Racing was tight at the short...
Racing was tight at the short oval at Roseburg, Oregon, where the GASS cars were a support race for the NASCAR Camping World Series Grand National race.
Let's assume you're like Howard Johnston, a successful businessman who always wanted to give racing a try. The idea of belting into a high-performance stock car and driving wheel-to-wheel with other drivers is appealing. But with the demands of business and family, there's no time to build a team, buy a car, haul it to the track, and go through the hassle of registration, tech inspection, and all the problems involved in working with a sanctioning body.
You'd give racing a try, if all you had to do was show up, suit up, buckle up, and fire up.
Johnston found a way to do just that, and probably for a lot less money than you might think.
The Great American Stockcar Series (GASS) is ready to launch its first full season in 2009, with roughly a dozen races on speedways, short tracks, and road courses. Venues will range from high-speed ovals at Iowa and Phoenix to the short ovals such as the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Roseburg, Oregon, and the road course at Reno-Fernley in Nevada.
Chris Evans, the man with the money behind the concept, ran a short season in 2008 to test the waters. And he found the water to be just fine.
Evans owns GASS. He owns the cars, writes the rules, schedules the races, collects the money, and distributes the purse.
"I looked at how NASCAR, IROC, and all the other series work and I picked the best parts of each," he says.
Like NASCAR's France family, Evans is the benevolent dictator of GASS. Like IROC, he owns and prepares the cars and gets them to the track in well-equipped haulers.
Instructors give students...
Instructors give students a bit of last minute advice before sending them out on their own on the road course at Portland International Raceway.
The cars are created and readied on what is close to a race car assembly line in a crowded corner of his metal fabrication business in an aging industrial park in Portland, Oregon. While Evans Metal Fabrication employees build everything from circular staircases to precision platforms used in the high tech industry, another group of employees who work for Chris Evans Inc. maintain and repair the race cars.
The race shop is really not much more than a long aisle surrounded by tube frame chassis under construction, and all the parts and pieces needed to get them on the track.
Workspace is at a premium, so the crew uses an overhead electric crane from the metal fab business to lift the cars from the shop floor onto the suspension platform, then over to the scales.
Evans augments the race program with driving schools and corporate days at a host of different tracks.
During an early summer corporate day, a dozen cars were lined up in the hot pits at Portland International Raceway, their V-8 engines snarling as the right feet of nervous drivers twitched in anticipation.
One-by-one, each driver was checked by a crewmember. Belts. Helmet. Mirrors. Attitude. Then each one was sent off for a high speed run around the almost 2-mile course.
Most of the drivers feathered the throttle as they approached the corners. For a few, the heavy racing clutch and the whine of a racing transmission were a bit intimidating.
"I'm not sure that for a couple of them, this may be the first time they've been in a car without an automatic transmission," says Kevin Culver with a grin. "But they all catch on."
Culver is a former NASCAR Winston West driver and local track hero at the now defunct Portland Speedway. He was at PIR this day to work with students in the driving school program.
"I'll admit that the first time I got into the car during a ride-along I was convinced I was in over my head," says Johnston, who is a successful 54-year-old businessman. "I thought there was no way I could do this. I wanted to, but figured I was out of my league.
The GASS race shop is crowded...
The GASS race shop is crowded into an aisle inside the Evans metal Fabrication complex in Portland. The location allows the crew to use an overhead hoist to move cars from a staging platform to the scales.
"But the way they teach you allows a driver to progress at his own pace. You begin following a pace car, and the next time it goes a little faster. By the time you are on the track by yourself, it begins to feel comfortable. I was amazed at how quickly I caught on and how fast I progressed."
Johnston had never been in a race car before taking the Portland school.
"I looked at what it would take to race-buying the car, getting a shop, assembling a team-and figured there was no way I could do all that," he says. "It's a huge undertaking."
The students pony up the $2,000-plus fee for a school day at the races. For that money they get an introduction to the car and track, lots of one-on-one guidance from experienced racers, and enough track time to send them home with aching muscles and tales to tell around the water cooler.
A similar program uses Iowa Speedway and a third one will be located at the road course just outside Reno.
"Some of the corporate day customers are there as guests of a business partner or as a reward from their boss for an exceptional performance," Evans says. "The driving schools draw folks who are intrigued with getting onto a car, or getting back into a car, and giving it a try.
"What we see is that some of the school drivers get hooked. They get so pumped they can't wait to do it again."
That's Where GASS Comes In.
The 10-race series costs an average of $5,000 per race, some higher or lower depending on where the race is held.
"We need to build more cars," Evans says, "because almost every weekend we have to turn people away."
He says his target customer is someone in his or her mid-40s, successful enough to have some disposable income.
All the tubes for the GASS...
All the tubes for the GASS chassis are cut in-house, based on a computer program that allows quick design changes as the cars evolved. During slow periods, the crew assembles new cars to be used at Iowa Speedway.
