Buttonwillow 24hrs


Lexus ES350 - Nissan Skyline GTR
So. I race cars from time to time. It's not nearly as often as I'd like, but that's the way life is sometime. When I say race cars, I actually do mean race. Driving events are satisfying, fun, and entertaining. They're a good chance to take a DD out on the track and shoot the **** with people who are into cars just like yourself! DEs are nothing compared to actually racing, however. You don't have to drive a race car home. You don't have to continually make payments on a race car. You don't baby or really wash/wax your race car. You beat it mercilessly. You'll have the next few months to repair, replace, and prep for the next race. Make it count.

I do crapcan racing. Chumpcar, to be exact. 24 Hours of Lemons is a bit better known, but doesn't have nearly as many events, and the events they have are a bit overcrowded and goofy. I like racing with my racing, not dancing, singing, and goofy bullcrap with my racing.

I've done two previous Chump events. One was at Texas Motor Speedway - 24 hours. I was driving a 94 Thunderbird. The other was at Texas World Speedway. It was an 18 hour event. I spend roughly 30 minutes in an 86 MR2 before the next guy got in and it went kablooey. Too bad so sad.

It's been well over a year since I've gotten to race and I've been feeling the itch. Track days just don't cut it. Since I can't seem to find a team that wants another person to buy into a car and help build it, and I have to buy a seat with teams who need another driver. There are plenty of teams that sell seats in order to make a profit and there are teams that have logistical issues and just need a 4th seat filled so they can race. I go for these.

I got set up with a group of guys based out of Phoenix who have a 78 Porsche 924 built. They've had two previous races - a 24 hour in which they lasted 23 hours, and an 18 where they finished. Reliability is everything in an endurance race with cars that are this junky. It was the primary reason I chose this ride over one in a Miata at Laguna Seca. Seat time and a full endurance experience was important to me. I'll take 24 hours over 10 any day of the week, even if it's at a legendary track like Mazda Raceway.

This reliability I was looking forward to was simply not to be.

I flew into Phoenix and arrived at 9am Friday. One of them picked me up and we were on the road to Buttonwillow by 9:15. He drove for 8.5 hours. I slept for about 6 of those. When I was awake, I was treated to some very nice scenery. California and Arizona are very beautiful. We arrived at Buttonwillow around 6:40ish and immediately made our way to tech to get our gear checked in. After that, we set up the camper, cold pit, and hot pit.

While they were dealing with the camper, I took one of their bikes and rode the track. It's very simplistic and very fast. There's very little that's extremely technical, and you don't end up losing a lot of speed on the straights if you're slow through some twisty areas. It's very forgiving in that regard. The second hill (The Lost Hill) has negative banking from the racing line. Taking that hill wrong and fast will have you thrown off the track. There are a couple very heavy braking zones for cars that would be traveling fast enough to need to break (IE not the car I was driving) but overall was very simple for a low powered RWD light car. The esses near the end of the track before the pit straight can easily be taken flat out.

I crashed around 10pm. Everyone else stayed up talking and drinking a bit.

Morning came and everyone was a busybody amped and ready to go. Why? Probably nerves. Everything was fairly well sorted and we were as ready as we possibly could be. I killed time listening to music and getting a tan. Due to me flying in, they decided to let me have the green flag and first stint. This would realistically be the only time I had in the car to put in 'serious' speed as it would spend the rest of the race in various stages of disrepair and limpage.

The car itself was quite enjoyable to drive once you relinquish yourself to the reality that acceleration isn't something that's going to ever really happen. The entire experience occured at various stages and degrees of slow. The brakes were excellent, despite the rears being drums (as per rules, I can't fathom why the owner didn't put 944 turbo discs all the way around, but whatever.) I was warned beforehand that brakes were probably going to be an issue. Was very glad that they weren't. While I don't feel like the car had very great grip, it was definitely very communicative. I never had any question as to how much grip any of the tires had.

None of that matters so much, though. The name of the game is conservation. You've got 24 hours to not kill your car. As long as you're going, you might as well be winning. Even though fixing things that break is part of the experience, everyone is there to drive, not turn wrenches. With that in mind, for the first hour or so, I shortshifted at 5k. There weren't too many corners where this mattered, as much of the course was flat out in 4th (which didn't mean much.) For me at least, this was enough to keep temperatures well down and pressures in the green.

