mileage, low cost
The premise? It is still possible for an amateur racing driver to take part in major league events, and for a reasonable sum. The conclusion? Yes. . .
7, he format of endurance racing is always changing. For 1994 IMSA’s World Sports Cars (WSC) have replaced GTP machines in the States, and at Le Mans the ACO has phased out Group C with an eye on cheaper, open top racers. A minimum of $1 million was required to put a GTP car on the track; IMSA’s WSC class is aimed at making racing cheaper and more competitive, the Ferrari 333SP notwithstanding. But are we really entering an era where the club racing privateer can get back into world class international events at realistic expense?
All things are relative. Budgets at the top of the sport are always going to be high; however, the further the organisers go to allow less and less expensive cars to compete, the greater chance a driver has of getting to contest some of the world’s major endurance events such as Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring. In 1993 I finished my third season in the Caterham Vauxhall Challenge. In my opinion this is one of the best value championships in the UK: full grids, international events, good TV coverage and cars that are a genuine thrill to drive every time you get in. A Caterham Vauxhall costs £18,000 new (around £14,000 secondhand) and can be
run on anything from £5,000-£15,000.
The dilemma at the end of a successful season was what to do next. Unable to find the balance of price, performance and exposure that 1 had enjoyed in the UK last season, 1 looked to the States.
During a wet afternoon at Goodwood, experienced racer Rob Wilson (author of the article on the Bogota Six Hours, MOTOR SPORT, April 1992, and a man with a wealth of experience in the States) gave me contacts for some teams who run in IMSA’s GTS and GTU classes. Their first race of the season was the Daytona 24 Hours, back in February.
GTS and GTU cars are essentially production-based, and run in various states of tune, weight and modification: Nissan 300ZXs, myriad Porsches, Chevrolet Camaros and Corvettes are typical. Weight limits are calculated in relation to an engine’s size and horsepower. For example, a GTU Camaro weighs 2000 lb and yields 350 bhp. The GTS equivalent rates 2550 lb/600 bhp. The two classes form the backbone of IMSA racing and have had full grids for many years. The cost of hiring a seat in one of these cars seemed to range from £4000-£25,000. The expensive rides were mostly in RSR Porsches, 911 Turbos and the works Corvet
tes and Lotus Esprits.
Although they were all undoubtedly fast, my main priority was to find something reliable. Many ‘phone calls later, a budget limited to $10,000 pointed me to a good privateer team with a well prepared, tubeframed Camaro and a good finishing record at the event Kent Racing. Team owner Kent Painter was about to enter his 10th Daytona 24 Hours; in each of the previous three, he’d enjoyed a trouble-free run to the finish.
The car was newly built, with a 6. I -litre. 585 bhp engine. For this particular event Kent Racing opts for a long-stroke engine and a four-speed gearbox, the theory being that the massive torque allows you to only use third and fourth, thus preserving the transmission. There is a live axle at the back and the tube chassis is clad in a 1992 fibreglass Camaro shell. Apparently the only item in common with the road car was the windscreen. The Camaro was able to attain its top speed of 180 mph on the Daytona banking, and was a potential top 20 finisher in what is, after all, the world’s second most famous round-the clock race. You get national TV coverage, a crowd of around 80,000 and an opportunity to race against some of the
world’s most respected drivers. Not to mention a fair amount of time at the wheel. It all appeared to be excellent value. The next, and final, step was to approach my existing sponsors . . . and within three weeks of having the initial idea, I was on the plane to Orlando.
I met up with the team on the Wednesday night in a Hooters bar (famed for its bikiniclad waitresses) and ran through the schedule of testing and the details of the car. Thursday would mark my first acquaintance with car and circuit. Night practice, at 18.00-20.00 that evening, would be the total track time allocated before the race on Saturday.
