From June 9-10, Summit Point Kart held their (now) bi-annual karting event, the SPK 500. The SPK 500 is a grueling 500 mile/14 hour endurance karting race that attracts 3-10 driver teams from up and down the East Coast. Last year, I entered the race with team Rowdy and the Hot Shoes, and after 500 miles, we finished 2nd by just over 5 seconds. This year, with a new team, and no expectations of winning, I hoped to have some fun with my friends and see where we stood the end of the race. The team I competed with was team TPRA, which got it’s name from the Tuner’s Pit Racing Association online racing league. Through the TPRA, I have met many great people, including my racing mentor, and had some great opportunities, like the GT Academy competition and the SPK 500. Team TPRA was primarily made up of league members, including the league’s founder and owner, Kevin Baker. Another TPRA member, Mike Macek, and his friend Mike DeNino rounded out the team to give us 4 members. The team was put together less than 5 days before the race itself, and with no team members having raced on the circuit layout — two having never been to the circuit before — before race day, our goal was to have fun, rather than compete for the win.
The SPK 500 began with a 10 minute qualifying session. Each team was assigned a kart at random, and one driver from each team would attempt to set their best lap time. The driver that qualified would also have to start the race. It was decided that I would qualify and start the race, and I hoped to put our team in a good position. But, unfortunately, we were assigned a slow kart. I gave my best effort, even working to get some traffic-free laps, but the best I could do was a lap good enough for 16. In a grid of 23 karts, that put us near the back of the pack.
The race itself kicked off at about 8:07 PM, with the field taking the green flag under a single file rolling start. I tried to maintain my position against karts I knew would be much faster, but I ultimately pit in at the end of lap 1 for a new kart, as I felt a faster kart would more than make up for the time I spent in the pits.
The pit system was set up in such a way that there were two separate pits; one for kart changes and one for driver changes. Kart changes were used in place of refueling, the idea being that each team would have to use a variety of karts instead of being assigned to a single kart for the entirety of the event. When a driver wanted to change karts, he would enter the kart change area, hop out of his old kart into the next available kart.
Somehow, this process wasn’t properly communicated to the staff in the kart change area, and there was some confusion when I came into the pits. I hopped out of my old kart, but the staff wouldn’t let me into the new kart without getting my weights out of the old one. I explained that there were no weights in this event, but they didn’t seem to understand, and wouldn’t let me into a new kart. After several seconds, one of the head staff member had to run down from the main pit area and fix the mix up. I was able to hop into a new kart and head off, but not after losing 30-40 seconds in a process that should have taken less than 10. I was able to rejoin the track and run a relatively trouble free stint. Since I pitted early, the rest of the field was bunched up on another part of the track, and I was able to run by myself for the majority of my stint. The clear track allowed me to set some quick laps, and I was able to slowly reel in the back of the pack. By the end of the stint, I had overcome the time I lost in the pits and was able to move us into 14th place; two positions better than where we started. During my run, another team did a kart change and ended up in the kart I started the race with. In about 30 minutes, I lapped them 3 times, showing how slow that kart really was!
At a little after 9:00PM, my team flagged me down for a driver change. Our strategy was to change karts and drivers in the same stop, so I entered the kart change area, got a new kart (a lot quicker than the first time!) and entered the driver change area. I handed off to Mike DeNino, and from there we carried out a driver rotation of me, Mike DeNino, Mike Macek, and finally Kevin, each one of us doing an hour-long stint. The karts could go much longer than that on a full tank of fuel, but we thought it would be best to play a conservative strategy. After DeNino’s stint, we had moved all the way up to 8th position. Macek put in a strong stint as well, and we were up to P5 when Kevin got in the kart at 11:15. At midnight, the organizers implemented their performance balancing solution. Based on each team’s average weight, lighter teams had laps taken away from their total, putting them farther down the order, and heavier teams were given free laps, placing them higher in the overall order. When Kevin came into the pits at 12:30AM to hand over the kart to me, we were up to 4th overall.
My second stint started shortly after midnight, and the track was dark, illuminated by just a few light poles. Driving at night is a completely different experience than during the day. In the daylight, the whole of the track and surrounding can be seen out of your peripheral vision, but at night, it is black. All you can see is where your eyes are pointed; the next turn, the next apex. It’s almost like driving in a tunnel because all you see is what’s down the road. I enjoy driving at night, it’s a surreal experience. I had a decent kart during my stint, and I was able to put in some consistent laps, but I did encounter some unfriendly drivers. One driver, in particular, was very rough and unaware. He forced me into a barrier a couple of times, and even pushed me off the track! I caught up to him and when I finally got around, he slammed into the back of my kart and almost spun it, causing me to lose a couple of positions. I was able to stay in front of him, though, and I believe he was black flagged, and I didn’t encounter him for the rest of the night.
At 1:45AM, the team called me in, and I handed a new kart over to DeNino. During the early morning hours, the guys wanted to get some sleep, so I commanded the pit wall by myself at times. It can be boring, but it is a crucial job. If a problem occurred for one of our drivers on track, the guy at the pit wall has to notice and be ready to take action; whether that be calling him into the pits, getting another driver on track, or even preparing to go out himself. Luckily, we had no major issues during the night, so I concentrated on giving out the occasional lap time and stint time on the pit board. We had some bad luck with karts, and ended up losing a few positions. I was scheduled to go back on track at 5AM, so at around 4:30, I went to my car to try and get a little bit of rest. It seemed as soon as my eyes were closed, it was time for me to head back up to the track, but the little rest I got rejuvenated me.
