Sunday, October 21, 2012

Latch-Key Kids Longest Day at Nelson Ledges Full Race Report

Two weeks ago the Chia Neon closed out the 2012 racing season with a 5th place finish at ChumpCar's Longest Day.  The Longest day out lasts all other road races (in this country) running a brutal 25 hours, 25 minutes and 25 seconds around Nelson Ledges.  A lot happens in more than 25 hours of racing so here's the run down as we saw it from behind the wheel of the greenest car on track.

Behind the wheel was Chia veteran Luke Keller, ChumpCar Neon racer Christian Hubbel, Spec Neon racer Vince Schrand, Steve Baumbach who drove the Chia at MIS, Formula Continental hot shoe Bill Wise drove a FWD race car for the first time, and myself. Luke took the first stint and ran well for the first thirty minutes until he made contact with a black E36 BMW #52. Luke had been racing another black E36 #67 for most of the race including following him through the kink at high speed. When Luke came up on the #52 he didn't realize it was a different car and wasn't ready for the #52 to brake hard entering the kink. Both cars spun off but neither sustained any damage. Luke got back on track after a two minute penalty and drove the laps in the video above setting a blazing 1:22.7 best lap.

The rest of the first driver rotation went smoothly. Christian and Vince both had solid drives and we steadily crept up the leader board into seventh place. Stints were lasting from an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours or nearly 80 laps. By the time Baumbach took the fourth stint we passed some other teams lacking our fuel longevity and we pulled into third place. Baumbach also shaved a few tenths off Luke's best lap.

Bill took the wheel around 5:30 pm and was turning consistent 1:24's almost immediately. Bill began setting the fastest laps in the Chia eventually getting down to 1:22.2. While doing so, he caught and passed the second place car. When I first took the wheel at about 7:30 Bill had some bad news. The Chia had developed an occasional high rpm miss. I decided to not investigate it now but head out on track and see if I could drive around it. To my dismay, the miss got worse and within a few laps the car refused to rev above 5500 rpm. A double yellow came out and I dived into the pits.

The OBD code reader reported a bad wire to the number four fuel injector. Luke popped of the connector, squished the leads with a pair of pliers and jammed it back on. I started the car and rev'd it to 6500rpm. It felt smooth so we closed the hood and I headed back out. The car felt fine but I was unable to notify the team as the pit lane radio had been misplaced. Oh well, I drove for another hour and a half until my team requested I be black flagged for the pit stop and driver change. We'd lost a few positions diagnosing the issue but we were solidly in the top five.

Luke only made it a few laps before the miss reappeared. We spliced in a new connector by twisting the wiring together and wrapping it in electrical tape. The wiring looked awful but it held for the rest of the race. Christian, Vince, and Steve all turned in solid drives as we crept slowly back towards the front. After Steve's stint the right front tire was showing cords on the inside edge so we changed both front tires. In the darkness, the right front wheel was installed incorrectly by mounting it on the lightening holes and not the proper bolt holes. Bill made it two laps until the car began shaking violently as the wheel began to lose lug nuts. Slowly limping back to the pits was cut short when the wheel finally let go in turn twelve. The Chia was towed back to the pits on the wrecker.

Baumback woke me up from my slumber on my air mattress in the adjacent pit stall long abandoned by another team. As the Chia approached we quickly summed up the damage. All the studs had been pulled out of the hub, the retaining flange was destroyed and the bearing had pulled out about 1/4". We had to swap a knuckle. Working together we got it done in twenty-nine minutes. Bill then went out on track and regained the fastest Chia lap honor with a 1:22.1. We were still in the top ten but our shot at the podium was lost with that wheel.

I took my second stint, the second to last of the race, as the sun came up. I had less than four hours of sleep but had a blast. Luke took the last stint with just less than two hours to go. We were running sixth with big gaps between the car in seventh and fifth but Luke drove like he had a shot to catch the leader. He was turning consistent 1:22's and set the fastest Chia lap of 1:21.6 only six laps before the checker. Due to engine failure on the #67 BMW we moved into fifth place just before the end.

With the 2012 season the books, its time for a moment of reflection on this year's efforts. We had more new drivers behind the wheel than ever before. I'm pleased by the new talent and pleased at how they've stepped up to keep the Chia running up front. This is also our first season with ChumpCar and its been a great move. I don't mean to disparage LeMons, but ChumpCar's willingness to promote real competitive racing has us firmly on board. That competitiveness has a downside as well. As much as we all love the Chia-Neon, its been eclipsed by the new generation of ChumpCar entrants. Take this race for instance. Even without our two mechanical issues we had no hope of catching the leaders. At VIR, our horse power handicap was even more apparent. Even if we're reliable and drive a great race we can't compete with the fast lap times our higher powered competition is capable of. There's clearly an arms race in ChumpCar and we just can't keep up with a 2.0L Neon making 120hp.

So 2013 will be a year of transition for the Latch-Key Kids, the Chia Neon, and myself. Its been a tremendous six years of racing and the Chia has taken more abuse than anyone thought possible. I don't think this is the end of the Chia Neon story but we'll see what next year brings.

The Chia Neon's Honorable Record:
Flat Rock 2007: Third overall, Fastest Yank Tank
Thunder Hill 2007: Second overall, Fastest Yank Tank
Toledo 2008: Fourth Overall, Least Horrible Mopar
Houston 2008: Fourth overall
Nelson Ledges 2009: Fifth Overall, Fastest Yank Tank
Gingerman April 2010: Second Overall, Fastest Yank Tank and You Got Screwed Award
Gingerman April 2011: Fourth Overall
Autobahn October 2011: Thirteenth Overall
VIR August 2012: Twenty-first Overall
MIS August 2012: Tenth Overall Saturday, Eighth Overall Sunday, Awarded gift certificate for pulling parts of Dave's street car to finish the race
Nelson October 2012: Fifth place overall

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