ShiftAtlanta contributor Benson Young will be providing a detailed diary of his experiences as a driver in Champ Car. This edition covers his expeirences with team Momo Champ.
After a long hiatus due to COVID, Florida-based team Momo Champ returned to endurance racing. The occasion was the ChampCar AMP’d Up Duals at Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville, GA. It was a two day event, with an 8-hour endurace race (enduro for short) on Saturday, followed by a 7-hour enduro on Sunday. These are treated as two separate events, each with their own entries, results and standings. This wasn’t the only double-header for the weekend either; ChampCar was also running their 8+7 Road America race in Wisconsin on the same weekend. Unfortunately, that meant that many of the usual Southern faces at ChampCar would be missing. This included the usual event LiveStreams and Doc Waldrop’s ChampCar radio commentary would be up at Road America this weekend.
New Car Setup
The Momo Champ team principals Hillar Kalda and Joey Evans drove in on Thursday night along with Joey’s awesome wife, Patricia. Friday was practice and prep, but this team is so well organized that prep is usually pretty minimal. I don’t have a lot of seat time with the car, which is a well-developed NA Miata, so I came out for some practice laps. This is my second event with the team (the first being last year at Barber, so I have about four hours in the car so far… but none with the new aero package, a high-mounted wing and fat splitter. AMP is a technical track with mostly medium speed, 3rd-gear turns, and it’s well suited for aggressive aero and a low-horsepower momentum car like a Miata. There’s only one big straight on which the aero could be detrimental, but it’s more than offset by the fast entry going into it.
I needed more time on the track as well, with my only experience being a handful of laps in a borrowed Miata (thanks, Cliff!). I’ve had about 90 minutes on AMP as an instructor. With lots of elevation changes, AMP is a tricky track to master, and somewhat unforgiving. This is fairly common with modern tracks, which are often designed to have a relatively small footprint on a narrow piece of property. AMP’s designers made the most of it, packing 16 turns into 2 miles with almost 100 feet of elevation change. F1 track architect Herman Tilke designed the track with signature turns from famous European tracks like Eau Rouge (Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium) and the Karoussel (Nurburging’s Nordschleife in Germany). There is also a 0.8 mile karting track inside the circuit. Like many tracks set up on narrow pieces of land, this usually means some slow acute turns, and inevitably, guardrails. Unlike a large track like Road Atlanta, which is a much older track, taking up a large amount of real estate, AMP is compact and that means fewer natural runoff areas and plenty of tire walls, as well as Armco barriers to separate parts of the track from each other. If you look at the track map for Road Atlanta, you see a massive infield that can support thousands of spectators and parking. That space allows generous runoff areas and more high-speed turns. Unfortunately, that means it’s hard for spectators to see much of the track, maybe a few turns at best. AMP’s compact nature means the main building’s observation deck can see about 60% of the track. AMP has a long history with ChampCar, with the track’s first race being a Champcar enduro in 2013, back when the series was called ChumpCar. AMP is a top-notch facility, and the track has many subtleties I was hoping to explore during my two-hour stints over the weekend.
Arrival + Race Prep
I arrived Friday morning to help set up and get some practice. I also needed to pick up my helmet from Discovery Parts at AMP. I had dropped off my helmet there a few weeks prior to get my radio harness upgraded, and it was ready for me when I walked in. Being laid off a couple months earlier due to COVID, I was really looking forward to this race weekend. Hillar, Joey and Patricia are a well-oiled machine, and already had the entire pit set up. I’ve seen this team around for many years, as their car has a wonderful Momo Italia inspired livery. My own personal ChampCar S13 carries a Momo Corsa seat.
The team is active and well respected in this series, with plenty of class wins due to smart driving, a quick pace and immaculate prep. Since my own ChampCar team raced in 2016, I’ve largely been freelancing with other teams to get my endurance racing fix. I rented a seat with a Florida-based team, InActive Motorsports, and did several races with Santus Gore’s TN-based Mad Hungarian team. He introduced me to Doc Waldrop and Brewe Krewe Racing’s E30, who I raced with several times. When those seats got scarce, Doc connected me with Hillar and his team.
