Thursday, May 17, 2012

“Real Racing, Real Tracks, Real Drivers, Real Cheap Cars” By Sam L.

The sound of squealing breaks and broken mufflers filled the brisk morning air as I made my way to the bleachers next to a small chicane, or a bend, in the track.  This was clearly where the action was, and many drivers coming off the straightaway had a hard time maintaining control of their “crap cans” as they made the sharp curve.  Some drivers would forget about the turn altogether, and would skid through the cones with locked brakes, adding the smell of burning rubber to the aroma of wet pavement and spent gasoline.
I was ecstatic; for fifteen dollars I was able to spend the entire day watching cars purchased for under $500 race for 12 straight hours.  Talk about cheap entertainment!  This is the ChumpCar World Series, which highlights “a throw-back to the era when racing was fun and cheap… when Bondo beat carbon-fiber; when a crescent wrench was the most valuable tool in your box; when home-made engineering made everyone sit up and take notice; and when adding a little theme to your car didn’t get you laughed out of the pit” (ChumpCar). 
The crowd consisted of myself and other smiling people huddled together in small groups; we pointed and talked about the cars decorated with spray-paint and stickers.  Some of the cars displayed giant plastic Lego bricks, tailgating equipment, and bunny ears.  “Competitors are encouraged to get creative with their car decorations,” Jeff Zurschmeide wrote about the ChumpCar race, “and special prizes are awarded for the best-dressed race cars.”  One Firebird, with smoke trailing from its exhaust pipes, proudly displayed the name “Team Fire Chicken,” and had a picture of a chicken leg branded on the side.  Another team, “The Flying Lumber Jacks” from British Colombia, had built a huge model axe and secured it to the top of their “racecar.”  My personal favorite was a white Audi B2 with a disfigured front end and banners bragging about the all-wheel drive capabilities...

