"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.
"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.