2019 Lifeline 24 Hour Classic: Uncut Version

For every scrubbed and whitewashed race summary, there’s a more gritty story waiting to be told. Here’s ours.

The view from pit lane.

They said it was going to be hot. Of course, they say that every year. And every year they’re right. Friday was load in and practice and it was hot. Sunny, humid, no breeze hot. How hot? Hot like this:

Bob sports the latest in hot weather crew chief wear

Fortunately, the pit lane apparel rules were somewhat relaxed compared to what they would be during the race. And yes, he’s out in the middle of pit lane

Practice is almost always a good idea. We’ll come back to that in a bit. We hadn’t run the car since repairing the suspension. Some of our drivers didn’t really know the track layout very well. We needed to test our driver cooling system. Enough reasons to go out and turn some laps in the heat. Everyone turned 6 or 7 laps, drove back to the garage where we changed drivers, talked about the car, and went back out. Bob went out last and after a few laps reported a rattle in the right rear suspension. “Bring it in.” When he came in, Kevin opened the trunk and said, “Well, there’s your problem.” The right rear shock had blown through the mount and was wobbling around in the resultant hole. We put the Bimmer on jack stands in the garage and went in search of a replacement mount.

We were hoping to acquire one like this. Maybe a little less rusty. We got three. At the time, we didn’t know how lucky we were to have three.
As long as we’re here…

Practice ended while we were in the garage, so we went to work on other things that needed tending before the race. Remember “practice is almost always a good idea?” In our case, this was a good idea. Better to break in practice and have time to fix it. For another team, not so much. The team that won B Class at Watkins Glen in May was out practicing, too. Unfortunately, they managed to stuff their car into the tire barrier. They were looking at a long Friday night of repairs.

Keeping the drivers cool in the Virginia heat is no trifling matter. Our Friday test of the Chillout cooling system found it lacking in the cool department. Trackside support in the form of Chillout System owner, Charles Kline, came to the rescue. Charles spent the better part of two hours fine tuning our installation, making some performance upgrades and being an all around rockstar. At 7:00pm he declared our system perfect, jumped on his scooter and headed for another client. Rockstar, indeed.

And it ran this cold for 24 straight hours

Stock headlights don’t do a great job at 120mph in the pitch black. Virginia International Raceway -VIR to the cool kids -is out in the middle of nowhere. Sorry, Alton, VA, but it’s true. The track is unlit and it’s really, really dark out there. Everyone adds some kind of super bright lighting so they can see the track, the corner apex, animals, etc. Auxiliary lighting is murder in someone else’s rear view mirror if it’s not aimed properly. We aimed ours by crouching down in front of the Bimmer and pretending we were sitting in a Miata. Good enough.

Hammerheads has really upped their team comforts game with Mike and Laurie purchasing the Thor. We had a team dinner in the air conditioned comfort of the big fellow. Bob outlined the driver rotation and his race strategy: no penalties, consistent laps, don’t hit anything. We all had a beer and turned in early. Saturday was coming fast.

Saturday came as early as expected but we played it cool and had a leisurely team breakfast. There was a morning warmup session, but Patrick Dempsey once said, “Nothing good happens in warmup.” We skipped warmup. The car was ready. The drivers were pumped up. Bring on the green flag. At 11:15 our National Anthem was sung in front of fluttering flags and we all beetled off to get our first driver strapped in the car.

12:00 Noon: Green Flag

Kevin managed to avoid the chaos that is inevitable at the start of a race. Despite the race being 24 hours long, there’s still someone who thinks they’re going to win it in the first five minutes. Of the first 10 laps, 4 were under a full course caution, including Lap 1. Sigh. The maximum a driver can continuously be in the car is two hours. At 1:55 there was another full course caution. Close enough. We thought it would be a good idea to make our first pit stop for fuel and a driver change. Everyone else had the same idea.

2 hours elapsed and the entire field decided to pit for fuel and a driver change. Pit lane becomes a parking lot

Darren took over and promptly gained us 5 positions before turning it over to guest driver, Roy Farfel. Roy got up to speed quickly and set what would stay as our fastest race lap. Mike loaded up, drove a steady, solid stint, gaining us a few more positions. We all kind of looked at each other and wondered if this could possibly last until Sunday noon. Lots of smiles. Even Bob relaxed, kind of.

7:00pm: Not so good vibrations

Typically, our races are seven or eight hours long. At 7:00pm someone said, “Normally, we’d be almost to the finish by now.” 17 hours to go. Oof.

