Before the race, two young men give final instructions to a race car driver through the door window.
Before the race, two young men give final instructions to a race car driver through the door window.
Last checks before the start. Faces are still fresh and voices loud enough to rise over the roar.

Even in North Carolina’s sweltering August, bridges over Hyco Lake let you run through mist in the morning. The morning was cool enough that white mist swirled as we drove the 45-minute trek to Virginia International Raceway — also known as VIR. The acronym always harkened the classicist in me, vir being Latin for “man,” especially since car racing is still very much a guy thing. For good reason, my daughter calls these events “sausage fests.” My wife and I were heading to a ChumpCar 24-hour race, starting midday Saturday and ending Sunday.

We arrived after preparations were underway, begun well before dawn in idle hopes that teams might stay the hand of Dark Chaos and Old Night during the race. Beast Mode Racing, our team, headquartered itself up by the garages that would later be very useful.

Things fall apart. Sometimes the center holds.

The decidedly unglamorous and amateur racers (both cars and people) are often of an age ripe enough to qualify as true oldsters, chopped down to the basics with safety equipment attached.

Things are set up in orderly fashion, but after the start, all hell breaks loose. Cars line up. They go. And then, well, they’re all on the track: the drivers — the well seasoned and the unsalted — all rolling together, wheel-on-wheel, around a big loop in cars that they bought for $500, give-or-take. They’re often moving over a hundred miles-per-hour, sometimes well above that speed.

The Beast Mode Racing entry was an '80s Acura Integra, carefully pruned to “add lightness” and nudged here and there to mount up horsepower. For the first sixth of the race, the hours in the garage were paying off; the car stayed in the top five.

And then it happened.

There was “contact” (a euphemism for minor crash), and the Beast Mode car got the worst of it. The rear tires tell the story. They suffered catastrophic damage, though the right rear was so much a basket case that you could have held hot-cross buns in it, with the entire inner sidewall peeled like an apple from the rim.

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Aaron was driving, and he went off the track while the car who smacked him putted into the pits. All there was for him to do was radio in for help and wait for a tow, which eventually happened.

Back in the garage, the team didn’t have too far to look to find what needed fixing: In addition to toasted tires, the right rear control arm (think: suspension parts), and of course wheel alignment all needed significant attention.

The haunting thought in all the wrenching and fixing: The other cars on the track … going ’round and ’round, taking your time off track and turning it into laps, the great differentiator of an endurance race. When you’re fixing up damage or mechanical woe, you’re not running laps. Others are. Even that weenie Volkswagen Rabbit that can’t move faster than 45 miles-per-hour.

That little POS is lapping you.

In the end, the tow took longer than the repair, and I posted a report to social media: “Rear tire, rear control arm, realignment, refueling, all around tire check. Thirty minutes. Next time you bring your car to a shop, remember that.” This speed was possible only because of the team, most of them experienced mechanics.

ChumpCar racing is not all about driving. It’s not about cheapness of cars. It’s not about mechanical ingenuity. It is about the way a group comes together when things go all wrong. And they do go wrong.

When you’re fixing up damage, you’re not running laps. Others are. Even that weenie Volkswagen Rabbit that can’t move faster than 45 miles-per-hour.

For Chumps, everything is breaking everywhere, all the time. So, what are you going do about it?

You fix it.

ChumpCar plays a balance. There’s the primordial tension of Things Just Falling Apart or Randomly Ramming Into You and Smooth Running, Graceful and Fast Driving. I tend to think this is the genius of the “Really Cheap Cars” claim of ChumpCar racing, since everyone except cheaters contend with the Falling Apart (and cheaters do get called out, mostly). The key thing: When stuff happens, you fix it. This is the simplest test of a team, and it vastly complicates the array of talents that come together in the best ChumpCar teams. Either they do everything more-or-less well, or they fail.

And there are many things that can be fixed. I remember walking among the garage doors and seeing an engine hoist all set to be rolled into place. “Uh oh,” I said, “not a good sign.” A team was scurrying to pull the engine from a disabled red BMW. Over the course of the next few hours, I saw the engine in various stages, until one time I walked by and the car was no longer there — on the track again, apparently, running around in circles with the rest of them.

Our Beast got fixed and run back to the track. When Arlene and I headed home about 7:00, the old Integra was crawling up from sixty-seventh place. It was a long haul back, but there was lots of time.

Besides, the Fates fling lots of manure, so anything could happen to the competition.

Night is long

Sunday would begin at four o’clock, when we’d be at Bojangle’s in Roxboro to pick up biscuits of various kinds for a wake-up at the track.

It was apparent that the teams’ night had been long. Actually, it’d been long for everyone at the race. I didn’t see a fresh face, though people were happy, in the way that passionate and tired people can be. That is, unless they were comatose on a lounge chair or in a hammock.

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Earphone on just in case, a bit of shut-eye in the dark.

