2018 24-Hours of Nelson
Story by Doc Waldrop
Photos by Bill Strong, Matt George
The ChampCar Endurance Series is famed for allowing its largely amateur driver the opportunity to drive at bucket list tracks all over North America. The names are legendary: Daytona, Road Atlanta, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, Road America, Sebring, etc… Everybody knows them by heart. Our professional driving heroes in the early days of endurance sports car road racing have made them icons because of their exploits on their hallowed grounds.
There is only one track though that is truly historic in the annals of amateur road racing and after years of neglect and inactivity, the ChampCar teams would open a new chapter to add to its groundbreaking status. That track is Nelson Ledges. Echoing it’s past, ChampCar would race there on the weekend of June 30th and July 1st… for 24 hours.
If Daytona, Charlotte, and Watkins Glen are the palaces that professionals built, Nelson Ledges is the throwback track that gave them their start. When they were the racers that populate the garages across the land and who fill the fields of competitors of ChampCar. It’s not fancy, but it’s racing at its best.
Forty-seven teams would gather for the weekend, not only to compete with each other, but to battle the fast 2.0-mile thirteen turn track itself, the weather, and probably the biggest challenge of all, time. Racing for 24 hours challenges a racing team like no other contest of man and machine. Overcoming obstacles, both foreseen and surprising makes the endeavor an ideal logistical test of preparation and fortitude.
Promptly at 10AM the field took the green flag and the field was off. A random draw had pit #19 start the race and as such, one of the heavy favorites to repeat their win from 2013, the RBankRacing’s #90 turbo Saab 9-3 had to make their way to the front from 41st position. Other favorites for the overall win were in similar positions, with the Miatas pf Chattahoochee Motorsports in 35th place and ErgoLabs #489 in 22nd place. Crank Yankers #186 BMW was in a bit better position starting 19th as was the GMS Racing #256 Mazda RX7 in 18th position. Visceral’s #918 Porsche 944 had the best view of the favorites as they took the green flag in 5th place.
It did not take long to figure out that with average lap times in the low 1:20s range that even with efficient driver changes and filling the cars with fuel, flawless pit stops we going to be important. Even then teams were going to lose 4 laps and change to the field. In ChampCar the minimum time when pitting to take fuel is regulated at 5 minutes, pit in to pit out, and drivers can only race a maximum time of 2 hours at a time, so a perfect race would involve at least 11 stops. The crews servicing their cars were going to have to be on their game.
As those first pit stops approached at the 2-hour mark all the front-running teams were diving into the pits and it became quickly apparent that the RBankRacing’s Saab was in trouble. The team was seen pushing the car down pit row, either out of fuel or with a more serious problem as steam was issuing forth from the front of the car. It turns out that fuel was the least of their problems as the engine was diagnosed with a blown head gasket after overheating when a brazed joint cracked on a turbo water line. Just like that, one of the favorites was out of the race before it had hardly started.
They were not the only ones to suffer early problems as the Crank Yankers BMW had pitted several times with the car only doing some 10 laps before having to pit again despite putting down some fast laps in the sub 1:20s. The SIC Racing #570 BMW 318ti had blown a transmission and spun in their own oil and the Hole Lotta Laps #785 LS powered Toyota Supra had hit a wall when the driver reached down for his drink tube and momentarily lost concentration.
After the first round of stops the GMS RX7 held the lead (their sister RX7, the #767, had made only 2 laps) followed by the Gyvulys’ #797 BMW 325is, the Ergolab.com Ecotec swapped Miata #489, and the #256 Glazed and Confused Mazda Miata. Visceral’s 944 was not managing the leader’s lap times but still maintained 5th place. Even losing several seconds a lap could put you down laps in a hurry and they led the group that was already a lap down which also included Mostmint Racing’s #50 Saturn SC in 6th, Team Jagerbombers’ #185 BMW 325is, and the Junk Players Special #500 VW Jetta GL, known affectionally as “Stella”.
Running 2 laps down to the leaders, MZ Customs Racing #338 Miata and Team Koko’s #30 BMW 318is rounded out the top 10.
BMTRBLU’s #187 318ti was also 2 laps down running in 11th while RedGreen Racing’s #187 BMW 318ti, SM Special Miata’s #219 Mazda, Chattahoochee’s Miata, and Motorkars Racing’s #297 Volkswagen GTI were already 3 laps down. Without a lot of full course cautions (FCY) to this point, speculation that the winning car might do 1000 laps gained a lot of credibility.
Motorkars GTI soon dropped out of the top 15 when they were black-flagged for a dragging exhaust and no sooner had the Ergolab.com Miata passed the GMS #556 RX7 on lap 214 at 3:13PM (just over 5 hours into the race) they pitted, the driver not willing to take a chance on running out of fuel when the #489 sputtered near pit in.
