10th Aug2017

Endurance Racing Tests More Than Machinery

by Michael Chandler

On a recent episode of the Deadcast, the Deadspin.com podcast, they had a debate about what is the most mentally grueling sport.  They brought up tennis, some weird amateur marathons and cycle races, then someone threw out endurance auto racing.  It got some approval, but it was then shot down because “you’re sitting down the whole time”.  While yes, the driver and crew spend a fair bit of time sitting, they’re not exactly hanging out or going on a leisurely cruise.  Let’s take this past weekend’s Utah 6 Hour as an example, and go from there.

Some teams didn’t even get the mundane testing sessions others had.  The Pink Ribbon Racing Team, locals Toby and Lisa Crawford, along with Michele Abbate and her husband/crew chief Anthony Philleo, and with JJ Chen of Pink Ribbon Racing, were wrenching on the car most of the weekend.  The supercharged Subaru BRZ lost a differential seal during Friday practice, which meant they had to overnight one to the track.  Then they needed a new differential, because of course.  Thankfully they borrowed one from Mike Bratsch.  Then the car was ready for qualifying and the actual enduro!  Michele started the race, and showed some good pace, considering this was her first race in the car and on an unfamiliar track.  They did some pit stops, and a driver change, and all was alright.  Then, at about the half way mark, something went wrong.  The car went behind the wall, and everyone jumped on it.  After a long fight, they retired.  A faulty coil pack the likely culprit.

A stint in an endurance race isn’t a Sunday drive.  Yes, you’re sitting the whole time, but you’re also wearing a fire suit, driving gloves and shoes, and a helmet.  Did I mention that a lot of these cars don’t have amenities such as air conditioning or bluetooth?  The only thing coming in on the radio is someone in the pit telling you the gap to the car in front of you, your lap times, and when you need to come in to the pits.  And more so than usual, you have to be aware of what’s going on around you.  Your daily driver might have lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, and automatic emergency braking, but racing cars don’t.  All of that falls on to the sack of meat in the driver’s seat, and a spotter if you’re lucky.  A lot of the teams aren’t that lucky on this level.  If the driver has a momentary lapse of focus, things can go really bad really quick.  Nothing really bad happened at this year’s race, but there was one scary moment.  And that moment almost went from “oh no!” to a speechless moment.  

When the car comes in, the crew goes over the wall.  At this level, only certain things can be done at certain points in the stop.  Unlike a NASCAR or IndyCar stop, where fuel goes in while tires are being changed, here fuel has to be done independent of the tires.  So the fuel nozzle goes in, fuel goes in the car, nozzle goes out, then the car goes up on jacks and the tires can be changed.  Spill some fuel, that’s a penalty.  Swap tires before the fuel is done, that’s a penalty.  Have too many people over the wall, that’s a penalty.  Fuel person not in the proper gear? Penalty.  There are an insane amount of ways to get penalized in the pits, and I’ve only mentioned the stuff that could happen in the box.  There are pit lane speed limits, you have to be in the correct lane while traversing the pits, and you could get parked in the penalty box for leaving your pit stall in an unsafe manner.  OR you could not have tires and fuel ready for the stop.  The car sitting while the crew fumbles for fuel cans and tires might as well be a penalty.  Everyone in that pit has to be ready to go, and on the same page, or else the race can get out of reach without the car moving an inch.

Even before getting the car for qualifying, drivers have to sit through a meeting.  A meeting where they are given information such as pit lane speed limits, rejoining the track from pit lane, all of these seemingly little obvious things are told to all the drivers at once.  This is where they ask for clarification on rules, get them, and enjoy some air conditioning.  This part really isn’t so bad.

This is the rough part: driving at night.  It’s dark out there.  Away from main straight, there isn’t much light outside of whatever the car has on it.  Teams strap light bars, put brighter bulbs in the headlights, and even with all of that, it is still the kind of darkness that makes a person uncomfortable.  The race organizers put additional reflectors out on the track, to mark the limits of it, but the drivers are going mostly by instinct.  The small envelope of light is all you can see out there.  Anything beyond the reach of the light is the unknowable unknown.  Could the rumble strips be out there?  Or is it the kitty litter?  Who knows, but that bright light behind you is getting a lot brighter.  Is it a Miata, or is it a Porsche?  Hopefully it’s the former, because you’re probably at your turn in point for the next turn.  In front of you is darkness, behind you is blinding light, and you’ve been driving at a high rate of speed by feel for the past half hour.  Or has it been forty minutes?  Should you be expecting the radio to crackle to life?  OH SHIT THERE’S A TURN!

Then the race ends.  You come down the front straight one last time, and you see the waving checkered flag.  OH THANK GOD!  A cool down lap, then it’s time to get out of that hot ass racing suit, and into a nice cold beer.  And get a trophy if you and your team did well enough.  Hell, drink enough beer and you can make those cans into a trophy.  If you made it through all six hours, congratulations!  If not, it was a damn good try!  You can try again next year, or at the next endurance race you are eligible to enter.  Maybe it’ll be shorter, two or four hours perhaps.  Or maybe you’ll end up doing a twelve hour race, or twenty-four, or even a twenty-five hours.  Whatever you do, you’ve done one of the most mentally grueling sports a person can go through.  

And now the race’s winners

E0: RK Motorsports

E1: TAPG Motorsports

E3: Neth Racing Works

ENP: Ice 9 Motorsports

ES: TruSpeed Autosport

ESR: Norma’s Last Chance

And now, a gallery.  If you’re interested in purchasing photos from this, or any NASA Utah event, head to my SmugMug page.

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