This past weekend I froze my ass to the floor of a trailer not designed for human habitation, ganked my knee jumping a barricade while trying not to spill a bottle of water, and had to wash a car window while being timed. It was awesome. You've gotta get to a race track.
Gran Turismo and Forza may be realistic driving simulators, but there's no simulation for the challenge, drama, camaraderie, heroics, and manic joy of participating in a real race, even if participating mostly means carrying tires and consuming massive amounts of meat product.
It all started at a BBQ joint in Gordonsville, Virginia. My friend knew the chef, the chef figured out what I did for a living, and when his friend Paul walked in the chef knew we should meet. Fast forward a month and I'm at Virginia International Raceway on the pit crew for the SCCA 13-hour Charge of the Headlight Brigade race.
This is multi-class racing and we're in Spec Miata, the most popular and numerous class on account of the relatively low cost. Like, Paul bought the early '90s Miata with 289K miles on it from a customer for $1,000 with the promise he'd turn it into a race car.
Friday night the temperature's in the mid 30s, it's dark, and we're just finishing qualifying and night practice. I'm excited, but it appears most of my abundant skills are going to be put to use in the erection and disassembly of the various canopies we're using to separate us from the driving rain.
Here I should point out that in the world of racing our team is in the 99% and not 1%. The #OccupyVIR people are represented by the Miata team behind us who have one canopy, a WRX, and a truck with an open trailer.S
We have a trailer with walls, an RV and, though there's a river running through our little Haitian tent village, we have a kerosene blast heater powerful enough to dry our soaking shoes and, should we point it downwards, burn a hole in the ground straight through to China.
Around the corner from us the 1% are represented by the team at Mitchum Motorsports, which races a Camaro in Grand-Am. Their paddock HQ is nicer than some places I've lived, with a large canopy, black rubber floor, gleaming tools, and two meticulously prepped Miatas.
They even walk around in matching black Mitchum Motorsports jackets. Remember the bad guys from Twister? Exactly like that, except they aren't jackasses, and are nice enough to share their catered pork chops, pasta salad, cornbread and banana pudding with us.
Meat products consumed: 3 units
Once the tents are erected we set off to the important work of the evening: resting and eating. A 13-hour endurance race takes a lot of, well, endurance. You gotta get comfortable the night before or you're through, which was a challenge given the conditions.
The paddock area at VIR is a sandy, rocky mess of wet cold hell littered with unwanted brake rotors and cigarette butts. I'm ready for a night of huddling around the heater eating leftovers until Chris and Jordan pull up in their RV. A little more canopy work and, voila, they turn a soggy patch of dirt into a dry outdoor kitchen.
Would you like your hamburger buns toasted? Why yes, yes I would.
Meat products consumed: 5 units
The comfort is short-lived. I found out I'm going to be sleeping in the metal gooseneck trailer along with Jerry and Marty, two of our crew. All I've got is a pillow, a loaned sleeping bag that was first used in the Korean War (not a joke), and a small picnic blanket. I contemplate sleeping in the Genesis R-Spec 5.0 press car I've got, but it burns too much expensive gas too quickly.
I offer to sleep in the corner, but Jerry nicely inflates an air mattress, rolls out his pad, and gives me a spot in the center. It's cold, but reasonable. Here's how the night goes.
- 12:30 AM: Go to sleep on a fully inflated air mattress, under the blanket, on top of the sleeping bag. Temperature 61 F.
- 2:30 AM: Pounding rain, half inflated air mattress, under the blanket, in the sleeping bag. Temperature 45 F.
- 3:45 AM: More rain, ass on the cold trailer floor, curled up in the fetal position in the sleeping bag, the blanket wrapped around me, fully clothed, a sort of wimpy gringo seven-layer burrito of cold terror. Temperature 40 F.
- 5:00 AM: Light rain. I've now completely wrapped my head in the blanket, I'm breathing through a tiny hole. It's pitch black but I can still see my breath. Temperature -3,051 F.
- 5:30 AM: Go to complain, realize Jerry was sleeping under a slow leak and is half wet. Jerry also realizes this. Jerry isn't pleased. I run my ass to my car and blast the heat and seat warmers so I can get feeling back in my feat. Temperature 85 F.
The list of morning duties includes changing the tires to wets, filling the car up, and setting up the pits. There's supposed to be a 20-foot canopy for us to share on our spot on pit row. It's not there, necessitating a sudden collapse of the canopy we'd moved the night before. I grab it and move to the pits. I'm getting better at this.