Chattahoochee Motorsport’s chances for the win had evaporated in the climbing temperatures as a faulty kill switch that worked out of the car but not in it lead to self-inflicted damage to one of the engine’s coil packs whereas several cars had stopped to replace heavily worn tires. The two Jagerbombers’ BMWs were busily trading places, both in and out of a near top 10 position.
The Ergolab’s problems were a bit more serious than mileage when they came back to the pits right at the ¼ distance mark with a blown differential and the GMS RX7 swept back into the lead chased by a faster Visceral #918 Porsche which was making up ground., but by now 5 laps down even though they were in 2nd place!!! The Mostmint Saturn had overcome a black box penalty to run in 3rd, followed by the Team Koko BMW, and the #797 Gyvulys Racing Team BMW in 5th, 12 laps down, such was the fast pace of the leaders.
GMS Racing’s #556 RX7 held the lead for the next 2 hours until they pitted at 5:36PM to change a left front brake pad thereby allowing the Visceral Racing Porsche to make up their laps. Mostmint’s #50 moved up to take 2nd while Gyvulys Racing Team’s BMW claimed the final podium spot. Not that the podium was anywhere in sight with only a third of the race completed. Motokars’ VW was also pitted with left rear damage after contact with a competitor on track. The Ergolab.com had returned to the race in 25th place after the differential change only to go off track immediately, the driver commenting that the car “was all over the place”.
By 6:30PM with just over 1/3 of the time gone in the race, the 3 leading cars were all back on the lead lap, the GMS RX7 retook 1st place after shadowing the Gyvulys’ #797 BMW for many laps with the Visceral 944 trailing slightly behind the pair up front. The Crank Yankers BMW had replaced their fuel pump and were consistently putting down laps in the mid 1:18s. As opposed to the E30, the #241 BMW E46 of Low Farm Racing was towed in from the track. Continuous Rotation Racing’s #173 Mazda Miata which had led the race early on had moved back into the top 15 as had the #528 Honda Civic of Team Non Sequitur.
The runup to sunset at 9:00PM was characterized by steady racing among the top 15 with tradeoffs in position mostly dictated by pit stop intervals, with the exception of the leaders. Shortly past 8PM the Visceral Porsche moved into the lead and slowly increased the gap over GMS. The #797 Gyvulys’ BMW, on the other hand, was plummeting through the field, retiring from the race on lap 376. The #918 Porsche would lead up to the halfway mark and beyond to Midnight and when the 944 pitted shortly past the witching hour at 12:18 the RX7 had the lead again.
At the halfway mark it was the Porsche leading the RX7 on lap 482, with Mostmint’s Saturn in 3rd with 474 laps completed, the Team Koko BMW in 4th with 472 laps, and the SM Special Miata #219 in 5th, having hung around in the top 10 since 2 hours into the race and having completed 468 laps. Sixth place found the RedGreen Racing #32 BMW leading the BMTRBLU #187 BMW, the MDR Motorsports #830 Miata, Saggin’ Mufflers #727 BMW, and the Miskoe Motorsports #770 Miata.
With the transition to darkness complete, teams settled into the long night with clear weather, but patches of fog creeping across the track near the Oak Tree complex as well as the high-speed Kink area. The Miatas of Glazed and Confused #256 and the Ergolab.com’s #489 fortunes rose with the full moon, both having overcome driveline problems to regain top 15 positions. The fortunes of Ergolab.com were not to last though as around 11:30PM the car was hit in the left rear necessitating a lengthy stop to repair. The BMTRBLU #187 had also pitted to change brake pads in their BMW.
The Visceral Porsche continued to lead until just after Midnight when the GMS RX7 retook the lead and started to pull away when the 944 pitted. The RX7 was consistently pulling laps in the 1:18-1:20 range while the Visceral entry could only manage mid to high 1:20s and with those kinds of lap differentials the gap increased. A 3-lap lead at 1AM had grown to 9 laps by 4AM. The Porsche would gain back 4 laps when the Mazda pitted only to lose them back when they too had to pit. During the night the Motorkars VW GTI had crashed and was out of the race and the #30 Team Koko BMW had passed the #50 Mostmint Saturn for 3rd place.
While it is true that most of the field was separated by multiple laps it should also be noted that if a team could shave 3 seconds off the car in front of them they would catch and pass them every 27 laps. With most two-hour stints lasting some 80 laps, a fast driver comfortable with racing at night could make up some serious time on the competition. At 4AM, with a quarter of the race still to go. The RedGreen Racing #32 which had maintained 5th place since shortly after 11PM suddenly started dropping through the field and would eventually be withdrawn from the race having suffered from failing wheel studs. The car was just not safe enough to continue on the high-speed track. The Ergolab.com #489 would be withdrawn after a rod knock led to final engine failure.
