Ever since it was announced, I’ve been looking forward to NCM Motorsports Park’s King Of The Heap racing series for one reason or another. I wanted to throw a team together…that didn’t happen. I wanted to drive on a team…and that almost happened, until I got cut from the team in early fall. So, I resigned myself to going to the track on the first Saturday in December to shoot some photos…until I got a message from Suzy Bauter, asking if I’d like to take a driver’s slot on a team that needed staffing. I couldn’t say yes quickly enough…free track time in someone else’s car is always a good thing.
The King Of The Heap series is a new feature that was dreamed up initially by David Johnson and Brian Mason a few years ago as more of an adventure-type deal. After watching Top Gear clips where they run budget cars on a road trip, the initial plan was to purchase $1,000 cars in California and road-trip them along Route 66 until they either made their destination or left the flaming wreck on the side of the road, whichever came first. While that idea never got off the ground, the groundwork for cheap cars having fun kept being discussed until we got to the point where, just after dawn on Saturday, the beaters started coming through the gate. The rules were simple: $1,000 value, Uniroyal Tiger Paw tires, and the knowledge that anybody could claim your car at the end of the day, and you had to make the trade or be forced out of the event (a way of keeping competitors honest.)
All kinds of cars showed up: a late 1980s era Toyota Supra with anti-lag and a six-foot-tall exhaust pipe with a flapper. A Chevrolet Chevette. A 1990s Cadillac Eldorado that looked used-car-lot fresh. A Chevrolet Malibu Maxx that had an active mold culture growing on the front bumper cover. The cars were unloaded and the drive teams, four people per car, meandered their way into the classroom for registration and instruction from Track Operations Manager Matt Busby.
The main source of entertainment for the day might have been the racing, but the secondary source of entertainment was watching Busby have to call out team names during the registration process. For a large group of adults, the names were decidely…well…the day was off to a great start when Busby was hunting down one team in particular: “Ok, I need…*sigh*…I hate that you guys are making me read this. “Ass Taxi”, I need to see you up here!” That wasn’t even the worst name of the day, either. It turns out that I would be driving for team Long Johnson, which was David Johnson’s Ford Crown Victoria P71. I was filling in for Busby, who was going to have his hands full with his duties on the track.
Then I was approached by Tina Thompson, someone I know from Optima races and other events at NCM. She informed me that I would be driving another car with one question: “Have you ever blown up an engine before?” Tina and Toby, her husband, had brought two cars with them: the Eldorado, and a 1994 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 that was sponsored by PowerStop Brakes that they suspected to be seconds away from death. Offically, the Camaro could not compete for points since they had registered the Eldo, but if I wanted to run the car for an exhibition deal, I was welcomed to it. Now I’m dual-wielding beaters on race day. Pinch me, please.
With the cars out and ready, the racing began. The day was effectively split into two halves: for the morning, there would be a standing-start 1/8th mile run and a lap on NCM’s East Course track (that’s the one with a short straightaway and the infamous “Sinkhole” corner, patterned after Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew). For the afternoon, there was a mild autocross course, then for a finale, a rallycross course set up between the edge of the asphalt area and the acoustic berm behind the Clark Circle neighborhood in a grassy area. With the surprising amount of cars present (I didn’t get an exact number, but about 30-ish beaters on-hand) and with every driver needing to make a run at each event, time was going to be a factor. By 4:30 p.m., it would be at the far edge of sunset and racing would have to cease, no matter how many people needed to make a run.
First up was the 1/8th mile in the Crown Victoria. Other than a mis-adjusted shifter, the Vicky was actually in pretty decent shape, with only a couple of rusty spots to really show off it’s beater reputation. My first run, I tried to manually shift the trans and found out that first gear cannot be selected. Starting off with the trans in second gear looked like a peaceful Sunday drive. I didn’t even bother looking at the time…I just whipped back in and took a second lap, netting a decent 9.78 in the eighth. With all four drivers within spitting distance of each other, I moved on to the Camaro. I had been warned that at the first sign of strong acceleration, this thing was gonna puke it’s guts out, so my first run was more of a trial to see what was going to happen. Other than being a bit hesitant to shift, the Camaro made an uneventful lap, so I did a second run down the strip, this time at WOT, and ran 9.74. At some point after this, I agreed to adopt the Z28, so long as Toby Thompson got his brand-new Uniroyals back. I figured it was a fair trade-off.
Crown Victoria: 9.78 seconds, perfectly fine.
Camaro: 9.74 seconds, perfectly fine, now my car.