I'm buzzing now in pre-race dawn. Despite the chill I'm pumped up and full of egg-sausage-english muffin-cheese sandwiches.
Meat products consumed: 7 units
Sitting around the pits as the cars lineup I'm comforted by the fact that I have two hours to take it all in, reflect, do some meditation. Really get into the zone. It's 9:13 am and we have a few minutes before the race starts. And then Sasha, our lovely driver's aide, screams "Paul is dry" and hands me a bottle of water with a straw in it.
I'm not even sure I'm allowed on the track, but I jump the wall and start looking for him. A light-colored Miata? Hmm... only a million of those. Remembering our qualifying setup I realize he's 50 cars back, or approximately 200 yards.
Minutes from the green flag I run my ass off. I leap over the first barricade and start to jump over the second when I pause. Do I have the proper momentum? Will I crash and spill the water and have to run back while our driver dies of thirst?
A fatal pause. I crash knee-first into the barricade but don't spill the water. I limp to the car and hand it over. He takes maybe four sips. But maybe they're the FOUR SIPS THAT SAVE HIS LIFE. Probably not.
I rush back to our pits for the start of the race. Now it's time to relax. Now it's time to think. As cars buzz by I focus on the "brrraaamp" of the gear changes. There's a monster CTS-V out there already putting down fast times followed, hilarious, by a Mini Cooper keeping a surprisingly close pace.
It's barely 20 minutes later and Marty, the crew chief, turns to us and says Paul has 0% traction. The rain tire suck, the track is drying, he needs the intermediate tires. He's running a 2:40 lap. Slow.
Most tire changes are two-at-a-time. They've never done a four-tire change. I've never done any racing tire change. No time. He's coming in NOW.
"Matt, take the lolly"
I've watched enough racing to know that the "lolly" means the long number on a stick they use to signal to the driver where to pit. I've never touched one but I've seen enough racing to know I need to wave it in the air and then quickly pull it when he pits.
I gesticulate wildly, as if I was a man trapped on a raft for ten days signaling for the last helicopter. Nico, one of the tire guys, laughs and puts his hand on the pole to slow me down.
Paul tosses the Miata into the pits with precision. I grab the lolly and pull it back, hitting Niko's tire has he runs to the other side. Mac is over the wall with the jack followed by Jerry with another tire. Mark, on his second week, grabs the other wrench.
It's a blur. I'm grabbing old tires, launching new ones over the wall, untangling wires. I'm clearly the least important person to the process but the new tires go on in a snap. Everyone's back over the wall. Marty signals and Paul heads out.
1:55. We don't even lose a full lap. A damn good time.
Immediately, Paul starts clicking off faster and faster laps, but erases the advantage when he goes off in turn 10 after coming in contact with a weeping crack in the track. Back on the racing surface we slowly move up through the field.
More pit stops. More driver changes. Curtis goes in and clocks off a super fast 2:25, quicker than a lot of the Spec Miatas in front of us. Marty laughs as he recalls Curtis on the radio who, unlike the silent Bill, spends much of the race chatting about how much fun he's having and who he's passing.
Other members of the team filter in and out of the pits but I never think to leave and almost miss lunch. Sasha kindly brings me a bratwurst and a chicken wing from the paddock.
Meat products consumed: 9 units
There are only two things capable of pulling me away from the pits: my bladder and the necessity of one of our crew to fulfill volunteer duties. In a day of heroic feats of strength and stamina I never have many chances to be heroic. I'm mostly a mix of tragic and comic. But I maybe help allow others to succeed when I walk over to Pit Central to do the mandatory two hours of service so we weren't docked any laps.
WIll I be a corner worker armed with a flag and a fire extinguisher? Will I be in the timing and scoring booth watching the lead changes? Nope, I'm sitting at the entrance to the pits writing down the numbers of the cars going into the paddock. The most boring job in all of SCCA volunteer duty.
At least it gives me a chance to chat with the weird and wonderful human beings who assemble at a race, like the German/Texan with bright blonde pigtails who explains how her "I'm not speeding, I'm just qualifying" license plate frame's gotten her out of going to jail. Twice.
I also take this opportunity to visit some of the corner workers, who are having a little cooking competition. More on this later this month.
Meat products consumed: 13 units
Two hours later I'm back at our pit, sad to hear they violated my request that they pause all pit stops until I was done with my volunteer duty. Something about the car needing gas. Nonsense.