Mike (over the radio): “There’s a vibration at 100mph.”

Pits: “Okay. Stay out and see if you can reproduce it.”

Did he think we were crazy? We can only imagine what Mike may have said in response. He didn’t push the talk button. Probably just as well. He was able to reproduce it, so we brought him in, looked at the front suspension and sent him to the garage. A ball joint nut had started to back off. Fifteen minutes later he was back out turning laps. High fives in the garage. Found it, fixed it. Heck, yeah! Later, Mike offered this nugget regarding being told to try and reproduce the vibration: “I always told my folks at Volvo, ‘you can’t make a conclusive analysis on one sample.’ But then, they weren’t going 100mph.”

8:30pm: Sunset

They made everyone turn on their headlights at 6:00pm. This gave the race officials a chance to see that lights were working as intended. It also gave them a chance to black flag, and send to the pits, cars that had crappy light installations that wouldn’t last through the night. You would think, this race having 10 hours of darkness, bombproof light setups would be a no brainer. Not so. No tail lights, all or some headlights not working, wobbling headlights, and the list goes on. Come on, guys/gals. Bob counted at least 10 cars black flagged in the first hour. On the bright side (see what I did there?), it gave the rest of us something to complain about.

12:00 Midnight: Fireworks

Darren had the honor of driving the Midnight – 2:00am stint. We were holding our own out there. Everyone agreed that some cars were exhibiting questionable driving standards. But, we kept it clean, stayed out of the way of the faster cars, and managed to avoid getting caught up in the inevitable dramas in the dark. Speaking of faster cars. A couple of pit stalls from ours was a mid-90’s Camaro run by Riley Technologies. The same Riley Technologies that races a fire breathing Mercedes GTD in the IMSA series. Bill Riley is an IMSA legend. It was cool to see him running this ChampCar team. They were fast. Their fastest lap was 20 seconds faster than ours. But they guzzled gas at a prodigious rate. They had to pit their hunk of American iron every hour and fifteen minutes. Despite the frequency of pit stops, they finished second overall. That car was hauling the mail. They had one yellow and one white headlight. When you looked in the mirror and saw those colors, you just moved over and let them fly by.

There were no fireworks at the halfway point which would have been very cool a la Rolex 24. But, at 12:15am a Honda went down the front straight, trailing a spray of sparks from the muffler they were dragging. Close enough.

100% accurate. It was dark out there

2:00am: Zzzzz….

At 2:00am we were continuing our climb through the standings. Darren brought the Bimmer in after a great stint. We checked the oil, torqued the wheel nuts, cleaned the windshield and sent Roy out into darkness. Darren headed to the RV for a nap, Kevin was already napping but was due back in the pitbox soon. Mike was sleeping in a chair and Bob had the radio.

Roy (over the radio): “Please give me the time remaining in my stint at 30 minute intervals.”

Bob: “Copy. 30 minute intervals.” After which Bob set an alarm for 30 minutes and promptly fell asleep.

Kevin took a photo of the sleeping Grant brothers, but we’re not into sleep shaming here. You’re not going to see that one.

In the early morning hours and we look every bit of it

5:45am: Something’s broken in the rear end

An eventful 4:00am – 6:00am stint with Bob at the wheel began routine and ended in the garage. Early on, he watched a Honda Fit overdrive a fast corner, cross the track in front of the Hammerheads BMW, and plow into the tire barriers. In the middle of the stint he thought he saw someone walking in the grass on driver’s left going up the, very fast, uphill esses. “When I came around on the next lap I looked and didn’t see anyone or anything. Did I imagine it?”

Bob (over the radio): “I’m coming in. Something’s broken in the rear end.”

Pits: “Copy that. Take it straight to the garage.”

In a deja vu moment, Kevin opened the trunk and there was that pesky shock, sticking out through the hole left by another blown out shock mount. Remember Friday, when we sourced three shock mounts? That day we replaced both the right and left mounts thinking we were being proactive. That left us a spare we never thought we’d use. Sure.

Kevin is a glass half full kind of guy: “Well, at least we know how to fix it. We’ve already done it twice this weekend. We should be pretty fast.” He was right. It took an hour when combined with the driver change and refueling, but we were back in the race.

