Story by Doc Waldrop, Photos by Bill Strong, F&S Enterprises
For ChumpCar Endurance Series race teams looking to improve their standings for the 2018 Championship, the Virginia International Raceways Double 8-hour race on the challenging North Course on the weekend of December 2 and 3, 2017 offered one last chance to get a great finish. With an entry list of 58 cars the competition would be fierce.
The field had hardly taken the 8:00AM green flag on Saturday before one of the pre-race favorites, the Double D Racing Toyota Celica, found itself with nowhere to go and T-boned the spinning Ram Rod Racing No.773 Fiero who had themselves been squeezed over braking into the T7 hill right hander. Their weekend looking for a win was essentially over with heavy front-end damage although they would return to the track after repairs.
The field had hardly settled down from this incident when several full course yellows (FCY) broke out for two separate oil-downs out on the course that took some time to clean up. Several teams used the opportunity to play some alternate pit stop strategies including the No.111 RVA Graphics BMW. As the 2-hour mark approached another favorite, the No.146 Huggins (Pinkies Out) Racing BMW, was taken out by an exploding pressure plate and they loaded up to head to their shop for repairs to return for Sunday’s race.
After the first round of “normal” pit stops at the 2-hour mark for mandatory driver changes and fuel, the No.111 BMW and retaken the lead, dogged by the No.431 GodZilla Racing 300ZX, Where’s John’s No.98 Acura Integra, the Crash Management No.18 Dodge Stratus, and the Team Junction/Neo Motorsports Honda Civic No.810. The A & B class cars were showing their nimble handling advantage on the twisty corners that comprise much of the North course. The No.34 Chigger Racing BMW, Prancing Burro Racing’s MR2, Kosi Racing’s No.603 Miata, NLS Racing’s 240SX, and the CR Motorsport No.869 BMW 328i rounded out the top 10 running order.
As the drivers clicked off laps and the hours flew by, the pit crew chiefs and team strategists mulled over when to bring their cars in as frequent full course yellows played hell with their pre-race plans. VIR uses the “35 Flag” to slow the entire field down rather than a pace car so it is hard to make up a lost lap; Staying in touch with your competition is a necessity.
At the halfway point not much had changed near the front with the RVA BMW 325is still leading Godzilla’s Nissan and Where’s John’s Integra. Fourth through Twelfth place was an entirely different matter as positions changed hands repeatedly as a direct result of a team’s pit stop calls. SRI Racings No.67 BMW had steadily moved up and held 4th place and Crash Management’s Dodge had retaken 5th after tumbling down to 12th at one point. Chigger Racing’s BMW held down 6th and the No.810 Team Junction had climbed back to run in P7 after fixing a wiring issue in their VTEC controller, dropping their times some 10 seconds a lap, costing them 4th place down to 10th at one point.
The Schumacher Taxi Service BMW had steadily moved up in the standings to run in P8 followed by the Nissans of No.977 NLS Racing in their 240SX and Zorro Racing’s Sentra SER. Kosi Racing ran in 11th followed by the Hot Rod Lincoln LS, the No.869 CR Motorsport BMW, the surprising Ford Probe of MT Pockets Racing, and Radioactive Racing’s No.238 Ford Mustang. There were still 4 hours to go…
The next favorite and front runner to fall afoul of mechanical gremlins was the No.431 Godzilla entry when they were towed in from the track from 3rd place with no gears left in the 300ZX transmission. Barring any more gremlins rearing their ugly heads, at this point the overall win was down to two cars and when the No.111 RVA Graphics BMW pitted at 2:31 (1 hour, 29 minutes to go), the Acura of Where’s John briefly assumed the lead. Having come in with 2:20 the Acura would have to pit again though and the only question left to answer was whether the No.98 could go 2:20 on their fuel so they only had to stop to change drivers (in CCES rules, not taking fuel means you do not have a 5-minute mandatory pit stop). They had the advantage of pitting during a FCY at 2:49PM, but when the fuel jugs came out the question was answered, and RVA Graphics’ 325is reassumed the lead and held on for their very first overall win in the ChampCar Endurance Series.
During post-race interviews Where’s John confirmed they could not go over 2 hours on fuel and while the FCYs fell in the right spot for the RVA BMW, they did not fall at the right time for the Acura’s strategy. The Honda Civic from Team Junction/Neo Motorsport climbed back from the VTEC issue and claimed 3rd. The fastest time of the day with a 1:42.879 would have to console them after the VTEC problem might have cost them the overall win. The BMWs of Schumacher Taxi and Chigger Racing finished in P4/P5 respectively. A perhaps surprising 6th place finish was the Sellers D Class Chevy PICKUP truck that had only reappeared in the top 15 running order with 2:30 to go!
O2 Motorsports in their BMW came home in 7th followed by the Crash Management Stratus in 8th and the SRI BMW in 9th also on the same lap. The Hot Rod Lincoln LS was another lap down and finished in 10th. Saturday’s high cloud cover and temps in the mid-40s had been replaced by clear skies and sunny weather for Sunday’s race, but the temperature had dipped down into the 30s for the 8:00AM start. The field had been whittled down to 45 starters, the most notably missing entry being that of the No.111 RVA Graphics BMW which had been withdrawn with some visible body damage to the front of the car. The race was open for a new winner as the field took the green flag.
