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…”

2019 Lifeline 24 Hour Classic at VIR

Returning to the scene of last year’s disastrous outing, Hammerheads Racing shook the monkey off its back and successfully completed the Lifeline 24 Hour Classic held August 10-11 at Virginia International Raceway. Guest driver, Roy Farfel, brought the #275 Autowerkes BMW under the waving checkered flag Sunday after 24 hours of hard racing.

A blistering hot Friday practice gave way to a weekend forecast for moderate temperatures with no threat of rain. The green flag waved at noon on Saturday under bright blue skies. Hammerheads regular drivers, Kevin Binkley and Darren Setlow drove flawless opening stints and the team settled into a rhythm they would hope to maintain throughout the race. Farfel turned a string of fast laps, Mike Grant turned in a steady stint and the Hammerheads BMW slowly gained positions as the afternoon turned to night.

The overnight proved treacherous for more than a few teams and as the night wore on, the Hammerheads car continued to rise in the standings. However, despite performing well above expectations, the team’s hopes for a top 20 finish were thwarted by a 6:00am suspension failure. An hour in the garage saw the team tumble down the standings, finally rejoining the race in 42nd position. With five hours remaining and stiff competition throughout the field, the Hammerheads crew knew they would need perfect stints to regain what positions they could. Binkley, Setlow, and Farfel delivered, moving up seven spots to finally finish 35th in a field of 79.

For Team Principal, Bob Grant, the race played out exactly as planned. Almost. “We knew we weren’t the fastest car out there. Our race strategy was pretty simple: no penalties, perfect pitstops, manage the tires, stay out of the garage.” A minor issue with a ball joint and the later suspension failure foiled the plan. “Mike told us over the radio that the car was developing a vibration at high speed,” Grant recounted. “We had him bring it right to the garage where we diagnosed and resolved the problem in a very short time. We didn’t even have Mike get out of the car and we only lost two positions. It was the rear shock mount failure that hurt . Worse was that it was the second failure of the weekend. Still, I’m proud of the way we handled those setbacks and how quickly we got the car back in the race.”

Hammerhead’s next race weekend is October 4-6 at Pittsburgh International Race Complex. The format will return to the normal 8 hour race on Saturday and 7 hour race on Sunday. You can follow the race preparation with updates from the team on Facebook and Instagram.

Kevin Binkley:

After last year’s disappointing VIR 24 race, we approached this one better prepared and determined to succeed. The event wasn’t trouble free, but when issues showed up we came together and solved them as a team. It was exhausting, tough and hot, but seeing the car cross the finish line was a victory in my book. I have a new respect and passion for endurance racing.

Mike Grant:

I felt the team prepared and was ready for this year’s 24 hours. For the most part, our pace was good and the car performed very well. We’ll take what we learned and move forward.

Darren Setlow:

It would be hard to overstate the sense of accomplishment in finishing a 24 hour race. Considering this journey began one year ago with the sting of engine failure, and then to research, wrench, and bring the car to a finish is a definitely a win for us. But more than that, from being paired with super garage mates in Round 3 Racing, to the all out customer service experience with Charles at Chillout Systems, and fantastic new friend and driver, Roy Farfel, I think we really were blessed with the full fabric experience of all the best, most inspiring parts of grassroots motorsports.

Roy Farfel:

When everybody lined up against the pit wall it brought tears to my eyes but I couldn’t celebrate until I crossed the finish line. What a team! What a car! What a great experience!

Bob Grant:

As the Team Principal I can’t impress enough how much work goes into prepping and pulling off a successful 24 hour race. It cannot be done alone. I’m so happy to have had the experience of seeing everyone pull together and operate with singular purpose. One team, one goal. As a driver, I am in awe of the beauty and challenge of Virginia International Raceway. And to have the chance to race into the night? Surreal.

Watkins Glen May 25-26, 2019

Hammerheads returns to The Glen where it all began.