On the track, most cars would jostle surrounding vehicles, sometimes sending them spinning out of control to stop in the middle of the track.  When this occurred a volunteer would wave a yellow flag warning other drivers of the impending obstacle, but only a few would choose to actually slow down for it.  This happened a number of times until an old Honda with smoke pouring out of its hood flew around the bend into a Ford Capri bringing them both to a complete standstill facing the oncoming traffic.  As the limping Ford quickly backed up, turned around and continued on its way, I noticed with amusement that the Honda could no longer move.  This prompted a red flag and all of the cars stopped completely to wait for the wreckage to be cleared. 
Soon enough a bright yellow tow truck, with lights flashing, wove its way through the assortment of brightly colored cars waiting on the section of straight track.  A support vehicle staggered over to remove pieces that had inevitably fallen off during the race.  Many drivers turned off their cars while the tow truck hauled away the Honda, and race staff sprinkled powder from milk jugs on the oil spill.  It all seemed a little comical to me.  Now the competition was ready to start again, but naturally, one of the other cars could not start and also had to be towed.  Cars simply swerved to avoid the stalled vehicle.  The drivers were clearly used to the process.
For years the ChampCar World Series have brought the latest and the “greatest” racecars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to racetracks around the country (Zurschmeide).  These races are quite different than the event I was attending.  According to the Oxford American Dictionary, a ‘chump’ is defined as “a foolish person,” and now racing these cheap cars is increasingly gaining popularity throughout North America.  “There were 21 races in 2010, 43 races in 2011, and we have 63 races planed for 2012,” explained Cathy McCause, the energetic Vice President of Marketing for ChumpCar.  Her shoulder length brown hair comes down to her black sweatshirt advertising her as a “ChumpCar Official,” and her inviting smile makes her easily approachable by anyone who has questions.  According to Cathy the races run year round, and there are three races in Canada and two in Mexico.  “There is nothing like doing a race in Mexico… It’s crazy,” she added, while the two of us sat in the three story timing and scoring tower watching cars roar by on the straightaway.  “Let’s hook you up with a ChumpCar T-shirt!” She exclaimed.  “Black or white? But I must warn you, we misspelled Portland on the black one; it says ‘Potland’…. So I would recommend white.”  “How could they misspell Portland?” I thought to myself, but I got the idea that they only needed to rely on people’s impressions of the event for their marketing.
ChumpCar’s first race was actually in Portland, in 2009 for Halloween.  And although the headquarters are located in San Francisco, Cathy says it always feels good to be at “home” at PIR.  Portland International Raceway is nestled between the convention center where the Ski Expo and RV Show are located each year, and a small breakaway section of the Colombia River.  It is built on what used to be Vanport, a city that was wiped out in 1948 by a flood.  The City of Portland bought the 635 acre site in 1960 from the Army Corps of Engineers for the purpose of building parks, and the area was renamed Delta Park.  Soon enough people noticed that the Vanport’s streets were perfect for racing, and in June of 1961 the first Rose Cup races were held on the abandoned street network (“Portland International Raceway History”).  The Rose Cup Races are now part of a much larger racing tradition, and are held every year in June as a major part of the Rose Festival attracting about 15,000 spectators from North America (Nelson 1).
The events that shaped the track into what it is today happened between 1970 and 1980.  In 1970 the asphalt was really worn down, and with the potential for the cancellation of the extremely popular Rose Cup Races, the Rose Festival loaned money to the racetrack for repaving.  The highly successful track manager Dale LaFolette was able to pay off the entire loan in only two and a half years. After the payment was made, Portland International Raceway began to operate as an enterprise fund, rather than in the general fund.  PIR is operated and owned by the City of Portland (through the bureau of Parks and Recreation); however, because it is an enterprise it is completely self-supporting.  The money it makes through events held on the grounds, like the ChumpCar World Series, cover the many costs of running a racetrack (“Portland International Raceway History”).
Nowadays, Portland International Raceway’s goal is to provide a “world class racetrack that facilitates a wide spectrum of users” (PIR Mission Statement).  This is indeed accomplished by the fact that there are over 400 events every year, attended by “over 20,000 competitors and 400,000 spectators” (PIR Mission Statement).  With all these events bringing in so many people from around North America, Portland International Raceway is able to take credit for bringing 30-35 million dollars to the Portland Metropolitan area each year!  The event organizers also donate over 100,000 dollars each year to local charities (PIR Mission Statement).
The ChumpCar World Series is one of these events that donates money each year.  “With every race we try to leave the racetrack and its surrounding community better that when we arrived,” Cathy explained proudly.  She mentioned the gratifying fact that last year they chose to support food banks everywhere they went, and ended up donating a total of $60,000.  Cathy added, “teams can also buy bonus laps [extra laps that add to their score]…at 20 dollars apiece, up to 100 dollar’s worth,” with all of the money going to charity.
If you want to race your own ChumpCar, here is what you need to do.  Under the rules, cars are purchased for 500 dollars; however, many are obtained for a little bit more than that.  The more expensive a car is, the more penalty laps the team receives.  Most cars are pulled out of peoples’ backyards or junkyards, and have been long forgotten.  They end up costing about 2,500 dollars once all the safety equipment, like the roll cage and racing seats, are installed. They are fixed up by the teams, often with quick, easy, temporary techniques, “It will hold up…maybe,” and then they’re sent out on the track.
While I continued to watch, a driver, whose car’s back end was in flames, rounded the corner and decided to stop right in the middle of the turn.  Out came the yellow flag as the following car narrowly missed the first.  The second car’s sharp maneuver caused its passenger door to swing wide open.  “This kicks ass!” an excited middle-aged fan exclaimed.  I learned that he was visiting the race with his father while more flames leapt from the first car, and the other driver, car still moving, was trying to shut his door.  As the race slowed down to accommodate the excitement, the man turned to me, “My dad and I have been out to some events, but this is our first year [here]… I didn’t think it would be this entertaining!”  I could not agree more.
Just then a bright yellow Camaro slid out of control, barely missing the hard concrete wall, which prompted the elderly father to give his opinion. “You dumb shit!” he yelled through his turned-up collar.  Resounding cheers from other fans showed their support for the energetic statement.
After I had seen enough cars whip through the corner I decided to go have a look around the pit area marked with groupings of sports tents.  A red walkway over the track allowed me to travel into the infield where I was free to walk around.  Groups of guys stood around cars gazing under the hoods; drivers traded positions as gas tanks were topped off, and tires and socket wrench sets were carted around.  It looked to me that there might have been just as much (if not more) action off the track, as on it.
“The main idea is to finish,” explained a balding heavyset man.  He was wearing a race suit, and approached me after noticing my interest in a group of lively guys tinkering with a mess of wiring in the Ford Pinto that I had seen skittering around the track earlier.    “It’s all for fun,” the man cheerfully elaborated.  “Last year we won the ‘Maytag Spin Cycle Award,’ for the most amount of spinouts!”  It sounded like an accomplishment any team here could have pulled off; I couldn’t imagine how many spinouts were needed to win. His team, “Pony Excess” was comprised of a group of his co-workers from Boeing, and they were racing the Pinto.  He made sure to point out that although it is fun to joke around in the pit, “anytime you’re on the track it’s serious.” Cathy mentioned this also.  “ChumpCar is really about safety,” she said, “We make sure to crack down on people who do not drive safely.”
Everywhere Cathy went she would say hi to people and check in with every team.  She knew and remembered everybody’s name, including mine.  She introduced me to Sam Moses, who was a motorsports journalist for Sports Illustrated for seventeen years.  He and I talked a great deal about his profession and racing while standing around his team’s crumpled Mustang that they had purchased for 900 dollars.  He explained, “Hit a wall on the most treacherous part of the track, turn eight.”  This was the same car that had placed second in the April ChumpCar race at PIR.  Someone suggested that a Datsun grazed the Mustang and caused the crash.  “I don’t think a Datsun could have touched this car in the rear,” was Moses’ response.  Everyone laughed.  Moses talked about how much racing has changed over the years, but how this event really is a great opportunity for everyone involved.  “This is a way that a young guy could get started,” he observed about the dynamics of the racers and the teams.
Soon I found some young guys who were just getting started: a group of five high school students from Idaho.  I ran into their team leader, Steve Nephew, while wandering around the pit.  “It sounded like a hoot,” he recalled while describing how he stumbled upon the event through an eBay correspondence.  His electric wheelchair quietly glided over wet pavement as we made our way to an incapacitated Honda CRX.  He introduced me to his sons, Andrew and Cory, and their friends Derek, James, and Nate.  “I don’t know why you’re talking to us,” Cory despondently commented as he took a sip from his Mountain Dew, “We lost.”  Something had gone wrong with their transmission, and the spray-painted white Honda with its windows missing and dented doors refused to shift out of second gear.  “I love it out here,” James exclaimed with a smile on his face, “We should do an Idaho theme next time!”  “The most important thing is being prepared and ready to go,” remarked Nephew.
“The ChumpCar World Series is a great thing to do as a family,” Cathy proudly emphasized.  “Everyone can do this,” she added, waving her hand towards a mass of people cheering as their car came in for a pit stop.  She grew up a huge Jeff Gordon fan, and always had dreams of racing on Nascar tracks alongside the best drivers.  “We have a lot of events on Nascar tracks,” she affirmed.  And the likes of famous racers such as Tony Stewart and Jimmy Johnson have joined them on the track in chump cars of their own.  There are a bunch of people who have never raced before, and I am completely able to agree with Kathy that this is one of the many things that makes the event so great.  It is really inexpensive, and it gives people who want to race the perfect time and place to do it.
As I headed back to the pit lane, I had to avoid a Mazda Miata on its way back to the track.  I could hear the cheers of teammates as their respective “crap-cans” flew down the straightaway, unmuffled engines roaring.  People were out grilling, swapping repair ideas, telling stories about races past, and drinking with their fellow teams.  I passed by a young man racing with “The Flying Lumber Jacks” flirting with a woman working as a flagger.  They were talking about how they ended up at the race, and what a good time they were having in their new community.  As I passed by people of all ages working on uniquely dysfunctional cars, I remembered the motto of the ChumpCar World Series; the one that Cathy had pointed out on her business card: “Real Racing, Real Tracks, Real Drivers, Real Cheap Cars.”  I smiled.  This was the best 15 dollars I had spent in a long time.