A pre-race prediction by the Huggins’ (Pinkies Out) Racing team (having replaced their broken clutch overnight) that they would be a force to be reckoned with was quickly confirmed when they rocketed into the lead by the half hour mark into the race after the random start had them down in 15th. Also proving their point that Saturday’s 3rd place finish was no fluke; the Junction No.810 ran in 2nd followed by the Godzilla Racing Nissan who had replaced their failed transmission overnight. An early black flag just short of the 1-hour mark for front end splitter damage cost them 6 minutes in the pits and seemingly ended their chances for a good finish for the No.431 300ZX unfortunately.
Crash Management’s No.18 Stratus then inherited 3rd place followed by the Where’s John Acura in 4th and the No.511 RVA Graphics EC Class BMW which had replaced Saturday’s winning C Class No.111 325is. The Not Yet Banned Racing Nissan 240SX out of the Ballenger Motorsports’ shop ran in 6th leading the O2 Motorsports BMW No.177, the Tau Racing No.484 Acura Integra, the Ford Probe of MT Pockets Racing, and Red Rooster BMW 325is No.288 running in P10.
Perhaps remembering yesterday’s early pitting strategy that played out well for the RVA team, when a FCY fell at 9:37 the Where’s John No.98 team along with Junction’s Civic No.810 and the other front runners dived into the pits for a driver change and refueling. Ballenger’s 240SX moved into the lead when the Huggins BMW pitted just shy of the 2-hour mark followed by the No.98 Acura, the Crash Management Stratus, and the No.810 Civic who had also early pitted. The Huggins BMW reentered the fray in 6th place after serving a penalty for speeding on pit row, the result of Wyatt Foster’s attempt to keep the momentum of the car up after running out of fuel after setting fastest time of the day with a blistering 1:40.050 on lap 28.
Just before halfway the FCY came out and that was eventually changed to a red flag as timing and scoring went down and the last couple laps had to be rebuilt from the cache storage. The leading No.146 BMW used the opportunity to pit.
As the race went over the half way mark, the No.146 Huggins BMW retained their lead after the pit stop having retaken the lead a half an hour earlier over the Ballenger 240SX which was visibly overheating, but they maintained 2nd place over the No.98 Integra, Neo’s No.810 Civic, and the BMWs of O2 Motorsport’s and Red Rooster. Godzilla Racing had overcome their black flag for mechanical issues to run in 8th place, chased by the 325is BMWs of Schumacher Taxi and Chigger Racing in P10.
Five hours in the eight-hour contest, the Ballenger 240SX was in for an alternator replacement and was still suffering overheating issues the result of a suspected blown head gasket or cracked head. Still they preserved on but dropped from 3rd place down to 13th. Where’s John maintained a several lap advantage in 2nd place overall on the MT Pockets Ford in 3rd. The No.810 Civic was hounding the Probe as they were both running on the same lap.
The next 2 hours was uneventful with numerous position changes from 5th place through 12th place, the result of passes on the track and in the pits as teams played out their various strategies to finish near the top. Almost predictably, with just under an hour to go, all hell broke loose!!! The first car to show perhaps a chink in their armor was the 2nd place Where’s John Acura ran out of fuel with no warning and coasted (then pushed) into the pits allowing the No.810 Junction Civic to close their lap disadvantage on them while MT Pockets was chasing them both in their Ford Probe just seconds back. The Schumacher Taxi BMW in 9th place was also worried about making the checker on their existing fuel load.
Having nearly caught the Acura with just over 30 minutes to go the Junction Civic visibly slowed on course and dived into the pits with no brakes minutes later. A hurried front brake pad change plus a penalty for working on the car while refueling dropped them out of contention for a podium finish. Now in 3rd place, the MT Pockets Probe could not make up any ground on Where’s John, but the Red Rooster BMW was reeling in the Godzilla 300ZX for 4th place and the Civic had recovered from their disastrous pit stop to run in 6th. The SRI BMW held off the still overheating Ballenger 240SX for 7th place as the checkered flag fell at 4:00PM.
The Tau Racing Acura Integra finished in 8th while the Sellers Chevy PICKUP truck notched their 2nd consecutive top 10 finish in 10th, both having passed the Schumacher Taxi BMW that had been in heavy fuel conservation mode for easily the last half hour of the race relegating them to 11th place. Chigger Racing’s BMW maintained their 12th place finish where they had run for most of the last half of the race having briefly run as high as 10th at the halfway mark. The Mazda Miatas of Kosi Racing and Nein Shiza Motorsports along with the Nissan 300ZX of Wannabe Newman rounded out the top 15 finishing positions.
Just as Saturday had crowned a first time ChampCar Endurance Series winner, Sunday’s 1st place finish was Huggins (Pinkies Out) first overall win as well. Their margin of victory over 2nd place was 4 laps as owner Chris Huggins babied the car around the track for the last 2 hours with the car virtually stuck in 4th gear with yet more clutch problems!!! Post-race interviews revealed that most of the competitors in impound were running with low fuel levels and the FCY at 3:37 salvaged, if not saved, their finishing positions.
With many of the teams having competed in their last race for 2017, the awards ceremony was a boisterous celebration and reached it’s crescendo when it was announced that team RACEBAR had won the coveted Chandler School Sportsmanship Award. It was officially announced that this award was given as a result of loaning a team an entire driveline and that their car had a working stereo going on in the car that could easily be heard as they passed pit row on the front straightaway. The fact that they also had a working beer keg in the trunk of their BMW 735i and 75 pounds of pulled pork available to the racers on Saturday night just might have played a part in it as well…
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