Hammerheads Racing went into this year’s Watkins Glen race with fond memories of the previous year. 2018 was the first race for the car and the driver lineup which, at that time, included two rookies. That year, the car and drivers performed flawlessly. The team returned this year hoping for a similar result.

Having spent the winter replacing the motor and making other performance improvements, including a new racing clutch – Thank you, Zest Magazine – Hammerheads found themselves in a position similar to the previous year: bringing an untested car to an endurance race. If you guessed there were some nervous team members, you’d be right.

Friday practice, though, set all the nervousness aside. The Autowerkes prepped BMW ran solid. Driver, Kevin Binkley, noted the handling was much improved and the BMW had more punch out of the corners. “And it sounds great!” Thank you Magnaflow. Unanimous conclusion: we have a racing car.

Saturday dawned cool with the promise of warmer weather to come. Partly cloudy skies with no threat of rain. Yesss. Kevin started us off, artfully staying clear of any potential mayhem as 107 cars took the green flag. We were joined in the pits by family, sponsors and founders. The show was on. Darren drove second, and after a great stint, never putting a foot wrong, handed the car over to Mike who went out into the maelstrom of 100+ cars for his FIRST EVER racing stint. Brave man. In the pit box his wife, Laurie, kept a tally of Mike’s laps. We’re still not sure who was more nervous. Finishing his stint, Mike handed over a mostly clean car to Bob who would finish the race but not before setting a new fast lap of the day for Hammerheads Racing. After 7 hours of full throttle racing, the checkers flew and Hammerheads and their guests headed to the garage to celebrate.

A close post-race inspection of the car revealed both front brake rotors were cracked and would need to be replaced. More importantly, at least to some, the vinyl logo of 2 faced linen had been a victim of some light contact during Mike’s stint. The team got that cleaned up and then went to work replacing the front rotors. Crisis averted.

Sunday was another beautiful day and at 9:00am Darren wheeled the #275 under the green flag and we were racing. Mike was feeling a little under the weather so the driving fell to Darren, Kevin, and Bob. Multiple safety car periods kept Darren from establishing a rhythm. Despite the interruptions, Darren was able to set a new personal best lap time before handing the car over to Kevin. As the day went on, track temperatures rose and the Hammerheads BMW began to suffer a loss of grip. Kevin radioed in with a dire message: “the tires are done” and the team decided to change all four when Kevin pitted to change drivers. At the end of his stint, Kevin brought the #275 to a stop and the team went to work changing the tires. You’ve probably seen a pro pit stop at some point. A flurry of activity, the car up on the jacks, old tires off, new tires on, the car off the jacks and away it goes. Yeah. No, this wasn’t like that. At any rate, the tires were changed, Bob was installed and away he went on fresh tires. With the car handling much better, Bob enjoyed a long stretch of green flag racing. Of course, good things have a way of coming to an end. Nearing the end of his stint, Bob missed his braking point going down into The Boot, and the Hammerheads BMW paid a visit to the tire barrier on the outside of Turn 6. Bob was unhurt. The car, not so much. After a tow back to the garage, the team went to work pounding out the right front fender and hood that were preventing the front wheel from turning. An inspection of the suspension and steering revealed nothing amiss. Kevin got in and drove it around the paddock. Beyond being in dire need of an alignment, all was well. So, with 25 minutes remaining, the team belted Kevin back in the car and Hammerheads rejoined the race, having lost over an hour to the rest of the field. With the steering wheel badly off center, the BMW was a handful but Kevin was able to circulate with the field, well off the pace, but running strong to the checkered flag.

This team never quits.

Hammerheads has two months to prep the car for the next race, the Lifeline 24 Hour Classic at Virginia International Raceway. Stay tuned for updates.

You can see a gallery of images from the race weekend here.

Mike Grant: You can’t beat driving on one of the world’s most renowned circuits with great teammates in great weather. If I had a bucket list, this would’ve been on it.

