Evan J. Smith
December 17, 2013
Photos By: AWOL Photo LLC/Eric Tillotson, Brad Adler, Diane Smith

Sunday morning, May 26, 2013—Hot, humid air fills my lungs with every breath. My chest is beating against the belts. I'm strapped tightly to the Recaro seat in the FM3/Optima Batteries Fox Mustang, and Sweat droplets are forming on my brow.

I'm awaiting command to start our engines as I sit on the grid at Daytona International Speedway about to embark on an adventure of speed and endurance.

Thanks to Optima Batteries and Jimi Day's FM3 Marketing, I was immersed into a team of drivers, prepared to take on 14 hours on the banks at the world center of speed. Racing butterflies in my gut are nothing new, but this was different, this was Daytona. As if racing at the 3.56-mile course wasn't daunting enough, I'd never turned a lap—not even practice—in this Stang—yet in moments I'd be hurling around the 24 Hours of Daytona road course at breakneck speeds.

Welcome to the Optima Batteries ChumpCar World Series, designed for budget-minded racers on a quest for serious fun. And these races are fun, as I'd soon learn. ChumpCar races on the best tracks in the country, the ones you've seen on TV and only dreamed about driving on? The series stops at Daytona, Road America, Road Atlanta, VIR, Laguna Seca, and Watkins Glen to name a few. There are races almost every weekend with events all over the country.

Best of all, Chump cars can't have a starting value of more than $500 (not including mandatory safety items). The cars are low-buck stockers with the necessary safety gear. And since it's endurance racing, making those stock parts last is as important as speed—more on that later.

"The ChumpCar World Series is a road racing series for young people that want to get started in racing, but don't have the budget," said John Condren, president of the series. "It's a road racing series for those of us well-beyond our young days who always wanted to go racing but never had the time or the money—and ChumpCar is a road racing series for everyone in the middle, anyone and everyone; no experience necessary … just passion.

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"There's only one requirement to racing with us: Don't come with any expectations or agenda other than having a great time. If you come with some preconceived notion that you're going to win, set a fast lap, or get spotted by a Formula One talent scout … well, it's going to be a very long and disappointing weekend for you. But if you come out to enjoy the cars, great tracks, great people, and share a beer on Sunday afternoon, then you're our kind of Chump. Win a race? Hell, we consider it a victory if the is car running at the end!"

Chump makes it amazingly easy for novice racers to participate. No fancy racing license is needed. Save for the Daytona race, you can participate at any event, even without experience, as long as you attend the Chump Car driver's school. It's a free classroom-based school offered by the series officials before each race. The Chump series is pure genius. If you have even a passing interest, take a look at the rules and schedule online at www.chumpcar.com.

There is an injection of extreme crudeness and some silliness in vehicle themes, but they are every bit as much racing machines, and the camaraderie is top notch.

"As we say on the website, this series is for gearheads; for people who love driving and driving fast," Condren added. "It's for Chumps like you who have always wanted to go road racing without all the hassles or expense. ChumpCar is a throw-back to the era when racing was fun and cheap, when Bondo beat carbon fiber; when homemade engineering made everyone sit up and take notice; and when adding a little theme to your car didn't get you laughed off of pit lane. Those were good times, and they're back."

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Let's Go Racin'

Daytona has a rich heritage steeped in history—its sheer size is awe-inspiring. Entering the infield through the tunnel, I thought about the great racers who've turned laps here, and suddenly I was in minor disbelief that I'd soon be dancing on the 31-degree banking.

To my surprise, Jimi Day picked me to start the race, and once race morning arrived, we got right to work. First was a team meeting, then final check of the car and the radio system, and then the mandatory ChumpCar drivers meeting. Before I knew it, I was strapped into the Mustang sitting on pit road.

The crew darted around the car in final preparation, checking the tires, peeking under the hood, mounting cameras, and then pit lane cleared. My heart was thumping as I pulled on the belts and rolled out behind the pace truck. I was second in line of the 120-plus racers, ready to take on Daytona.

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My plan was simple: learn the track, keep the fenders on it, and pass carefully (if possible). While no track is easy, the DIS Roval (part road course and part oval) is straightforward. The infield corners are flat, almost nothing is blind, and most of it is plenty wide. In contrast, the banking is like nothing else in racing. Tilted to 31 degrees, it is flat-out and fast! You hold it to the mat and it holds the car. Just being out there at pace speed was exciting. The field took a few pace laps, we bunched up, and finally…

Green, Green, Green

When the green flag waived, I gave it the power and adrenaline poured through my veins, my senses were heightened and I was finally racing. Two cars passed me diving under me into Turn 1, but with cold tires and brakes, I resisted the urge to fight back. I first needed to learn limits of the car and the track, and it was vital I get everything, including my brain, up to temp.

I followed a modified Ford LTD, of all things, and a fast import for a few laps, but I soon realized I was quicker. Our Mustang drove really well; the steering, brakes, and balance was what I'd anticipated. I began to push the Mustang harder, just a little each lap.

Despite starting near the front of the field, we were penalized four laps due to the coilover front struts and a few other mods (Chump assess lap penalties for what it considers "acceptable" mods). But with V-8 power and good handling, we were on the march.

By lap four I'd passed the LTD and the import, and I was catching and passing slower cars. I was surprised at the Mustang's ability to close the gap on smaller, lighter cars under braking (I figured they would have the edge in the corners), so I used that to my advantage.

