The inimitable Ross Bentley likes to say that every driver, at every level of wheel-to-wheel competition, is a team leader. It follows, therefore, that auto racing is a team sport. In any team sport, a good system beats a great talent at least nine times out of ten, usually more. Michael Schumacher won because he built great teams, not because he could do something behind the wheel that others couldn’t. The same is true of Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR, or of the Audi efforts at LeMans.
When I’ve been drinking, or when I am trying to bore a woman into a state so comatose that she no longer has the will to resist, I like to tell the story of how I once drove from the Solo Nationals in Topeka, KS to Flat Rock, MI nonstop, jumped in my team’s Toyota Supra, and in the course of a three-hour stint promptly took us from third place to winning the 24 Hours of LeMons by 57 laps — the greatest margin of victory in series history, as far as anybody seems to know.
It’s a fun story, if you’re easily amused, and like any other story of endurance racing it’s chock-full of little dramas — the thugs from Car and Driver putting a previously-retired car back on track just to try to hit me, a failure of radio communication, Tony Swan’s mental failure and subsequent wall-smacking after I stepped on his throat with some horrifyingly aggressive but contact-free racing. It was a great victory and I’m still pleased to remember it five years after the fact.
Our team really didn’t win because of anything I did, however. We won because they were planning and executing a strategy while I was still packing up my brother’s RX-8 in Topeka. That strategy won the race, and I keep trying to share it with people… but nobody really wants to listen.
Our team system was developed by long-time street racer and “Fast and Furious” extra Mark Mitias (who appears, along with his wingless white Supra Turbo, in the “Race Wars” scene) and South African race marshal/corner worker Neil Claasen. Neither one of those guys had ever turned a lap in a sedan race themselves, and they did not drive the car during the event. That freed them to consider the unique requirements of what was then still a new type of race series, rather than the demands of their egos as drivers. Claasen and Mitias were also both intensely ethical men who wouldn’t even listen to my repeated pleas that they figure a way to cheat a little more speed out of the car during the build.
They started by choosing the right car. In this case, the right car was a Toyota Supra, purchased legitimately from a fellow out of the newspaper. Nothing was done to make the Supra faster. Instead, they went through it floorpan to roof, disassembling, checking, and reassembling with no other goal other than making sure every bolt in the car was to proper spec and in good condition.
The goal, and the top priority throughout the prep period and race itself, was reliability and maximum track time. Everybody in Lemons pays lip service to this but few people really do what’s required. The math is irrefutable. If you are on a two-minute track, and you are five seconds a lap faster than your competition, that puts you up about two and a half minutes per hour. In a three-hour stint, extracting that almost impossible five-second gap every single freakin’ lap, without fail, that’s seven and a half minutes.
How many major repairs can you complete in seven and a half minutes? Most LeMons teams can’t even do a wheel and tire change in that time. What about a blown head gasket, or even a bad brake caliper? You get the idea. During the race, Claasen was a stickler for staying on-track at all costs.
This meant long stints for the drivers. It still blows my mind when I see people doing one-hour or ninety-minute stints in LeMons. You’re losing two minutes an hour, at least. Two and a half hours should be considered the minimum unless there’s a health, mechanical, or penalty issue.
During those stints, you need to make every pass you can, without trying any that you can’t. Our team pulled one of our drivers in at a the ninety-minute mark after watching him make two bad moves on slower cars. Touching another car is something to be avoided, even if you don’t think you’re hurting your car when you do it. As time-consuming as it is to swap a driver, it’s more time-consuming to repair a body panel. If your guy can’t keep his head together, he needs to come out — and that’s when having a non-driver team manager really pays dividends. Our loose cannon was angry at being pulled, but since he couldn’t accuse Claasen of making space for his own drive, he eventually had to concede that taking him out had been the right choice.
It’s also critical to have a stopwatch on every driver, every lap, for the entire event. The stopwatch tells you things a driver can’t, or won’t, tell you. The point isn’t to force all your drivers into a competition for laptime bragging rights — it’s to see problems with the car, a traffic situation which might call for an early pit, or a fatiguing driver who is dropping time.
Which brings us to the next topic: physical condition. In order to drive Lemons, you need to be in shape to drive. You can be fat, you can be ugly, you can be shaped like a pear, but you need to be able to run three hours in a hot car. Simple as that.
The other teams laughed pretty heartily when they saw Claasen putting on an apron and setting up a stove at the beginning of the race in order to serve specific hot food and cold drinks to the drivers and crew. Some of our own people griped at being told to go to sleep just when things were getting exciting and we were challenging for the lead. At the end of the race, when everybody was fresh-faced, healthy, and ready to help other teams do emergency repair, the other guys had long since stopped laughing.
Winning Lemons turned out to be pretty easy, even against a bunch of over-funded color rags and local Detroit industry race teams. I considered myself to be quite the Lemons racer, I must say, and I made it known that I was willing to travel anywhere to help out the hapless crap-can competitors of the world. For my next race, I flew to Altamont to sit in with Jalopnik’s V8olvo. Compared to our Supra, the V8olvo was a rocketship and it was also virtually impervious to contact. In any race you can imagine, the V8olvo would have handed the Supra its Japanese ass. So how did we stumble around as low as 60th place and only end up finishing 15th?
Simple: we did everything wrong. None of the drivers were race fit and they all had to come out of the car within an hour. Two of our drivers were far too aggressive and one of them bent a tie rod screwing around, which idled the V8olvo for the better part of an hour while the crew addressed the issue. By the time I sat in for a proper-length stint and hauled us twenty or so places up the ladder, it was too late to do anything about our chances, so we finished 15th even though at one point I had the second-fastest lap of the race.
The V8olvo went on to win events without my help: the guys running it were very sharp and they didn’t make the same mistakes again. I stayed away from Lemons for a few years, returning to drive a Neon for Houston events in 2010 and 2011. We had a good system and good people, but the car had fueling issues and as a result we didn’t see the podium.
This Saturday I’m taking my fifth crack at Lemons, driving another Neon with an all-star cast and a former SCCA champion calling the shots from a non-driving position as car wrangler/team leader. I feel good about our chances, but make no mistake: if we win, it will be because of the system, not any individual driver. Not that it will stop me from spinning the occasional airport-lounge tale: “There were just three hours left to go when my manager came to me. He said, ‘Michael, I mean, Jack, I want you to drive flat out. I want Dodge to win LeMons.'”