The car ran perfect during practice, but we were plagued with black flags due to sound levels. There’s a 98 db limit during the race, and anything over 100db will get you flagged. Hillar and Joey made a few changes to the exhaust system and sent me out for a spin. Driving a Miata is like riding a bicycle; it just comes back to you. Practice was shared with a trackday for Discovery Auto Parts, so it wasn’t just us cheap racers out there.
It had been a while since I’d been in a full-blown race car, some 10 months since my last enduro. I was scheduled to race Daytona with Momo in spring 2020, but COVID postponed that event. Eventually it got rescheduled for July 4th, but that got complicated. Not long after learning about the new date, IMSA announced they would be racing on Saturday, July 4 at Daytona as well. For a minute, I pictured us running simultaneously in the televised IMSA WeatherTech series next to million dollar Daytona Prototypes, LMP and GT3 cars. ChampCar worked with the track and rescheduled us to Sunday, July 5. The IMSA race would not allow spectators, but we’d be allowed to watch the race, since we were sharing the track that weekend. That was a nice perk for our troubles. I started hearing rumors of there being VIP spectators allowed. First it was 1000, then 5000. Along with the IMSA teams, NBC, and our hooptie race, that meant several thousand people at Daytona International Raceway. I was getting a bit nervous, especially when Florida’s COVID numbers started exploding in June. Clearly, people were getting a bit stir-crazy under lockdown and visiting beaches to salvage their summer vacations. July 4th weekend wasn’t going to help that. Though we’d be far from Daytona’s famous beaches, there would most certainly be a lot of interstate traffic in gas stations and restaurants. This would also be ChampCar’s first event after the pandemic started, with new but unproven safety protocols. Luckily, the team had been feeling the same way and backed out of the race in favor of AMP in October 2020.
Back in the Miata, I started to settle into it, and began to get a feel of how it worked on this track. My first outing with Momo last year was fine, but my driving had been off pace from the other drivers by several seconds. It had been wet all that weekend so I had driven pretty cautiously. I normally like racing in the rain, but my last event before that was with Brewe Krewe in what would be called typhoon conditions, resulting in a lot of mishaps. Doc’s E30, affectionately named Kenny, got battered up pretty good that weekend.
With all the elevation changes at AMP, I was pretty intimidated by the blindness of turns and how quickly I was being overtaken. I was definitely rusty. The AIM Solo lap timer in the car has predictive functions so it gave me instant feedback on my driving. I started to build up some confidence when I got shown the black flag for sound limits. I pulled in and they went to work on quieting down the car some more. I only got into the upper 1:4X range, and there was a whole lot of time left in the car. Our fourth driver, Andres Tostes, arrived in the afternoon and confirmed that our sound levels were now acceptable. I should have accepted Hillar’s offer to do more practice laps, but my head wasn’t where I needed to be.
Race Day #1 – Saturday October 24th
Our day began well before the sun rose. My girlfriend Stacy Sutton would be coming to the track with me for the day. Racing isn’t her thing, but she knew Joey and Patricia from a decade earlier when their daughters were into Soap Box Derby racing together. I was going to be taking the second stint, so opted to get into all my racing gear at home. I did a final gear check and noticed a small black thing running along the floor from my foot to the mirror. I figured it was another spider, but noticed it was actually a small O-ring from my Coolshirt. Apparently the O-rings on my shirt’s dry-break hose connectors got old and broke off. I was missing both now. Perfect, because the weather was going to be in the 65-75 range, which is plenty warm enough to warrant running a driver cooling system. I had a pack of generic O-rings in my shop in Roswell, which would be along the way from our home in central Atlanta to the track in Dawsonville. This would still be a 20 minute diversion at best , assuming I could find them quickly. I could also scavenge the connectors from my older Coolshirt, but I figured they were probably dry-rotted too. Instead, I remembered that Ron at Discovery Parts keeps a good bit of Coolshirt inventory and parts at his retail shop at AMP, and gambled that he had them. We left the house at 6 AM and made it to AMP at 7:20, well before the race started at 8:30. Discovery was already open and once again, was a life saver. They had the parts I needed at perfectly reasonable prices. I picked up a six pack of o-rings, installed two and kept the rest as spares in my gear bag for my other shirt and system in my S13.