"This isn't a development series for young kids who want to make racing a career," he says. "There are other programs for them. This is a series for drivers who want to run wheel to wheel and have fun doing it."
That describes Kim White. He's 55 years old, a successful businessman who runs, with his son, a group of auto body shops in Oregon.
"I got into one of Chris's cars at Portland and I was hooked," he says. "I've never had so much fun."
White says he grew up with high horsepower street cars that never handled especially well. He says it was an eye-opener to get into something with lots of power that you could drive into a corner fast enough to scare yourself and come out on the other end all in one piece.
The cars are modeled after the old NASCAR Elite Division chassis, formerly used in the now-abandoned Regional Touring Series.
"They went through several changes until we got something we were real happy with," Evans says. Now the chassis is on a computer at the metal fab business, and all Evans has to do is call up the program, gather up the tube, and begin cutting, bending, and welding.
Completed cars race with engines built by Schnell Automotive, a local machine shop with decades of experience building stock car engines.
"We began with crate engines but discovered we could get Schnell to build a better engine that would last longer and do it at a reasonable price," says Evans. "And it gives us some local control."
Engines are dry-sumped and mated to a Jericho transmission, ending at a quick-change rearend. Brakes are Performance Friction in Wilwood hydraulics.
"It's all off-the-shelf stuff," he says. "It's our way of keeping the cost reasonable."
The same chassis are used at each track. It takes his crew about eight hours per car to work through the checklist of changes to convert them from one type of track to another.
"We do pretty heavy maintenance on them every other race," says Brad Shafer, vice president of the motorsports program. "When they go into the trailer, they are ready to race. We don't have to do much to them at the track, because we want them to all be the same."
Working in crowded conditions,...
Working in crowded conditions, the crew takes about eight hours per car to convert it from oval to road course configuration, and do the routine maintenance to ready it for another day of racing.
Because Evans owns the cars and his team prepares them, "we avoid the tech line trauma" of other series.
Evans says he's a stickler for fielding clean looking cars in the series.
"We don't put drivers out in cars that look like they've been trashed," he says. "That's not the image we want."
Drivers who run the entire year are expected to come up with some sort of sponsorship, even if it's their own company.
And here's where things get a bit different.
To ensure no one has an unfair advantage, drivers will do a random pill draw for their car each week. That means it's possible that on any weekend, the "John Smith's Pharmacy" Ford may be driven by Mary Jones, while Smith drives the "Mary Jones House of Intimate Apparel" Chevrolet.
So, deal with it. Three weeks after the Portland school, the cars were at the bullring at Roseburg, where GASS was among the opening acts for the NASCAR Camping World West Series.
Driving skill and talent in the field were widespread and Evans didn't want anyone so intimidated on the track that he or she made a costly mistake. He told the flagman that every time the lead car was ready to pass the last car, he should throw a caution and bunch the group up again.
That left fans in the stands confused about what was going on down on the track.
"For them it looked a bit odd," Evans says, "but my goal was to give these guys some on-track experience and to have them bring the cars back in one piece."
Coaches watched the action during the multiple practice sessions and gave suggestions to drivers after each one. Drivers also gathered in a group to compare notes and download their experiences.
A pair of GASS cars battle...
A pair of GASS cars battle for track position as they power through the third turn of the Douglas County Speedway at Roseburg, Oregon. Drivers say the cars are precise and predictable, though plenty fast enough to get someone in trouble.
"No one feels they have to do something stupid to prove their manliness," White says. "People drive as fast as they feel they can. After each session, we all talk about what we did and how it worked and learn from one another.
"After each session, I went to the driving coach and talked about how I could do a better job."
Evans hired Ross Thompson to work with the drivers. Thompson is an experienced driving coach, with a background that includes racing sports cars at Daytona, driving for the factory Porsche team, working as an instructor at the Bob Bondurant driving school, competing in the Trans-Am series and racing in the NASCAR Elite and Grand National divisions along with a handful of starts in the Craftsman Truck Series.
While White says he was comfortable early on the road course, he found the oval intimidating.
"That concrete wall comes up awfully fast. There is room to make a mistake on the road course, but on the oval the level of concentration is at 100 percent the entire time.
"Most of us are willing to push the car, but I'm not willing to push so hard I wreck it," he says.
Drivers are responsible for any damage to the car or equipment.
"If the car just disappears, if it is wrecked so badly there is nothing, absolutely nothing we can salvage, the total bill is $55,000," Evans says. "That's the cost to build a new one.
"So far the biggest bill was for about $4,800 and that was major bodywork," he adds. "If a car comes in with just minor bumps and bruises, we do the work and don't worry about it much."
But bodywork is about the only thing he doesn't worry about. Evans recognizes the uniqueness of what he's doing makes it a risk. He also knows that's the element that may make it successful.
He's got a lot of money invested in cars, engines, transporters, safety gear, and crew.
"He's a tough, intelligent businessman who gets things done," says Culver, a longtime friend. "If there's anyone who can make this happen, it will be Chris."