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Local car competes at Daytona, beats 54 cars

The USS Enterprise race car at Daytona. (Courtesy of Don Bok Photo)

Southside Sentinel reporter Tom Chillemi drove his USS Enterprise race car in “The Daytona Beach Enduro,” one of the many races of the Champ Car’s Endurance Series, presented by Tire Rack.

A repair put USS Enterprise in the garage for more than an hour, but the heavily modified 1972 Ford LTD finished 62nd out of 116 cars in the 14-hour race on the Daytona International Speedway.

This is the 10th year for Champ Car, a racing series for cars valued at $500 or less. USS Enterprise runs in the unlimited division for cars that don’t meet the strict rules for car valuation.

All cars are older. They have been restored for racing and saved from being scrapped. The level of competition is fierce, but everyone still helps each other out by loaning tools or giving advice. “The positive energy level at the races is off the scale,” said Chillemi.

The overall Daytona 2019 winner was the mid-1990s Saab of R. Banks Racing, which outlasted all other racers and crossed the finish line first at 11 p.m. This was a repeat Daytona win for Banks of Pittsburgh.

Champ Car has grown in its first decade. This July the series will run at the famed Indianapolis Speedway and put on the longest race in the 100-plus years of the storied “Brickyard.”

At Daytona, Chillemi, the car owner and driver, was joined by chief engineer, tuner, fabricator, hauler driver, and aerodynamicist Glenn Bunch of Christchurch. Drivers were Chillemi, Randy Smith of Purcellville, Ed Steinhoff of West Palm Beach, Florida, and Derrick Williams of Raleigh who kept USS Enterprise moving at respectable times between 2:17 and 2:20 seconds per lap. Front straight top end speed was 156 MPH.

The Daytona race is run on the 3.56-mile “Rolex” road course that includes the twisty infield as well as the 31-degree banking on the oval used by NASCAR. The first time Randy Smith drove at Daytona his eyes were as big as saucers when he got out of the car, said Chillemi.

The race is 14-hours long and the rules require that a driver may only drive two hours at a time.

Chillemi drove USS Enterprise when it was owned by the original builder. When it came up for sale, Chillemi thought about buying it for months. Even with encouragement from others, Chillemi was still sitting on the fence on February 27, 2014, when he was asked to photograph a military funeral. “I looked at a table where they had the veterans’ mementos and thought to myself, ‘Is this it?’ ”

Then the preacher read from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which starts, “To everything there is a season.”

“I looked at the steeple of Harmony Grove Baptist Church and thought the message doesn’t get any clearer than this.” It was time to buy the race car, which he did that night.

It’s been an adventure ever since. 

New era
Glenn Bunch has transformed the 47-year-old car into a 3,600 pound go-cart that can run with many of “The Ultimate Driving Machines” from Germany. The engine is an LS3 General Motors that started out at 6.3 liters, but now is 7 liters (427 cubic inches). The four-speed transmission is a “dog box” and can be shifted without a clutch.

The mechanics at Chandler’s Automotive Services in Urbanna have helped many times to keep USS Enterprise, the “Daytona Special,” race ready.

Atlantic Metals of Topping contributed steel used to modify the frame for better aerodynamics. Former transportation director Buddy Wyker of Urbanna helped get Chillemi started.

“I could not have done this by myself,” said Chillemi, “and I am indebted to all those who helped me realize a dream.” 

This year, Chillemi’s brother, sister and brother-in-law surprised him by showing up at Daytona. “It was a lift to see them around and they helped out in the garage.”

Driving the steep banking at Daytona is hypnotic, Chillemi explained. “Sometimes I get the feeling I’m standing still and the track is moving under me.”

The forces are in balance. Centrifugal force wants to push the car up, gravity pulls it down. “Driving USS Enterprise on the Daytona banking is like flying a locomotive inside a barrel,” said Chillemi.

This was the sixth time Chillemi, 68, has driven at Daytona. 

And Chillemi believes he’s found a fountain of youth. On the side of USS Enterprise these words are written, “Fly while you still have wings.” 

posted 04.18.2019

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