Posted (10/25/2011) -
Sounds kind of crazy,,,
Buy a $500 car, add Safety Equipment, make minimal modifications, then poof you have a race car that should be able to run 25 hours and 25 minutes
But this is exactly the concept thought up by the organizers of the Chump Car series when they put the Nelson Ledges event on their 2011 Calendar.
And for Will Nonnamaker, this was just the challenge he couldn’t refuse.
Here are his and his fellow Chump Car racers thoughts on the adventure:
My friend Jacob Grimm had been nagging me for years that his dream was to race in the BAJA 1000. And that he wanted me to join him. His dream was certainly an ambitious one, but one that I admired for its pursuit of the over the top craziness. So when the Chump Car series announced the race at Nelson, I pounced on the idea. Nelson is only 1 hour from home, so it was very convenient. Thus I introduced the idea to Jacob that the Chump Car event could take the place of his BAJA dream. He slowly warmed to the idea, until finally we found ourselves looking for a car to buy.
Now finding a $500 car isn’t too hard. Finding a $500 car that isn’t totally wrecked, burned, blown up or rusted out is that hard part. Our search went through many sources: e-bay, salvage web sites, and finally craigslist. Although all had many options, each had their drawbacks and advantages. Most individuals don’t list their cars on e-bay if they think it’s only worth $500 or less. Salvage web sites have lost of inexpensive cars. Difficulty here was that a lot of these Salvage yards were many states away, and the cars always seemed to be in very disrepair, either via wrecks, or burns. So, if we were to purchase a car via this route, we would have to travel the long distance to even look at it. This didn’t hold a lot of appeal, as this meant time away from our individual businesses, which neither Jacob nor I could afford to do. This left us at the doorstep of craigslist. Now, I had never ventured into the world of craigslist, but I had heard people chat of how great it was. When I 1st went to the site, I was a bit shocked; as I thought maybe I had typed in the wrong address, and was at some knock off site. But I double checked, and indeed, I was at the correct site. It seemed a bit dated in look, kind of the same way Big Lots/Odd Lots does when you go in. Perhaps this is all part of their marketing strategy. Even navigating the site has a bit of a nuance to it. If you want to look for a particular car, you have to search state by state, then city by city. As we desired to not travel to far from home, my search would hopefully be limited anyways. Also, the individuals selling on craigslist seemed to be a bit agitated. Perhaps this is because they have experienced way too many annoying “Tire Kicker” calls as well as hagglers. Some of their comments range from “Don’t Call, just e-mail” to “If you want to discuss price, leave me alone”, and those were just the nice ones.
As I searched craigslist, I had a few preferences in mind, but I know that I couldn’t be too picky. I noticed that for some reason, Mazda RX-7s, both 1st and 2nd Gen were coming up in the price range. Finally we found one that looked good. The price listed was $1200, but Jacob and I thought we would go look at and see what we had. Once we got there, we found the owner to be a young 20’s male, with a story on the car and himself personally that would be hard to make up if you tried. 1st off, he was an unemployed line cook, who had a job all lined up in Hawaii. But the problem was he had no money to buy a plane ticket. And one of the few things he had to sell was this 1986 RX-7. But the problem here for Jacob and I was that that he had made it into a drift car. This included bald tires, worn out brake pads, completely gutted interior, bent hood and roof, with cracked windshield,,, and the best part,,,that he didn’t even tell us about,,,was the chain he had welded to the rear axle over the rear driveshaft. Apparently this a cheap man’s way of drifting, as it completely takes grip away from the rear. What it also apparently does is completely blow out the rear shocks, as ours were compressed so hard that there wasn’t a drop of fluid left in them. So there we sat, the 20 something needing quick cash, and two 30 somethings wanting to get their project started. We haggled and dickered until we go to $375.
From there the 13 week journey of building the Mazda into a race car began. And like any true Grassroots racing effort, the construction of the race car took place not at the Team Sahlen garage, but rather at Jacob’s own personal Landscaping Company Barn.
The initial process of tearing out the interior of the Mazda occurred rather quickly in a few short weeks. Then there was the process of getting a roll cage installed. Jacob and I could have gone the route of installing a cheap bolt in roll cage. Instead though the decision was made to have a professional install a welded in roll cage. That individual was Mark McMahon, whom had built several of the Nonnamaker’s race car cages. Because Mark so good at what he does, he often has a back log of cars to build. Mark did his best, and got the RX-7 back to Jacob’s shop at the start of September.
Once we received the Mazda back from the cage shop, the real fun began. Remembering that we are dealing with a 25 year old car, and it wasn’t left in a showroom all that time. The shocks were blown out. Plus we found many fun things such as lug nuts that would not come off, rusted bolts, loose wires going to nowhere. We replaced all items allowed by the rules with brand new items. This included brake pads, brake lines, rotors, hoses, belts, fluids, air filters. Then within Chump Car, you can replace other items, and gain penalty points towards reaching or exceeding the $500 limit. We choose to use our $125 gap to purchase new shocks instead of buying e-bay used ones. I had heard that we could try and paint our shocks flat black to fool the officials, but Jacob and I decided that instead we would go the other route, and plead our case, and hope that honesty would be better than a little trickery.
Shared Jacob Grimm - “This seems so simple to just finish up the car after the cage is in. We had all the parts we thought we needed sitting in the shop. But when you are dealing car that was 25 years old that also had served life as a drift car, nothing is very easy. The wheels lug nuts were a weird hex bolt system, and were locked on, the rotors and calipers were rusted together, everything took 2x as long as you would accept.”
As things got down to the wire, there were 100 little things that still needed to get done. Many items were completely necessary to racing the car, like a 2nd kill switch and extra headlights for night driving. Then some things were just bonus items such as rear lexan window and tachs. Of course you want the perfect car, but the reality is that there are daily and weekly commitments, even beyond work that still have to occur while this is still going on, such as soccer games, birthday parties, church, etc. The only consolation prize in this frantic build up to the race is the knowledge that all other teams are going through the same situation. There are no full time professional teams running cars in these series. Each team is made up of volunteers, who work hard to get everything together, so that they can have a chance to get behind the wheel and live out their dreams, just like Jacob is living out his “Baja” dream.
One thing though that I couldn’t overlook was the theme / decaling of the car. Although the Chump Car series will most likely let you race with a plain car, it is an expected rite of passage, that each team have an original silly/funny theme. Jacob and I came up with the team name of “Go Grass or Pass Racing”. And took the black Mazda and glued artificial Neon Green Grass to the hood and roof. This name and theme would have a great dual purpose. 1st off, with multiple issues of my Driving Diary series being dedicated to this endeavor, I could pay homage to the spirit of Grassroots Motorsports Magazine. And additionally, as mentioned, Jacob’s business is landscaping. So what better “advertisement” than to have grass glued to the car.