They say practice makes perfect, but when you’re out of practice having spent an entire winter out of the car, it takes a bit longer to get up to speed. That’s how I felt going into the World Racing League CanAm Endurance Cup this past weekend at Road America. For those unfamiliar with World Racing League, it’s an amateur endurance racing series that pits man and machine against some of the greatest race tracks in the US. Our weekend comprised of 16 hours of racing covering 1,279 miles, split between two eight-hour races. Needless to say it provided ample seat time to knock the rust off from our driver quartet.
Our team, the E30 Bombers, has been around for the better part of a decade. While our car has evolved quite a bit in that time, much like the others in the series, our driver lineup has remained relatively consistent. Combined we’ve logged hundreds of hours in the car, which I’d liken to your favorite living room recliner. Sure, it’s been around for many years and shows some cosmetic wear, but it still functions beautifully and keeps you comfy for hours on end. The ease, comfort and reliability of our little BMW-that-could is such that racing it for 2 or 3 hours on end is a relative breeze. That is as long as the tire grip doesn’t fall off. More on that later.
Despite weather forecaster theatrics scaring us into thinking we might see rain during the weekend, when Saturday morning dawned the weather was absolutely beautiful. We set to our normal pre-race routine and headed to the grid around 8:30. Two pace laps followed shortly thereafter, and by 9am, Bob Koski was waving the green flag from the starter stand signaling eight hours of racing. Our car shared the grid with some seriously heavy metal. Blazing fast BMWs and Porsches filled the pointy end of the grid. Our class, GP3, was made up of a couple E30 BMWs like ours, a few Mazda Miatas, a Honda Civic or two and other miscellany. Of the 10 cars in our class we were confident a podium was in reach. Barring any problems of course.
Fortunately, our trusty steed delivered an almost problem free race. It turned reliable lap after lap needing little more than 13-14 gallons of fuel every 90 minutes and the rotating of drivers behind the wheel. Erik “The Professor” was the lead-off driver and set a strong pace. Travis “The Mouth” took over driver duties during the first fuel stop and proceeded to hammer out fast laps throughout his double stint bring us up to 2ndin class. He lived up to his nickname providing plenty of radio chatter throughout his stint. Right around 1pm Travis handed the car off to Josh, otherwise referred to as “Karate,” who ran a trouble-free stint. Like a silent Ninja he got in the car and snuck up on unassuming cars in front of him. All with nary a peep over the radio.
Right around 3pm I hopped in the car. Being the last driver, goal one was to bring the car home safely to the checkered flag. For a moment I was worried that might not happen. I had a hard time getting comfortable in the car. A cable from one of our dash mounted timer display kept wrapping around the shifter, my hand or some combination thereof. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when you’re hurtling down the track at well over 100mph every distraction is amplified. That nuisance was overshadowed when all the gauges stopped working. Given a good dose of mechanical sympathy is required in an endurance race, and driving blind with no gauge feedback, I radio’d in to the team and made an unscheduled stop in the pits.
Upon arrival in the pits, my teammates took the unexpected pit opportunity to top off the gas and examine the car. A quick look under the hood didn’t reveal the source of the electrical issue. In the interest of minimizing our time in the pits, and maintaining our position in class (still 2nd), they sent me back out in the car blind to the mechanical signals normally conveyed through the various gauges. I soldiered on, using my usual shift points and inner-ear-tachometer to manage shifts. I had to trust that the car wouldn’t lose oil pressure, overheat or have some other calamity usually otherwise signaled from the gauges.
Of course our little BMW is a mule and kept running like a top the remaining hour and past the checkered flag. Following a brief stop on the scales and impound, we were awarded a trophy for second place in class. We took the obligatory podium photo, spent an hour or so prepping the car for the race Sunday, and then departed to collect our motivational trophy – dinner at Schwarz’s Supper Club.
Bright and early Sunday morning we returned to the track. We rinsed and repeated our pre-race checks. Erik hopped in the car and shortly after 8:30 took the green flag. It was like Groundhog Day, except for amateur endurance racers. After a consistently quick, but uneventful stint, Erik brought the car in for gas and toughed it out for another stint. An hour later he brought the car in and handed it over to Josh. Armed with a full tank of fuel Josh took to the track and managed to carve time off with nearly every lap. Towards the end of his stint we were running comfortably in 3rd(in class). Then the track went full-course yellow. We took the opportunity to bring the car in for gas and a driver change, minimizing time lost on track in the process. That was the plan at least. The only risk was getting in and out before the pace car came back around. If we took too long, we’d get stuck in the pits.
During the stop the team was like a well-oiled machine. I hopped in and managed to hit the track before the pace car came around. What followed was a good three or four pace laps while the safety crew repaired tire barriers outside of the Carousel. Apparently, a car went off and nosed up on top of the barriers. Eventually the track went green and I soon realized how much grip our tires had lost following 14 hours of racing. After adjusting my driving style to account for the loss of grip I set into a comfortable rhythm, albeit one 4-5 seconds per lap slower than the day prior due to the tire wear. After an hour and fifty minutes in the car I entered the pits and handed the car off to Travis. It was time for him to take the car home and share in the delight of 90 minutes of tire wear. Travis delivered, maintaining a competitive pace and bringing the car home safely.
At the end of the day we finished one step down on the podium, third in class. The top step evaded us again, but not due to a lack of effort. The car and drivers ran flawlessly. After 16-hours of racing the drivers have knocked the rust off. By the time you read this we’ll have returned to the real world, tired, sore and looking ahead to the next event. Life seems to move a lot slower after you’ve returned home from the track. Fortunately, we have our next race to keep us motivated, a trip to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX. Between now and then three of us will cheat on our little BMW endurance racer and spend time in our respective vintage race cars. Look for us at the SCCA/VSCR Harvey West Memorial Races in Brainerd later this month and at the WeatherTech International Challenge at Road America in July.