Imagine the cinematic drama of Le Mans, the insane effort of the Nürburgring 24, and the spectacle of the Bathurst 1000 but without the fame, money or Australians. That's roughly what the 13-hour SCCA 'Charge of the Headlight Brigade' enduro is like. No TV. No big sponsors. No bullshit. Just racing.
When people talk about the great battles in motorsports history, they throw out Senna v. Prost, Shelby v. Ferrari, Audi v. Peugeot. Can any of these rivalries match the raw energy and spontaneous antipathy of the silver #0 SSM Miata and the red #31 SSM Miata duking it out at Virginia International Raceway?
As I've done in the past, I've agreed to join driver/builder/Merkur savior Paul Overstreet and the fabled Erin Go Bragh Racing team for the hottest weekend of racing you can experience while freezing your ass off. Only this time I've brought Jalopnik's Miataphiliac Travis Okulski and shrewd Texan Patrick George for the trip.
Because we only travel in style, and because I'm too cheap to spring for a hotel, I've talked Mercedes into loaning us one of the Sprinter 2500 Crew vans. it's giant, helpful, and has a kind of dopey grin on its big red face. Basically, the van is Clifford. Travis has a BMW 320i, also in red, which looks like a BMW 320i and gets no nickname because it's an automatic.
Travis is going to be glad he brought that BMW in about 12 hours, but for the moment the BMW seems superfluous.
Despite being an "amateur" race, there are plenty of pros here and more fast cars than you'd imagine. It's like Petit Le Mans with about 50 cars, an extra three hours thrown in and way, way more categories, which break down like this:
Fast-as-Fuck: This includes an Aston Martin GT4 like the one Travis raced, a few prototype-style open cars (including a diesel-powered one), and various BMWs.
Regular Fast: This includes older BMWs waiting to blow through transmissions, a curious Volkswagen Jetta TDI, Miatas that people spent way too much money on, and a Mazda RX-8 that no believes will finish the race.
Miatas: Most of the Miatas are in the Spec Miata class that now allows a few non-stock upgrades like racing tires, a couple of drivetrain components, and some suspension.
Super Slow Miatas And A Honda Fit: And then there's SSM, which is our class, and is basically the old Spec Miata class. There are only two SSM cars, our #0 silver and some jerks we haven't met yet in a red-and-yellow Mazda bearing that unfortunate #31. The Honda Fit is the only BSpec car and, while charming and consistent, hilariously slow.
If that's too complex for you, here's a simpler way to look at it:
Fast Cars That Have To Dodge Miatas And A Honda Fit
Miatas And A Honda Fit Trying To Not Get A Rectal Exam From A Radical
The idea is to drive from D.C. to that kinky slice of racing nirvana someone decided to randomly drop in a podunk border town, but deep in conversation and too proud of my own internal compass I completely doze on the exit in Lynchburg and send Clifford deep into Nowheresville, Virginia and away from our destination.
It finally dawns on me after Danville never appears I've driven an hour in the wrong direction, which means we're not going to make the time that I promised in the possibly drunken, 156-email thread preceding the race that team leader Bill attached me to while flying in from Vegas (I imagine the fellow passengers on his flight were convinced he was typing up a manifesto as the flight attendants worriedly searched for an Air Marshall).
"Oh shit, did I miss the exit?" I ask Patrick. "I think I missed the exit. We should be there already. Where the hell are we?"
So much for being smarter than the GPS, although this detour does allow me the chance to thrash Clifford around twisty pastoral Virginia like it said something bad about my mama.
By the time we finally arrive at VIR we find Travis parked on the side of the road catching up on emails. We've missed team registration and are, once again, too cheap to pay a camping fee. I thankfully remember that I'd asked the nice folks at the SCCA to add us as members of the media, so I call the very nice SCCA rep and she explains to the guard at the security gate who we are and he let's us pass.
A gumbo of engine noises welcomes us as we cross the bridge into the infield as Patrick misses sunset at the track and thus has no idea how beautiful it's going to be in the morning.
The best part of camping out at VIR is our Hoosier Three Star cook Chris and his sous chef Robyn, who already had dinner cooking in the small tent that made up our camp (no fancy fold-out trailer for us, this is racing not NYC Fashion Week). There's chili, hamburgers, meatballs, and at least four kinds of sausage. Despite having done almost no work we dig in, starving, and ingest many meat units.
