Today's endurance racing series offer lots of laps and lots of racing

Steven Cole
By Steven Cole Smith
May 15, 2022 | SCCA, Endurance Racing, 24 Hours of Lemons, ChampCar, NASA, World Racing League, American Endurance Racing, Lucky Dog Racing League | Posted in Features | From the Feb. 2022 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Courtesy Lemons

The biggest thing in sports car racing: endurance events. Those are races that take more than 2 hours, up to 25 hours. 

At least four sanctioning bodies have sprung up since the 24 Hours of Lemons, a series that welcomes $500 cars, rekindled interest in the format. The SCCA and NASA have independently come up with budget enduro series, along with a very permissive licensing procedure to make it easier to get into the sport. We’ll look at all those series as well, but first let’s hear from the ultra-irreverent Jay Lamm, the creator of Lemons, which helped get us here in the first place. 

[Running the 24 Hours of Lemons with as little time and effort as possible]

Sorry to ask a question you’ve answered a million times, but tell us how Lemons got started.
Lamm: About 15 years ago, we realized that racing was way too exclusive and way too expensive for most people. We wanted to make something cheap for ourselves, and it turns out lots of other people wanted to jump in.

Are you surprised?
Lamm: I am 100% surprised and a little horrified that this has taken off. I did not intend for this to be a racing series; I intended it to be a weekend party for 12 of my idiot friends and myself. And it just goes to show the poor judgement of car fans all over America that they also felt the same way.

Who are these people?
Lamm: About 50% of any event are people who are regulars, and 50% want to try it and they might come back for one or two, or we might never see them again–because now they can go to a cocktail party and say they drove a race car, which is all they really wanted. 

But 50% of the field at any given event is what we call heavy users, and we’ll see them at race after race. And pretty often the team will be solid, a handful of people, with one or two add-ons that come and go. 

Have Lemons drivers graduated to other series?
Lamm: Oh yeah, we have graduated people to the 24 Hours of Daytona. We absolutely get people who come and do our thing and they want to go faster and be more serious about it, and they will try other series. It’s a pretty small subset, but it’s a real number. 

Usually it’s people who were never going to have a good time with us and I’m happy they have found like-minded people in other series. But the people who are wired for Lemons usually come back, because they don’t want that much aggro mojo in their lives. They want to have fun, and they don’t want people throwing elbows and chopping corners.

Is it still fun for you?
Lamm: Still fun, but it’s the stuff nobody sees: whole infrastructure and legal stuff and back office, the intellectual property stuff. I mean, we are doing 22 races and six rallies and six car shows a year, and any business doing three dozen events over the course of a year, every one has to be organized and insured, and all of that has actually become fun for me. 

I’m not dealing much with the racing because there’s all this other complicated legal stuff to do. I still like to go to the races because people are funny, they don’t take themselves too seriously, they just want to have a good time and be social. They’re just funny, nice people, unlike a lot of other series where they’re not very funny or very nice. 

Their judgement is poor, but they tend to be intelligent. But I only get to five or 10 races a year, because being behind the scenes and taking care of the infrastructure has kind of become my job now.

Jay Lamm admits that the 24 Hours of Lemons started as a joke: Let’s race crappy cars for 24 hours. Then it caught on. Photograph Courtesy Lemons

How do you select the tracks you go to?
Lamm: We’ve gone to some tracks where the staff isn’t organized or they aren’t cooperative, or a lot of the racers aren’t fun, and we just don’t go back. We pay the rental rate, on time, we pay for anything we break, and then we just go away. That makes us fairly unusual in terms of endurance racing in that we try to be–as goofy as we are–very organized and professional and low-maintenance. We’re welcome pretty much anywhere. 

But there are a lot of tracks that just don’t make sense for us for a variety of reasons. You just can’t be everywhere. I can only think of a couple of tracks that we would go to but they just don’t want to rent to us, and that’s fine. If I were a track, I don’t know if I would want to rent to us, either, not knowing that we are actually organized and professional. I get it, so I don’t stress about that too much.