After the repair, Bob sends Kevin back out. Five hours remain

We sent Kevin out in the freshly repaired #275. Two identical failures. We were out of spare shock mounts. A third failure would be a disaster. Everyone in the pitbox knew it, Kevin knew it. No pressure. We watched the timing and scoring for a while until everyone started to feel confident again. In the car, Kevin was doing his Zen thing, working on smooth consistent laps, keeping curb strikes to a minimum, trying not to add any stress to the car. What was it like out there knowing the finish was in reach? Did you feel the pressure? “I wanted to do my part to make sure we made it there.” Yeah, but the pressure? “The sunrise and low hanging fog was beautiful. The most enjoyable stint of racing I’ve ever done.” So, no pressure. Okay.

7:00am: Happy Hour

In the world of 24 hour races, the phrase “happy hour” refers to that time when the sun returns and the sky goes from dark to light. Everyone feels the lift. Somehow, despite the weariness and exhaustion of being awake for more than 24 hours, the fatigue and fuzzy mindedness are shaken off. There’s an overall feeling that goes something like, “Yeah! We made it through the night. Let’s do this.” Of course, that’s easy to say if you’re car is still running.

Crunching numbers for race strategy? The amount of data available at even the grassroots level of sports car racing is amazing.

With Kevin out there ticking off the laps, we started looking at the numbers. Before going into the garage, we were in 32nd position but on pace for a top 20 finish. When we re-entered the race an hour later, we had dropped down to 42nd. How many positions would we be able to get back? Kevin, Darren, and Roy would get us to the checkers. Kevin is quick, Darren is quick, Roy had set our fastest lap Sunday afternoon. That’s a good trio to have bringing it home.

Darren plugged into the pitbox Chillout System to pre-cool in preparation for his stint.

Mike had gone off to the RV shortly after Kevin went out and hadn’t returned. We figured he was grabbing some sleep. But, no. He reappeared bearing a thermos of coffee and a plate of coffee cake! Inexplicably, this was to be our first coffee since the race started. What?! True story. We still can’t understand it.

Out of the car after his final stint. Kevin rocking the Happy Hour vibe.

11:00: Ready for the longest hour

Darren recorded his fastest lap of the race just before telling us over the radio that the tires were shot. Some people…. Proof that a fast lap doesn’t always feel fast. When he’s in the groove, Darren is like a robot driver in an Elon Musk dream: smooth, consistent laps. One after another, after another….

At 11:00 we checked the oil, cleaned the windshield, and put Roy in for the final hour. And the nail biting, finger crossing, pacing began. If you’re a fan of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, you’ve seen the images and videos of the race leading Toyota crawling to a stop with three minutes remaining. Heartbreaking. Last year we overheated and destroyed our motor in morning warmup – cue ghostly voiceover from Patrick Dempsey, “Nothing good happens in warmup” – and never made the green flag. There we were, one year later, praying to the gods of Bavaria, and Saint LiquiMoly to get us home. Somewhere in our pitbox someone was muttering, “We’re not Toyota.”

With one lap to go, race officials wave the pit crews and drivers out to the wall between pit lane and the front straight. Everyone jumps over the concrete pit walls and runs across pit lane. It’s a very cool tradition and an emotional time for drivers and crew.

Roy flashed by. “One to go!” Darren had his big camera out and everyone else had their phones in hand. No chance this finish would go undocumented.

Checkered flag for the Hammerheads Racing #275 Autowerkes Maine BMW. Our 24 comes to a successful finish
He’s smiling in there. Really

12:10pm: Now comes the hard part

Dirty. Cracked windshield from track debris in the first stint. Two wheel studs sheared off who knows when. Five exhausted drivers. Not a bad 24 hours.

The garage has to be emptied and swept clean. The truck has to be packed and the car loaded on the trailer. We go around filling our cars and trucks with leftover race fuel. It’s a routine part of race weekend. But, if you’ve been awake for 30 hours, nothing is routine. And then we get the big surprise. The Porsche team with whom we shared the three bay garage ask us if we want any ice cream. What?! Friday we had seen them roll in a small chest freezer. “No one told you guys? You could have helped yourselves anytime.” Ice cream bars, cones, sandwiches. The thing was packed. A post race beer would have been a very bad idea for a group of guys who had been awake for 30+ hours and had a three hour drive ahead of them. Ice cream sounded just right. Kind of like drinking the milk at Indy, but without the bricks.

l to r: Darren Setlow, Roy Farfel, Kevin Binkley, Bob Grant, Mike Grant

7:00pm Sunday: “Never again…”

8:00am Monday: “When we do this race next year…”