Ready to help turn wrenches or really, do anything useful besides drink beer, we find out that Mark, our tire-changer, also missed registration and can't get past the gate. Gas man Jerry and I volunteer to hop in the van to go rescue him because, hey, who is going to search a giant red van they just saw drive through the gates? Also, Mark is NBA-forward tall and isn't going to fit in most trunks.
After covering Mark up in whatever we have in the back we create a few codewords so he knows when to talk or shut up or bail the fuck out and run for it.
Unfortunately, we didn't grab Zach, the rear tire-man, who was also late and is now trying to make his way through Checkpoint Charlie.
"Are we through? What's going on?" a voice asks underneath a pile of luggage and jackets.
"No, shut the fuck up, no one said banana, do you want to get caught?"
There is really no chance of us getting caught, nor will there by any consequences if we do get busted, but it's fun to yell at a teammate in a joking, non-Richie Incognito sort of way.
The guard can't get his credit card machine to work, so he just waves Zach through anyways, making our adventure entirely unnecessary but all the more hilarious.
Remember how I complained last time about spending the coldest night of my life in a metal trailer slowly freezing? Yeah, I learned my lesson and borrowed a sleeping bag from someone who used to camp in Alaska and brought layers upon layers of clothing.
Like all Texans, Patrick also has an ingrained fear of the cold and also brought a lot of warm gear with him. Travis did not.
It's in the lower '30s when we retreat to the van for sleep and, just as a precaution, we borrow Chris' gas heater to warm Clifford up to a comfortable temperature.
Can you sleep three people in the short-wheelbase Sprinter? Of course. Two dudes running parallel to the sliding door in between the wheel wells and one perpendicular (me) to the back doors. Travis loads up an episode of Top Gear at random and we laugh and laugh before going to sleep. It's roughly 11:30 pm, which means we'll get a good seven hours of sleep ahead of the race.
At some point around 2:00 am we wake up and it's below freezing in the van. It's near pitch black but I can see my breath reflecting what little light there is every time I breathe. The doors are doing a decent job of keeping cold air out, but the floor is radiating icy waves. I pull my hoodie over my head, trying to breathe into my quaking fingers. It's worse than the last time.
Travis, though, is clearly miserable, shifting and turning every few minutes. I don't feel much better but Patrick, to his credit, is out cold.
I look at my phone and it says the temperature at the nearest weather station is 27 degrees, but it feels even colder out in this sparse parking lot. I'm sure there are some TOUGH MOTHERFUCKERS™ out there who sleep in the Arctic Circle of whatever. I am not one of them, and neither is Travis, who I can tell is fantasizing about cutting me open like a tauntaun for warmth.
Fearing Travis is harboring a light saber, I go to the front of the van and crank everything that makes heat. The van's heater is on full blast and I even turn on the heated seats. I invite Travis to move to the front seat, which folds mostly flat, so he can sleep with a heated floor.
After the heater does its best to fill the cavernous space inside, which doesn't really work considering the amount of cold air it has to displace, I go back to sleep.
Two more hours of bad sleep later I hear Travis finally bail for the BMW and its promise of heated bliss. Rather than continue sleeping on the floor I take his place in the front seat, contemplating how long I can leave the van on before I feel like a weakling and turn it off (about 20 minutes).
At 6:00 am you can hear people starting to wake up and there's just enough light to see the paddock. It looks like the crust of the moon, frost covering the graveled surface and most if the windows. There's just enough of a clearing to see Travis curled up in his German lunar module.
Chris and Robyn, mercifully, have coffee and eggy bacon muffins cooking. It tastes hot and greasy and warm and perfect. Calories we'll need in battle today.
There's no real way to expect an overall category win in a race like this running a tired old Miata unless every faster car ahead of us managed to blow up (the BMWs and prototypes did their best to abide). With two cars, our goal is to be faster on the track and lighting fast in the pits.
For a Miata you can expect to stop roughly every couple of hours for fuel, tires, drivers, and any other changes that need to be made. There's always the promise of something going terribly wrong, like when our pit mates (Jalopnik readers in a Honda S2000) used a broken tire gauge and filled up their rear tires to something like 80 PSI.