In a car this slow, you get reeeeeal used to being passed. Over, and over, aaaaand over again. There were a couple cars on the field which were definitely faster, but slowed down enough for me to keep up and eventually have them signal to pass. That was a nice feeling to get used to, but it ultimately didn't mean much. We definitely had the slowest car on the field. As my first hour was up and temps were good, I started downshifting to 2nd for the banked carousel at the beginning of the track, and holding 3rd up to around 5800 on the approach to the bus stop. This helped me steadily drop lap times throughout my stint. The few times the rear broke loose were due to gusts of wind. It was easy to anticipate, catch, and not lose speed from lifting. The car inspired lots of confidence. It had me looking forward to Sunday morning when saving the car wasn't something that mattered and instead I could go all out. I was called in around 12:30 after spending about 1:45 in the car. I was hardly fatigued at all. I could've easily done twice as much. The car didn't fight. The sun wasn't killing. The 'competition' was nonexistent so there was very little stress. It was a nice leisurely drive in a gutted car wearing a nomex suit.

We did a smooth 5 minute driver change and refuel. Next guy was out there for about 30 minutes when hell started breaking loose. By hell, I mean parts on the engine. For the next 6 hours or so, we had belt issues, harmonic balancer issues, fuel pump issues, and an alternator issue. The owner, being resourceful and intelligent, we well prepared for these issues, and tackled them as they came along. One by one, about 30-45 minutes separated from each other. Frustrating, to say the least. Me, having no mechanical skill whatsoever, got to watch, do nothing, eat, rehydrate, and dismay.

At dusk approached, my second stint started coming up. We were having constant fan issues, and the owner of the car didn't want to guarantee cold pit time enough to add coolant to the car. Therefore, it was going to be running in the red throughout my second stint. This time, I'd be short shifting at 4500 and sticking to it.

So the sun was falling. I had done night racing before at Texas Motor Speedway. It was quite a bit of fun. Different. Slightly less visibility. A little more guessing.

Texas Motor Speedway is well lit. It's a giant NASCAR track where night racing is normal.

Buttonwillow is not a giant NASCAR track where night racing is normal. Lighting? There was none. 2 of the corners had reflectors in them. 2. During testing the previous night, I was dreading racing with cars that had HIDs for lighting. That night, I was just waiting and waiting for one of them to come around to light up my way. All you had to rely on was muscle memory and faint glimmers of reflection on the track or ground - which often looked the same anyway. Then throw in the fact that everyone was spending time with a couple wheels off the track throwing up dirt and you add being blinded into the mix. Official timing stated that times across the board fell around 20 seconds for every car. I believe it. I had about 10 minutes left in my 2 hour stint when a 240 spun in front of me heading onto Pit Straight. My car died avoiding, so I coasted into the pits instead of trying to do a rolling start.

The next driver after me had even less fun than I did. A couple laps in, the alternator started dying again, which meant his already inadequate lighting was getting worse. It then died altogether and the car got towed in. The two mechanics on the team went to work. I ate, and then fell asleep in the trailer. The other driver fell asleep sitting in the car. They quit trying to fix it around 1am. The spare alternator worked for a small bit of time, but ultimately crapped out. Can't do any night racing without any lights, so the final verdict was wait until dawn and let the batter power ignition. Sleepsleep!

Morning came around, and we were all fairly well rested. We had gotten more sleep than we had originially expected. Stints for the other drivers started back up and the car was running like a top. Cool weather helped keep temps down in the car, as we didn't have any fans. Problems started cropping back up and repairs continued. It somehow managed to throw off the timing bel. The guys joked about how that was fine in this car, but in a 944, it would've resulted in the engine eating itself.

The last stint was done by the owner of the car, and he ragged on it hard. I was scheduled to take checkered flag, assuming the car lasted. It didn't. It was quite a shame, as I would've really enjoyed driving hard. The owner of the car set a best lap 7 seconds faster than mine, and I was hoping to see how much i could beat that by. No such luck though.

Me and the other drivers (not the owner) talked extensively about other cars and what their future with chumpcar was going to be. They're all friends and do this as a hobby. The two mechanics are Porsche guys and own 944s. At the very least, I'd like to see them make a change to something like a 944, though a miata or E36 325 or 328 would be ideal. No matter how you cut it, though, 90-100hp simply isn't enough. I'd gladly race with these guys again. I hope my wall of text was at least mildly entertaining. Crap can racing is a very uniique experience. Also, just to throw it out there, I'm looking to buy into a car or join a team permanently in the Houston area. Pictures and video of my first stint will follow later today. I'm currently at work and can't really throw those up at this time.