My racing experience is woefully inadequate, but from the few events I have competed in, the start is everything. Absolutely everything is geared towards those first few seconds, or even hundredths of a second. If you botch that, you may never recover. Endurance racing isn’t like that. When you’ve got a full 24 hours ahead of you, some of that urgency falls aside, at least in the beginning.
Endurance racing has its own sense of time.
Everyone took their time waking up, and indulging in the finest fried breakfasts available out of the side of a trailer. I had a pancake dog, which is like a corndog...but with pancake. And sausage. And syrup. Tasty, yet vaguely unsettling. After that, the car went to stage up in the grid, some group photos were taken, and the parade lap began. There were a few scrambles to get everyone out into their cars, as some people were still in the pit, but with relatively little fanfare, the cars set off.
While endurance racing and hill climbs are about as different as possible in terms of structure, both World Racing League’s 24@5280 and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb both exist in the world of grassroots motorsport. While, yes, the teams are competing against each other, that is almost a secondary battle. The largest antagonist is the track itself. At Pikes Peak, each driver is battling the mountain. Out at the High Plains Raceway, each time is battling the clock. The struggle is merely to survive to the end. Because of this, the small teams are united against a common enemy.
Shortly into the first leg, a neighboring team asked about our pit strategy. Now, I’m no expert, but I imagine that doesn’t happen at Monaco that often. Both teams openly discussed when they planned to come in, and how long they would be, so that the neighbor still had room to work. That just blew my mind. Sure, out on the track it might be wheel to wheel aggression, but on the other side of the wall, there was a degree of camaraderie that was heartwarming to see.
That sense of contentment faded quickly when we got word over from Coffey (yes, Kitchens and Coffey were two of our drivers, go-go breakfast team) that the radio that the car was starting to overheat. That’s not good. While an initial effort to keep the temperature under control by running at a slower pace seemed to help for a while, the call was eventually made to bring the car in for diagnostics. This again shows the difference between endurance and hill climb races. At PPIHC, the car there, also a Honda, began overheating early on, but Kitchens pushed on, because there’s no do-over on the hill. But at a 24 race, it’s worth it to lose the time to repairs if it means you’re still in it the next morning. Lose the battle to win the war.
A quick inspection and a lot of water and a lot of swearing deduced that there was a bubble due to the altitude. Now, I’m not a mechanic, as should be painfully obvious by anything I write, but apparently this is known to those in the industry as being “bad”. Which is weird, because everybody loves bubbles. Especially the ones made with the big wands. Or bubble guns, those are fun too. But when they’re under the hood, bubbles are bad it seems. Lesson learned.
So things were done, and the car went back out, ready to kick ass. At least for a few laps, until the temperature gauge started to wander into the no-no zone again. Back to the paddock it went, and many things were disassembled. The new prognosis was a blown head gasket, which was also what had waylaid the CRX at Pikes Peak. Apparently Hondas do not tolerate high altitude abuse well. Expensive lesson learned.
Undeterred, the team pushed on. One support member, John, commandeered a truck and high-tailed it to Denver, which as the nearest significant city, was roughly an hour away. While he was on the road, everyone else jumped on their phones and began hitting up every dealership, parts store, and forum available. The logic was that by the time they had located a headgasket, John would be nearing Denver, and could swoop in and get it. This would eliminate a lot of wasted transit time. That’s such a beautiful piece of time management that it warms the cockles of my logistical heart.
22 Hours Remaining
Unbeknownst to the team, the S2000 is a goddamn unicorn in Colorado. There was not a single headgasket for sale in the entire state, from either dealerships or part stores. It’s not exactly a Lamborghini, guys, it’s a four cylinder Honda. But for some asinine reason, nobody in the entire state was equipped to deal with a broken one. So instead, John grabbed us all the Stop Leak he could carry, and made the hour long slog back. Not an ideal solution, but it was either that, or buy the wrecked S2000 off Craigslist for a few thousand dollars, and pull the drivetrain. Which was actually considered. These boys don’t play around.