Works Cited

ChumpCar World Series. ChumpCar, Inc., 2011. Web. 23 October 2011.
ChumpCar World Series, Portland International Raceway. Personal Photographs by author. 29 October 2011
“Chump.” Oxford American Dictionary. 3rd Ed. 2010.
Creitz, Norm. “Cascade Sports Car Club and The Start of Racing at Portland International Raceway.” Portland International Raceway, 18 September 2009. Web. 20 October 2011.
“PIR Mission Statement.” Portland International Raceway, 21 January 2011. Web. 20 October 2011.
“Portland International Raceway History.” Portland International Raceway, 3 June 2008. Web. 20 October 2011.
Kramer, Linda. Celebrating Portland. Northridge: Windsor Publications, Inc, 1988. Print.
McCause, Cathy. Personal Interview. 29 October 2011.
Moses, Sam. Fast Guys, Rich Guys, and Idiots: A Racing Odyssey on the Border of Obsession. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Print.
Moses, Sam. Personal Interview. 29 October 2011.
Nelson, John A. Portland International Raceway: A Master Plan For Improvements. Portland: Mitchell and Nelson Associates, Inc., May 1980. Print.
Nephew, Steve. Personal Interview. 29 October 2011
Zurschmeide, Jeff. “Chump Car Rave Will Bring Clunkers to PIR for Charity, 24-hour race.” The Portland Tribune, 23 October 2009. Web.  25 October 2011.

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