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Car racing turns physics into an art

A green Miata leads a pack of Chump racers through “the snake” at Virginia International Raceway near Danville early in the 24-hour race on August 10-11. The black Acura (right) lasted 12 hours before its head gasket blew. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

It’s called the Chump Car World Series—racing with cars that are supposed to be worth $500 or less. No experience necessary . . . “run what you brung.”

Chump racing is a last chance for cars (and some drivers) that were all but used up. Saved from scrap and recycled to race, Chump cars come in all types, with drivers of wildly varying abilities.

In its three years, Chump racing has grown. On August 10-11, more than 100 cars descended on Virginia International Raceway (VIR) near Danville for a 24-hour race. More than 400 drivers would run 2 hours at a time.

More than 100 cars battled in the Chump race on August 10-11 at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) near Danville. Carroll Shelby, who built the Cobra and gave his name to the Shelby Mustangs, won the first feature race at VIR in August, 1957. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

I was in one of them in a 1994 Acura Integra on the Bad Brains Racing team with 6 other drivers. 

Racing never leaves your blood. I road-raced motorcycles at VIR when I was 22 years old. Memories from those races are seared in me. I kept trying to push down those intense feelings, but nearly 40 years later they were still popping back up. One day, I was watching a race on TV and I thought, “I’m tired of watching.” And, I did something about it.

Our race was on
Our Acura was running on 3 cylinders, instead of 4. After an hour in the car I had not passed anyone. But in the darkness ahead I spotted a lemon-yellow Opel. I was gaining on him!

I got by him, but passing him only motivated him to try harder.

Other sports have moments of intensity. Baseball hitters face a 3-2 count with the winning run on third base. Football has fourth-and-goal at the one yard line. In motor racing, this level of intensity is constant.

A driver who dares, can relax only for a second on the straight-away while running over 100 miles per hour.

Miss your braking point by a few feet and you may find yourself off the track with a torn up car—or worse. In this sport there are no balls, no strikes, but there are “outs,” and penalties are harsh.

Racers have to remain calm. Tension breeds mistakes. As in life, when something is difficult, you are doing something wrong.

The great thing about Chump racing, which is sponsored by Optima Batteries, is that you eventually find a car and driver to race. In our underpowered Acura I was racing a 1974 Opel, brought from Kansas, and driven by 50-year-old Mike Fandel from Minneapolis. He had slightly more power. I could get by him in a turn, but he’d pass me on the straight. I found out later he had shifting problems.

Here at VIR, on a hot August night, we battled along with dozens of cars that came from as far away as Minnesota, Kansas, Texas and Florida—even one of VIR’s owners drove in her car.

Physics and skill
Many think that racing is all about horsepower. But it is as much about who can get that horsepower to the track.

The goal is to “straighten out a turn” by using all of the track. It looks easy. But driving is physics and art that distort a driver’s perception of time.

Exiting a turn, drivers want to be the first to apply throttle, that’s a micro-second advantage. With two evenly matched cars, the driver that can apply throttle sooner, effectively makes the straight longer. The straight is where full power is used.

The other way to extend the straight is to out-brake your opponent going into the next turn. This is where attempts to cheat the laws of physics are made and 2,000-plus pounds of rolling steel can get very loose—and worlds collide.

Racing is like driving on ice. Although the cars have wide, sticky tires, they eventually get hot and “go away.” Then things get slippery. That’s true for NASCAR and in Chump racing.

“Outta my way”
The Opel and the Acura diced until he sliced inside of me going into a very fast section. He made it through. But, if he had misjudged by a few inches, this story could have had a very different ending.

His “dive bomb” move reminded me of how quickly the good times could end. I let him go—but only for a second. I was soon on his bumper waiting for him to make another mistake.

I was so consumed with racing him that for 5 laps I missed my pit board sign to “come in” for a driver change.

Coincidentally, the Opel pitted at the same time and was two stalls down from us. The driver was still talking at 100 miles per hour when I approached and just listened. I finally introduced myself and gave him a firm handshake and thanked him for the good racing. 

I did mention the one “bone headed” move he made when he dive-bombed me. He apologized for his lack of experience. I told him that the car that is attempting to pass usually determines if there will be a collision.

Racing is a calculating risk versus reward, in a split second, repeatedly. And this leads to “brain fade,” where you are overloaded. The secret is to realize when you are losing your edge. Talented racers don’t bump to pass—but this is Chump racing.

Tom Chillemi has been a photo-journalist with the Southside Sentinel for 25 years. Email him at if you think Chump racing is for you.

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 08.14.2013

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