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Racing Season From Hell: Trials and Tribulations of Running a Honda Challenge Racing Car

Words and Photos By: Rob Krider

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So you wanna be a racecar driver? You want to drive fast, look cool, and stand on the podium with the busty trophy girls. That sounds pretty good. However, those glorious moments in racing are few and far between.

podium

The reality of racing is long distance towing, all-nighters underneath your dashboard getting stuff in your eyes, busted knuckles, fixing crash damage, and decimated bank accounts. Still wanna come out and play? Here is a rundown of how our 2016 racing season went, “the season from hell” as we began to call it during the year. After you see what we endured, then you can decide if racing is still something you want to try. Get ready to get your wallet out.

in-the-dirt

BEER WAS THE BEGINNING

Like all great ideas, this one started over a few beers. Not just any beers, but finely crafted heavy on the alcohol content IPAs. The kind of craft beers that help you make foolish decisions. A year ago I was at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on assignment for SpeedNews magazine coving the National Auto Sport Association Western States National Championships.

rossi

My job was to cruise around the paddock, get a few driver quotes, and cover the class winners. After a few hours I found myself sampling a few Tactical Ops Brewing IPAs and mingling with the Honda Challenge crowd. The field was filled with some moderately modified Acura Integras. One of the cars had actually been driven to the championships with a license plate and then had the passenger seat removed before the race. Pretty cool. This caught my interest because I had completed a lot of laps in Integras myself racing in $500 road racing series The 24 Hours of LeMons and ChumpCar.

lemons

Since I had a few beers in me and since I had won a couple of crapcan races in an Integra, I figured I could simply throw together a Honda Challenge car out of few spare parts I had in the backyard and come back and win myself a NASA National Championship the following season. It sounded like a solid fool proof plan. What could go wrong?

sunset

For you non-Honda nerds I wanted to use the DA Integra chassis (the 1990-1993 model) as that was the chassis that had served me and my endurance racing team (Big Sausage Pizza Delivery/Krider Racing) for many racing wins. We knew our way around this car pretty well and had lots of spare parts sitting around. It was a no brainer that we would use this chassis to take on a national title. Even though people smarter than us told us to move up to the DC chassis (the 1994 to 2001 model) we chose not to listen people who were smarter than us and do things “our way” which turned out to be “the hard way.”

THE DONOR

tow-yard

Since me and my friends came up through the ranks of crapcan racing where your car could only be worth $500 we did what we always have done and went to find a racing car at a junk yard/tow yard. After some searching we scored ourselves a 1993 Acura Integra chassis without a sunroof for, you guessed it, $500. We even patted ourselves on the back when we bought the car, “Won’t this be funny when we win the Nationals with a $500 car!” That was both ignorance and arrogance speaking at the same time. We had no idea what we were in for.

parts-car

Besides our newest Integra, the $500 tow yard special, we had another “parts car” Integra hanging around that we used for driver training, testing parts, and doing donuts in the parking lot. How do you do donuts in a front wheel drive car you ask? Set the rear tires on two Panda Express serving trays, set the E-brake, and then dump the clutch. Your FWD car will become an out of control sliding donut spinning machine. Our parts car generally had the crap beat out of it and its only reason for existing was just in case we needed to steal a quick part off of it for our real racecars during a long endurance race.

stripping

Our plan for Honda Challenge domination was to strip our new $500 car and send it out for a roll cage and then slap the car together for the first race of the 2016 season. We poured over the Honda Challenge rules and then got busy ripping everything out of the car before we towed it to the fabricator. We had a few weeks before the first race of the year which in our ignorant opinion was plenty of time to build an entire racecar. It wasn’t.

roll-cage

It turned out even though we were in a hurry for the car, nobody else was in that big of a hurry which meant our cage wasn’t completed. We ran into the same situation with the engine and the custom wiring harness. Nothing was going to be completed in just two weeks. One of the problems was a lack of over-the-counter parts for the DA Integra. Everything under the Japanese rising sun seemed to be available for overnight shipping for the DC chassis, but that wasn’t the chassis we were building. We would have to build and develop parts if we wanted the best go-fast stuff. We learned quickly these things take time. Of course, we didn’t have time. Since the car wasn’t going to be done by the first race of the year we decided to take our “parts car” and just throw some stickers on it and take it the first event. We needed to earn points for the championship season so even if we drove an essentially stock car around the track, those points would be better than no points at all.