Do you stress over anything? 
Lamm: There’s this fantasy that racing is an objective activity, and it’s not. It’s very subjective. And anybody who says, “I can solve every problem. I can make everybody feel this is fair and objective”–they’re kidding themselves. That’s not possible. 

So we’re pretty hands-off. We are very clear about, “These are the rules, this is the stuff we’re not going to get in the middle of, and if you don’t like that, there is a whole ’nother world of racing out there.” We are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and we have no delusions otherwise.

You hold the Guinness record for most cars at a race.
Lamm: It was 216, but 242 showed up, and the rest wouldn’t start. That was at Thunderhill, before there was anyplace else to race. 

We’ll never see that field again, never see 200-plus again. Now we average a little under 100 cars. It’s still a ton of cars and it speaks to the perceived hurdles–every car fan dreams of going on a race track and, until we came along, fewer than 1% had ever tried it. People were on the outside looking in because they thought there were all these barriers, and some of them were real and some of them weren’t, and we’ve tried to lower those barriers and address that fear.

What fear, exactly?
Lamm: The biggest was they looked at the hyper-competitive bully in Piloti shoes and they just didn’t want to be around that guy. By making it clear that we prefer people who are in chicken suits to people who are fast, I think we’ve made it clear that we don’t have any tolerance for bullies. 

This is a bully-free zone. And I think that is why so many people got their first taste of racing through Lemons.

Creating Lemons: luck or skill?
Lamm: I think I’m just smart enough to realize how lucky I’ve been through this whole thing, and smart enough to realize I don’t want to screw it up by getting too creative. We’re just trying to make it as painless for people to get into racing as we can, and what happens after that is up to them. We fell ass-backwards into this thing, and we are just trying to be smart enough to not screw it up.

Four More Endurance Groups

Until the 24 Hours of Lemons started the budget endurance racing movement in 2006, no one seemed to realize what a pent-up demand there was for it. Since then, four major sanctioning bodies have formed to offer endurance racing on a more serious level than Lemons–and pretty much any other sort of endurance racing.

Still, there are similarities among all four. Entry fee averages about $2000, plus or minus, per car and three or four drivers. Here’s a look at those four new sanctioning bodies, from silly to serious.

 

TireRack.com ChampCar Endurance Series

ChampCar–it was originally called ChumpCar, but then IndyCar swallowed up rival ChampCar and the name became available–was the first to follow Lemons into the endurance racing game. 

Drivers must take an hourlong course on the rules of the race, “even if they come from Formula 1 or NASCAR. We just want them to know the way we do things,” says Bill Strong, director of marketing. No special training and no racing license are required, just a driver’s license. “And we want people with no racing experience to come compete with us.” There is a membership fee of $50 per person.

“We’ve positioned ourselves to be where you go to start your road racing hobby, or career, or whatever you want to make of it,” Strong adds.

The cars are “kind of at the lower end; we don’t use power-to-weight ratios like some of the other series” to gauge competitiveness, he notes. Instead, Strong explains, ChampCar uses a points system based on an imaginary ultimate driver and ultimate team running pit stops and adjusts it from there. “It works really well,” he adds.

ChampCar features a little less shtick, but the sanctioning body still emphasizes low-buck cars while welcoming drivers and teams new to endurance racing. Photography Credits: Ken Neher

Racers span the spectrum. “We have IMSA teams that run with us for fun–Riley Motorsports fields a car for a customer, and they treat it like a pro racer,” Strong explains. “Some take it really seriously and some don’t–they just have fun with it.”

Strong believes when it comes to endurance racing, the more series the better. They have an informal relationship with the World Racing League, where if the WRL tells a team they need more seat time, they’ll suggest dropping down to ChampCar to get it. “And conversely, if we have a team that has progressed to the point where there’s no competition for them, we’ll suggest they move up to the WRL. It works well for both of us.”