The race start was different this year, as normally we have a big driver’s meeting before the things get going. As part of their COVID protocols, I watched the prerecorded virtual driver’s meeting on YouTube a few days earlier. Andres was starting the race. Though he’d driven with the team several times, he’d never started and this would be his first. Starting a Champ or Lemons race can be a bit hairy. In Lemons, there are a lot of first-time racecar builds and first-time drivers, so between cars blowing up and novice drivers, a lot happens during the start of a race. Despite a damp track, it was a good time for Andres to start. He’s a fast and consistent driver, and we were starting in last position. In ChampCar, there’s no qualifying: grid positions are determined based on your pit stall location. One team is randomly chosen, and they have the pole, with all cars lined up based on where they are on pit row. The next day, the order is reversed. Pit Maneuver Racing, a team started out of Flying Wrench garage in Kennesaw, GA, got chosen and were right next to us. I know a few of the Flying Wrench guys, as they do the support and prep for Brewe Krewe and are very experienced in race-prepped BMWs. They run a totally rad Nissan S12. I talked with them initially when they were looking to put in a KA24DE into the chassis (my personal race car is an S13 with a KA24DE), but they opted to install a BMW engine and transmission. Since they were starting the race today, we’d be in last position. That was an ideal place for someone who hasn’t started before, as you would not have to worry about anyone passing you for a few laps. Andres would be in 43rd place and could move up from there.
Andres was quick out of the gate and moved up quickly as the track dried. He moved us up to mid-pack during his two hour stint, and handed me the car through a perfect pit stop. The Momo team really does this well, getting the car refueled and drivers swapped with very little drama. ChampCar has a 5-minute minimum fuel stop, and we’re usually done with the driver and fuel in 3 minutes, leaving another 60 seconds to check the lug nuts with a torque wrench, refill the Coolshirt cooler, clean the glass and check the oil. I went out and tried to get my head into the game.
Andres is usually a bit quicker than Hillar and Joey, and I’ve been further back. I’m a very technical driver, so I enjoy analyzing the aspects of going faster. Generally, I don’t have their degree of confidence. They’ve never said anything about my pace, as they value consistency and staying out of trouble to finish well. Part of it is that I’m still new to the team and the car, with just one race and about four hours in it. Another part is that I’m a freelance driver, so I’m not going to push beyond my limits, especially in an endurance race. My pace wasn’t great in the first 30 minutes, in the mid 1:4x range. I also missed a lot of shifts into 3rd gear. There was a big hot spot on the transmission tunnel that I could feel through my shoes, and made my calf stick to the tunnel. I got passed a lot, at some pretty discouraging speeds too. I built up some speed and got into the lower 1: 42-1:43 range, but still way off Andres pace. He was in the low 1:4X from the start and once the racing line dried up, he was consistently in the high 1:3X range, with a best lap in the 1:37.X area. Still, I was improving and showing good passing etiquette, and keeping the car in good shape. That lasted until about an hour into my stint, when I heard a loud bang going into T8. The front right corner of the car dropped down and I had little steering or braking. I brought it to a stop just barely into the T10 sand trap. I radioed in that I lost the front right tire and needed extraction. It was a good spot for a failure, but it was kind of a strange place to get a flat, as I was largely going straight. It took a good while before the recovery vehicle pulled me out and onto a flatbed. I’d never ridden on the back of a flatbed and caught myself trying to turn the Miata steering wheel as the recovery vehicle made its way back to pit row, as if that would do anything. Once back in the pit, it took a full 10 minutes just to get off the trailer, as the car wouldn’t roll. We had a failure of the ball joint, which prevented the car from rolling. That made a lot more sense, as a flat would have made a much quieter sound, and this explained my lack of steering and braking. We finally got on the ground after a full 30 minutes, and Joey went to work fixing it. A new ball joint was installed and the car was back out in less than an hour. Total down time was about 1h23m, which knocked us out of any chance to podium. Hillar went out without incident, and Joey finished the race in mid-field. Rain started just as we were setting up the race for the next day.
I wasn’t in a great mood leaving the track on Saturday, as I felt bad that I drove poorly. I knew the failure wasn’t my fault, the ball joint was going to break no matter what, and I just happened to be driving at the time. Fortunately we had a drive-in concert with one of our favorite bands, Yacht Rock Revue, in Alpharetta, which was on our way back home. Stacy and I are avid concert goers, and this was our first live music event since February. It was raining, but I moved all my gear around the back of my SUV and we watched the concert out of the rear hatch.
