A few weeks ago I was approached by Champion Speedway General Manager Kris Martin to take part in a Celebrity/Media race at Champion Speedway.
The race is to benefit the Brian D. Sweeney Fund, which provides educational opportunities to youth interested in Naval aviation careers. Sweeney, a Desert Storm veteran, F-14 radar intercept officer, and former Fighter Weapons School staff instructor, was on his way to Los Angeles aboard United Airlines Flight 175 on the morning of September 11, 2001, when terrorists flew the plane into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
Champion Speedway is donating $1 for every ticket sold on Saturday night to the Brian D. Sweeney fund. Also supporting the event are Michael Hohl Motor Company and the Champion Speedway Driving Experience, which is providing the Bandolero race cars for us to drive.
As part of the event, we would-be racers gathered at Champion Speedway last Sunday to learn all about the nuances of racing the Bandolero. Champion Speedway Driving Experience guru J.P. Molnar squeezed a couple of days' worth of classroom instruction into a couple of hours in the morning, then after a sumptuous feast at Red's Old 395, we went back to the track to get some practical experience.
Since there were only four driving experience cars and eight drivers, we paired up according to relative size, while Rob Wood of RWW Fabrication and Robert (Mike) Menke adjusted the cars to fit us. I was teamed with Lieutenant Mike "Judy" Amos from the Top Gun school at Fallon Naval Air Station, who is six feet three inches tall (and no, I did not ask why he's called Judy). I'm an inch shorter, close enough for the pedal adjustment to suit both of us.
For those of you who have seen a Bandolero car, you know how small it is. For those of you who haven't, think of a go-kart on steroids, with some swoopy fiberglass bodywork. Entry is through the roof of the car, and is a bit awkward, but as small as the cars are, they are surprisingly roomy once you get inside. A full roll cage and five-point racing harness gives you a feeling of security. The cars have a 30-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine driving the rear axle through a chain, with an infinitely variable cone clutch that requires no shifting.
Steering wheel, throttle, and brake pedal are the only controls, and a tach, oil pressure and temperature gauges the only instruments. Henry and J.P. warned us to modulate the throttle to get the car off from rest, which confused people until someone mentioned that it was just like starting a golf cart. "Now you're talking my language," said Commander Rhinehart "Rhino" Wilke, another Top Gun pilot.
One other caution that was impressed on us over and over was not to use the brakes. The Bandolero has only one rear brake, and if applied while the car is turning, it virtually guarantees a spin. The technique of driving a Bandolero is similar to that used in a Winston Cup restrictor plate race, with the major exception being that it's impossible to "flat-foot" the Bandolero all the way around Champion's high banks.
The other exception is that we were going nowhere near 200 miles per hour, even though it felt that way.
We went out one at a time for a couple of warm-up laps and 10 hot laps. The use of "warm" and "hot" are appropriate, as the temperature was in the high 90s and we were decked out in full nomex racing gear and helmets. J.P. Molnar, ably assisted by Henry Hodges and Tom Waters, observed and coached the students in the proper "line" around Champion's high banks.
Lap times in the first session ranged from 18.4 to 23.4 seconds, a five-second spread, but by the end of the day, six-tenths of a second covered the field, from a fast time of 16.6 seconds turned by "Rhino" to a 17.2 second lap set by myself and Scott Harjo, KBUL radio personality and experienced racer. "Judy," KOH Radio's Monty Wolf, Christina White of KTVN Channel 2, Bob Castle of the "Hawk," and Rob Perea of the Gazette-Journal were arrayed in between. Well, that was single-car qualifying, Harjo and I told each other. Just wait until we mix it up door-to-door on Saturday night!
But although we "celebrities" are racing for a good cause, we're not the main attraction on Saturday. There is a full slate of racing scheduled, with Hobby Stocks, Sportsmen, Legends, and a 100-lap Late Model race, the third in Champion Speedway's "Tribute to America" series. If you want lots of racing action, Champion is the place to be on Saturday night. The gates open at 4 p.m., and qualifying starts at 5, with the 100 lap Late Model main scheduled to start just after 9.
And if you would like to try out one of these Bandolero race cars, or a Legends car, with expert instruction on racing techniques included, check out the Champion Driving Experience for yourself. You can get more information at www.championdriver.com. If you don't have Internet access, call 629-2041, extension 114 for more information, or look up J.P. Molnar at the track some Saturday night. Introductory prices are $350 for the Bandolero Experience and $500 for the Legends Experience.