Until recently if you wanted to compete in endurance racing you had to have the financial resources to purchase a race-modified road car like a Porsche or Corvette (or pay to have one built), and even if you manage to do that you’re likely a long way from being able to campaign a purpose-built prototype.
Fortunately for those of more modest means there’s the Chump Car World Series, a low-cost alternative which enables racers to compete on many of North America’s most storied tracks in cars that cost a small fraction of what you’ll find in the American Le Mans Series or the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series.
As the series’ official website puts it:
This series is for gear-heads; for people who love driving and driving fast. It's not about gimmicks or theatrics. Rather, it's for Chumps like you that have always wanted to go road racing without all the hassles or expense. It's about 'Joe Average' and almost-race-ready cars.
Last fall, the series held its first 12-hour Canadian event at Grand Bend Raceway in Grand Bend, Ontario, and a group of stock car folks decided to take on the challenge on the road course near the shores of Lake Huron. Late Model drivers Jay Doerr and Steve March, along with crew member Terry Meyer joined myself (a journalist with very minimal racing experience) to form M2D Racing. We would be testing ourselves and our ‘$500’ car against some of the best road racers in Ontario including Dream Car Garage host, and NASCAR Canadian Tire Series part-timer, Peter Klutt.
First off, don’t be totally fooled by the term ‘$500 car’. It’s tough to find a 1993 Honda Prelude like ours for under $1,000, but our ride, with more than 200,000 kilometres on the odometer, qualified. Other entries included a few early 90s Bimmers, a host of Civics from the early 2000s, a pair of Rabbits as well as a Nissan 200 which was driven by another group of stock car / drag racers. A Ford Contour, a lightning-quick Neon and a 20-year old Jaguar that required fuel at somewhere close to a three-to-one ratio compared to the other entries, were also in the field.
We witnessed the birth of the $500 car class first hand at Delaware Speedway – known as ‘The Bone Stocks’ – and have watched it develop over the past several seasons. For a beginner class, the top teams have an air of seriousness about them, which might seem surprising considering they’re beating and banging in $500 Cavaliers, Sunfires, Neons, and Civics.
Our team picked up the clutchless Prelude from Ace Auto Parts and got to work installing a roll cage and other safety equipment, transforming it from street legal to ChumpCar-approved in less than a month. A couple of calls to the tech staff revealed that a $500 stock car really is a stock car! Our car came equipped with an aftermarket air cleaner, and when we asked about it we received the following answer: “You can run it, but you’ll start 25 laps down.” Not long after we went to a local wrecker to pick up a stock air cleaner.
As the car neared completion, the marketing partners were in place, including Ace Auto Parts, M&J Tire – Tirecraft, In Sights Landscaping, Brandy Point Services, Time Line Painting, Action Drainage, 2Go Energy, Once Upon a Child, Performance Racing News, Maudsley Motorsports, H&M Auto, Grover Signs, and Steve Aykroyd Graphic Design.
M2D also joined forces with a charity for the event. The Canadian National Autism Foundation had been on an Ontario-wide race track tour in 2012, fundraising and raising awareness for their group. The M2D Racing Team were thrilled to carry their logo on the side of the #95 and agreed to donate any prize money back to the foundation (we did warn them, however, that we were stock car guys trying road course racing – the equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight – and the odds were against us).
Friday’s test day was rained out, but the team was able to take the required rookie school, get the car through tech, have it labeled as a $500 stock car, and put the finishing touches on it in preparation for race day.
We also spoke to a few other teams and realized that based on their experience we might be in over our heads. The main goal now was to just make the 12-hour mark and survive.
Saturday morning started with a quick coffee, a drivers meeting and a quick pep talk before yours truly was strapped in for the first stint. The ‘racers’ of the group were also quick to remind the non-racers of our quartet that ‘damage was on’, as I started the car and headed out for some recon laps.
I was convinced I was prepared for the day, thanks to some hot laps on Gran Turismo, and the Aaron Povoledo and Sasha Anis’ columns from PRN Ignition back issues that I had re-read. I thought it should be a snap.
The field came to rest on the main straight for the modified Le Mans start as a team member ran to the grid and flipped the main power switch in the cars, allowing the 17 drivers to bring their ‘beaters’ to life.