Race Day #2 – Sunday October 25th
I returned to the track Sunday by myself, sleeping in a bit later to maximize my rest. I’d been reflecting on how my driving has been off for the last few years, that my capabilities as a driver seem to have deteriorated. Maybe it was just age and not enough seat time, as races have been fewer and farther between lately. With Mad Hungarian, I was one of the faster drivers, a position I was used to being in. But the drivers at Brewe Krewe were quite good, and I was in the bottom half there. I made a plan to improve on Sunday. I felt like I couldn’t feel what the car was doing as much as I used to. I would try to get my seating position better, maybe a little closer to the pedals. That would help me fully engage the clutch, which could have been why I was having problems finding 3rd gear. I’d also tighten my belts a little more, to get more connection to the chassis.
Hillar and Joey already had the race car back on the ground. We had left it on jack stands the night before, as rain was predicted up through the morning. The decision of whether or not to put Continental rain tires on needed to wait until the morning, and they ultimately opted to put the Hankook RS4’s back on. Joey was taking the first stint, and would be starting in first position on a wet track. We knew this wouldn’t last long, as we’re in A Class. ChampCar divides up the event into four classes, A/B/C/D, based on engine displacement. Our 1.8 Miata fell into A, while big V8 cars like Mustangs, Camaros and Corvettes are in D Class. Cars built outside the ruleset are put into a 5th class, EC, or Exhibition Class. EC teams aren’t eligible for class or overall awards.
Miatas punch well above their A-Class designation, but they are unlikely to stay out in front of the faster teams at the starting sprint. The faster BMWs (in C Class) got out in front quickly, using their power and ABS braking to good effect on the damp track. Our friends at Hong Norrth racing got a brilliant start in their newly built MX3. They are a veteran team in the series, and I’ve been seeing Kevin Boswell around tracks for many years. They’re a very successful team, but their new car had a number of uncharacteristic braking problems on Saturday. Kevin was driving today and made a hard charge to the front of the pack. Joey was having a merry chase with #647 Love Racing’s Miata. They won A-Class on Saturday, and were capable of running at roughly our pace. Their Miata has about the same level of aero and prep, and they were giving Joey a tough battle for the A-Class lead. Not far behind was another yellow Miata, but they had a bigger engine and were in B-Class. Joey swapped places with Love Racing a couple times before settling into a solid second place position. Later on, Joey mentioned he lost the lead during a missed shift to 3rd…hmmm.
About 40 minutes before the end of the first stint, Hillar told me I’d be going into the car next. I really wasn’t in the right headspace, but I took it as a challenge and got suited up. I need to focus on my driving and be able to push aside any doubt or intimidation. My existential crisis would have to wait. I went into the car during another perfect stop, but noticed my shirt didn’t get cool immediately. Joey wasn’t running his Coolshirt, and had been keeping us between 4th and 7th overall during his second hour. He had been in a solid 5th place for about seven laps before cars started pitting and moved him up to 2nd overall before handing the car to me. I returned the car to the track in 6th place overall. Lap times were quickly into the 1:43-1:44 range with a couple of a 1:40.X laps. Better than yesterday, but still slower than the rest of the team. Patricia radioed to remind me to just run my race, at my own pace, which was very helpful in calming my nerves. I watched an Acura Integra slide off the carousel in T3 and go head first into the tire wall. The car drove out fine but the pace car came out while the wall was repaired.
I took the time under yellow to see if I could get the CoolShirt running again, as I was already getting hot with the ambient temperatures around 70 degrees F. I tried to release the hoses a bit, in case I was kinking them. I shifted my belts around too, as I had cinched them down more than Saturday to give me a better connection to the chassis. I was really starting to worry because I was already getting hot and fatigue was surely going to be an issue by the end of the stint. I disconnected and reconnected the dry-break connectors a few times and that did the trick. It quickly shed the heat and I throttled the temperature dial back to get a comfortable flow going and tightened my harness again. It took a good six laps for the tire wall to get repaired, but I used my racecraft experience to set up for the green flag. I had a solid restart and passed a couple cars in T14-15 before we even reached the front straight. I moved the car into 5th place overall within a few laps.