ROUNDS 1 & 2 WILLOW SPRINGS INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY

stock-car

Using a bolt-in roll cage from Autopower that we had sitting in a pile behind the shop and a few stolen parts from our other racecars we were able to piece together a Honda Challenge “racecar” thanks to a few required parts (like a cut-off switch, fire extinguisher, harnesses and tow hooks) from I/O Port Racing Supplies. The car looked like a racecar but in reality it was a bone stock Acura Integra that still had power steering, heating and air conditioning, cruise control, the works. My racing partner at Double Nickel Nine Motorsports, Keith Kramer, would drive the car on Saturday and I would drive the car on Sunday. We would share the driving duties, and thus share the costs for the racing season.

tie-rod

After we worked our butts off to build this racecar out of nothing Keith went out in the first lap of the warm up session, lost control, spun out and was hit by a 944 Porsche. Not a good start to the season. The collision folded up the left inner tie rod. We tried to straighten the tie rod but ended up splitting the metal near the adjustment threads. We welded that together (poorly) and sent Keith out with a very bad handling racecar. He was lapped three times during the race. To put it bluntly: we got our asses kicked. Honda Challenge wasn’t going to be as easy as we thought.

the-grid

After some thrashing on the car all night we patched together the steering a little better and realigned the car using Smart Strings and Smart Camber alignment tools at the track. I was set to drive the car on Sunday for the premiere race of the weekend. I sat in the driver’s seat, strapped to the car as if my body and the chassis was one entity, and listened while the national anthem was played before the race. I got goose bumps. It was an awesome moment. When the green flag dropped, the awesomeness was over. I saw the entire Honda Challenge field leave me behind. Running a stock Integra in a race prepared field was a lesson in humility. The car was terrible, probably the crappiest car I had ever driven in a race. I was lapped two times by the field. My $500 24 Hours of LeMons Integras had been better. It was embarrassing.

trailer

To add insult to injury our trailer lost a wheel bearing so we couldn’t even tow the car home. We had to jam a 2 x 4 under the hub and drag the trailer out of the paddock leaving a trail of splinters and smoke to a nearby race shop to get the trailer repaired (which would take a few days). We had to drive back to Willow Springs later that week just to get our trailer and our car back –and we needed the car back quickly because the car needed its own repairs.

We didn’t take the loss too hard as we knew this was just an interim car we were using. When our “real” car was finished before the next round then the Honda Challenge field would be in serious trouble. The only problem was our engine wouldn’t be done before the next rounds of racing which meant we had to bring out the hunk of junk again. So, the decision was made to the take some of the junk out of our hunk.

dyno-tune

We ripped out the power steering, the ABS, the heater, the air conditioning, the stock exhaust, and installed some urethane bushings. We took the car to Performance In-Frame Tuning and saw that we had been racing with 110 horsepower in a field where 130 horsepower is the probably minimum number. Adjusting the timing and adding a new tune to the ECU we got our car up to 124 horsepower. Not great, but a big improvement for us.

ROUNDS 3 & 4 BUTTONWILLOW RACEWAY PARK

buttonwillow

Buttonwillow was a track Keith and I both felt comfortable with and we had made some big improvements to the car. We knew we had a shot. Keith went out on Saturday and was not lapped by the field –a huge improvement from the first rounds of us racing in Honda Challenge. I took over driving duties on Sunday and was hoping to get us some much needed championship points with a solid finish.

broken-wheel

Unfortunately, the updated faster car only put me in the running with the Honda Challenge field for door to door action. This resulted in me being in a more precarious situation as I tried to out brake a DC Integra in the first corner of the first lap. I went inside, the driver didn’t see me and came down, and I stuffed my left front wheel into his right rear quarter panel. This sent him off track and I kept on going. The first thought that went through my head was, “Well, we won’t be finishing in last place this week!” Little did I know that I had broken the left front wheel and air was leaking out of the tire rapidly. I took the checker driving a terribly handling car with 8 pounds of air left in the front tire. Another miserable finish and more crash damage to fix. More fixing equals more money to be spent.