 

Lucky Dog Endurance Series Powered by Hankook Competition

“This is a very incestuous business,” says Cathy McCause Fuss, who founded Lucky Dog with her husband, Bill. They were part of the first Lemons races, and she co-founded ChampCar before branching out on her own with Lucky Dog, which is comparable to ChampCar.

Lucky Dog started in 2015, co-sanctioning a race with the WRL on the West Coast before evolving into what it is now–a series that sanctions professional-style racing with a lighthearted twist.

When we spoke, Lucky Dog had begun taking reservations for a busy 2022 season, including the opener at WeatherTech Laguna Seca. Races are limited to 45 cars, and within a day Fuss had received 130 entries. “The phone has been blowing up,” she says.

Fuss takes credit for helping pioneer the 200tw tire rule to help govern speeds. She partnered with Hankook to make the popular R-S4 the official tire of the series, with guaranteed availability in 18 sizes. It isn’t a new idea, as the IMCA Modified oval track series has, for years, allowed massive V8 engines but mandated a hard, narrow tire that just spins when you give it too much power. Fuss comes from the dirt track world, so it isn’t surprising she was among the first to embrace harder tires that ideally will last a whole race weekend. “It’s a good way to help manage speed,” she notes. “Otherwise, some teams will show up with $3000 worth of tires for a weekend.”

Lucky Dog keeps teams in check via a spec tire and a rule that prohibits cars built after 2006. Teams are then classed based on track pace, not necessarily car prep. Photography Credits: Courtesy Lucky Dog

Even so, classes are mostly grouped per performance through qualifying. “At Lucky Dog, we want Chihuahuas running against Chihuahuas, Greyhounds running against Greyhounds,” she continues. The cars have to be 2006 models or older: “We try to keep a lid on the pointy end of the field. There are other places they can go race without terrifying the rest of the racers.

“We have a little bit older demographic,” she continues. “Lemons is really like throwing a party and a race broke out. We’re a little bit more serious about racing, but we still have a party and cook everybody dinner.

“We are more focused on what I consider real racing and providing a real race experience for these teams. Most our drivers have more disposable income, probably paid off ex-wives and kids’ braces and college, that kind of stuff, most likely raced when they were younger and life got in the way. And now they are coming back.” Her husband still races his E36-chassis BMW, and they use that to host celebrity drivers who want to give Lucky Dog a try, such as Tanner Foust, Jordan Taylor and Randy Pobst.

Fuss is another “the more the merrier” advocate when it comes to other series. The seven-race endurance series makes for “kind of a neat ecosystem–though we’re all competitors, we try to help each other when we can.”

 

Summit Racing Equipment American Endurance Racing Championship

AER President John Kolesa started the series in 2014: “I was an amateur racer and I wanted to go endurance racing with my friends and there weren’t any series I liked, and AER is the way I wanted to do it.”

Like World Racing League, AER is serious racing, but without a massive rulebook. “People tell us over and over that the level of driving at AER is the best of any amateur endurance race series in the country. We have a much higher level of driving, and the level of car prep is much higher than, say, with Lemons or ChampCar. We have ex-pro cars, and amateur cars that are prepared to a much higher degree than with some of the lower-budget endurance series.

“There are cars that race with us that came out of IMSA. There are cars that are from club racing and cars that came from ChampCar that were rebuilt to race with us,” Kolesa explains. “It’s a big spectrum.”

Primarily an Eastern series, AER goes as far south as Road Atlanta, but geographic expansion is in the future.

Still, “We’re probably about where we want to be in terms of number of races,” he continues. “But we’re always trying to get the best tracks and better dates, tweaking the schedule. We get a great reception from the tracks; we’re always complimented by the corner workers. Now that we’ve been doing it a while, we are made to feel very welcome.”

While business is good, “I don’t know if there is much room for expansion,” he continues. “There’s a lot of competition out there. I don’t think it’s going to get much larger. For amateur teams, endurance racing is much more expensive than sprint racing. I don’t see it growing much more. It could even retract a little bit, because it takes such a commitment to doing it and doing it well.” 

