Runnin' With the Devil: Going Over the Wall In New Jersey

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn
runnin with the devil going over the wall in new jersey

This coming weekend, dozens of the best endurance racers in the world take to a bumpy old airstrip in Florida for the annual 12 Hours of Sebring. God knows I’d love to be there — but not in the stands. I’m a man of action, you know. I want to get involved.

I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but much like me, you aren’t going to be a world champion race car driver. Each year, there are roughly 20 drivers in the world with a seat in Formula One. Another 30 or so seats in IndyCar, and 40ish in NASCAR. Several scores of seats are available in IMSA, but bring a checkbook. If you’re reading this and you are not 10 years old with seven years of high-level karting experience, blessed with ungodly talent, or paired with a parent with ungodly money (see Stroll, Lance), you aren’t going to be spraying champagne on international television.

Facing this reality, what’s an enthusiast to do? One could always build or buy a race car or get involved in track days or autocross. But there is another option that comes with both minimal cost and risk — working on a pit crew.

Some friends were gathering in New Jersey last fall to race in The Devil In The Dark, a 12-hour endurance race put on by the SCCA. Beyond needing several drivers, a number of helpers were needed to change tires, fuel, and help strap the drivers in their seats. Maximum Attack Motorsports invited me to tag along — as long as I was able to help when needed.

“Don’t suck. Don’t hit shit.” — Kirk Knestis, as he straps in.

Always good rules to live by, no matter the avocation. But as a mantra before strapping into someone else’s racecar for a long night behind the wheel, it’s half a prayer, half self-loathing psych-up.

And, unfortunately in this case, a foreshadow.

But that’s racing at The Devil In The Dark. Once around the clock in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, where the fabled Jersey Devil haunts the isolated woodlands. No sightings were reported over the weekend, but the weather most certainly bedeviled the drivers and crew.

As I approached Millville, New Jersey on Friday afternoon, the skies were an unfriendly dull grey, and the air had a biting chill. The grounds were dry, however, and my weather app seemed to think that the feared nor’easter might miss New Jersey Motorsports Park altogether. I parked my truck in the grass near some familiar cars and dragged my gear into the rented garage.

While I’d worked with several of the team members over the years at various races, many others I knew only from Facebook and assorted racing forums. Yet we were all immediately family.

I took a moment to meet the cars, as well. Like any good race car, these two have earned their names.

First was Beast Back, a remarkably stock-looking first-generation Honda Fit racing in the E5 endurance class for the weekend. The name came about as the various team members texted each other about the car, and learned that Siri’s voice-to-text algorithms haven’t closely studied the SCCA’s General Competition Rules. Thus B-Spec begat Beast Back.

Prepared to the B-Spec ruleset, the Fit was indeed quite close to stock, with minor suspension changes dictated by the rules. A B-Spec car is a cheap way to get racing as the cost of consumables (tires, brakes, fuel) is minimal. After all, it doesn’t go fast enough to consume those things.

Nevertheless, one of the drivers renting the B-Spec uttered a sentence that has never been spoken before: “The Fit is faster than my usual race car!” (Nial McCabe is used to driving his vintage MG Midget, which explains everything.)

Turtle, on the other hand, was so dubbed after an unfortunate incident earlier in the season, when car owner (and crew chief for this event) Greg Amy was punted by a Miata at NOLA Motorsports Park:

Thus, after extensive repairs, the roof of Greg’s STU-class Honda Civic Si was treated to a handsome new patterned vinyl wrap resembling the namesake terrapin and was readied for endurance duty.

While the team principals, including Maximum Attack owner Ed Werry, certainly care about the cars in their paddock, all involved know that the cars are merely tools with which the team comes together toward a common goal. Roughly 20 people came together from all over the country simply to be part of this weekend. The drivers paid the team a fee to rent their time in the car for the weekend, which went to cover expenses such as fuel, tires, other consumables — and to feed and house the all-volunteer crew.

For those who have never been, New Jersey Motorsports Park’s Thunderbolt circuit has a row of hotel rooms above the garages lining the front straight. The rooms are clean, spacious, and have a small kitchenette should drivers or crew prefer to make breakfast rather than hoof it into town for doughnuts. Several folks with young families used the rooms to keep the kids entertained — 12-plus hours of racing gets a bit dull for a five-year-old, especially as the cold and rain sets in.

Late Friday afternoon allowed teams to practice in the rapidly darkening conditions, both for drivers learning a new track, and for crews attempting to fine-tune auxiliary lighting. For Maximum Attack, both cars went off at various points. Rob Myles, normally a Spec Miata pilot, needed a few laps to grow accustomed to the front-wheel drive Civic, and gathered a hearty salad of grass and mud while seeing more of the South Jersey countryside.

Nial McCabe wasn’t quite as lucky in the Fit. Brand new alloy wheels — whether for track or street — often have a layer of clearcoat or powdercoating which needs to wear away from the lug nut seat. That’s why wheel makers always admonish you to torque your lugs after the first fifty miles of driving.

I don’t think we made it fifty miles on these wheels.