So, the Stop Leak was added, prayers were said, goats were sacrificed, and the motor was zipped back together.
Driver in, car lowered, power on, hood pinned shut, go!
No vroom vroom.
The hood comes back up.
The head comes back off.
The camshafts get fiddled and tickled.
Head goes back on.
Hood goes down, car goes out.
21 Hours Remaining.
Pikes Peak spoiled me. There, I could go nearly anyplace that I wanted, as long as I had my vest and badge. But here at the High Plains Raceway, there were two corners you could get to, and that’s it. So you kind of wander between the two, snapping photos when you can. But again, there’s no rush. Why kill yourself grabbing photos in the afternoon when the race is not even a quarter over? Plus, broad daylight makes for flat and boring photos. Better to wait for dusk. There’s a reason they call it the “golden hour”.
So you head back to the pits, to get some shade and relax. But then came more bad news over the radio: transmission failure. Go time. Everyone scrambles out of their chairs and over the fence, back to the paddock. The car goes up on jackstands, and men dive underneath to start assessing the damage. It was at this point that I became an integral, and truly indispensible member of the team. As various whoozits and watchamacallits were unfastened, the rear wheels had to be held still. Think of it like loosening the lug nuts on your car. If you don’t break them loose when they’re on the ground, they just turn when you crank on them. Same principal. So myself and another gentleman got the job of holding the rears still while someone else got elbow deep on the other end. Fun fact: wheels and tires get very warm when racing, especially when the temperature is creeping towards the 90s. So take that nice, baked hot wheel, and squeeze it as hard as you can. Or, if you’re a pussy like me, don’t touch the wheel, but instead press down on the racing tire with both hands in this weird downward press/fly/kegel sort of motion. Requires a bit more effort, but saves your dainty spoiled white kid hands.
Once the transmission was dropped, like some sort of Megatron prolapse, the damage was obvious. And by “obvious”, I mean someone pointed to it and explained which part broke. The throwout bearing threw itself out, and the springs decided they wanted to be free from their metal prison. This is also, according to various people, known as a “bad thing”. It seems a racecar needs a transmission, as well as an engine, to operate at competition levels. Most educational.
19 Hours Remaining
While various pickup trucks were dispatched into the wild blue yonder in search of clutches, I got to spend a few hours sitting on the asphalt of the paddock, catching up with old and new friends. The sense of time really starts to mess with you at this stage. In my mind, we are absolutely hosed. I mean, the car hasn’t moved in quite a while now. But then you do the math and realize how much time is remaining. Then you look off to the side and see the C4 Corvette that is attempting a full drivetrain swap in the parking lot with hand tools. Oh...well maybe we’re still in this.
Eventually reinforcements arrive with new parts. Huzzah! But one of our drivers is down with a wee bout of altitude sickness. Not huzzah. People tend to forget, but Colorado is mostly desert. Standing out in the sun in a desert at high altitude can really do a number on you, especially if you’re not expecting it. A steady diet of bottled water and beef jerky was barely keeping my own issues at bay. But some water and shade put him as right as the mail.
With much swearing, wrenching, threatening, and cajoling, the car was finally ready to go again. This was due in no small part to another masterful bout of wheel holding by yours truly. At this point, the driver strategy was changed. Initially, the plan was for each driver to drive an hour or more, to minimize stops. But at this stage, with the car being temperamental, it was decided to do much shorter stints, to ensure that everyone at least got a session before the whole thing grenaded itself across the plains.
15 Hours Remaining
We were finally at the point I’d waited for all day. Golden hour. Dusk. Sunset. The gloaming. Whatever you want to call it. Racecars in motion are always a beautiful thing to me, no matter how battered and broken they become. While parked they may be dingy and uninspiring, but at full chat, running three wide into a hairpin with a perfect golden sunset at their back...there’s nothing like it.
