After two road course events,...
After two road course events, we were finally able to take The Pig Rig out on the high banks of a real oval (at least part of it) when the new ChumpCar World Series held a 14-hour race at the famous Rockingham Speedway.
If you're a regular reader of Circle Track, then you're already familiar with the '91 Honda Accord that we built to race in the 24 Hours of LeMons. That car, a front-wheel-drive four-door, was an adventure to build, but it has performed admirably and is really fun to race. In two separate LeMons events at Carolina Motorsports Park the car finished in the mid-40s (our rookie race) and Sixth.
And because it's so much fun, we keep finding places to race it. Recently, we heard about a brand-new racing series called the ChumpCar World Series-designed to use the same type of cars that can be raced in LeMons events. ChumpCar is a brand-new series just getting its start. The group organizing the events says it's not competition to LeMons, but rather a companion offering racers even more tracks and opportunities to race their cars.
Like LeMons, ChumpCar is open to practically any make or model of car or truck that has a street value of $500 or less. As long as it has four tires and is smaller than a dump truck, you can probably race it. But to get on the track, ChumpCar does require essential safety modifications like a rollcage, fuel cell, removal of all unnecessary glass (the windshield can stay), a racing seat and belts, and a firesuit and other personal safety gear. Safety gear does not count toward the $500 limit, so if you're able to get a car for less than $500, you can spend the rest on ways to make it faster.
John Condren, otherwise known...
John Condren, otherwise known as the "Chief Chump," runs a tight ship and safety is always a priority, but the series is very racer friendly.
We owe a big debt to Alex...
We owe a big debt to Alex Ferguson, who was driving the LTD, who took the time to dismount our worn tires and mount up new ones. Without his help we would have finished the race sitting on the sidelines.
One draw for the ChumpCar series is it has lined up races at some of the greatest tracks across the nation. For example, tracks scheduled for the 2010 races include Nashville Superspeedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Autoclub Speedway (California), Roebling Road, Sebring, and Infineon. Of course, the track that caught our eye is the one-and-only Rockingham Speedway-none other than The Rock. There were other Cup tracks on the schedule, but the opportunity to race on the same course as Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Cale Yarborough was just too much. Plus, we've developed a soft spot for the speedway ever since NASCAR dumped it like yesterday's newspaper and Andy Hillenburg stepped up to save it. For the ChumpCar event, racers would use 3/4 of the one-mile oval and the infield road course. That makes the overall course size 1.7 miles of fun.
If you want to see more of the original build of this race car, you can check out the Sept. '09 issue of Circle Track, or you can catch up on the entire saga of this race project by going to www.circletrack.com and typing "lemons" in the search box. Even if you aren't planning to build a $500 race car, there are still a lot of tips and ideas there for building a safe race car.
The ChumpCar series has slightly more stringent rules, so we did need to make a few tweaks to the car before we could go racing. First, we needed a window net. For that we contacted Racequip-which had previously provided the belts-and the company sent us a complete kit including a net and all the necessary hardware. We chose the old-school "latch and link" buckle because it provides the most positive lock, yet is easy for both the driver and a safety worker to operate. Just yank the handle and it's released.
The Rockingham event was also originally scheduled to be a 24-hour event. The Rock has no track lighting, so that meant adding lights to the car. ChumpCar rules require both headlights and taillights, which also function as brake lights. Our Civic originally had all that, but we threw it all in the dumpster when building the car. So it was back to the junkyard for lights. After re-installing the lights, we covered everything with a layer of clear packing tape to keep from scattering glass all over the track in the event of a collision. Finally, after switching to Performance Friction brake pads (PN 0465-20) in our last event and experiencing zero troubles with them, we installed a fresh set of pads and kept a spare set in the toolbox in reserve.
ChumpCar requires the use...
ChumpCar requires the use of a window net, which we did not have. A quick call to Racequip got us a complete kit which mounted up easily. We prefer the old-school latch, but there are lots of different styles available.
We're always trying to improve...
We're always trying to improve the car when we get a chance, and labor and scrap material aren't counted toward the $500 limit, so Chris Hargett and Neil Wilson fabricated this strut tower brace to stiffen the front end for Rockingham's high-speed turns.
The No. 11 Jetta was bad fast...
The No. 11 Jetta was bad fast all day long, but an extra pit stop late in the race gave us the cushion we needed to finish one-and-a-half laps ahead.