You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel

The lugs loosened enough that the wheel came loose at speed. Nial controlled it enough to stop the car in the grass, and Beast Back came into the garage on a hook. Two of the four wheel studs were broken off, and there was a bit of body damage from the loose wheel. Mercifully, Dave Yeager, another driver of the Fit, owns a nearby salvage yard, and hopped in his truck to retrieve a replacement front steering knuckle.

Once repaired, the team ventured back on track, only to find that additional lighting was needed to race effectively. A couple of crew members hopped in another truck, bound for Sam’s Racing Supply — known to you and me as Walmart. An assortment of 12-volt lights were purchased and tacked onto both cars, while the rest of the crew — now that the racetrack itself was closed for the evening — cracked open coolers for various refreshments.

That’s the beauty of a race weekend. Once the work is done, it’s time to hang out with your friends. Many of these team members have known each other for decades, but only get to see one another a few times a year at the track. Others simply heard about a chance to play with race cars and raised their hands. No matter, we were all family, gathered in camp chairs with any number of cold drinks, talking about everything under the sun.

Napoleon was quoted as saying “an army marches on its stomachs.” While an amateur endurance race team isn’t exactly laying siege to Prussians at Reims, all hands need not to be thinking about their next meal when pit stops or mechanical repairs are needed. Kate Yeager, wife of driver Dave, volunteered to handle feeding the hungry team throughout the weekend. Whether making hot soups and stews for lunch, or hauling pizzas for a post-race beer fest, Kate kept the team fueled.

Keeping the car fueled was another story. Maximum Attack has a large overhead fuel rig to help speed fueling via a familiar gas station-type nozzle. My main duty during pit stops was to operate the deadman valve on the fuel rig — letting go would stop fuel flow immediately, which would be incredibly important in case of fire. It’s doubly important, as the team would be penalized should a drop of fuel spill on the pit surface. A fueler and a fire extinguisher handler hopped over the wall to fuel the car, after which the work could begin on tires, repairs, and installing a fresh driver.

Remember the nor’easter I mentioned earlier? Yeah, it came through south Jersey. The rain was light but lasted most of the 12 hours. The wet track coupled with some less-than-experienced drivers dealing with serious speed differentials (how often does a 911 GT3 share a track with a Honda Fit?) led to the occasional carnage.

Beast Back wasn’t spared.

Dave Teal simply lost control coming out of turn four, and once he straightened the car out, he was sliding on the grass into the Armco lining turn five. There was no repairing the Fit once it was hauled into the pit, but later in the evening the team passed and signed a crumpled body panel to present to Dave as an ironic trophy.

Turtle was spared most drama, though a strategic decision before the race cost the team a chance at class victory. The rules for the Devil In The Dark allowed cars to run traditional DOT-labeled racing tires (think Hoosiers) or, optionally, a 200-treadwear performance street tire, which drops overall performance but lessens tire wear — and thus, the tire bill. Teams choosing the street tires could race one class slower than their usual class.

Unfortunately, with the rain, the hot ticket for the weekend would be Hoosier H20 radial wet race tires. Turtle was fitted with street tires. The team was racing against nominally slower cars with killer tires, and it showed early in the race. As the drivers grew accustomed to what the Civic could do, lap times dropped, but we couldn’t quite catch up. Turtle, with Rob Foley, Rob Myles, Mark Gaynor, and Terry Fisher driving, crossed the line in 16th overall, fifth in the E3 class — 26 laps down from the class leader, and a whopping 49 laps behind the overall champion, the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup of Porsche Centre North Toronto.

But, like so many things in life, it’s not about winning. Yeah, it’d have been fun to climb on the podium for pictures after a long day and night of racing, but I was more than happy to load up the trailer and head back to the garage for a couple hours of decompressing with my new family. That’s what this was — we fought a battle together, and we grew close over a tough weekend.

Not many of the team have any special “pit crew” skills. We work regular jobs through the week. But we were all happy to get dirty and work together toward the goal. That’s where anyone can get involved.

Check out your local race tracks — find out what weekends racing will happen. Your local SCCA or NASA chapter assuredly has a website, a Facebook group, or a forum. Check those. Find a LeMons, ChampCar, or AER event. Go to the track to spectate and introduce yourself. Surely there will be a racer who needs a hand checking tire pressures or belting themselves in. Don’t be a jerk, be willing to listen, watch out that you don’t get run over, and have fun.

Don’t get me wrong — being surrounded by race cars is fun. That’s why we watch racing on TV or a computer screen. But getting involved and sharing that experience with new friends? That’s what keeps me coming back to the track.

L to R: Richard Werry, Chris Tonn, Dave Teal, Ray Kaeser, Terry Fisher, Kirk Knestis, Greg Amy, Ed Werry, Ken Chiu, Rob Myles, Mark Gaynor, Jeff Yatsko, Rob Foley, Nial McCabe. Not pictured: Chris Mosley, Dave Yaeger, Kate Yaeger, Will Schambach, Beast Back

[Images: © 2018 Chris Tonn/TTAC]

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2 of 6 comments
  • Redapple Redapple on Mar 15, 2019

    Above. Agreed. Good piece. I m a SCCA T.S.D. and Autocross vet. My Civic SI and Sentra SER were worthy partners. Shame I love boating so much.

  • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Mar 15, 2019

    The Fit's frame rails are bent to hell. If that was a street car it'd be totaled. Don't ask me how I know.

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