Matt King
May 1, 2009
Photos By: Chris Schuetze/Finish Line Productions
At the end of the 45-minute, 16-lap Camaro-Mustang Challenge National Championship race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, we came up 0.395-second short behind winner Glenn Landrum's Camaro, with Bob Denton a further 0.732-second behind in third place.

After spending most of the 2008 racing season building and sorting our '95 Camaro-Mustang Challenge race car, documented in the previous four issues of MM&FF, we're finally wrapping up the project with the story of our run for a National Championship at the NASA Championships, which were held at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, on Sept. 14, 2008.

The final leg of our project car journey was the 865-mile round-trip tow from Milwaukee for the four-day Championship event, but getting there also included stops at Autobahn Country Club, Road America, and a warm-up run at Mid-Ohio just a month prior.

Legend has it that Dan Gurney is responsible for starting the post-race tradition of spraying champagne on your fellow racers during the podium ceremony. Here I give third-place finisher Bob Denton an earful.

We covered the first shakedown run at Autobahn and the car's debut race at Road America in a previous issue, but the most important preparation for the Nationals came in August 2008 at Mid-Ohio during the last NASA Great Lakes region regular-season race prior to the big dance. Mid-Ohio is one of the country's premier natural road courses, and we needed the track time to sort out the suspension on the track's flowing combination of high-speed straights, elevation changes, and highly technical corners. Our run at Road America had been without the benefit of the Astro Performance A-5 Road Race Fifth gear set that we installed in Part 3, and we were eager to see how the car would stretch its legs on Mid-Ohio's long back straight, where a CMC car approaches a top speed of nearly 130 mph.

Off the trailer, the car was understeering badly in two of the track's tightest corners, the Carousel leading onto the pit straight and the all-important Keyhole that leads onto the backstraight-the fastest part of the track. Carrying maximum exit speed out of the Keyhole is critical for a good run down into the braking zone at the end of the straight, which is one of the best places to pass. To correct the mid-corner understeer, we made a series of changes to the rear suspension, including increasing rear tire pressure and substituting a stiffer rear sway bar. These changes produced an encouraging fastest lap time of 1:42.200 for the weekend. Considering changes to the track's surface since the prior year's Nationals, it was a solid time and turned out to be the quickest lap of the 2008 season turned by any CMC car at Mid-Ohio, including during the Championships, although it's short of the current CMC track record of 1:40.713 set during the 2007 Championships.

Not all GM guys have mullets: fellow CMC racer Sidney Franklin jumped in to help rebuild our spare transmission Saturday night after contact with a wall rendered first gear useless.

Back home in Milwaukee, following a pair of race wins at Mid-Ohio, we had just over a month to get ready for the NASA National Championships. Preparations included ordering a freshly shaved set of spec Toyo RA-1 race tires, mounting them on brand-new MB Motorsports Competition wheels, changing the engine oil and transmission fluid (more on that later), bleeding the brakes, and doing a general nut-and-bolt check to ensure everything was tight and properly adjusted.

Back at Mid-Ohio, the championship weekend included a test day on Thursday, a pair of 20-minute qualifying heat races on Friday and Saturday (each proceeded by a separate qualifying session to set the race grid), and a 45-minute championship race on Sunday. Weather was the big story of the weekend this year, with Thursday's dry, sunny conditions followed by torrential rain all day Friday and most of Saturday. Many racers were caught without windshield wipers, window defoggers, and rain tires (us included), and those days were spent trying to stay out of the gravel traps, off the tire walls, and hoping for clear conditions on Sunday. We managed to borrow a set of spare rain tires for the wet sessions (thanks to 2008 American Iron champ Robin Burnett) and eked out a Fourth place finish in the Friday heat race, picking up one spot from our starting position.

Paddocking in the grass "up on the hill" has been a tradition among low-buck racers at Mid-Ohio for decades. Now you know where the term "grassroots" racing comes from.

