I've raced against some of the best drivers in the world and some of the strangest cars, but nothing prepared me for living out my Days of Thunder dreams against a pair of tween brothers in a half-sized NASCAR racer.
"What do you know about stock car racing?"
"Well…I've watched it on television of course…ESPN, the coverage is excellent, you'd be surprised how much you can pick up."
I learned a fair amount about circle track racing over the years, but Tom Cruise was pretty much spot on in the opening scene of The Days of Thunder. Most of us know about NASCAR because we watch it on TV. I know that you only turn left and the car is going to be "loose" or "tight" or something like that and you're supposed to yell at the team over the radio that you need more wedge or stagger or something.
Well, my first time "turning left" was a little different. I didn't roll up on a cool motorcycle, I pulled up in my mom's powder blue VW EOS convertible. But I also didn't get the third degree like Tom Cruise's character. Instead I was welcomed by an incredible group of racers (more on this later) running the Great Lakes Mini Cup series in central Michigan and treated like family.
Oh, and my ride wasn't a 800 HP Winston Cup car but rather a 20+ horsepower miniature version of a stock car called a Mini Cup — and no that is not a typo, the horsepower figure is listed in double digits. Even better is that you can buy a used one for $2,500! That's less than my weekend expense of running a rally (entry fee, tires, towing, hotels) and you own the car when you're done with the cash.
I was skeptical at first as a really clean car costs $4-7k, but when I got there and started digging into the mini NASCAR I was blown away. It was like a baby version of a stock car. Everything was adjustable like the big cars. Even things I didn't know could be adjusted are a part of the setup.
You sit dead center in the car lying almost on your back and when your tight up on the guy in front of you I swear I could give him a kick on the rear bumper your feet are so close. There is a substantial tubular roll cage structure preventing that but, man, it feels like you are right there on the track in the middle of it all.
So after meeting my hosts Darren Bohne and Tim Phillips (owner of the car I raced), I met some of my competitors. For the most part they were adults in the 30-50 range, but two kids stuck out from crowd. Jarrod and Elliot Pritchett, ages 10 and 13 respectively.
Damn, am I about to get schooled by a 10 year old? Guess what I asked next? "Are the cars are weighed inclusive of the driver?" Yep, all cars would be the same weight. Cool, cause this kid weighs like a third of my weight. What wasn't equal was our skill level. This kid could drive, and not just for a 10-year-old, but he can drive. So can his brother Elliot. I was really jealous. If only my parents had put me in a race car at that age (and Jarrod actually started at age 6). I'm staying in touch with these kids as I get the feeling I'm going to watch them race on TV one day.
And it wasn't just the driving that made me think I was maybe staring at the next Carl Edwards, it was the way they introduced themselves, stopped by to wish me luck, handed me their signed hero cards at the end, and thanked me for coming out and racing with them. I was floored. I don't think I'm that polished or professional at my current age of 38.
I asked the two brothers why they race. Elliot, the older of the two said: "I like beating my brother and winning!" Jarrod's response was "Having fun, racing with Timmy Phillips, and driving a cool car" but his favorite part is "driving fast and passing cars." No doubt, guys, everything that comes before and after is just waiting.
So a little more about the car and the racing. The chassis' are all built by one manufacturer and the engines built by another shop with all of them sealed prior to delivery. It truly is a level playing field. But here's where the simplicity stops and it starts to mirror NASCAR. Everything is adjustable. Upper and lower A arm lengths. Caster, camber, corner weights, alignment, gear ratios, tire stagger and pressure, a bunch of rear end axle style stuff that I have only read about, because I've always driven independent-rear suspension –- at least in races.
So I go out for my first session and man there is a ton going on. There are no straightaways like in a road race to catch your breath or refocus. Its non stop turning and racing. I like it way more than I'm supposed to for being a road racer/rally guy.
Keep in mind the car only weighs like 700 lbs and sits on 7" wide Hoosier racing slicks. The speed you can carry around this 3/8 mile oval makes it ridiculously fun. And from inside the car it looks just like NASCAR on TV. I mean just like NASCAR. Watch the video and tell me it doesn't look just like the Speed Channel?