The entire back turn, T14-15 and through T16, was the place this Miata really excelled. They are wide, flat, and the new aero was allowing any line at full throttle from T13 all the way into T1. I drove conservatively, looking for places to improve my line but stay out of the way for faster cars, especially in different classes. I was staying the low 1:4X range, with a few 1:40.X laps, and I did a few decent passes. I took the opportunity for a few pointers from faster cars. My friend Nabil, who I do track instruction for at Just Track It, came up behind me in Hong Norrth’s MX3. As a C-Class car, I had no fight with them, and they were already pitting frequently from braking issues. Following the faster guys, I changed up my line in T13 to a later apex, which helped get me through a slow dead-zone as I topped that crest. I also stopped tapping the brakes to turn into T4, instead letting the car just scrub and run wide a bit before reeling it in back in midway through the carousel. Both changes induced a bit of understeer but let me go on the gas earlier. These also had great tactical benefits, as I closed up gaps with cars ahead of me on entry, and this let me charge out of the exit quicker. Lap times were now dropping: about 45 minutes into my stint, I saw my first 1:39.X lap. I kept focusing on shifting my marks a bit and moving my line to see what happened. There was dead space around T9 where I wasn’t really doing much, so I tried to trail brake more into the blind left of T10. I promptly understeered 4 wheels off but recovered and continued. This was really a big break for me, as it was a learning moment. One might think that a mistake would be discouraging, but it was exactly what I needed to know. I had found and exceed the total grip of the car, luckily without more than a couple seconds of consequence. Now that I knew where the car limit was, I could recalibrate my driving to stay at or under that from here on. Armed with that knowledge, I tried staying more track left at T7 to straighten out the transition from T8 to T9 That bought me more time. I was consistently clocking 1:38-1:39s now, and doing a decent amount of passing. There were a few tight spots, where we went three wide in T1, T6 and T14, but all the drivers were great and predictable. I was able to pass in more places now, like on the outside of the T4 carousel where the mechanical grip is fantastic. The late right apex in T13 also let me cut under anyone taking the slower-but-straighter early T14 apex. That let me get a jump onto the back turn when I was able to generate right-side weight transfer a few feet sooner. This paid off a lot; I had mechanical grip going left earlier than they did, which rapidly turned into aerodynamic grip as we went through T15. The car was absolutely planted at the T16 apex. That early throttle paid off all the way to T1. The car had a bit of understeer that I was learning to live with. I stopped trying to prevent it with a little brake and just let it push and recover quickly, which closed many gaps for me. I only missed a few shifts to 3rd too, instead taking my time and making sure the clutch was to the floor.
One area I didn’t really explore is the T1 braking zone. This is the part of the track I don’t really care for: it slopes noticeably downward in the last few hundred feet. T1 is an acute, slow left and I’ve seen many cars lose it here as they unload in the downhill. I played it pretty safe here, as my aero grip would rapidly diminish below 70mph. The front straight is also the fastest part of the track, so this corner is almost designed to sucker people plowing off the outside. I don’t go above 80 or 90% braking here, preferring to leave some change in my pocket in case I need to call home. I don’t know how fast we were going here (this race car just has a tach that I can’t really see, but I go by ear and the shift lights), but I’d guess some 105-110mph across the start-finish line. With a non-ABS car, I wasn’t going to gamble the extra second I could gain here only to lose many minutes being towed out of the sand pit. If this area was paved, I’d feel more confident because there’s more area to recover. But that wouldn’t help anyone with brake failure, as the sand pit is very effective at slowing cars down. It’s a tough design choice, as the runoff area is capped by the Armco of pit out, and a service road to the kart track. I also did very little dive-bombing on the inside here, as I could overtake in safer places on the track. If I was inside someone at the start-finish and they knew I was there, I’d take the inside of T1, but anything after that and I’d be patient and race them somewhere else.