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I made careful moves and was building a rhythm. The twisty, flat infield section is really fun, and much of the time I was surrounded by racers battling for position. The action was intense, and I had to be on my game, constantly checking mirrors and choosing the best line to make passes and not get cracked into. There are plenty of passing zones, and I noticed a good amount of cautious moves and gentlemanly racing.

The final infield turn is an increasing- radius lefthand sweeper that jettisons you into NASCAR 1, where you shoot onto the banking. Early on, I closed on two BMWs in NASCAR 1. I ran low behind them, then slipped high towards the wall to move around them. It was my first pass on the super speedway, and it felt awesome. Running the banking was every bit as cool as I'd imagined. You're up there forever—the engine is howling, the cornering forces compress you in the seat, and you find yourself looking only through the upper left corner of the windshield. If you look straight ahead all you see is a wall of asphalt over the nose. And you're in the gas forever.

The ChumpCar Series is competitive, fun, safe, and an affordable way to race wheel-to-wheel with your friends and family.

Turn 1 blends into Turn 2, which slingshots you onto the Daytona Superstretch. My speed was approaching 145 mph. Though not fast for professionals at Daytona, it was plenty fast for my skill level (or lack thereof), and the fact that I was in a mostly-stock Fox.

Next up is the Bus Stop, a high-speed chicane that is way faster than it looks. Getting through the complex takes precision—a mistake can send you into the inside fence or spinning into the outside wall. Of course, you can run through it slow, but it kills your exit speed. Approaching the Bus Stop, you're running wide open, and you have lots of time to think about exactly when you will brake. Your right foot is itching to get off the gas, but you hold it down as long as you can. Your brain is going, wait… wait… wait… then BAM! BRAKE, downshift, and flick the wheel left. The car barely gets turned in and set on the suspension before you flick it to the right to nail the second inside apex. If you do it right, you're aligned at the corner exit and you can get back to wide-open throttle and hold it.

The Bus Stop is rhythmic, on the edge, and very fast. It took me quite a few laps to build the confidence to run Fourth gear through there, but the extra speed paid off because upon exit, I pumped it right back into the Fifth gear and ran wide open all the way through NASCAR 3, through Turn 4, down the short 'chute, and through the famous Tri-Oval.

A lap at Daytona is exciting, even more so when you're dicing in traffic. Lap after lap, I somehow managed to pass cars, making up valuable time and positions. Day was on the radio, offering tips and giving me instruction (when he could see me). I relayed engine temperature and car feel, and he gave me lap times and kept my pace in check.

Of all the corners, I found Turn 1 the trickiest. It's fast and wide, with no clearly defined braking zone or "line." Since I was preserving the car, I braked early and turned the Stang in there with a big arc. But that brought it's own dangers, as guys dive-bombed me, trying to late-brake and get under me. While some made up ground, I watched a few lock up and slide right past my door.

I learned where the Mustang liked to run and where it didn't. It had a tendency to lock up when I ran the inside line in the International Horseshoe, so I was careful when diving under other cars.

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Over the next two hours, we moved from four laps down to the 43rd position (out of 120-plus cars). Finally, Day asked about the fuel level and just then the engine stumbled. I radioed back: "Out of gas, coming in."I hit pit road on fumes and we executed a smooth driver change with Kenneth Payne taking over. After a driver swap, refueling the car, and a quick look at the tires, Ken was on his way. We dropped to 52nd place, but the car was fast and there was plenty of time left.

My stint lasted 1 hour and 50 minutes, and I was completely spent. The exhaustion didn't hit me until about five minutes after I was out of the seat, when the adrenaline started to wear off. I pounded water and Powerade Zero. My wife, Diane, was waiting with an ice-cold towel for my neck, which was a life-saver.

Back on track, Ken was up to speed and moving forward. Unfortunately, he radioed in after an hour or so with a tire going down. The next lap was painfully slow as he nursed the Mustang back to pit road, where we slapped on new rubber. Back in the mix, Ken was passing cars and he had us up to 38th place when we encountered our next problem. Sadly, the stock cooling system showed its weakness as the 5.0's temp began to climb. Racecars generally don't fix themselves and the temp just kept climbing right to the critical point. The little 302 was running at 190-200 degrees when I was in there, but it had shot up to 230 degrees as the day got warmer.

Needless to say, stock-type 5.0L H.O. engines don't perform well when running over 200 degrees, and ultimately it ate a head gasket, ending our day. I felt really bad for Jimi Day and Brian Davis, who came all the way from Wisconsin and never turned a lap, and for the crew who towed the car down. Our disappointment was magnified because we were strong and moving forward in rapid fashion. On a brighter note, the Mustang is already fixed and has returned to the track with success. Best of all, there are plenty more ChumpCar races in 2013 and I've been invited back to drive.

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I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Optima Batteries; drivers, Jimi Day, Brian Davis, and Ken Payne; our crew, Al Radonki, Alex Frank, and Brad and Wendy Adler; and my wife, Diane, for the excellent effort and teamwork. Despite our not-so-stellar finish, we had a blast and gained valuable experience.

The ChumpCar Series is competitive, fun, safe, and an affordable way to race wheel-to-wheel with your friends and family and I can tell you this won't be my last time. While open track events are a blast, there's not much that compares to wheel-to-wheel racing, and there aren't many places where the average enthusiast can get out there and mix it up. Couple that with the amazing tracks and ChumpCar is a great option.

Check out www.chumpcar.com. Sift through the rules, the tracks, and the mass of photos. Let us know what you think, as we're contemplating building a ChumpStang (or other Fox) of our own. Drop me a line at evan.smith@sorc.com.