"I think LeMons is a neat concept for people who want to drive fast and party hard," Condren says. "But real racers want to do real racing. Contact is inevitable. There's not a car here that wouldn't look better with a new paint scheme, and you're not going to notice a little dent on the rear bumper. But I try to make ChumpCar as professional as the next series. The idea is to let Joe Racer run $500 cars on world-class racetracks, and I think people want what we're offering."
Since the first event in October 2009, ChumpCar races have drawn a total of about 8000 entries. The 2012 race calendar features forty-five endurance events on classic tracks ranging from Sebring and Road Atlanta to Road America and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. LeMons, too, has continued to grow at a remarkable clip. Both organizations have their devotees, and there's a lot of crossover between them, but the general consensus at Daytona is that ChumpCar puts on races while LeMons stages events.
Still, I'm not sure what to expect when I arrive at the track. Walking around the garages on Saturday afternoon, I see plenty of cars that would be at home at a LeMons race -- a Lincoln Town Car, a Mitsubishi 3000GT lovingly painted in powder-blue Gulf Oil colors, a Volvo 242 called the "Jew-Wop-E." Predator -- entered here as Predaturd -- has a bone-stock Mazda RX-7 wearing a crown on the roof in honor of its Rown Coyal signage. (Co-owner Larry Ligas refers to it as the "rat-piss special" because the carpets had been drenched with rat urine when team member Danny Stewart bought the car.)
But despite the purposely -- and perversely -- disreputable bodies, most of the cars look mechanically solid, which makes sense. Daytona is a serious racetrack. Even the crappiest POS will reach triple digits, and the fastest cars will top 150 mph. "You have to have a lot of confidence in your race car," says Ryan McCarthy, the Daytona Prototype engineer co-driving the Titty Smasher. "That's especially true of a cheap race car."
There's no practice or qualifying for ChumpCar races. So come Sunday morning, the cars -- all 126 of them -- simply leave the pits and slowly circulate around the road course like automotive zombies on an undefined mission. The cars start the race in whatever order they happen to be in when the green flag flies. But it doesn't take long for the cream to rise to the top.
Hook quickly drives the Probe toward the front. Thanks to the pit strategy dictated by yellow flags -- and there are lots of yellow flags in ChumpCar races -- Miller puts the Titty Smasher into the lead. "That was awesome," he says after turning the car over to Riley mechanic Steve Floyd. Meanwhile, Carl Jensen, chief steward of Historic Grand Prix, a vintage racing association, is having a blast in the rat-piss RX-7. "You're either racing somebody, passing somebody, or being passed by somebody all the time," he says.
In the early afternoon, the skies darken ominously as the first band of Tropical Storm Beryl hits the coast. Then comes a deluge. "Coming off turn 4, we got into complete white-out conditions," Spitzer says. His radio shorts out. Unable to see out the windshield or talk to his crew, he misses the call when the race is red-flagged and stays out on the track when everybody else pits. He's disqualified, but his team is permitted to keep racing without him.
After the race resumes, rain comes and goes, sometimes light, sometimes torrential. On the slick track, with cars and drivers of wildly varying quality, there's plenty of carnage. But the most serious incident occurs during a dry interlude. A problem with the fuel system sparks a fireball in the Titty Smasher, and McCarthy is hospitalized overnight with burns on his wrists and around his eyes. (He'd folded down his gloves and lifted his visor because it was so hot.) Afterward, Stephen Floyd, who runs a street-car and vintage-racing prep shop in California and who was looking forward to racing with his son Steve, gazes at the incinerated window net in the burned-out hulk. "That could have been me," he says solemnly. "I was in the car next."
By this time, Riley, Hook, and Kasprzak are leading the race. All three of them are experienced drivers who click off quick, consistent laps, rain or shine, and after several decades of manning the pits in grueling professional endurance races, the worst of the storm rolls right off their backs. Their biggest problem, it turns out, is Race Control. First, the team is penalized one lap because it won the last ChumpCar race it entered. Then, Kasprzak gets a stop-and-go penalty for passing under what he insists was a phantom yellow flag. Suddenly, the team is two laps down.
"What's the plan?" I ask Hook.
"We're hoping for rain," he says.
The skies darken on cue. Kasprzak sticks his hand out from underneath his canopy, and it's damp when he pulls it back in. He and Hook share a wordless high five. On the greasy track, Riley carves through the field in his front-wheel-drive Probe. "Minus 8 to the leader. Minus 8 to the leader," Kaz radios to him. "You are 10 seconds a lap faster."
Riley is leading when he pits, and Hook laps the field when he returns to the track. It's now pitch dark and raining at a biblical clip. Ligas looks more relieved than amped when he finishes his final stint in the RX-7. "That was no fun," he says. "It was so muddy in the bus stop [chicane] that you couldn't see the apexes. I pegged my fun meter about two hours ago."
During the last hour of the race, the Saab that Spitzer had abandoned earlier makes an epic run from sixth to second. But despite having to navigate corners in fourth gear because his third-gear synchros are shot, Hook continues to stretch his lead and finishes three laps ahead of the field. After taking the checkered flag, he pulls into the tech shed for final inspection. Riley and Kasprzak join him there, and the three of them spontaneously share bear hugs and high fives, looking more like Little League champions than major-league professional racers.
Watching them celebrate, I think about the meticulously scripted scene in victory lane after the Indy 500 that ended a few hours earlier -- Dario Franchitti drinking milk for the cameras, thanking dozens of people who'd helped him win the race, then doing the hat dance required by his sponsors. Riley, Hook, and Kasprzak built their car themselves, funded it themselves, pitted it themselves, and drove it themselves. They don't have to share their victory with anybody but each other. Sure, nobody was cheering for them, and they aren't going to split a check for $2.47 million. But winning the fourteen-hour ChumpCar race in a clunker seems every bit as satisfying as winning the Rolex 24 in a Daytona Prototype.