Once I got back to our pit area, we were calling Kevin in for the driver change, so I had about a minute to get my helmet and gloves on for my 3rd stint. I got into the kart a little bit after 5AM, and the sky was starting to lighten. A Le Mans, they call dawn ‘happy hour’, the track is at its peak in grip and the air is cool, giving the engine max power. I was happy because I had a quick kart, and I was able to put in some really good laps. I felt like I was flying, and I was one of the fastest drivers for the entirety of the stint. I was able to pass just about every kart in front of me, and I don’t think I was passed at all until around 45 minutes into the stint, when I was held up by a slower kart. The driver who got around me was quick, but very aggressive, and letting him get around me ended up being costly. Shortly after he got around me, we encountered a slower kart on the front straight. He stayed tucked behind the slower kart going into the right hand kink on after start/finish, while I moved to the outside in hopes of getting around both of them at the next corner. The aggressive driver ended up sticking his nose just inside of the slower kart, and at the kink, he spun the slower driver into the right-hand barriers. In the same move, he juked to the left, slamming into me and knocking me into the barriers on the left at full speed. My kart submarined under the tires, and they struck my leg pretty hard, but no damage was done. My kart wasn’t so lucky. After the shunt, it wouldn’t turn left and it wouldn’t brake, robbing it of the great pace it showed earlier in the stint. A few minutes later, the race was red flagged.
At approximately 6:15, the race was stopped because the timing system malfunctioned. During the red flag, the race timer was to keep running, so we hoped it wouldn’t last too long. We were able to bring the karts back to the pits and I explained to the team that the kart was junk and that we would have to do a switch as soon as the race resumed. Because the timing was down, we had no idea where would stood. The delay ended up lasting over an hour, but at 7:20, we were ready to take to the track again. As planned, like the opening lap of the race, I dove into the kart change pits immediately, but this time I handed the kart over to DeNino. Mike didn’t like his kart, so he switched to a new one after a few laps, and picked up a little bit of time. It wasn’t until the tail end of his stint that he started putting in some great laps, and when he handed over to Macek, we were in 8th. We left DeNino in the kart a little longer than normal, and we put Macek in the kart with the intention of having him go to the end. Macek got in at around 8:40, and the race was scheduled to conclude at 10:07AM, so that would give him about 90 minutes into the kart. With Mike in the kart to the end, we decided to start packing it up for an easier escape after the race. But about 45 minutes into Mike’s stint, we learned that the red flag time was not going to be included in the race time, and an additional hour and 15 minutes had been added to the finishing time. This meant the race was now 11:22AM. We decided that I would do the last stint and I had to run to grab my helmet and prepare mentally for the final run. We also notified Macek via pit board that the race was extended by an hour and that he would need to do a kart and driver change at his original race finish time.
At 10:00AM, Mike pit for the final time, and I climbed aboard our new kart in 8th place, 1 lap behind 7th. I would be going to the end and hopefully making up a position or two along the way. The kart I received didn’t want that to happen, though. It wouldn’t turn at all, and I was losing huge amounts of time. I was contemplating whether to pit or not, when another driver made the decision relatively easy; he lost control and punted my kart off the track and through some huge ruts. I lost a lot of time, and I figured the kart might not be sound after such a rough ride, so I looked towards the kart exchange area near the end of the lap. I saw, waiting first in line and ready for a driver, one of the fastest karts entered in the race, and I had to give it a try. So grinning with my luck, I hit the pits and jumped in the kart. It was a rocket ship. As soon as I put my foot on the accelerator, I knew it was fast. The lap times didn’t lie, either. First flying lap, 58.1: team’s fastest lap of the race. Next fast lap, 57.5. This kart turned, accelerated, braked; it did everything I wanted it to do. I was able to push it around the track faster than anyone else circulating. I caught the leaders twice, and got two laps back. I passed everyone in front of me, and didn’t let a single driver passed. When the checkered flag came out, it was a great feeling. It was the first endurance that I got to take the checkered flag for, and I was proud of our team, and I was proud of myself for giving them a great final stint. When I caught up with the team after I got out of the kart, they told me I picked up a position and we finished 7th. I started the stint a lap behind 7th, but I was able to get the lap back, pass them for position, then put them a lap down; not a bad final stint!
Overall, the race went well for team TPRA. We didn’t go into the race with very high expectations, and we were more than happy with the final result. The team was put together in less than 5 days, with none of the drivers having been on the track layout before race day. We had a large learning curve to overcome, and by the end, we figured out the track and the strategy. In order to have a shot at a top finishing position, we would have needed to coincide our pit stops with the availability of fast karts in the exchange area. We chose not to go this route, and it hurt our chances. We were slowed by kart changes to get into decent karts, but decent isn’t good enough either; the fastest karts were 1-2 seconds quicker than the rest of the karts, so consistently having one for an entire stint, and out of the hands of rivals, was crucial. Team TPRA will be running in future events, and we will take the lessons we learned in the race with us. We had the pace to be competitive, so if we hit the strategy right, we can definitely fight for the win. I had a lot of fun in the 500, and I can’t thank Kevin, Mike and Mike for being great teammates and welcoming me on board!