American Endurance Racing aims to bridge the gap between amateur and professional competition, as it welcomes both low-buck cars and IMSA-level machines. Photography Credits: Courtesy FCP Euro (Mercedes-Benz, Miata), Ed Higginbotham (paddock)

Speaking of doing it well, Kolesa explains an ingenious, low-budget way of identifying drivers who are currently in the car: “The pros do it with separate transponders and expensive electronics, but we wanted to find a way to identify who is in the car cheaply.”

So he came up with a way to use an RFID, short for radio frequency identification, by putting an RFID sticker on every car and every driver’s helmet. It allows for live timing as well. “It’s pro-level stuff for amateurs,” he says.

Like other series founders, Kolesa is too busy running the series to be able to race, “but my son races in the series. Every year is the year I’m coming back–maybe 2022.”

 

World Racing League

From December 2021 to December 2022, WRL is hosting a dozen events, most of them at premium tracks like Circuit of The Americas, Sebring International Raceway and Daytona International Speedway.

There’s room for more, says R.J. Till, series vice president, but “Our goal for this year is to focus on staffing and logistics so we can grow in the future. We’re considering expansion west and possibly doing multiple events at some of the tracks to allow more people to compete in them. We have a high level of professionalism and rules enforcement and don’t want to grow so fast that we threaten that.”

Till and his associates have raced in IMSA, SCCA, NASA, Historic SportsCar Racing and the Creventic series. “We created WRL based on our experiences, picking the things we liked the most about all the series,” Till says.

Some of his events have already sold out. Circuit of The Americas did so in 18 minutes and has 45 cars on the waiting list. “There were 140 cars interested in that race,” he notes. “We sold out Daytona at 90 cars, sold out Road America at 80.” 

WRL has a lower vehicle limit than some series. “We love the guys in ChampCar, we raced with them a lot, but where they will put 100 cars out at Road Atlanta, we’ll only do 60.”

Like the rest of the series, races typically run over a two-day weekend, with 8-hour days so there’s less need for headlights, taillights and the difficulties that come with night racing. There are occasional 24-hour races, like the WRL event staged at Sebring in October. “We set a record at Sebring,” Till notes. “We were the first to race there for 24 consecutive hours. Next year, we’ll have two 8-hour races at the track.”

The GTO class, the fastest class with GT4- and TCR-level entries, is the fastest-growing, but Till is committed to making sure the general production classes continue to grow. “That’s something that’s important to me, not just the higher-end stuff.”

World Racing League hits some of the country’s biggest tracks–think Daytona and Sebring–while stressing that both amateur and pro efforts are welcome. Photography Credits: Dave Green

Two ChampCar regulars, in an NA-chassis Miata and a Honda Accord, finished all 24 hours at Sebring. “They were really punching above their weight,” Till says. “We want to be accessible to the ChampCar guys, but we also want to be accessible to the guys coming down from IMSA because the costs are getting too high there.” 

The Tennessee-based series, which has all its current races east of Texas, has expansion plans. “We want to try to go everywhere that people want us. There’s a lot of interest from the West Coast.”

Cars are classed according to a power-to-weight ratio. WRL touts that its rulebook is only 17 pages long. Tires that are no softer than 180tw help keep the speeds down. “You might’ve seen pictures of factory-built race cars or stacker haulers at WRL events and thought that this isn’t the place for you,” says the WRL website, “but that just isn’t the case. Stacker trailer or open trailer, Porsche 718 or 944, WRL is one of the few places in the racing world where David and Goliath are the same height.”

SCCA and NASA, too

It may seem that all the amateur endurance racing is handled by relatively new, smaller sanctioning bodies, but the two giants in the field–the Sports Car Club of America and the National Auto Sport Association–have been hard at work to ensure that they get a slice of the endurance pie, too.