ROUNDS 5 & 6 AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY

auto-club

We replaced the wheel and decided to keep improving the parts car because our “real” Honda Challenge car was still way, way behind schedule. We towed to Fontana, California for the next rounds.

chumps

We felt good about Fontana because the last time we were at that track with an Integra we had won a ChumpCar race there. We were hoping to use some of that previous mojo to help turn our season around.

garages

To help with aerodynamics we built our own splitter and got rid of the rear wing to make the car fast on the banking. The best part about Auto Club Speedway was the NASCAR garages that all of the Honda Challenge field had the chance to use. The setup was first class all the way. Keith drove a great race on Saturday without incident and I was set to try and get us a podium spot on Sunday. When the green flag dropped on the huge banking I went from second gear to fifth gear, missed the shift to third, and the Honda Challenge field left me once again. Another total bone head move.

lean

I tried desperately to make up for lost ground but found out that all of the improvements we had made to the car, weight distribution, power, aerodynamics, etc. had left the suspension quite terrible. The car was leaning so much I thought I might grind off the door handles.

discussion

We survived the weekend without having to fix any crash damage (for the first time that season) but we certainly didn’t find ourselves on the podium. Keith and I discussed the need to make a decision. Are we going to get our actual car done before the next race or do we need to throw more money at the “parts car” before the next round? We decided to spend some cash on the car for suspension and have Synchrotech rebuild the transmission with a limited slip differential. More and more money.

blood

I also decided the valves could use some adjusting for a little more horsepower. I stayed up late one night and got to work adjusting the valves. My hands were covered in oil from the engine, my hand slipped off a wrench and sliced my knuckle open, leaving blood on the camshaft. I literally had blood, sweat, and tears in the motor. The season was going to kill me.

ROUNDS 7 & 8 BUTTONWILLOW RACEWAY PARK

corner-weight

We put in some adjustable coil-over shocks and new springs from Eibach. We corner weighted the car and dialed in the alignment before our next race back at Buttonwillow. We knew that track very well and we felt pretty good about the next rounds of racing. Maybe we could actually get a podium finish for once.

running-good

By this point in the year the Honda Challenge field started to figure out that our car was beginning to come along and we had two different drivers, one for Saturday, and one for Sunday. That is when our nicknames came into play, Sabado and Domingo (Saturday and Sunday). Keith was known as Sabado (for being a reasonable person behind the wheel) and I was known as Domingo (for driving with maximum effort for every second of every race). Keith, as usual, ran great on Saturday and picked up a fourth place finish for us earning us really important points. And as usual, I drove like a maniac on Sunday and broke stuff.

axle

In my defense, I was leading the race when I broke the car. For the first time that season our car was in the front of the field. It felt fantastic. It was a standing start and I worked my way through the Honda Challenge field to take the lead in half a lap… and then the left front axle grenaded. I had to finish the race on one axle.

The video above shows the tight passing, close racing, and intensity that competing in the Honda Challenge series provided all year. Unfortunately for me that race did not result in a victory. Just more stuff to fix.

ROUNDS 9 & 10 WILLOW SPRING INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY

keith

In Round 9, still driving the “parts car” because our “hero” car was still not done Keith (Sabado) pulled it off and earned us our first podium finish with a second place at Willow Springs on Saturday. It was an awesome race and we finally had a trophy to take home to the shop after nine rounds of racing in Honda Challenge.

trophy

However, we didn’t come away unscathed, our rear spoiler was ripped out of the back of the car at high speeds around Willow Springs. On Sunday I would have to drive with less rear down force. Sunday morning I strapped myself into the car and headed out onto the track for qualifying. Unfortunately for me, the crew forgot to lower my tire pressures to 27 pounds and left 60 pounds (yes, 60 POUNDS!) of air in the rear tires. I subsequently drove off of the track at Willow Springs at over 100 miles per hour into the desert. This screwed up the rear suspension and cracked the rear subframe.

welding

We welded the rear subframe, made a makeshift rear spoiler out of a 2 X 4, and lowered my rear tire pressures. In the race I drove like an idiot, somehow got the lead in the race, thought I might win… and then blew up the engine. That meant that we had two Acura Integras that didn’t run, the unfinished “hero” car and the “parts car” with a blown engine. The National Championships were just five short weeks away. We were screwed.

