Walking around the paddock at Watkins Glen with my nine-year-old son, explaining all the fascinating things he’d never seen at our local SCCA and NASA races, gave me a sense of deja vu that I just couldn’t immediately place.
“That’s called a toterhome–you can put two cars and your office in it, you can sleep up front.”
“That coach over there is a Prevost–it’s worth a million and a half dollars. That one’s a Newell–they’re two and a half million dollars.”
“Those are crates with spare engine/transmission combos.”
“Yes, John, all forty of those tires are for this weekend’s race.”
After half an hour or so, however, I figured it out. I was basically “Crash” Davis, the irascible veteran catcher from the movie Bull Durham, explaining his “cup of coffee” in “The Show” to the other minor-league players. “You don’t carry your own bags in The Show.” That sort of stuff. And it was appropriate, because Pirelli World Challenge is very much The Show as far as club racers like me are concerned.
Sure, IMSA has all the prototypes and all the super-trick LeMans GT cars, they have a PWC-like series called Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge that I entered just once, about nine years ago. But the IMSA races are multi-hour endurance events for two-driver teams. World Challenge, on the other hand, is a forty-minute bare-knuckle brawl. The same way we do it in club racing, only with Newell coaches and spare engines. Hell, some of the teams have spare cars, as we discovered when one of my fellow competitors in the TC class knocked all four corners off in Practice 2 only to show up with an identically-liveried replacement two hours later.
Four months ago, I had this crazy idea that I could get my own “cup of coffee” in The Show, however briefly. I’d just bought the ex-Rains-Racing 2013 Honda Accord Coupe, which had a single top-ten finish last year. Maybe I could do just as well, if not better. But a quick chat with PWC management made me nervous. The cars have gotten considerably faster, with a majority of the field now choosing to run the BMW M235i. My Accord, with me in it, weighs 200 pounds more than a series-legal M235i. It has maybe sixty fewer horses at the wheels. And it has to use the same size tires as the BMW despite being a front-driver with two-thirds of its weight over the front axles.
“You’re… gonna get your butt kicked,” one series official told me.
“I’m still going to try,” was my response. More critically, I was going to try using the people, and the resources, that I normally use for club racing and low-cost enduro series. My car would be prepped by Albany Autoworks in rural Ohio, my crew would be Bozi Tatarevic of YouTube’s “Boost Brothers” and semi-famous radio-control car designer Josh Howard. The pitlane boss would be my brother, Mark.
On Thursday before the race, while the other teams were gathering in the Glen’s media center for the first meeting of the weekend, we were leaving our day jobs and loading the trailer in Powell, Ohio. We rolled in at 3:30am Friday morning, and missed the first of two practices because we didn’t have our tires mounted yet. Come the second practice, however, we were ready to roll.
This was my third time driving at Watkins Glen; I don’t think I will ever stop considering it a privilege to compete on America’s most highly-esteemed and pedigreed racetrack. It was also a privilege to drive Pirelli’s “DH” compound slick tire for the first time. The difference between the DH slick and the DOT-R Toyos that I run in NASA’s Honda Challenge is like the difference between those Toyos and whatever tires you have on your local schoolbuses. The grip was incredible and the tire didn’t just give up and turn into butter when it got hot.
We showed up early and were one of the first cars to hit the track. “You’re 4th out of 22 so far...” Sounds good. “Alright, the field is starting to get better… you’re ninth… 12th…” I’d come out of the gate at maximum attack, the way I would in a 13-minute SCCA qualifying session, but here in PWC people talk to their pit crews, make a plan, find their empty space on the track, and take their time. At the end of practice I was 18th out of 22. Plus I’d killed a wheel bearing, which we spent the evening replacing.
The team pitted next to us, running the 07 Mazda MX-5 in the entry-level TCA class, was having much better luck. Their driver, Jose DaSilva, had placed third in practice, ahead of the Subaru BR-Zs but behind Tom O’Gorman’s Civic Si. “You guys remind us of the way we used to be when we started racing MX-5 Cup,” DaSilva noted. “Coming in on an open trailer, in the dead of night...” Then he chuckled.
Saturday morning’s qualifying was, to put it mildly, a Thanksgiving dinner in which yours truly was the turkey. After two laps, I was qualified sixth. At the end of the session, I was 20th out of 21 cars, a full five seconds behind the front-runners. And it could only get worse in the race, because unlike the other teams I was going to race on the same Pirellis I’d used in practice and qualifying. The only real hope we had was that it looked like it might rain. That would make my front-drive chassis an advantage, rather than a hindrance… and we had brand-new rain tires waiting for the opportunity.
No such luck. We lined up at the field’s tail end, eight rows behind the two major championship contenders of Rearden Racing’s 370Z-mounted Vesko Kozarov and Classic BMW’s Karl Wittmer in one of the ubiquitous M235is. Wittmer needed to win both rounds of the weekend’s racing in order to even have a chance; Kozarov just needed to stay within breathing distance of the podium both days, and the season trophy would be his.
On the warm-up lap, one of the Bimmers directly ahead of me spun-out on cold tires and bounced lightly off the wall. Well, I thought, at least I won’t finish dead last. Then, to my dismay, the driver backed out of the gravel and lined up behind me. As the field idled through the final turn before the green flag, I couldn’t help but think that I was making a fool out of myself just being here. Everybody else had the right cars, the right prep, more than enough tires, and all the resources they needed. What did I have? A half-empty fuel drum and a radio that only worked on the front straight.