Of the two, NASA is a little further along, but the SCCA is as close as March 30-April 2 of 2022, when the club will run its prototype, proof-of-concept Team Endurance National Championship event at Sebring International Raceway, which will be followed by a collection of National Tour “pilot” events to be announced at a later date.

At this writing, the SCCA is finalizing its rules and a schedule for 2022. “The goal is to build a program that our regions can run,” says Eric Prill, SCCA vice president for road racing. “But for us to do that, we’re going to need to pilot the program beyond the March race, so our intention is to have a small national tour of about four more events, so five across the country. Which is not to say our regions couldn’t take our rule set and put one on themselves, but these are events that would work directly with a region to introduce the new concept and the new program to the region and to the members and racers who are in that area.”

It’s safe to say that for NASA and the SCCA, the budget endurance racing series are a response to market pressure. “We’ve heard from our members over the years that this is a space they want to be playing in,” Prill notes. “The longer-format racing is something they want, and it’s time to give them that opportunity, both for current members and those who might want to join.”

Racers will be able to race with a “rookie” license, Prill says, which would include “someone who has some level of experience on a race track, whether it’s time trials or track events up to an advanced level, so they’re not completely new to being on a race track but they’ve never done any wheel-to-wheel racing. 

“And we’ll have a provisional license for people who don’t have an SCCA license but have raced in endurance events. And we’ll have a full endurance license, which will be similar to our existing competition license. This series is designed to get new people in and give them their first real road racing experience. And I think that is something we can look at carrying over into the sprint racing side.”

The SCCA and NASA have been hosting endurance races for decades, although the SCCA is poised to introduce a new program. Photography Credits: Dave Green (Miata), Courtesy NASA (Cayman)

The typically exhaustive SCCA rulebook goes out the window for the new endurance class. The maximum engine size will be 6.2 liters, but that cap “can apply to a 2.0-liter with a bunch of stuff to make it go faster that brings it up to effectively a 6.2-liter engine,” Prill notes. 

“We will be pretty liberal about what’s inside the motor. Our goal here is to not have this be an exercise in technical compliance and tearing engines apart–that’s not what this program is for. In a national championship event, my dream would be that tech is over in about half an hour. That way regions won’t need a lot of specialty equipment to do teardowns or to have a chassis dyno on site.”

It is, says Prill, “the most liberal rules set that the SCCA has ever written in a road race setting.”

NASA handles the endurance world with two separate series: the traditional Western Endurance Racing Challenge, or WERC–which covers the kind of typically sophisticated equipment and experienced drivers you see in the series’ signature event, the 25 Hours of Thunderhill–and the Team Racing Endurance Challenge, or TREC.

“TREC is a grassroots series limited to 200tw tires, so your cornering speed is greatly reduced, therefore the licensing requirement is greatly reduced,” explains Brett Becker, NASA communications director. “You need a pulse and a state-issued driver’s license.” NASA’s regional divisions will oversee TREC races “as manpower and track availability become available.”

Participants preferably need some experience on a race track, like in NASA’s High Performance Driving Events. Raw rookies start out as an HPDE 1, learning the rules of the track while driving their street car on track with an instructor. “It is highly recommended that you have some HPDE time under your belt before you take it on, because if you don’t, it will be apparent to the officials, and they may pull a driver if he or she is so far off the pace that they become a hazard. I’d think an HPDE 3 would be perfect for TREC.” 

The series, Becker says, “is where Mazda Miatas and maybe E30 BMWs can find a comfortable home. With 200tw tires, there’s no point in bringing something too speedy–you just won’t be able to get the power down.”

There are four classes: TREC 1, 2, 3 and 4, depending on an entrant’s lap times and the car they drive. There are base classifications, too. Miatas land in 4, the slowest class, and a C5 Chevrolet Corvette goes in 1, the fastest. “It’s a series designed specifically for fun; for you and your buddies to get together and split costs in a series that contains costs; and go out and have some fun.”

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