PREPARATION

shop

Our “hero” car didn’t have an engine or a transmission in it, it didn’t even have a wiring harness or a driver’s seat. Our “parts car” had a blown engine. Marcel DeKerpal from DK Racing offered to rebuild the engine on our parts car. We towed the car to him, stuffed a bunch of hundred dollar bills in his hand and then concentrated on finishing the other car. Thank you Marcel!

aj

We took the shell of the other car to Aj Gracy at Performance In-Frame Tuning who would finalize the installation of the engine built by Rich Olivier at TEM Machine Shop. Aj and his crew worked day and night on the car putting all of the pieces together and ensuring everything worked seamlessly. And that was no easy task, the AEM Infinity computer had to talk to the Racepak dash and all of that had to work with the mil-spec wiring harness from Chase Bays. Everything they did to the car was way above my ability to turn a wrench and I learned an enormous amount from them just watching and helping with the process (when I say “help” my job was to buy pizza, donuts, beer and stay out of the way).

paint

We finally got the “hero” car running and back from the paint shop at Olson Auto Body. The car looked great. We rented Buttonwillow Raceway Park to shake the car down and get it ready for the nationals. The test day was a complete disaster. The first session on the track the brake pedal was soft, the clutch pedal cable was loose, the engine had an oil leak, and the electronics completely bricked the car. I rented the entire track for the day and spent seven minutes on the track before the car was completely toast. Another perfectly crappy day for a perfectly crappy racing season.

drop

To add insult to injury while we were testing at the track we dropped the “parts car” off of the trailer when the ramps slipped out from under the tires. The car was stuck resting with all of its weight on the radiator support. This was completely our fault for not strapping down the ramps.

sticker

Then we decided we wanted to change one of the number stickers on the car because it had a tiny bubble in the decal. When we pulled off the sticker it ripped off the brand new paint job. What disaster would be next?

dirty

At this point Keith and I were both wondering why we had started all of this nonsense to begin with. We had spent a ton of money, crashed cars, broken a bunch of parts, spent hours working on cars that currently were not running, parts which were supposed to be overnighted to our shop were lost in the mail, we were covered in dirt, everything that was happening to us was telling us to quit. All of this and the nationals were just around the corner. It wasn’t looking good.

sign

Then I read the sign above the door at our shop. As sign I put there myself. “Victory and champagne can be found at the track, but most races are won weeks before at the shop.” It was time to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and get to work. If we dedicated ourselves to getting it done we could finish the two cars. We just had to grind it out. I told my wife, whom I love, “I’ll see you after the Nationals.”

done

We treated our families poorly, we called in sick to work, we emptied our bank accounts, we sent angry e-mails to companies who were supposed to ship us parts, we called in every favor from every sponsor we knew, we didn’t sleep, and somehow we finished the two cars. The “hero” car was finished on Wednesday, the NASA National Championships started that Friday.

shirt

We couldn’t have made it happen without the help of all of the companies you see on the back of the team shirts. We threw the two cars into the trailers and headed back to Buttonwillow to race against the top Honda Challenge drivers in the country. Without significant testing, we had no idea if the cars would hold together or if the “hero” car would even turn left and right without spinning off of the track.

magazine

Not only were we under the gun to get the cars ready for the Nationals, I was also under pressure to complete the car to meet deadlines at SpeedNews magazine. I was contracted to do five Budget Build articles and the series of the stories needed an ending. That ending being we had a finished running car. We completed the car within days of the Nationals, and we completed the build story within minutes of the deadline at SpeedNews. To see what went into the build check out one of the five build stories by clicking one of the links below.

Honda Challenge Budget Build 1: Finding and Stripping the Right Platform

Honda Challenge Budget Build 2: Safety, Safety, Safety

Honda Challenge Budget Build 3: Suspension and Brakes

Honda Challenge Budget Build 4: The Powertrain

Honda Challenge Budget Build 5: The Devil is in the Details

NASA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS

two-cars

We finally had both cars on the track at the same time. The new “hero” car, number 38, and the trusty “parts” car, number 33. We headed out to qualify and ended up on the front row of the field.

team

The Nationals would be a long hard weekend. The schedule was grueling with a qualifying session and Qualifying Race 1 on Friday, Qualifying Race 2 on Saturday, and then the National Championship final race on Sunday. There wasn’t much time for fixing problems with the cars or replacing crash damaged parts.