Arlene and I were relatively fresh, having had at least five hours of sleep and a warm and comfortable shower in the morning. We walked together from our spot near the garage (Number 13, of course), and ran into Jeff who was dozing on the team’s golf cart near the pit entrance. I remember thinking that perhaps we should let him rest, or whatever he was able to do, upright like that on an uncomfortable bench seat. But we did have “Bo’berry Biscuits” and various kinds of heart-stopping grease treats from Bojangles. Arlene put her hand on his shoulder and he snapped awake.

Lack of sleep can turn a young body into an old one, and that’s what I saw stumbling around in the pre-dawn morning. Me, a sixty-something old guy, close-shaved, freshly showered, bright-eyed, and spry— the contrast was shocking.

It had been a long night for Beast Mode Racing, but the team had made steady — indeed amazing — progress from the night before. They had resurrected their standing. Saturday night, they were stuck near the cellar at sixty-seventh place. By dawn on Sunday, the team had crawled up over half the way to the top, standing at thirty-fourth.

They’d been diligent and fast. And there were hours to go until the checkered flag.

Fortitudo

I’ve long thought that ChumpCar has tapped a paradoxical appeal of the isolating sufferings of challenge and misery. Not the despairing misery of war or of hunger, but something simpler and less threatening — some inkling of need for others and a call to some deep personal strength. I very much believe that all of us need to plumb those depths and, in some sense, to fear them even as we overcome them, using the ingenuity and luck that we humans have. Some fail at this. Some resort to violence and anger. Most, I believe, still find a way forward, wounded, perhaps, but also fortified. The situation that the fellows experienced in the night of the twenty-four-hour race set them up to pull together, swallowing their fatigue and pride and selfishness. That matters greatly when it comes to discovering fortitude, one of the classical virtues. What happens in the wee hours of the morning is not fun, but something there strengthens.

In earlier times, Fortitudo was depicted with a yoke and a broken column (the architectural kind). Fortitude is labor and having to face the frustration of breakage.

Fortitude matters. In this “First World” life of ours, how many places are there anymore where selfless fortitude matters for success? Even where success is counted as just keeping a shitbox running on a track, for little more than Chump Change if you’re lucky or the dubious satisfaction of having a thirty-year-old car run around in circles for a thousand miles?

Satisfaction is “in” the race, certainly. But a fundamental motivation is deeper than appearances, more than the accumulated laps: There is a heroism here, somewhere. And in fact, it’s just not easily seen in the early morning hours, some fifteen hours into a race, when hunger and sleeplessness bite and, perhaps, irritation sits just below the surface. In earlier times, Fortitudo was often depicted with a yoke and a broken column (the architectural kind). Fortitude is labor and having to face the frustration of breakage.

Abundance of breakage

The Beast Mode Racing crew made it through the night with the car moving well and fast. However, the radio was not working — a circumstance that neither pit nor driver were completely aware of. Zach was in the car, and he swooped into the pit shortly after dawn, a half-hour or so before his two-hour stint was up. The car was shuddering under acceleration. Something was up with the front end. Because of the radio failure, this was news to the pit crew, and all instantaneously decided to run the car up to garage number thirteen.

The shudder came from the front axle, it turned out. This was discovered after removing the CV joints, and then — in the absence of a spare part — the team began a mad scramble to find an axle that could pull the car through the remainder of the race. A rival team provided the spare. (It turned out to be an ill-fated spare, but the gesture was nice.) The car went back out with borrowed part and the blessing of tired mechanics. The team had lost some laps, of course, but all was not yet lost. The standings could change with good driving — and a bit of luck.

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The team considers shudders and shakes. What next?

Fixing this was not exactly a minor tweak, since there was some head-scratching required. On track diagnosis pointed to a CV joint, and the Beast Mode Team had a new set in the garage, all boxed up and in the wrappers. The play in the joint was sizable, though. The replacement axle seemed OK, though after about ten laps it, too, failed. Aaron was in the driver seat and noticed shuddering begin “almost like it was a tire out-of-balance.” At the speeds on the track, you just don’t go on with a little shudder. He swooped into the pit again and went on directly to the garage.

The team again converged in, and this time there was talk of ending the race. A part lacked — or at least was not easily acquired. And crawling up the standings to a podium finish was very unlikely at this point.

Arlene and I — oh, those of little faith! — decided to head home, the long morning having taken a toll even on us. There were four or five hours left in the race. But after we left, the Beast came back to life. The team decided to run into Danville, Virginia, to fetch a brand new axle. It went in, and Craig and Paul got seat time to finish the race.

Winners still

There were no goofy-looking trophies this time, unlike the team’s performances at Watkins-Glen (two firsts and a second place). You don’t get so much as a ribbon just for finishing a twenty-four hour race. Beast Mode Racing crossed the finish line well after the checkered flag came out at the end of the race and came in forty-second by lap count. No Podium.

The fact is that ChumpCar is the occasion for achievements besides winning, and one is the refinement of a team when things just don’t go well mechanically. A touch of bad luck cut into the standings, but there’s a lot to be said for the fact that the car ran across the finish line despite otherwise crippling setbacks.

And the group left with hard won a store of resilience and fortitude — virtues certainly to be tested at a next race on another track.

Written by

Mark DeLong writes, researches, and teaches at Duke University. He is currently writing a book on the automobile and the power of art in America.

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