 1981 RX-7 on Saturday afternoon convinced me that one needs to do a driver’s school before going wheel to wheel racing. Not a classroom session, but an honest on track class with several hours of instruction about how to drive a car. Similarly, the class needs to include the basics of how to prepare and maintain a race vehicle (on and off the track) – even if it is a $500 crap can.
Our crap can? It is a 1981 Mazda RX-7. It is powered by a stock 12A rotary that likely hadn’t seen an oil change in years prior to our acquisition. We’ve done the safety stuff. We cut the springs to increase the rate and lower the car. We bought the best 200 treadwear tires that fit on 15×7 wheels. And we all drove the car at an autocross before we arrived at the racetrack for the endurance race. We can all drive it reasonably well, but it is a dog in a straight line. It had something like 90 horsepower from the factory when it was new in 1981 and now it has 22x,000 miles on it. And we weren’t up for a rebuild.
During the first half hour of racing action, our car was torpedoed by a Corolla. We elected our driver with the most recent road racing experience to start the race. As he turned into 1 (on about lap 12), he was creamed by a car that was attempting to overtake another car… about three cars back in line. The hit was broadside, a T-Bone if you will. The other driver had pulled off the dry line to overtake and failed to account for the changed grip level… missing the required braking point by something on the order of 150 feet. The hit was square in the right rear wheel, bending the rear axle housing about 10 degrees and putting us behind the wall for repairs.
In the quest to find spare parts to get back onto the track, I visited another RX-7 squad that was behind the wall. It turns out their first driver didn’t notice that the car lost coolant and cooked the apex seals in 3 laps. They were hoping that they could get back into it, so we trekked on to a team that brought a whole spare RX-7. They were willing to spare the parts. We’re in business. 2 hours later, we’re back on the track in 78th place (84 started).
Compromises were made… the axle we scavenged had disc rear brakes. Our car had drums. I’m an engineer, I know what this means. I tell all of the drivers before they go out, “The brake bias is all messed up. You will lock the rear brakes before the fronts.” Everyone gets it, though flat spots were made. But the car stays on the track, for the most part. The second driver dropped a wheel at least once. Third driver found a groove and cruised to respectable lap times. Fourth driver did the same, managing to dodge a car that spun while it was passing him.
Somewhere along the line the car that hit us had a clutch failure. I walked by them in the paddock, car on jack stands, transmission on the ground. Chump Car Karma.
Generally speaking, we’re getting passed like we’re standing still. Nearly everything is faster in a straight line. Our lap times are consistent and respectable, but we can’t keep up down the straights. By the time I’m ready to get in at the 6 hour mark, we’ve clawed our way back up to 59th or so. Attrition is high, alarmingly so.
I climbed in and eased out onto the track. I like to gently get up to speed in a car – I’m not blazingly fast straight out of the box. My first full lap is a 1:59, about 10 seconds off the pace of our fastest lap so far. I focus on holding my line and making it clear where the overtaking drivers should pass. Slowly I get comfortable with how cars show up in the multi-faceted, ultra-wide rearview mirror. I drag my lap times down to 1:50. I watch a car in front of me spin in turn 11… I lift and watch where he will end up and then step on the throttle and drive away.
I found some clean track and ran a couple 1:47’s, wrapping up fast lap time so far. Then comes something odd… I watch a car about 100 yards in front of me grenade the engine. Smoke everywhere, he pulls off to driver’s right and locks the brakes up sliding to a stop like he’s on fire. As I come around the corner, I see a yellow flag and a second car that has stalled. When I come back around, a truck is out to retrieve these cars and a third car has stalled in between them -this one didn’t even bother to pull off the track. Really, 3 cars suffer mechanical failures in the same complex in 3 laps. Really?
Aside from that, I dodged one car that was dramatically slower and couldn’t hold a line. Twice I went side by side through corners with cars that were trying to overtake me at the end of a straight only to find that their overtaking braking point was the same as my surrender braking point. Several other times I exited a corner faster than the car that was overtaking me because my 90 horsepower was more than enough to make up for their poor line choice. A half-dozen times or more I found myself pitching my car sideways to avoid rear ending a car that dropped the anchor to make the turn. I’d pass them, but I don’t trust them to hold their line.
After I get out of the car, it runs another hour or so before we lose compression in the second rotor. We park it, finishing 56th. A good time was had by all on the team, though we are disappointed that we only managed 6 hours of drive time out of the engine in the car. I mean, we did spend $500 on the car.
But I’m also honest with myself about it… I got what I expected. We got run over and suffered a mechanical failure. I leave the weekend smiling and looking for a parts car to source a new rotary and a rear axle.
As sketchy as the other drivers and their cars are, if I have a little more power, I’ll do it again. For $750, we can source another complete RX-7…