Three weekends ago, I got up at the crack of dawn to drive down to Virginia International Raceway [VIR] for the ChumpCar endurance race. It was my first race of the season, and it was just what I needed. Wacky teams and cartoon-like cars that were improbably fast. Well, some of them were fast. Others were just plain weird. And, sadly, some were pretty boring (but you won't see them in these photos).
I posted some iPhone photos from VIR (yes, iPhone racing photos) a day later. You can see them, here. But as much fun as I had shooting motorsports with an iPhone, what you really need at a road course like VIR are a big old camera and some very long lenses.
Fortunately, I had those things with me. Here's some of what I got.
USS Enterprise (right) and MR2 Biohazard (left). Bryan Settle is driving the Enterprise. Don't know who's behind the wheel of Biohazard. [Photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2013. Click on any of the images to see larger versions.]
What's ChumpCar all about? It's endurance racing for cars worth no more than 500 bucks. That $500 excludes safety equipment, and officials -- savvy folks who know BS from BHP -- try to keep cheating to minimum. Races last anywhere from seven to 36 hours. (VIR's was a 10-hour race.)
The only exception to the $500 rule is the Exception Class. There are a few of them in these photos. From a spectator's point of view, they aren't very much fun.
But all of that only partly describes ChumpCar. The rest is passion, ingenuity, and, usually, a good sense of humor.
Passion? There's almost no money to be won and little in the way of press coverage. These folks are racing for the thrill and the competition. Ingenuity? You bet. Building a good cheap race car is a whole lot harder than building a good expensive one. Humor? Check out the photos.
Junk Male Racing (left) and H&F Racing (right).
The photo above will give you a pretty good idea what ChumpCar is all about -- a tight, (reasonably) fast battle between a right-hand drive Japanese econo-wagon and a mid-'80s Old Cutlass that's dressed up to look like a police car. But as much as I like these machines, they're not my favorites from the race.
That honor goes to the cars in the first photo -- the USS Enterprise, which started life as a 1972 Ford LTD (with a roof) and MR2 Biohazard, a Toyota MR2 with a preposterously big rear wing. Coming in third on my list was Sanford and Son, a '64 Chevy pickup with a GMC tailgate (photos below). Each of these machines is seriously quick. The Enterprise and Sanford and Son are a bit demented, like ChumpCars should be. (In fact, the Enterprise and S. and Son are teammates.)
USS Enterprise entering Oak Tree turn.
I'll come clean and admit that I couldn't get enough of the Enterprise. Everything about it seems to defy the laws of physics and rules of commonsense. It's clearly too long and far too heavy to be any good on a road course. Having lost its roof and, therefore, having the structural integrity of a wet paper plate, it could only be an ill-handling beast. All of which is wrong.
USS Enterprise happily drifting through Oak Tree turn.
Very wrong. The Enterprise had the fastest lap of the race -- 1:22.508 on VIR's south course. Pretty darn stout. That means it was hauling ass as much in the turns as on the straightaways and putting the sports cars and Bimmers to shame.
MR2 Biohazard leading a pack out of Oak Tree turn.
Biohazard was the second fastest car on the track, a fraction of a second slower than the LTD. For the last 30 minutes or so of the race, B-haz and the Enterprise fought it out nose to tail (see first pic), putting on a hell of a show.
At that point, I was photographing from the top row of the bleachers opposite Oak Tree turn. Seven or eight experienced racers were sitting nearby, enjoying the proceedings and offering a running commentary. The two cars were as different from each other as Budweiser and single malt, but they were surprisingly evenly matched. Lap after lap, my fellow bleacher bums expected Biohazard to get past the Enterprise, and lap after lap it didn't happen.
When Biohazard finally made the pass, it was at the other end of the track, so none of us saw it. But the fight was great entertainment while it lasted.
It was a long race on a sunny day. Folks found shade wherever they could.
In the end, both the Enterprise and Biohazard finished the race in mid-pack, done in by having had to spend too much time in the pits, fixing various mechanical gremlins.
Biohazard in the pits.
A good race car is fast and reliable. A ChumpCar also has to be cheap. Trouble is, a racing machine can't be fast, reliable, and cheap at the same time. Racers being racers, the choice is obvious and reliability goes out the window.
Ruke Boy Racing in the pits.
The teams tend to know what they're doing. And, if they've been to more than one ChumpCar race, they've had plenty of experience making repairs on the fly. I saw a team that was running a Mazda Miata make a complete engine change and get back on the track.
Thunder Chicken in the pits.
This Thunderbird is a good example of a car that broke, got fixed, and kept racing.
Thunder Chicken (left) leading Sanford and Son (right).
And there's the T-Bird back out and, temporarily, running in front of Sanford and Son, my favorite road racing hot rod pickup truck.
Sanford and Son (but you can see that for yourself).
Bunch O' Chumps (a '70s Saab Sonett) being refueled in the pits.
Sri Racing 3 makes a driver change.
Sri Racing 3, a 3-series BMW, is an Exception Class car. It's worth noting that it was seven seconds off the pace set by the USS Enterprise.
My favorite pickup off in the distance, an Exception Class 3-series in the foreground.
Bunch O' Chumps.
It was a large field. Sixty-four cars registered for the race; 63 made it out onto the track.
Sanford and Son, again. Looking good, too.
TR3 Performance (Honda).
The TR3 Performance Honda was running well every time I saw it. Its best laps were within a couple seconds of the times that the Enterprise and Biohazard were laying down. That's fast. It finished 19th, however, which means it spent time in the pits or received penalty laps for some sort of rules violation.
Falling to Caprices Racing says good-bye.
So the racing season is off to a good start. It's all about seeing cool cars, meeting good folks, and having some fun. With luck, I'll get to a lot of different tracks this summer.