Finally, we calculated we would need three complete sets of tires to make it through the race. When we built the car, Aero supplied us with two sets of steel wheels which have held up flawlessly. We like to stick with what works and added another four wheels to our inventory and mounted them up with tires as well.
Going into the event, ChumpCar had more than 30 entries for the race, which was impressive considering it was the first race on the East Coast for the new sanctioning body. Unfortunately, several of the cars scheduled to race got torn up in the late February LeMons race and were unable to make the March event at Rockingham. Because of that, a week or so before the race ChumpCar changed the duration from 24 to 14 hours, saying it wanted to make sure that there were several cars running at the checkered flag even with the lower car count. It was disappointing for all involved, but it made sense considering there were only 19 cars at the green flag.
We arrived at the track during the race weekend on Friday afternoon for sign-in and tech. The tech inspection was quite thorough, and while the inspector did evaluate our car to make sure it was within the spirit of the "under $500" rule, he seemed more concerned with making sure everyone was in a safe race car. Although we've fabricated a rear firewall, we never patched the openings in the rear package tray (speaker holes and other stuff) which concerned the tech guys. Since we're running an ATL fuel cell they let us through, but we'll need to get that fixed for the next go-round.
One of the more impressive things ChumpCar does is to adopt a local charity at every track it visits. For the Rockingham race, it was a local food bank. In addition to accepting food donations from the racers, ChumpCar also granted a bonus lap for every $20 a race team donates (up to $100). As a result, most teams started off with five laps in the bank and the local charity benefited greatly.
Of course, ChumpCar also gives out bonus laps for great decorative themes and imaginative engineering. We had gotten as far as repainting the car but never actually got around to decorating it to match our "Pig Rig" name. As a result, we received no bonus laps for theme and started out the race eight laps down.
On Saturday morning, the driver's meeting was held shortly before the green flag. During that meeting I witnessed one of the most impressive aspects of this new racing organization. After going over the race rules and precautions for safety, ChumpCar's John Condren opened up the meeting for questions. One of ChumpCar's rules is that no driving shift can last more than two hours. One team mentioned that it had signed up six drivers back when the race was scheduled for 24 hours. Now that the race was cut to 14 hours, equal shifts for each driver equaled two hours and fifteen minutes. Would it be possible to extend the maximum driving shift an additional fifteen minutes?
Instead of making an arbitrary decision, Condren listened to the question and polled the gathered racers for their opinions. The crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of extending the maximum allowed driving time. Condren made the change official, explaining that the ChumpCar Series always tried to make decisions not directly involving safety with the wishes of racers in mind.
Nineteen cars took the green flag shortly after 9:30 a.m. The Pig Rig was fast, but we were far from the fastest car in the field. By the end of the day, six cars had posted a lap faster than our 1:14.961 best. But there is obviously more to endurance racing than simply putting up a single fast lap. The Rockingham track was particularly hard on tires. Although we had planned for each driver to run a two hour shift, our first two shifts lasted only 1:45 before the tires simply gave up. Our first two pit stops required both front tires to be changed. We only had 13 total tires mounted, so we knew the tires wouldn't last at this pace. The only option was to slow down and we started averaging laps in the 1:18 range.
This was also the first time...
This was also the first time we used GoPro's Motorsports Hero cam. We just turned it on and let it run, and the results were fantastic. The system is unobtrusive and weighs practically nothing, so it can be mounted practically anywhere. We'll post a sample video for you to check out in the video section at www.circletrack.com.
The track also featured The...
The track also featured The Rock's infield road course. As you can see, we gave The Pig Rig a fresh coat of paint since the last race, but got lazy and never got around to adding a cool theme.
The No. 90 car's fastest lap...
The No. 90 car's fastest lap was a 1:18.295, one of the slowest of the field, but it never came off the track and finished Third.
Over the course of the race we were lucky that nothing drastic happened to the car. The transmission started showing signs of trouble, popping out of Fourth gear around the midpoint, but we ignored it as best we could and other than adding fuel every driver change and dumping in three quarts of oil about 3/4 of the way through, the Honda ran tirelessly. Tires, however, were a big problem.
We were running used Legends tires. The team we get them from only runs them two races and they are camber cut, which helps the handling on our car. But the lack of tread from cutting the camber into them means they aren't exactly the best options for endurance racing. Still it's hard to beat free, especially when you're trying to come up with three sets of tires.
