"Pit this lap. Pit this lap," Bill Riley radios to driver Jim Kasprzak as his car slices down off the 31-degree banking and crawls along the pit lane at Daytona International Speedway. "Watch for me. You will stop five pits past the start/finish line."
Riley's voice is calm, clinical, almost blase, which is what I'd expect from a guy who's made tens of thousands of radio calls at hundreds of big-time races. Riley is president of Riley Technologies, the North Carolina-based shop where the last eight winners of the Rolex 24 at Daytona were designed and built. As it happens, the car he's running today carries a black-and-yellow paint scheme in homage to the SunTrust car that won the enduro in 2005.
Not that anybody would confuse the two cars. The one stopping in the pits on this Memorial Day Sunday is slathered with black latex paint that Riley's three sons applied with paintbrushes. Eagle-eyed observers might recognize it as a 1994 Ford Probe. Tyler Hook, the Riley data engineer who put it together, bought the car off Craigslist for $200 and then whacked off the top with a Sawzall. Other inelegant touches include fenders zip-tied to the body and an ignition switch mounted to the steering column with duct tape the color of radioactive puke.
This might be a good time to point out that the car is competing not in the Rolex 24 but the 14 Hours of Daytona, which is a highlight of the 2012 race schedule put together by the ChumpCar World Series. And, no, that's not a typo. Like its rival, the 24 Hours of LeMons, ChumpCar focuses on what participants fondly describe as "shitbox racing." But while the cars are cheap -- $500 max, not including what are liberally defined as safety components -- ChumpCar events are challenging enough to attract professional racers.
"The fun factor is so much higher here than it is during a professional race weekend," Hook tells me as he mans a pit box where a blurry version of the Indy 500 is playing on a television picked up at Goodwill for $14.91. "When I'm working at a race, my career is on the line, so it's super stressful. Here, if the car blows up, it just means that we go to the bar a little earlier. It's racing without the bullshit -- no worrying about the rich guys, no dealing with the sponsors. It's awesome. How else could you get to race at Daytona for 500 bucks?"
Hook isn't the only motorsports professional on a busman's holiday. Pitted next to his Probe is a 1995 Honda Civic campaigned by a DAG (data-acquisition geek) and a mechanic who work for Riley and an engineer attached to the Action Express team that races in Grand-Am's Daytona Prototype class. Farther down pit road, Dave Spitzer, who used to be Grand-Am's competition director (he's now managing director for manufacturer and series development) is renting a ride in a 1993 Saab 9-5.
Meanwhile, Predator Performance, which restores and preps exotic vintage racing cars, has entered not one but two cars in the race. Matt Groeschl, an engineer with the Stewart-Haas NASCAR team, also has two cars, and his co-drivers include his wife and his father. Professional road racer Shane Lewis is driving two different cars for two different teams. (Last week, he was competing in the 24 Hours of the Nuerburgring in a factory-backed Aston Martin.) Tony Stewart did a ChumpCar race in 2010. Terry and Bobby Labonte raced last March, and several Sprint Cup teams have "house" ChumpCar entries.
Kasprzak, who runs a racing engineering company in Detroit that (among other things) analyzes the results of seven-post shaker-rig tests, was on the road when he got a last-minute call from Riley to join him at Daytona. So instead of spending Memorial Day weekend with his family, he had his wife FedEx his racing gear to Florida. "I know it seems a little bizarre," he admits. "We're at racetracks all the time. Why would we want to be here on our days off? But it's always fun to drive something -- anything -- as fast as you can."
Automotive journalist Jay Lamm is the self-professed "chief perpetrator" of the formula that put clunkers on road courses in endurance races that emphasized irreverence over cutthroat competition. A $500 limit on the cost of the car minimized expenses, and a series of ridiculous and sometimes draconian penalties weeded out both ringers and win-at-all-costs spoilsports. I raced with Lamm in the inaugural 24 Hours of LeMons in 2006, and although I had a great time, I had no idea that I'd just seen the birth of a vibrant new form of racing.
Much to my surprise, the LeMons format brought hordes of new drivers to the sport even as participation in traditional road-racing venues was dwindling. Many of the newbies were fans who'd never had the resources -- whether money or technical know-how -- to go racing themselves. Others were car guys who were seduced by Lamm's cheeky attitude and who delighted in creating outlandish themes and elaborate outfits for their teams. But the same jokiness that attracted some participants annoyed those entrants who just wanted to put their heads down and go racing on the cheap.
"They black-flagged us and made us do all this stupid crap -- wearing pink jumpsuits and going around the paddock saying, 'We're bad drivers,'" Chris Miller recalls with disgust. A DAG in Bill Riley's shop, Miller isn't opposed to a little silliness of his own; his Civic is blanketed with squiggly, hand-painted circles that are supposed to be breasts. (I know this only because he told me -- well, that and the fact that his car is called the Titty Smasher.) But, as he says, "We put a lot of time and effort and money into this stuff, and all that black-flag crap was ridiculous."
John Condren got it. A longtime racer and racetrack owner who promoted the first three LeMons races, he wanted to put a different spin on the LeMons model. So he drew up a new rule book that retained the $500 limit on the race cars while bringing the track experience in line with what competitors would expect from the Sports Car Club of America.