(Part One is here — JB)
For the first lap there’s no one nearby, and then a full-course caution is called. This allows me to catch up to the pack, but now with other cars, visibility is the biggest challenge as the spray behind another car even at moderate speeds is opaque and impenetrable. It seems like a car is off the track backwards or in a tire wall at every corner. After five laps under yellow, nearly stopping at times, we go green again in traffic.
To date, I have never before felt what I did when driving VIR’s two straightaways in the rain.
Leaving Oak Tree or Hog Pen, at least in the car I’m driving, the windshield becomes nothing but swirling grey. If you’re close to the car ahead, you may be able to catch an outline at the instant the wiper crosses your view, but working brake lights are imperative. Heading down the front straight during one lap, I nearly bake a brownie and lose the deposit on my suit: Guessing at the location of the slight bend before turn one, I’m a little late and unintentionally slide right up to the left side line, flat out in the middle of fifth gear.
Another moment, entering the Spiral, it feels as though I’ve driven onto an ice rink, and I have my first and only four-off at low speed. Worryingly, the cars behind me are also fishtailing out of control and I brace for impact, but everybody avoids each other and I’m able to safely re-enter the track without difficulty. I’ll later learn that was thanks to some engine oil, liberated from the confines of its pan.
A funny thing is happening though. Despite my restrained driving of the little Nissan, it’s being held up. Other cars are entering corners with too much speed, and too close to the inside. With a gentle entry and late apex I’m passing clusters and getting a superior run into the grey abyss. A few cars seem to fly past on a rigid schedule, and I try to stay predictable for them. The hierarchy of faster and slower cars on track seems to change drastically in these conditions. Much to my surprise, I’m not the slowest by any means.
When the crew waves the #147 lollipop from pit road, I assume there’s a problem. Apparently it’s just time for fuel and a driver change. A full two hours and five seconds and twenty-five laps per the telemetry have just gone by in less than ten minutes.
“Flow” as a psychological phenomenon is a thing these days. Athletes spend real money trying to spend more time in the “Zone.” They’re all in the wrong sports. Traffic in the rain at VIR is guaranteed entry into this “Zone.”
The only thoughts were semi-conscious acknowledgements that I was more comfortable and relaxed than I should be. The clear memories are of the mistakes; otherwise I can only recall a general sense of meditative alertness. I’ve found this state before, but never has it been so deep or prolonged.
Buckling John Z., our next driver into the car is proving to be an issue. With a foggy visor and no idea what I’m doing anyway, I’m still futzing when the fuel is finished. Roger C. sees me wasting precious time and takes over, finishing almost immediately. After getting communications going, he’s off, and will go on to set much faster laps than myself in similar conditions. Being back over the wall, having completed my first ever full stint, is very fulfilling. Already there’s an urge to do it again, better, but there will be another chance in eight hours. I change out of a wet racing suit into wet street clothes, and eat the best hot dog of my life. Rest comes easily after that.
That night around 10:30 PM (delayed by issues earlier in the evening,) the process of getting in is smoother for the most part. The shift begins under full-course yellow but goes green half a lap in. The track is still wet and there’s a drizzle, but there’s less standing water and spray. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean anything for visibility, as grey has only been replaced by deep black and erratic, blinding lights. While there may be more traction available, the conditions feel more harrowing.
As the race continues, I yell some more euphoric obscenities into my helmet as I tighten up my driving. The challenges now are passing slower cars while avoiding the teams which are battling for higher positions. At some point on track, I catch up to a car on our team, the Toyota Celica owned by Team Fiery Death. It has poor lighting but a much better driver. Behind the wheel is Seb D., an instructor, who isn’t distracted by the lightshow and is very good at picking through traffic. Recalling advice I’d heard earlier, I just hang on to my new best buddy. Having a slightly faster car is my saving grace, and it feels to me as though we stay in this arrangement for the majority of our time on track.
Only once out of the car do I realize who I was behind, and that it was a clear run of green laps to boot. I have no idea what kind of times I’ve done, for some reason they feel slower than the first time out, and I don’t care. For what it’s worth, they aren’t. I finished two whole stints, and on the spectrum of mistakes that can be made in a race car, I only made minor ones. All of the relief comes at once. I can’t recall ever feeling better.
In retrospect, I probably could have rested some more, stayed suited and sober, and connived my way into a few more laps that morning, as there was some flexibility. Being too giddy to consider that, I went back to my hotel for a hot shower and a few minutes of silence.
Driving away from the paddock, I stop at the bridge that crosses over the track, in front of a sign telling me not to. The lightshow that streams through the darkness up the Esses is too fantastic to not pause and watch.
The sound of unmuffled E30s is everywhere now, in the wind coming through my car’s window miles from the track, in the A/C rumble of my hotel room, from the shower head. I’m hoping that it goes away soon, or else I won’t be joking at all when I tell people I’m insane.
Behind certain cars on track, the phases of their exhaust pulses would overlap those of my own and create an overwhelming comb filter effect that, without earplugs, was trance-inducing. This throb sticks around too, and there’s a worry that the few cilia spared death at the hands of loud jobs I’ve taken in the past are probably flattened.