So that you don't inadvertently self immolate, no one is allowed to touch the car or do anything while the car is refueling. You're also required to stop for at least 2:00 minutes every time there's a refuel, so the goal is always to get everything done within those two minutes.
This includes, in this order:
2. Change driver (unbuckle safety harness, release HANS, disconnect radio, reverse)
3. Change tires (two at a time, usually)
4. Check fluid levels
5. Clean the windshield if you have time
6. Extraneous (add the light bar before night race, change brake pads)
Not everyone has the same discipline, but after doing this for years this team feels like the best organized group despite being in one of the slower cars.
It may seem strange to the outside observer the precision that goes into this, but if if you're 40 seconds faster in the pits that ends up being roughly a second-per-lap. Of course, these races rarely comes down to those kind of margins…
The diesel-powered prototype doesn't make it two turns before something goes wrong and it dumps fluid (probably oil) in the space between turns two and three. Cars pass through slowly and, as they wind back around the course, a team of corner workers run out there with a quick-drying powder.
By the time the cars come back across the start-finish line there's so much powder it looks like Shanghai at noon in that portion of the track. Lap times are all off, of course, and it takes us a while to realize that the team in the dreaded #31 car is fast. It's not long before they're past us, gaining a second or two a lap over us.
Bill is in the car and complaining about rough shifts between the gears, which Paul casually dismisses as Bill just being excited but we're all worried we've maybe pushed this Miata about as far as it can go.
The reality of a race like this is, if you're doing things right, there's nothing to do for about 90 minutes at a time. Though our competent race chief Marty keeps an eye on every lap time with his stopwatch in case something goes wrong with the electronic timing, there's not much else to do.
Everyone fills with anticipation as we wait for Bill to come in for the first stop of the day although we all end up waiting a few extra laps because the extra super scientific way to tell that the fuel tank is emptying is that it hiccups around a certain turn in a certain gear.
Our pit box is crowded by the time everyone gets in and there's not much for Travis, Patrick and I to do but pass items to those going over the wall. Still, there's a sense of accomplishment as we clear a time close to 2:00 minutes.
Curious if our strategy will ever work, I'm dispatched to walk over to those rat bastards in the #31 pits to see if they're as fast over the wall as they are on the track. Much to our encouragement, they are not.
There's nothing particularly slow about their technique. It just lacks the OCD precision of team #0. I don't even see anyone with a stopwatch timing their stop. How will they know how fast they were!?!
I also check to see if there's perhaps a special tire or other elixir they're using to be so much faster on the track. Certainly, it can't just be skill.
This also afford me a chance to check out the way other teams operate during their changes. Some have better fuel delivery systems, most have nicer equipment, and a couple of teams manage to squeeze even more people into their pit box.
The best performance of the entire weekend goes to our other neighbors in a nicer, newer black Miata who cruised in with a gearbox that crunched with the sound of broken teeth. There's a hard limit on how long you can stay in the pits before they force you over the wall.
We scoff when they jack up the Miata and pop the transmission out. There's no way they'd be able to change an entire transmission in time… right?
Our doubt turns to curiosity then actual applause when they manage to do it!
While we're not making up any time on the track, the never-failing consistency of the Miata helps us pass cars that are significantly factor. It seems like every 30 minutes an older BMW or one of the fast prototypes is grenading some part of their drivetrain.
There are also a few cars coming into the pits without all their body paneling although there never seems to be any serious crashes.
Out of the large field we're slowly winding our way towards the middle of the pack, a few laps down in class but still reasonably proud of what we're doing.
Travis, fearful of another night in the van, departs before dark so he can get a good night's rest.
The goal becomes to finish and, maybe, make up a few places overall since a class win is out of the question barring a failure on the part of the Miata. Curtis, our fastest driver, comes out of the car and Paul goes in to do a double-shift to finish out the race.
Because a few people are out, Patrick and I actually get to provide measurable assistance during this stop with PGeorge on the lolly and me tossing tires and cleaning the windshield.
With that finished we go for a drive to find the best angle to see the race. The lights at night darting around the track against a cacophony of engine noises is a delightful experience and Clifford's warm cabin makes it that much more enjoyable.
Little did we know the drama that was unfolding on track. A few laps into his double stint Paul notices the lighted number plate of car #31.
'Are we really that much faster at night?' Paul wonders to himself.