When it became obvious that even if we left the tires on the back untouched, eight extra tires still wouldn't get us through the day we began to get desperate. Here we were with one of the fastest cars on the track but staring a DNF in the face because of poor planning.
Thankfully, we were able to call on the good nature of a friend and talk him into bringing us every last tire we had lying around at the shop. Two hours later Jason McClellan and girlfriend Ashley Pierce arrived with the tires that would save our race. We had ruined date night, but hey, it's racing!
For the first half of the race, the obvious car to beat was the No. 11 Volkswagen Jetta of Lab Rats Motorsports. When the right driver was in the car it was as much as three seconds faster than us per lap. But mechanical troubles sent the car to the garage for fixes and at one point The Pig Rig was 14 laps up on the Lab Rats.
Still, that wasn't enough as the No. 11 slowly whittled away our lead. With three-and-a-half hours left to go we had the lead but the No. 11 car was just three laps behind and steadily gaining. The next scheduled driver change was supposed to take place in one hour, but that would require two more pit stops. Instead, we pushed the driver to within the 2:15 window for the final shift before pitting for a driver change, two fresh tires, and fuel. We filled the 12-gallon ATL fuel cell to the very brim, and instructed our final driver, John Gibson, that he would have to manufacture 15 minutes out of a fuel load that had been running dry at the two-hour mark all day long.
To make matters worse, Gibson radioed shortly after getting into the car that Fourth gear had finally given up the ghost and he was having to shift from Third directly into Fifth-not your best strategy when trying to save gas and hold off a faster car.
Fortunately, the No. 11 team didn't have the same luck timing out its pit stops as we did and had to make a final driver change with 30 minutes remaining. At the time it was one lap down, and we managed to gain three laps during its pit stop. But after the final stop, the little Jetta turned on the afterburners and began reeling off some very fast laps while all we could do was limp along. But our luck-and the gas-held out and the checkered flag flew at 11 p.m. sharp with The Pig Rig holding a lap-and-a-half cushion over the Lab Rats race team.
Overall, our experience with ChumpCar's first East Coast race was excellent. At first we thought it was simply a clone of the LeMons series at different racetracks, but that's not the case. Lemons events have a feel that's more like a party. The judges made jokes because we washed our car before bringing it to the track, and lots of emphasis is placed on outlandish penalties.
This Ford LTD suffered an...
This Ford LTD suffered an early wreck but after pulling off the sheetmetal, the team was able to keep making laps. Apparently nothing can hurt this big old American iron. (If you look closely, that's a GM LT1 engine powering the beast.)
We struggled with tire wear...
We struggled with tire wear all day long. The Rockingham track is tough on tires, but if we're going to do any more endurance racing we may need to come up with a setup that's gentler on rubber.
The obligatory team photo....
The obligatory team photo. From left to right are drivers John Gibson and Jason Gulledge, crew member Steven Gibson, yours truly, and Patrick Norwood. Check out the cool winner's trophy. PHOTO Courtesy Ashley Pierce
ChumpCar feels more like an organization designed to get people lots of track time and racing experience for minimum cost. LeMons allows many more cars on the track but any contact with another car-whether it's your fault or not-will get you 30 minutes or more in the penalty box. ChumpCar doesn't allow as many cars on the track (I've been told the guideline is approximately 35 per mile of track) so it's easier to race, and contact, as long as it isn't egregious, won't get you pulled off the track. There's also a greater emphasis on safety here. For example, ChumpCar requires fuel cells while LeMons does not (yet).
"Obviously, we're constantly being compared to LeMons," explains Cathy McCause, ChumpCar's Director of Marketing. "People using the words 'parallel series,' or 'knockoff,' or that sort of thing. We're still finding our identity, but our focus is on the racing. Time and time again, people will say if you are interested in a circus go drive LeMons, but if you are interested in some real road racing ChumpCar is the ticket."
That doesn't mean one is better than the other; it just means there's a difference. But in our experience, both are a great way to spend a weekend. If you are trying to decide between the two, your best bet is to check the schedules, find the track you want to race the most, and join that series. It's as simple as that.
It was the first win for our little Honda, and a good one at that. It wasn't too long ago that we were staring at the car wondering how best to turn a front-drive unibody car into a real racer. And this won't be its retirement, either. There are no concrete plans as this went to press, but we are looking into circle track options and tracks that won't run us out because of the VTEC motor. If you have any ideas, drop us a line and we'll consider them all.