With the skies in the East brightening quickly the night was nearly over. Perhaps with renewed vigor in the driver’s minds and bodies the #50 Mostmint Saturn spun in turn 3 losing an alternator belt that was quickly replaced so the car could continue in 4th place. The 2nd place Visceral Porsche did not fare as well when a driver who was new to the team lost control and hit a rather immovable object. Their race was over with a damaged radiator and broken oil cooler just shy of sunrise. Barring any misfortune, GMS had the race won with 4 hours to go and had plenty of time for more brake work, this time on the right front where they were down to the backing plate. Seems like a bleeder valve had not been tightened correctly.
Sunrise brought about several changes and Visceral’s retirement elevated Team Koko to 2nd place while Mostmint had held 4th place since being passed by the BMW at 1AM. MDR Motorsports’ #830 Miata had moved up gradually to claim 5th place. Miskoe Motorsports held down 6th having overtaken BMTRBLU’s #187 BMW which now ran in P7. Saggin’ Mufflers’ BMW held 8th followed by the BMWs of All Rhodes Racing (#995) and Just 4 Fun Motorsports (#741). Glazed and Confused ((#256), SHOK EM Motorsports (#216), the falling RedGreen BMW, Continuous Rotation Racing, and Quaalude to the Dream’s #180 Honda Prelude rounded out the top 15. Most were separated by several laps and not under any direct attack from each other. Pitstops would continue to jumble the order until the end of the race as teams made the necessary stops for new drivers and fuel.
Sometime around 8:15 the most potentially dangerous incident occurred when the E.M.O.N. Motorsports’ #830 Honda Civic climbed over the Miskoe’s #770 Miatas right rear quarter panel and launched itself up in the air. Thankfully both drivers were OK, and the Honda finished the race, but the Miata was done with a smashed windshield/damaged A-pillar and dropped down to an eventual 10th place finish from 5th. With a bit over 2 hours to go all the hard-charging overnight by Crank Yankers Racing (CYR) paid off and they cracked the top 15. With an hour to go they lost 4th gear and would eventually finish in 11th place for a nice recovery from the first quarter of the race.
At the end of the race, it was indeed the GMS RX7 that crossed the finish line first followed by the Team Koko BMW some 19 laps down in 2nd and the Mostmint Saturn in 3rd. All the more impressive for the Saturn, it had been driven to the track and would be driven home after collecting a prized ChampCar trophy. The Sister entry to Team Koko, the MDR Motorsports Miata, came home in 4th and the Saggin’ Mufflers BMW 325 finished in 5th.
All Rhodes Racing’s BMW 318ti finished in 6th, Shok Em’s Porsche 944 in 7th, followed by the Glazed and Confused Miata in 8th place having battled back from early troubles that had dropped them down to 31st place from P2 after a 1 ½ hour stop. Ninth place went to the BMW of Just 4 Fun Motorsports while Miskoe’s incident relegated them to a 10th place finish sitting on the sidelines, too battered to finish safely with the aforementioned busted windshield.
CYR took 11th place leading the reunited Merkle Brothers in 12th. It was Kent Merkle’s 2nd 24-hour race in as many weeks as Michelin Tires had required his services in the Granddaddy of all 24-hour races, LeMans. BMTRBLU’s 318i came home in 13th with the Miatas of Continuous Rotation Racing and MZ Customs Racing in the last 2 top 15 spots.
All in all, it had been a great weekend at the track for Nelson Ledges return to its roots, that of 24 hour relatively low-cost endurance sports car racing. Most of the teams and drivers vowed to be back next year and the track vowed in return to continue upgrading the facility as they move forward. With a prestigious victory in hand at the legendary track, I’m sure GMS Racing will be back in their RX7.
Official Standings – https://speedhive.mylaps.com/Sessions/4950759
FTD – 01:16.175 @ 94.519mph by SIC Racing #570 1997 BMW 318ti (New ChampCar Track Record)
Laps Completed – 951 by GMS Racing #556 1987 Mazda RX7 (New ChampCar Nelson Ledges 24-Hour Record)
Nelson Ledges 24h Race Recap stories – ChampCar Forum
ChampCar.live coverage – https://youtu.be/842h5mHgNrE
ChampCar Event Photo Album – https://champcar.org/mainweb/champcar-official-photo-albums/
TurtlesWay.com https://www.turtlesway.com/Racing/201807-ChampCar-Nelson – Download your entire teams gallery for $25
Photos by Marty LLC – Image galleries
editors note –
Thanks to Nelson Ledges owner Brian Ross Jr, and track manager Fred Wolfe for getting the Nelson Ledges Road Course race-ready. Brian and crew went above and beyond to get this track back into race shape. It’s a rare sight to see a race track owner out weed whacking and moving porta-potties around a race track. There are a lot of infrastructure changes planned for the rest of 2018 and 2019. WDS