It didn’t sound like enough to me, but I was assured that it would be sufficient to learn all that was required prior to the race. The size of the car is the first thing that hits you (particularly if you’re used to Caterhams); the mechanics actually climb inside the engine bay to work on the motor. As they hook the protective net back over the windows and check the radio, you follow the same procedure every time you get in: cut-off switch on, ignition A on, fuel pump A on (there are two of everything), lights on if necessary and then press the big rubber start button to your right. There erupts a cacophonous noise and the whole car twists to one side. During the race, Kent informs us, most of the wear to the triple plate clutch occurs in the pits. You move away in first at around 3000 rpm and then
grasp second asap.
The pit exit road is the first obstacle. It’s incredibly narrow, and twisty, and the tyres touch the grass in some places. The first corner is a third gear hairpin. The amazing torque pulls the car round from 2000 rpm to the 6500 maximum in what feels like a long time. It seems strange for a car of such power, but you realise that as you exit turn six onto the banking that this machine is massively geared. The car took the hairpin at 30 mph; now, in the same ratio, 4500 rpm on, it is approaching 150 before you grab fourth up on the 36 deg banking.
The first few laps on the banking require intense concentration. It takes some getting used to, though positioning was apparently made easier this year without the menace of GTP cars coming by at 240 mph. There are three lanes and the slower cars keep low; however, you must avoid running too low and drifting on to the apron, where the banking ends rather abruptly.
Major retardation is first required for the chicane on the back straight. Although the huge AP brakes work well, it takes a few laps to get used to the large pedal effort. This may have had something to do with the fact that my previous experience comprised stopping a mere half ton of Caterham with brakes of similar size. During my first few laps it occurred to me that the reason the pedal itself was so big was to allow you to use both feet . . After 10-15 minutes you get used to it.
The chicane is taken, predictably, in third gear. The main problem is definition of the apices — they put out cones for the race to accentuate the flat bends, but these are soon stuck beneath cars (usually Porsches) and deposited a mile down the road. Grip and turn-in were excellent for a car of this size, and US racer Scott Gaylord did a great job setting it up. Only through the infield section and the chicane did the Camaro feel as though it could have done with a faster ratio steering rack. You had to place your hands at half past six, rather than 10 to two, to be able to crank on enough lock.
There were four drivers in our car: Vic Rice, Mauro Borella, Dave Gooding and myself, Robert Nearn. None of us had raced here before. The practice time was divided into quarters, but we only managed seven laps each during the afternoon session and another five apiece that evening. The plan for the race was to do 40-minute stints at the beginning, instead of 75, in order to gain a little more experience before nightfall.
At Daytona in February there are 14 hours of darkness.
Our strategy worked well, and soon we all felt more at ease in the car, working down to 2m 12s laps whilst preserving the car as much as possible; you couldn’t say that about the Porsches, which were still banging doors through the chicane and lapping in the I m 50s bracket.
After 12 hours we had worked our way from 42nd to 28th overall but were about to lose our only major piece of time: a long brake pedal had been traced to a faulty master cylinder, and with me in the car the very efficient crew started to change it. The process required the windscreen to be unbolted and kicked out from the inside; the whole thing cost 50 minutes, but we returned to the track with a near perfect car something of a rarity this far into the race.
As the sun came up at 7.30 you could look at the mist covering all the camp fires from the top of the banking: the hardcore enthusiasts were still having a good time drinking from their pick-ups full of beer, whilst seated comfortably on the threepiece suite sofas they had brought with them.
With four hours to go cars started to drop out at an alarming rate: although we now had fairly warped front discs we had our eyes on a place in the top 20. On new tyres the car felt OK under braking, but as the tyres became worn (they could last for four hours) the vibration through the steering wheel was painful. You were actually afraid to take two hands off the wheel for fear you wouldn’t be able to get hold of it again. So we slowed our pace, were easy on the brakes and by 15.00 Sunday the four Daytona rookies had managed seventh in GTS and 18th overall. We were also the first privately entered GTS car to finish.
!asked Kent Painter whether finishing the Daytona 24 Hours had lost any of its appeal, even after 10 years. “It will never lose its magic,” he replied, “simply because it took me seven years to finish this damned race!” And all for the price of about five Caterham Vauxhall races . . . R N