office

The trick to being successful at the Nationals was to make the car last three separate races so you had a chance to win the whole thing on the last lap of the final race. However, the harder you raced in the qualifying races the better it would set you up for a good grid position for the start of the final race. Like a lunatic, I decided the best strategy was just to win all of them.

pack

After setting the fastest lap in Qualifying Race 1, I started on the pole of Qualifying Race 2 and led from flag to flag giving myself pole position for the final championship race. The best part about Qualifying Race 2 was the 1-2 finish for Double Nickel Nine Motorsports with Keith taking the second spot. Who would have thought we would finish 1-2 in two cars that didn’t even run a few days before?

dnn-finish

The 38 car was working fantastically and a lot of that credit goes to the crew chief Stephen Young who ensured every bolt was tight and every adjustment was perfect. Running the 33 car as the crew chief was Bryce Lindlahr who checked after every session to ensure our rear subframe welds were still holding up.

walkabout

The morning of the National Championship I got up before the rest of the team and I decided to walk the entire track. A lot was on the line. I was on the pole position for a standing start and any mistake I made could have consequences for the entire field, plus I had Keith in row 2 directly behind me, so he needed me to get out of the way quick when the green flag dropped. I was alone walking the track. The only competitor out there. The full moon was setting along the first corner and I stood there for a long time looking at the slight banking of the corner, convincing myself I could go a litter harder into Turn 1 on the first lap, even on cold tires.

side

Finally the moment had come, 11:00 a.m. Sunday, October 16, 2016, the National Auto Sport Association Honda Challenge 4 Championship Race. I was ready. The car was perfect. I had my brother Randy, my dad Jim, and my crew chief Stephen, all on the radio spotting for me at three different positions around the twisty three-mile track. When the starter just twitched his elbow to drop the green flag for the standing start, I dumped the clutch and left the field in the dust behind me.

dust

Literally dust everywhere. The Honda Challenge field had painted a target on my back. I was the one to catch. They were driving off the track, crashing into each other, spinning out, desperate to get within a car length of me. I wasn’t going to let that happen. With a clear track in front of me, I drove hard, hit my marks, made every shift count at the perfect RPM, hit every deep braking marker, and stayed smooth. Smooth is fast. What was happening behind me was complete insanity.

third-place

Keith was stuck in all of the mid pack drama and fought his way through the field for 45 grueling minutes to get himself to the third position giving the team a chance for another double podium finish. All we had to do was stay out of trouble until the checker came out.

chase

After gaining a substantial lead, yellow flags bunched up the field, putting the Honda Challenge cars right on my rear bumper for a re-start. It would be a green-white-checker, with the National Championship on the line for a final lap re-start. All of the hard work, money, and effort would come down to one lap. My brother kept me calm on the radio. I took the green by trying to push the gas pedal through the floor board and I never looked back.

champion

When the checkered flag fell it was the nose of the number 38 Acura Integra of Double Nickel Nine Motorsports driven by Rob Krider that took the win and became the 2016 NASA Honda Challenge 4 National Champion.

champagne

With both of us on the podium, Keith and I had one of the greatest racing moments of our lives, especially after our hellish season, by spraying each other with victory champagne.

crew

None of this could have been accomplished without the selfless efforts of the Double Nickel Nine Motorsports/Krider Racing crew who busted their butts and knuckles to ensure that our team was unbeatable.

label

For winning the Nationals, Tactical Ops Brewing came out with their newest IPA and called it Double Nickel Nine in honor of our team. They added the image of our racecar to their beer bottle label to commemorate our national championship victory. Pretty damn cool.

smiles

It was the season from hell. It ended well, but it wasn’t an easy journey. Nobody worked harder than we did to earn the championship. Nobody stayed up later. Nobody read the rules as closely as we did. Nobody spent more money. Nobody paid attention to detail like we did during the season. Nobody drove harder. Nobody put it all on the line like our team did in Honda Challenge. And for those reasons, nobody else is the 2016 NASA Honda Challenge 4 National Champion.

victory

See you next season at the track!

Rob Krider, author of the novel Cadet Blues, is a factory pilot for Double Nickel Nine Motorsports. To read more stories from Rob go to robkrider.com.

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