I take a quick detour to the paddock for some burgers and canopy deconstruction...
Meat products consumed: 15 units
... then I sit back and await the last pit stop of the night. Just two hours to go and we've moved up almost 24 places through "turtle racing" and our efficient operation. Paul's changed out of his racing suite as Bill, quiet as ever, has decided to drive until the flag drops.
I don't have much to do for this change but Paul insists on filming me trying to look important. Mostly my job is to make sure nothing gets in anyone's way while not getting in the way myself. As you can see on the video we're having a great time and Paul is in good spirits.
And then it happens. Seconds after I snatch the camera from Paul we all hear the sound of a small Mazda fourbanger not starting. It's the loudest silence I've heard since I was in the stands for Albert Pujols' 9th inning home run against the Astros in the NLCS.
Immediately, Paul jumps over the wall and starts looking around. Marty hold the hood open. I toss him a flashlight.
"Get me a 13... no, a 12" Paul demands.
We look for wrenches, screwdrivers, whatever he needs.
Brump, burmp, bump, buhhhh...
Nothing. I start to panic a little. I've just felt the high of a pit change and now I'm feeling the crash of defeat. One of the reason's we've been able to move up so far is we didn't have to bring the car in for any repairs.
With just a couple of hours left to go we're done. The engine is heatsoaked and the cam positioning sensor is overwhelmed. Deflated, some of the crew jumps the wall to push the car back. Marty starts to break down the pits. Depressed, I walk towards the paddock, unable to bring myself to tear down another canopy.
And then I hear another sound. A fully functioning Miata's racing towards the track with an arm sticking out of it waving a tech inspection pass.
I scream "Go BIll! Go Bill! Go Bill! Go Go!" until I can't breathe anymore. So loud, Bill later tells me, he could hear it through his helmet and over the hum of the race cars.
Turns out Mac saw a light turn on while he was pushing the car and yelled at Bill to, as if it were a horror film, to just "give it one more try." The cold night air cooled the engine down enough to get us back in the race.
Thanks to a yellow flag, we haven't lost our position in our class and have lost only a couple of places overall.
I'm floored and run back to the pits, suddenly eager to transport yet another canopy. Everyone looks happy but Marty. I assume he's just tired or maybe depressed now that his part of the race is essentially over.
I haul a nitrogen tank back to the paddock and help to pack things up. Bill, for reasons no one can understand, wants to drive the four hours home after he finishes an endurance race. Also, we all plan to be too exhausted/hungover to do any cleaning in the morning.
Another quick meat snack and then I'm back cleaning up. Marty still looks sullen, as if he still thinks we're DNF. Probably because he does think that.
Meat products consumed: 17 units
Somehow, in the excitement of it all he never put his radio headset back on. He never glanced at the track. He never saw the car go back out. It wasn't until Sasha asked if she should still keep listening to the radio that something clicked in his brain.
Marty is now the happiest person you've met in your entire life.
As we pack up the air turns bitter cold but the Miata presses on. Robin and Chris rush the whiskey and cigars to the track for Bill. I just smile.
Some members of the Mitchum Motorsports team join us for a post-race shot of whiskey and some beers. Good thing I had the whiskey as it dulled the pain of slamming my head against a metal bar while packing up a chair.
A quick trip to the bar and a couple rounds of Yuengling later and we're all in good spirits, exchanging stories and reflecting on a day of success. And we didn't even win. We finished 26th overall and 8th in our class out of 59 cars.
Who knew that 26th place could feel this fucking good?
Back at camp I down some of what's left of the meat products in the RV.
Meat products consumed: 20 units
Despite my exhaustion I feel like I can barely sleep, but as the Miata is now parked where my sleeping bag was the night before I've been upgraded to the relatively warmer space above the RV's driver compartment and quickly pass out.
I wake up the next morning, early, and there's already another breakfast sandwich waiting for me. Outside the window in the cold light of daybreak is a Porsche 964 race car. Yep, it's the big PCA meet. Part of me never wants to leave.
The week before the race I was a participant in the Jalopnik faithful's "Group J" Spec Miata race in Forza 4. It was a great time. But slinging tires in the cold is just a million times better than ripping them to shreds in the warmth of my home.
Get on a LeMons team. Get on a NASA team. Get on an SCCA team. It doesn't matter if you don't drive or can't turn a wrench. Volunteer to make the burgers or put up the canopies. It is the best part of car culture concentrated.
Seriously, you've gotta get to a race track.
Total meat products consumed: 21 units