It became apparent early in the day that road racing is far from the easiest thing to do. On lap two, I entered the braking zone at corner two, a right-hander at the end of the longest straightaway, and blew the corner, braking far too late. I spun the car through standing water left over from the day before, and aside from some visibility issues for a few seconds, the car was fine and the driver had just figured out where the limit was.
The course is flat and during the next few laps, the leaders started catching me in a hurry. With a championship on the line for them, I tried my best to stay out of their way, but they were courteous as well, just before they blew by me like I was I was tied to a post.
After rolling along for a number of laps again, with a lot of on-the-job training, I actually reeled in a car (although I’m sure the leaders must have lapped me again by that point). Our car wasn’t handing as well as those with more expensive rubber and I was as green as the paint job on a John Deere-coloured Civic on track (green and gold livery complete with an orange ‘slow moving vehicle’ sign on the back – epic!), but I did manage to catch a Rabbit.
Despite our underdog status, our Honda was putting out as much power as anyone else and after sizing up the Volkswagen for half a lap, I made my move, sweeping past to take the position. About 30 seconds later, my head had expanded far too much inside the brain bucket and I spun again, taking out a number of traffic cones in one swift move. The car was still fine, however, and I blasted away, in search of the Rabbit again.
Problems started soon after that, as I started to see smoke coming from the exhaust of our V-TEC motor every time I shifted. It came to the attention of the crew, and they all seemed as worried as me – engine smoke 30 minutes into a 12-hour affair can never be a good thing.
After the trip to pit road the crew had a look and sent me back out. The smoke continued and after a few laps, I came back into the pits. We had two choices: call it a day and save the motor, or run it until it finally gave up. We quickly considered how much we had invested in our junkyard Chump Car and I turned the wheel over to Meyer while the crew refilled the radiator and tried to figure out how to cool the overheating powerplant.
Terry hit the track and started laying down decent laps for a rookie as we watched. Our handy work seemed to hold up until about 20 minutes into the run when the smoke started again.
Another trip to pit road would see crew chief Don Yorke make an emergency trip to the auto parts store in nearby Parkhill for some Irontite, which combined with removing the thermostat seemed like our best chance.
At this point, the M2D was staring defeat in the face but we went down swinging. Doerr hopped in the seat, but after a few laps the car wouldn’t stay running and he had to keep re-firing the motor by letting the clutch out in gear. More water was added, but the end was near.
March left the pits, and was able to complete one lap in the car. Unfortunately, it was completed while he was attached to the wreckers after the motor seized completely.
Before noon, our day was finished. After solemnly packing the trailer, we hung around and watched, dreaming about what could’ve been if the motor hadn’t puked, trying to figure out how to be even more prepared for our return to Chump Car next summer. As the number of competitors dwindled, and the sun started to set over Lake Huron, we did what only oval trackers would do while watching a 12-hour race after your car blew up at Grand Bend – we walked 200 feet to the oval track and watched the action there, while keeping an eye on the road course behind the grandstands.
Despite our troubles, the event was successful – and quite competitive. The top six cars turned best laps within one second of each other, and the Van Winden Racing BMW edged the Mopar 4 Life Neon by just three circuits after one complete trip around the clock.
Last year marked the third season for Chump Car races in Canada, and the series visited Shannonville Motorsports Park and Calabogie Motorsports Park in addition to Grand Bend. While the series sees over 100 cars at some of the larger U.S. events such those held at Daytona International Speedway, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Michigan International Speedway, and Road Atlanta, it’s still gaining traction in Canada. There were just 17 entries at Grand Bend and just over 20 at the other two.
The 2013 season will include return trips to Shannonville and Calabogie, in addition to dates at Autodrome St-Eustache in Quebec in May and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in October. The series will also make its debut at Watkins Glen International in August.
When I put word out that we had assembled a team of drivers to run the Chump Car event I heard from an old friend of mine who had raced locally. He said, “I’ve done it two times now, and you will never have more fun in your life.”
Race number one was fun and I’m ready for race number two. I’m sure if we can come close to finishing it might be the most fun I’ve ever had, and the good news is that after race one things can only get better.