Ah, but it’s normal to have a little self-doubt until the green flag waves. Once I saw the starter move his shoulder up there in the tower, I floored the throttle and made a hole between the BMWs directly ahead of me. Through the Glen’s famous uphill Esses, I kept my foot in it while the cars around me lifted. At the Bus Stop, I hammered through the chicane and picked up two more spots. Another racer spun in the second-to-last turn and hit the wall, narrowly missing me on the bounce-back and coming to a halt that would be more permanent than the warmup-lap hit I’d also evaded. Just like that, I’d made up six positions. Things were looking up.
In my first clean lap, I matched my qualifying time while the drivers ahead of me still seemed to be lollygagging. But their lollygag was better than my best. On the back straight, the BMW that had looped before the race start just pulled out and passed me like we were commuting to work together and he’d decided to set his cruise control 5mph above mine. Leaving “The Boot,” I had to yield to the Civic Type-R of Team HMA, which could corner just as well as I could and also had a useful advantage in straight-line speed.
Meanwhile, about a quarter-mile ahead of me, there was an absolute stunner of a race going on between the Bimmers of Karl Wittmer and Johan Schwartz. If you’ve seen the video, you know what I mean. If not, go see it. Truly one of the classic battles… but Mr. Kozarov was biding his time in fourth and fifth like Death in the shadows of a Roman dinner party, just waiting for the BMWs to tire.
As was I. There were two BMWs in heated combat just ten car lengths ahead of me. Each time they squabbled entering a turn, I made up ten feet. Another two laps, and I’d be ready to make my own move on them. Then I noticed a wobble from the right front wheel. Was it the bearing? It was getting worse, and quickly.
I resolved to avoid hitting any curbs on the right side. Now the BMWs were no longer getting larger in my windshield. Then I started to feel the whole car shaking in the two hard left-handers leading to Watkins Glen’s final turn, so I had to back off on those just a little bit. Goodbye Bimmers.
Each time I got on the front straight, I reported the declining condition of my right front corner. Maybe it was a ball joint. But if it was a bearing, I could lose the whole wheel at any moment. I thought about that every time I shifted into fifth gear at the top of the Esses. The smart thing to do would be to retire the car, fix it, and try again in tomorrow’s race.
The hell with that. I’d spent more money, time, and effort than I’d ever put into a single club race just to get here. And I was running 14th of 21 cars in my rookie effort. No way I wasn’t going to hold on. But it was getting worse. The vibration was so bad, and the friction up front was so significant, that the Accord was actually slowing after the shift to fifth. I had to just redline it for a quarter-mile once a lap. “How many laps left?” I called in.
“About seven,” Bozi responded. “You are running slower than the cars behind you but if you can maintain this pace they won’t catch you.” The next six laps were a nightmare filled with sudden jerk-and-dive motions from the front end every time I shifted or touched the brakes. With two laps to go, Bozi told me that the leaders were coming through. This was depressing. I’d sworn to my team that I would stay on the lead lap in this forty-minute race. But the car was more or less out of my precise control at this point. On the back straight, as Wittmer and Schwartz raced towards me, I dipped off the racing surface and waited for the leaders to blow by. It was the proper, professional choice, and afterwards Schwartz would make a point of thanking me for it, but it felt like an admission of failure.
Three minutes later, I crossed the finish line in fourteenth place, and that felt like a moral victory. Better still, I’d won two awards: the Optima Batteries Best Start Award for making up the most places in Lap One, and the VP Fuels Hard Charger award for making up the most places in the overall race. We received a total of seven World Challenge points, which meant that we would finish the season NOT in last place among all the teams. Pretty good for a bunch of rookies, right? And after we fixed the car tomorrow, we’d do it all over again.
Except we wouldn’t. The problem wasn’t the wheel bearing; it was the CV joint, which had come apart during the race. There was no replacement axle within a thousand miles. We held a team meeting about it. If we repacked the bearing and/or welded the thing together, we could start tomorrow’s race and see what happened. In an enduro or a club race, we might have done exactly that. But this wasn’t a club race. It was The Show. And in The Show, you don’t make stupid decisions that could cause an incident and affect the championship in the final race of the season. We put the car on the trailer. One cup of coffee. That was all we got.
It left us free to watch our new friend Jose DaSilva in the TCA race. He was down on power compared to the Subarus, but he was flat out up the Esses in magnificent fashion, hounding the bigger coupes then swinging out to intimidate them going into the Bus Stop. It was great racing, to say the least, and if DaSilva didn’t win, he at least had the satisfaction of making the winners work for it.
On Day 2, we watched all the races. It was great theater. I’ll admit that I’ve gotten used to the idea that sports-car racing isn’t really exciting for anybody but the drivers–but in all five of Sunday’s races there was enough interest to captivate everybody on my team as we cheered from the grandstands. Even my son managed to pick a few favorites, although he was careful to let me know that our team, RTF Racing, was “still the best, even if we don’t have a Newell coach.”
Afterwards, we shook everybody’s hand, watched the trophy ceremonies, bought the T-shirts, then packed up. As Josh was loading our remaining tires into the bed of my Silverado, he caught my eye and nodded.
“We did it,” he said.
“Yes we did.”
“It would be nice to race with these guys again.”
“Yeah… and it would also be nice to own a helicopter. But they can’t say we didn’t give it our best shot.”
“No, they can’t,” he agreed. I started the truck, everybody climbed in, and we rolled out of The Show for the first, and last, time.