Saturday qualifying was wet, but the track dried out for the second heat race, and we were on a charge from the middle of the pack on the first lap before missing a 3-4 upshift in the high-speed run through Thunder Valley down into the Carousel. In my haste to pass the whole field in one shift on the opening lap, I jammed the stick into Second instead of Fourth, and when I let the clutch out, the rear end locked up and the car shuddered to a near halt in mid-track, causing the car behind me to tap my right rear bumper and send me spinning off the left side of the track, through the grass and into the Armco guardrail near the Turn 13 corner station. After refiring the motor, I was unable to get the transmission into first gear, but eventually got moving in second and was able to finish the race, albeit in last place

Back in the pits after the race, we assessed the dilemma facing us. With the standing starts used to begin CMC races, the loss of first gear would be a nearly insurmountable hurdle to overcome, but our spare transmission lacked the proper overdrive fifth gear we needed to carry top speed on the backstraight. The only option was to try to fix the broken T-5. With the help of fellow CMC racers Bob Denton, Bryan White and Sidney Franklin, we pulled the broken tranny out and tore it down in under an hour. Unable to find what prevented the transmission from engaging first gear, we ended up swapping the Astro overdrive fifth gear from the broken T-5 into the spare and put it all back together. With the guys helping me, we had the car back on the ground in less than four hours. Racers helping other racers truly defines what grassroots racing is all about

Thanks to the last-place finish in the Saturday race, my starting grid position was seventh among the eight race starters. Using a random countdown of amber lights similar to the dragstrip Christmas tree, the standing start is somewhere between a hard street launch and a clutch drop at the dragstrip. Stalling or spinning the tires can result in either getting freight-trained by the cars behind you, or being rear-ended, so a clean rollout is more important than a fast one. The ideal start perfectly anticipates the final light going dark and leaves with just a haze of wheelspin. I got blocked by the car ahead of me on the start, but passed him by the exit of turn 1, then picked off two more cars by the end of lap 3, and moved into third place on lap 5. I briefly took the lead on lap 6 when the two leaders came together and we went three wide down the backstraight, before giving back both places in the braking zone.

On lap 7 I got a good run coming out of Turn 1 on polesitter David Shotz, who had dropped to second, and drafted past him on the run up to the Keyhole, then settled in behind Glenn Landrum's Forth-Gen Camaro. I tailed Landrum for the next nine laps, closing on his bumper many times but never finding the opening I needed to get around him, despite a few small errors on his part. When the checkered flag flew, I was just 0.395-second behind him in second, a gap of about two car lengths. Following in dogged pursuit was Pontiac Firebird driver Bob Denton, who was on my bumper the entire race, ready to pounce at any mistake I might have made attempting to pass the leader. After 16 laps, the gap from first to third was a mere 1.1 second, the closest battle of any class during the Championship weekend.

A long Wisconsin winter provides plenty of time to ponder what might have been and to rethink all the things I could have done differently in a race I lost by less than half a second. But the disappointment of missing the top step of the podium and a National Championship is tempered by the thrill and satisfaction at bringing the season and this project to a successful conclusion just five months after starting both with a gutted shell. Plus, there's always next year.

Try It Yourself
You don't have to spend a lot of money or build a race car from scratch to get involved in road racing. There are many other ways to get started in "corner carving" with a Mustang, ranging from weekend autocrossing, open-track days, time trials, all the way up to wheel-to-wheel competition, and there are organizations in every part of the country to help you accomplish your goals. Many national and regional clubs organize track days at area tracks where you can participate with a street car equipped only with a helmet and a basic safety inspection. Most of these groups organize run groups by skill level and provide ride-along instructors to help you get up to speed, so even if you've never turned a wheel on a race track of any kind, you can get started for a very minimal investment in time and money. Here are a few links to groups that organize various track events around the country.

Sources

  • www.scca.org
  • www.nasaproracing.com
  • www.svtcobraclub.com
  • www.trackdaze.com
  • www.carguysinc.com
  • www.chinmotorsports.com