Paul does some quick math in his head and decides that there's an outside chance we can at least make up some decent time if we get Curtis back in the car. It'll cost us a stop but he's going to have to stop anyways.
"Get Curtis back in the car," he calls over the radio.
Since Curtis was planning on driving back to Indiana with no plan to stick around he's already out of his racing gear and mostly packed up, but he suits back up and runs to the pits.
Paul comes in early, Curtis hops in the driver's seat, and away he goes.
No one thinks it's possible but hey, it's worth a shot.
We're deep into the 12th hour when Patrick and I decide to fill up on meat units so we have delicious calories to burn while we huddle together for another night in the big red van.
Chris, Robyn, Christine and I sit around chatting about deep sea diving when I casually look at the iPad on the table to see where we are.
It takes me a minute to comprehend but our lap times seem way too fast. We're somehow gaining 10-to-15 seconds a lap on the #31. I'm entirely unaware of our strategy and I'm not sure anyone in the pits is aware what's going on.
I run out of the tent and find Paul and Patrick casually strolling the paddock.
"We're on the same lap! We're on the same lap!" I scream.
"Really," Paul asks "Do they know?" gesturing towards the pit box.
I'm now going faster than the Miata, running to ask Sacha and Marty if they know how well we're doing. They don't. The #0 silver bullet goes racing past the #31 on the front straight.
"Did we pass them for the lead or pass them to unlap ourselves?"
No one is quite sure and the live timing app doesn't make it clear. By now everyone else has caught up to the pits and we go running to the wall with the rest of the teams to cheer on… victory? Let's say victory.
The checkered flag waves and we cheer just like we've won but who knows?
Despite being our competitors, the folks racing the red Miata are actually not jerks or rat bastards or anything like that. They're just a bunch of nuts like us and we quickly find them after the race.
Their mood confirms what we suspected. We won the race, just barely, and our team strategy has definitely paid off (as well as sharp driving, a well-built car, and a little luck).
As we were cheering us passing the other car as the race came to a close, they were doing the opposite.
All the competitive faux-animosity that built up during the race evaporates and we're chatting with the great guys from the #31 team. They take their defeat like gentlemen and stick around for the awards ceremony with us. We trade stories and congratulate them on their obvious skill.
We crack out the beers and celebrate as we start putting the equipment away. Curtis, for his part, takes his racing suit off again and loads up his Prius with Mountain Dew for the road trip home. Wins a race, drives off in a Prius. What a boss.
If you were curious the #22 Aston Martin won and the RX-8 actually finished, just 31 off the lead lap.
Travis doesn't know what he missed as the temperature is now a far more manageable 40 degrees and Christine even loaned us some heated electric blankets for the floor. We run an extension cord into the van and sleep like the dead.
At around 4:00 am I debate whether or not I can hold it or if I should just get up and take a leak. I decide I'll just take a leak and fumble around for my glasses. I can't find them but, no big deal, we're only about 150 yards from the toilet. No problem
It's on the way back that I realize the terrain I'd familiarized myself with overnight has changed entirely. Most of the familiar trucks and trailers left overnight and have been replaced with people setting up for the next track day event.
I wander, blind and cold, for about 15 minutes before I finally spot the van. I should have just held it.
Though everyone takes this race seriously, few people seem to take themselves too seriously and that's what keeps it fun.
Most people appear to have had a good time and the only injury of note was a mechanic who tripped going over a wall and hit a car — being loaded in the ambulance he seemed more embarrassed than injured.
I got to meet some great car people and readers, one of whom even gave us some commemorative Oak Tree shirts.
The rich ozone stink of racing might as well be Chanel #05 for gearheads. While the cost of racing every weekend or, even, every month might be prohibitive to some, there's always a series you can afford or a team that needs extra help.
If you love racing it doesn't much matter what you do so long as you do something, anything, that brings you closer to motorsports. Most of us didn't turn a single lap over those 13 hours of racing, but you could see the sense of accomplishment on all our faces. Sacha, Jerry, Patrick, Travis, Byron, Zach, Ted, Mark, Robyn, Chris, Marty Nathan and Christine all contributed in their own way.
What's the ultimate truth that racing reveals? Despite the frequent tedium, high costs, possible dangers, and occasional cold weather, there's little you can do that's as much fun or as rewarding... at least in a public place.
All photos, but for the few crappy iPhone shots, credit Jerry Davey