At this point, I more or less left the team to fend for themselves. Occasional VTEC issues brought them back to the paddock, but I stayed out. Who knows the next time I was going to see a full pack of cars running flat out at sunset? I didn’t want to miss a second. A wise man once told me that in situations like this, the action and the setting are gorgeous all on their own, you just need to be ready to capture it. Colorado is the epitome of that.
Once the sun gets low enough, you can no longer tell the cars apart. There’s just these balls of light and noise. While in the corners close to the wall, you can’t really gauge speed, you can really see the faster classes cutting their way through traffic on the back straight. Again, you can’t tell the cars apart, but you definitely see the disparity in speed. Only as it whips past you can you get a glimpse of the color or number. It becomes almost like the Battle of Britain. You just hear distant engines and flashing lights, with no real sense of what is happening, or to whom. Sure, sitting in the pits by the radio keys you in to your specific guy, but beyond that, you’re in the dark, literally.
After the sun was truly down, I took my splendid dinner of a trailer burger with fries, and went to sit on the empty bleachers. When I’m photographing any event, be it race or concert, I tend to get so inside my little world that I miss out on the experience itself. I’m so paranoid about missing the shot, that I never step back to enjoy the moment for its own sake. That’s why I was relieved once the light was gone. I didn’t have to work anymore. Just watch, and experience.
The energy level has crests and valleys. All evening, car after car had dropped out of the race. But as the sun sets, more and more teams re-enter the track. The cars and their teams have caught their second wind. Those issues that were inconveniences in the afternoon now carry much more weight. At midnight, everything is an emergency.
10 Hours Remaining
As I said, Colorado is a desert. This means that while it is sweltering during the day, the temperature drops off a cliff come sundown. With no vegetation or water, there’s nothing to retain that heat. So relatively soon, the temperature had dropped down into the 50s. As someone who is in Colorado multiple times a year, surely I packed for this eventuality. Alas, I’m not that bright. So as the temperature continued to plummet, I took refuge at the concession hut to discuss motorcycles with another friend I hadn’t seen since Pikes Peak.
With endurance racing, you spend a lot of your day just burning hours, trying to stay awake and entertained. So an hour of discussing the weird amalgamation of joy and tragedy that makes up the world of motorcycles was just the ticket. Somewhere in this stretch I was recognized by a racer from my home state. This has only happened a few times ever, and is sufficiently odd every time.
Eventually, the cold and exhaustion become to much for me. While talking, or working, I can push on, but as soon as I run out of things to distract me, reality takes it’s toll. At one point, I figure that I’ve slept roughly three to four hours out of the last 39. None of those have been in a bed. Or even in a building. So I head back to the rented Nissan, to bask in the heat, and attempt to charge my phone and get some rest. Just a little. I set my alarm for one hour. That will get me through until dawn, surely.
9 Hours Remaining
Waking up an hour later, I’m surprisingly warm, and relatively rested. If you’re exhausted enough, anything can be a bed, even the backseat of an Altima. But things have changed. The truck next to me that held one faction of our team, is now gone. Oh no. The racecar is being pushed up into the paddock. Oh no. I scramble over the front seats and fall out of the Nissan. Coffey meets me halfway, and shakes my hand, thanking me for coming out. Still half asleep, I’m unable to connect the dots. He informs me that we’re done. Show is over, no encore. During my one nap all day and night, the car finally overheated to the point that everyone threw in the towel. So ends our endurance racing adventure, quietly, in the dark, out of sight of everyone.
8 Hours Remaining
It seems sad that after all the effort, blood, sweat, and tears, this is how it ends. But as Kitchens once told me, “if it was easy, everyone would do it”. The remaining team members all pile into the trailer, tents, and trucks, to break down everything in the morning. But as I’ve already spent one night in a car in a parking lot, I’d rather not spend another. So the mighty Altima gets loaded up, and rolls off towards the city, in search of a bed. Or a couch. Or a floor. At least a roof. I’ll be back, Colorado. Don’t you doubt it.
Read about my first night here.
More photos are here.