Still high on what just happened, there’s no chance at a nap in the hotel. With the weight of driving responsibilities lifted, I’m back to a fan’s perspective, but the immersion is addictive.
The large illuminated sign at the track’s gate looks alive in the darkness. It and a cheery attendant welcome me back: It’s 2:43 AM at Virginia International Raceway. In the pits, there are bodies everywhere as drivers and crew rest wherever they can. There’s still seven hours left to race and few have the luxury of free time as I do. With my lack of experience, as crew I’m good for little more than holding a fire extinguisher and wish I could do more, but it is what it is. Everything is well taken care of anyway.
The lack of a real camera feels acute at this point. The visuals that are presenting themselves would be beautiful to anyone if captured correctly. My cell phone doesn’t cut it, instead producing the photos that you see. Riding my bicycle around the darkened roads traversing the facility, the sound and smell that I’m encircled by is being etched deeply into memory.
I fall asleep in the pits at some point and wake up to see Jack Baruth getting out of the #188 “Smoke Ewe” Mk2 VW Golf. After a party the next state over on Saturday night and an overnight highway trip, he’s set a time less than 4/10ths off of the fastest lap the car has set the entire race, and advanced the car well up the standings. Seems legit. When he starts doing tricks on my bicycle, it doesn’t seem like someone who was recently partially reconstructed. (Writing shit like this will GET YOU PUBLISHED! — JB)
If you’ve read this (and I applaud your persistence if you have,) you’ll likely already know that this car was angling for a real-deal Guinness World Record for distance over time on biodiesel, and that it didn’t make it. We’re about 5MPH short of the average speed required to meet Guinness’s requirement of 2500 kilometers within 24 hours. This story would probably be much different had conditions been good enough to support the higher speeds. It’s disappointing when we realize that we won’t meet the target, but no one dwells on it and the race goes on. Though I don’t get a chance to drive it, I hear it’s a fun car, with massive torque in a stripped shell it should be.
The latter hours of the race seem to be when aggression and sleep deprivation converge. Within what feels like a short span of time, three of our four cars have had contact incidents or been punted off-track and more time is spent under full-course caution. Team Fiery Death and their #401 Toyota Celica had joined us for this race and were running well until their drive was ended prematurely in one of these. They’re a talented and very competitive group, used to running up front, so it can’t sit well with them. I don’t know any details at all but that everyone’s OK and the car will not return to the track.
All of the cars have had various issues which required significant time in the pit or garage, so there was no expectation that we’d place highly towards the end. One car, the “Big Red” BMW driven by professionals and highly experienced amateurs, made it to 23rd. The rest were clustered mid-pack in the thirties and forties; the NX2000 had taken a trip into the tire wall early in the morning allegedly thanks to an E30 and placed lowest within the team at 45th. Being such a tenderfoot I think that’s still honorable in a field of 94 cars, and I don’t think I lost many positions during my stints (You absolutely did not — JB). I want to say that I heard the car was in the top ten during my first stint, and I kept it there, but I don’t know what time I heard that and so it could well have been part of a dream. It sounds like it is.
Incredibly, at the end of the race, all of the top three are on the same lap separated by a relatively thin gap. It’s a dramatic finish, with the leader needing to take a last-minute fuel stop, and dropping back to third. I’m on the balcony over the pits at the time, and I marvel at how efficiently they fuel up, unaware of the circumstances. Someone mentions that they’re in first, and not knowing how close the race is, the importance of the pit stop is lost on me.
The winner is thus an Acura Integra painted like Simon the memory game. They’re the first ever two-time winners of this event, which is deeply impressive. The other cars on the podium are both BMW E36. More BMWs and a Miata fill out the top five.
It was an overwhelming weekend, and to have fully sated such a strong latent desire that’s existed for so long is an unmatched feeling. That I didn’t embarrass myself is unexplainable, I feel like I’ve gotten away with something. Deciding to do this, VIR’s Grand West course in the pouring rain and in the middle of the night, before an HPDE or track day, or driving a fast car with high-performance tires was stupid, frankly. I implore anyone thinking about renting a seat in a crap can to do one of those first, because ChumpCars are not just shitty cars. They’re well prepared race cars and the series facilitates real, hard racing. Furthermore, the difficulty of any 24-hour endurance race should be obvious. You really need to be an idiot to go in with nothing but street driving experience.
That said, having survived and done OK, I’m buying a racing suit, helmet, and HANS. I don’t know where I’m going next, or to do what with whom. A little more track time before the next wheel-to-wheel endurance race would be a good move, and who knows, I might rope Jack into that.
Now, smelling uncatalyzed exhaust triggers flashbacks and I’m probably going to waste all of my money getting involved in a race car build in the future, lest I waste all of my money buying time in others’ cars. This is pretty much the only thing that I want to do now, just like they warned me might happen.
Super special humongous thanks go to CrapCanRacing.com and everyone associated for being an excellent racing team and gracious hosts. Jack Baruth and Daniel Sycks get special mention for the hard sell which pushed me over the edge. I guess I’m a race car driver now.
Photos #1 & #7 courtesy of Daniel Sycks