I’d been solidly in 5th place for well over an hour, and 2nd in class. I focused on hitting my marks and shift points, and was rewarded with a respectable pace at 1:40.X or less. As I built more confidence in my abilities, I learned to trust the aero to keep me stuck to the turns. I went full-send in my second hour, and was rewarded with a surprising number of 1:38.X laps. Love Racing’s Miata came up on me and got past me with the RVA BMW, a fast E30 that was in the top 3 overall. I gave them some chase and turned my fastest lap of the weekend, a 1:37.8 before Love pulled off to the pits. They were not on the same pit cycle we were. Momo can run a full two hours, where a stock Miata is good only for about 90 minutes. We have a relocated filler neck to the right side of the car, to better facilitate refueling on the tracks they frequent. This, along with an allowed surge tank and MegaSquirt ECU, allows us to stretch our fuel to the maximum allowed driver stint of 2 hours. The #647 Miata was on 90 minute intervals, but in a 7 hour race, this wasn’t a disadvantage for them. We’d both need 3 fuel/driver stops to complete the race. In the last 20 minutes of my stint, I moved up to 2nd place overall and first in class. I wish I could say it was my driving, but it probably has more to do with attrition and fuel stops. Still, I had done a lot better than I had in years and kept the car on pace for the team.
Andres got into the car after me and put in a solid stint. We slipped to 4th overall during the fuel stop. His pace was well under 1:40, which moved us back up to 2nd. Andres knocked down a few 1:37.X laps, including his best of 1:37.1. We were getting ready for his fuel stop, and he radioed in that he lost 3rd gear. This car uses 3rd gear for most of the track, so lap times would suffer if we had to only drive with 2nd and 4th. #647 Love Racing had fallen back a bit, apparently due to a black flag, and lost a few laps. With only an hour left in the race, we were sitting in 1st in class. Hillar got into the car and got back onto the track in 3rd overall, behind the RVA E30 and #901 E30. Amazingly, Hillar was somehow able to knock out laps in the 1:40-1:44 range. #647 was a lap down, and not on their usual 1:38-1:39 pacing. Hillar was keeping pace with #647, which meant we’d be in a good position by the end of the race. I really have no idea how he was able to manage solid lap times without 3rd gear, but he really pulled it out.
With about 40 minutes left in the race, RVA’s E30 broke and moved us up to 2nd place overall while holding the class lead. #647 had unlapped themselves, but were still some 80 seconds behind us with 25 minutes to go. I quickly did the math: if they went 2 seconds faster than us, they would need 40 laps to catch us. But there were only 15 laps left in the race. We took the checker with no 3rd gear, winning A class and taking 2nd place overall. This was my best finish ever in ChampCar, and ties Momo’s best result as well. 901 Motorsports E30 took the win by a few laps over us. Our pole position really didn’t make a difference, as we started only a few seconds over the second place A-class Love Racing Miata at the start. We finished over a minute ahead of them, and 4th place was another 2 laps down, so starting on the pole didn’t change our 2nd place finish. Just strong pace, solid driving and perfect pit stops.
It’s great to see that a modest but well-run team can still do well in ChampCar. The Momo Champ team isn’t a high-budget team, but it’s perfectly run, well-prepped and driven solidly. It’s been rather alarming in recent years to see how much the series has escalated, and the presence of a Riley-built C3 Corvette in the last few races has really shaken up the competition. And yet, Momo has taken a stock-engined Miata, added a bit of power, made it super reliable, and we were right there on the podium at the end of the day. We used only one set of tires the entire weekend. We did have one part failure on Saturday but still finished mid-pack. Sunday everything ran like clockwork, even though we lost 3rd gear. We put down decent, consistent lap times, ran the car to the full two hours each, and performed perfect pit stops. Hillar, Joey, Patricia, and Andres are pretty relaxed and low pressure: just run it, and if we don’t break, we have a shot of being up on the podium at the end of the day. We finished well ahead of other teams that had much faster cars and drivers that spend a lot more money. Randy Pobst, who is about as talented a driver as I’ve ever shared a track with, was there with his Flying Moose Volvo, but had mechanical issues. They managed a 9th place overall and second in their class. Hong Norrth was sidelined with brake problems all weekend, and many other faster teams were further down the results.
Wrap Up + ShiftAtlanta Lemons Team Debut
Overall, while I was very happy to get a great result from a weekend of racing, overcoming my existential crisis felt even better. COVID has put a damper on my racing budget for the near future, but at least I’m taking a hiatus on a high note. Though I won’t be in the driver’s seat, I’ll still be around the track though, with weekends as a driving instructor and being on the crew for ShiftAtlanta’s 24 Hours Of Lemons team debut in December.