I come in and explain the car is jacking from the front left to the back right and am told my cross weights must be off so we put it on the scales. Sure enough, way off, so we add a full turn to the right rear and at the next session the car is awesome! But it was a little loose. But "Loose is fast" right? Isn't that what Harry told Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder?
Sure, but loose is also super sketchy when you have a corner every couple of seconds and there is a huge wall on the exit. You get used to it pretty fast, but I kept turning in early and damn if it didn't feel like I was going straight into it at 75 mph. So I dialed out some of the looseness against my host's suggestion thinking it would make it easier to drive and learn.
I go out for qualifying and the chain snaps off, but these things happen, it's a race car. We quickly fix it but don't have time to shorten the new chain and still make qualifying so we slide the motor back to put more tension on the chain. Only it now makes contact with the frame when the suspension compresses at the apex of the corner and I spin really fast as the suspension goes from compliant to rock solid.
I caught it and competed the lap but it put me last on the grid for first heat. I did ok in the first heat learning how to drive in traffic but it was the main event I was focused on because they invert qualifying. Yes, my problem with the chain would put me on pole for the main race!
The real pole qualifier was Morgen Baird in the awesome looking 99 car. It seems backwards in my opinion, but I'll take it. I know it makes the racing more fun as the fast guys need to get thru the field of slower cars. Hopefully that tire pressure adjustment was the right one, because I won't know until I get them warmed up a few laps into the race.
Turns out I was partially right. The reduction in rear tire pressure made the car way easier to control, but when I finally figured out how to drive the thing, I needed waaaay more oversteer. But it's too late to change it at that point so you just drive. And drive I did. The race started and I floored it and gave it everything I had into the first corner on cold tires.
When I looked in the mirror though everyone was gone, and I was like did they waive off the start? So I decided to just drive until someone told me not to. Sure enough the pack of cars started to reel me in. As they got closer I moved up and let them go by, as they were clearly faster. Could I have blocked them for a while? probably, but I was doing this for fun it didn't seem right when they had clearly caught me on an open track.
So they rip by and I tuck in behind them and start watching. All of a sudden it clicked. I am turning in way early and my line sucks. I got it on the last few laps but it was too late. Ultimately, I finished fourth, but the real bummer is that I could have grabbed third if I had kept my eyes up, but with my new line I was trying to look at the pavement to see what kind of grip I might have if I turn in even later on the next lap and by the time I looked up, the car in front of me was practically parked trying to avoid the second place car that spun on the final corner.
I got by the spinning car and nearly passed the third place car while spinning across the finish. If I could have held the car from spinning I would have finished third. I guess that's racing.
And here's where I finally start to understand NASCAR. You know those driver to team radio communications where the driver is yelling the car won't turn and it's driving him nuts? Yeah, it makes a lot more sense to me know. The competition is so close and the corners are so non-stop that any little problem in setup gets magnified over and over and over again. If I could have just put another pound or two of air in my rear tires… I could see how frustrating it would get with everything at stake in NASCAR.
Nothing is really at stake at the Great Lakes Mini Cup so its all fun, pure racing fun, on a Saturday night under the lights. Every entrant gets paid $50 for showing up regardless of where you finish — yes you get paid for racing and there is no entry fee!
I realized growing up in Chicago I missed something very American in racing and condemned it for its lack of turning right. I was wrong. Turning left is awesome. Every wonder how Travis Pastrana ditched sideways rally awesomeness for turning left?
I get it now when Tom Cruise describes the appeal of NASCAR.
"Speed. To be able to control it. To know that I can control something that's out of control."
I owe huge a thanks to Darren Bohne and Tim Phillips for giving me the opportunity to race their car in the Great Lakes Mini Cup Series and to Scott Swem for the in-car video! They're considering renting cars as part of an arrive-and-drive setup. For information, please see the series website www.glsracing.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org to express interest in renting car for a night or the 2012 season.