Long after the news cycle moved to Russian Facebook meddling or debates on whether we should arm day care workers with rocket launchers, people from the Gulf Coast are still recovering from the effects of last fall’s devastating Hurricane Harvey. That kind of comeback doesn’t happen overnight. Fortunately, a lot of people are still in the game to try and help, and I’m about to join them the best way I know how—with race cars. A salvage-title race car that’s also a local, to be specific.
My introduction to the world of salvage cars was a fairly abrupt one that began in the biggest way possible: I took a salvage Corvette Z06 to the 2017 Pikes Peak hillclimb. An 850 horsepower salvage car, on one of the world’s most dangerous roads. I figured, what could go wrong?
Well, fortunately for me, not much, as we ended up fourth in our class and the quickest Corvette ever up the hill. Not bad for a wrecked car that I purchased at auction for just $48,650.
Through my success with that project I was introduced to (or more accurately was stalked by) Luke Kjar, the owner and CEO of Autosource, which is the nation’s largest dealer of what they call “branded title vehicles.” That’s a nice way of saying salvage cars.
Luke has an infectious enthusiasm for these vehicles, and he and I spent many hours talking about all fun projects we could do with them on the cheap.
After much back and forth we thought that it would be cool to try to build a salvage car for an endurance race. The idea was to prove that a reconditioned salvage car could be made reliable enough to be put through the wringer in a multi-hour enduro.
With that plan in place we needed to source a car for the build. Luke decided to reach out to his his contacts at Insurance Auto Auctions to see if they’d be interested in joining in the fun. Not only were they interested, they were full-on excited about the idea and came up with a fantastic plan.
As one of the largest salvage auction companies in the country, IAA had a huge inventory of salvaged flood cars sitting in Houston about to come up for auction. So the question was asked: what if we took one of those flooded cars and built it into a race car that could benefit the flood-affected people in Houston?
When I heard the idea I was beyond pumped. I mean, I’m always excited when I get to jump behind the wheel of a race car, but this was a chance to not only race but to do it for a really great cause. And that’s an opportunity that doesn’t come up very often.
Now, I will admit to being somewhat concerned about using a car that had been in a flood as the basis for our project. I am fully comfortable in taking a crashed car and making it race worthy—hell, I spent years racing in the British Touring Car Championship, and those guys really know how to crash cars—but taking a car that had been up to its proverbial gills in water was way out of my comfort zone. What flooding can do to cars is scary. It has the potential to create problems beyond the ones you can see, and I feared what might arise when I was trusting my life to the car at huge speeds.
But Luke and the guys at Autosource told me not to worry as they have several levels of flood salvage cars. Levels range from 1, which is water levels up to the bottom of the chassis (yes, you read that right) to 4 (fully submerged). Luke promised me that they would see to it that they’d get us one of the less-damaged cars to use as the basis for our project. (By the way, in case you’re curious how flood-salvage cars work when they go to auction, read this.)
Coincidentally, I have been doing some work with Toyota Motorsports Group. Yes, the same guys that build Toyota’s LeMans P1 cars out of the ex-Formula One team factory in Cologne Germany. One of their side projects is a Toyota 86 race car that they use in a one-make series at the Nürburgring. TMG has designed a complete kit that will turn an ordinary 86 into a race car legal in many series around the globe for around $20,000. And I just happened to have a few of those kits in my possession.
Now that we had the car bit nailed down, the next question was where to race it.
My first thought was to tackle the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, which we won for Audi a few years back. But time was not on our side for this type of project. As it was late October when we made these plans, finding and building a car that would be competitive at the 25 was not realistic in that short a time frame.
Then it struck me: my mechanic and a some of his buddies had done a few World Racing League (WRL) events last year and it sounded like they all had a good time. I did some quick digging and from the looks of it the WRL had some great endurance racing that could be done on a reasonable budget. Even better, they were putting on a race at MSR Houston in April. That sealed the deal.
So here’s the plan: we are purchasing a salvage Toyota 86, flooded from hurricane Harvey, rebuilding it into a race car and then coming full circle by competing in the WRL race at MSR Houston on April 21. In addition to being a nice comeback for this “local” car, we’re doing it to help people in the area as well.
Now as much as I like driving, doing an eight-hour endurance race by myself is not my idea of a good time. So time to round up a few co-drivers to help share the load. My first call was to my buddy Jeff Altenburg. Jeff was a Mazda factory driver when he won the SPEED World Challenge Touring Car Championship (this was before Pirelli picked up the title sponsorship). Jeff also was one of my co-drivers when we won the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, so I knew he’d be a good fit for any endurance race.
Next up on my call list was another good friend, Jordon Musser. I’ve known Jordon since our Skip Barber days many years ago. Jordon is a four-time National Karting champ and race winner in Pirelli World Challenge. He also is lives just up the road in Dallas, so he knows the MSR Houston track like the back of his hand.
But I’ve been saving the best for last. There is no way I could come to Houston and race cars within bringing in my Texas ringer. That’s right, you guessed it, Jalopnik’s own Stef Schrader!
I know, I know getting the Jalopnik bump is unfair but hey, this is racing, and if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. And we’re tryin’.
So now that we have a plan and drivers all we needed was a charity to raise money for. Piece of cake, right? Oddly enough this was the single hardest piece of this whole thing. We called around to every charity on the books— the JJ Watt Foundation, Red Cross, Donor Houston. You name it, we called them literally begging to give them money. Each and every time we were turned away.
Let me tell you it was the strangest position I’ve ever been in. I’m used to being the one making the calls, hat in hand, try to squeeze every nickel I can out of sponsors and now here I am begging to give money away. It was weird as hell.
You see, it turns out that most of the relief organizations set up for specific disasters like Hurricane Harvey often shut down after a year or so (big ones like the Red Cross excepted, obviously) meaning we were just outside of the window.
However, the IAA has deep roots and a long history in Houston and they suggested we speak with the State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas.
The SFFMA has been assisting first responders for more than 142 years. They represent, support and educate more than 23,000 members. Donations will go to assist responders affected during disasters, provide immediate benefits to families who have lost loved ones in the line of duty, establish an injury fund for responders hurt during duty, and give protective gear and equipment to those may not be able to afford it. SFFMA.org will be accepting donations on their website through the race weekend. 100% of the money raised will go directly to the SFFMA.
I am thrilled to be involved in this project and to help raise money for a very worthy cause. Plus, we get to race cars, so everybody wins. You can follow the project at IAA’s Flood To Track page and donations can be made at SFFMA.org.
Stay tuned. I’ll be back in a few weeks to chronicle the build of the car and the race.