Kevin Binkley: Beautiful race weekend. The threat of rain was around the entire time but, luckily, we stayed dry. This will always be a memorable race for me. Just getting to the track had its own adventure. We worked well together as a team. When we heard the car was being towed in, we all jumped right into action to get the car back out. Great team, great friends, awesome sponsors, great racing. On to the next challenge… we’re ready!

Darren Setlow: We really couldn’t have asked for a better race weekend. The car is right where we had planned for it to be and handled so well; it’s really fun to drive. We also, I think, shared some collective triumphs overcoming challenges that included possibly not making the race in the first place, possible disruptions to our driver lineup and also recovering the car from some damage and getting it back out for the checkers. At its most basic, endurance racing is all about staring down challenges and overcoming adversity, and that’s what I really take away from the weekend, as well as those shared experiences that make our team stronger and even more resilient for the next race.

Bob Grant: We had to replace the motor over the winter and used that as an opportunity to work toward improving engine reliability and upgrading the drivetrain. The results here show me that was time and money well spent. The guys drove the wheels off the car and we had a lot of fun. Now we can focus on the unique requirements to be ready for the 24 hour race in August.

Build A Racing Car

The Hammerheads BMW 325xi started it’s life as a family sedan. Craigslist brought it to the team. The journey taken through the maze of for sale ads – real and imagined – is a topic for a separate post. If you haven’t shopped for a car on Craigslist, or simple browsed the ‘cars for sale’ section, you owe it to yourself. Pour a drink, settle into a good chair and be amazed. But, I digress….

To convert a street car to a racing car first you have to take it apart. Seats, carpet, armrests, headliners, sun visors; everything inside the car. It all comes out. None of it – save the dashboard – goes back in. The pile of material destined for the dump grows by the hour. Steering wheel, stereo, CD player, side windows, rear window. Heater, air conditioner, airbags. The cutting tools come out and excess metal is trimmed away. If it’s not necessary for the structure of the car it gets cut out. Weight is the enemy of racers seeking speed and handling.

Taking a car apart is an automobile construction education in reverse. Putting it together as a racing car is an exercise in creativity and rule book interpretation.

An example:

A roll cage by any other name is still a roll cage but legality lies in the eyes of the rulemakers. And many rulemakers see not eye to eye. The Hammerheads BMW is eligible to race in a wide variety of series’. The team has chosen to focus on three grassroots racing series each of which adheres to a different book of rules. As a subset, the rules around safety equipment are the most important as they determine whether an entrant turns a lap or is turned away at the gate. As built, when built, the roll cage in the Hammerheads BMW satisfied the requirements of all three series. For 2019, however, one series changed its required specifications for roll cage construction. Scratching one series off the list, the team moved on.

next we learn about the double lives of all amateur racing drivers

It Doesn’t Happen Overnight

The first in a series describing how we got started and what we’ve done to get to where we are.

Everyone comes to motorsport on a different path. Some are born into it. Some are inspired by childhood heroes. Others stumble into it: Almost by accident they find themselves trackside inhaling the heady mix of brake dust, unburnt fuel, and exhaust gases. Junkies. They keep coming back for more; the lure of raw speed, big horsepower and bigger risk too much to overcome. It has been said that once you have driven a racing car you will never be the same, and you will never want to stop. This.

Hammerheads Racing. The team makeup is as varied as the paths that led to its creation. A carpenter, a salesman, a photographer, a retiree from the trucking industry. All are married. All have families. None live in the same town. Indeed, over 600 miles separates two of the team from Hammerhead World Headquarters in Maine. And their paths. A high performance driving school. Growing up wrenching in the backyard. Childhood dreams interrupted by life and now resumed. A sim racer seeking more.

They meet via text message, make decisions by email, talk on the phone when immediacy overwhelms. Work parties are attended by some and photos of the progress are shared to all. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, PayPal, Dropbox, Google Drive. It’s racing team management, sponsored by The Internet.

Next we talk about the car.