Next up, the East Course lap. With the Camaro failing to explode straight out of the gate, I felt cocky and pulled into line to make my run. Once waived onto the track, you got 3/4 of a warm-up lap, three hot laps, and a cooldown before exiting back into the paddock. Point-by passing was enforced, and stupid driving was not to be tolerated. Before my run, the Malibu Maxx and a Chevrolet S-10 had a meeting of the metal and the same pickup truck kissed a barrier as well. It was one thing to grenade a Camaro, but I had no intention of being “that guy” on the track, so once my group of five cars was guided out, I let the one car behind me (another Camaro) go around and proceeded to let it rip. The LT-1 might have only been occasionally making 15 PSI of oil pressure, but once the trans downshifted, the Z28 woke right up. I saw 85 MPH on the end of the straight before the first two right-hand kinks, carried 65-70 MPH through the sinkhole, and only scared myself when the back end tried to come around under braking. The Z28 ripped! Unfortunately, the engine wasn’t making happy noises as I pulled off the track…nothing heavy (yet) but it was certainly doing more than tapping.
Fresh out of the Camaro, I made the run over to the Crown Victoria to make my lap. I was seventh in line just as Busby cut off the last group of five onto the track before shutting down the course. At least my other teammates got to run the Vicky on the course, because I didn’t. Probably for the better, too, seeing how much smoke was coming from the rear drums. With the Camaro cooling down and the Vicky being driven to stave off a brake fire, we settled down for lunch as the track staff got to work finalizing the autocross course.
Crown Victoria: Did not run, might have a bearing starting to fail, brakes hotter than Hades
Camaro: Strong and fast, if you ignore the hammering noise coming from underhood.
With the autocross course open for business, the Crown Vic got to work under the hands of the team drivers. Meanwhile, I was having a discussion with the paddock wrangler, who was very concerned about the growing cacophony of rattles and squeaks coming from the Camaro’s LT-1. We came to an easy conclusion: the Camaro would be the last car to run the autocross course. This would give the wounded engine time to cool (and time for the 20W-50 oil to congeal a bit) and if things did go wrong, wouldn’t hold up anyone from making laps.
The Crown Victoria was a sweet dancing partner on the autocross. For a big car, it was very, very neutral: It didn’t really plow, it didn’t really hang out the tail, and was very receptive to inputs. I ran a respectable but mid-pack 36.4 second lap and parked. I watched as car after car ran the course, and the attrition that started to occur. The Dodge Neon that Suzy had been co-driving sprung a coolant leak. A BMW 540i’s ignition system packed it in so badly that the five-speed Bahn-burner couldn’t even be bump-started. And then, there was the Camaro.
I wasn’t the last car to go out, but during a quiet time I promised to make a “mild” run to save the car for the rallycross section and the wrangler agreed to let me out. With the engine now loudly protesting the decision, I rattled the Camaro up to the line and made what I thought was a gentle autocross pass. The car drove out of there in one piece, but the rattling was quickly overtaking the dual pipes in volume. How this thing was still alive was beyond me. It was obvious that the 350 was boring itself out (or hammering the hell out of the cylinder walls) but it was still moving well. I parked the car, pleaded to let the T-tops come off so I didn’t have to do F-body yoga to get in and out of the machine, and bid my time for a bit…until the second lull in the action. Then, I just HAD to go out one more time:
The noise was biblical, but up until the very last second the LT-1 was pulling like a freight train. But when I made the transition from the left sweeper to the right-hander, the whole car bucked and the internals of the self-boring 5.7 finally saw air through the hole punched out of the passenger-side of the block. It puked everything, everywhere. Looking at the video, all I can say is that I got the car off the course as fast as I could, keeping what happened on-track to a minimum and leaving the sea of coolant and heavy-duty oil in a car-shaped puddle off of the course. My apologies to the last six drivers who had to wait while NCM track staff used up a ton of kitty litter to clean that mess. We pushed the Camaro off into the grass, never to be heard from again.
Crown Victoria: Ready for more! Bring it on!
Camaro: Well…shit. Rest in Pieces, 1994-2017.
Finally, with the sun starting to make it’s descent towards the horizon, we come to the rallycross. By this time there were still plenty of players in the game, with only the non-starting BMW and the utterly dead Camaro out of contention. The rallycross course was narrow, had a couple of potential sections where oil pans were potentially in danger, and of course, there is the challenge of making hot garbage cars dance on grass and dirt. Smaller, front-drive cars did well here, while rear-drivers, with notable exception of the lone Chevette, wallowed a bit. After watching a Nissan Sentra lay down a 35 second lap in the grass, I piloted the Crown Victoria to a 39.8 lap that was less about speed and more about hanging the tail out in a big barge on the dirt and vacated the car, leaving the other drivers to have their fun. The Vicky soaked up the bumps and dug into the dirt nicely, especially as the grass gave way to churned-up topsoil. A 2000s Ford Taurus broke it’s front end badly enough that a welder had to be brought out for repairs, but was back out in the grass a short time later with no trouble whatsoever.
Crown Victoria: Still running, ready for the next round in January!
Camaro: Toby is keeping the tires, I sold the remains off for $100. No, really!
So, what was the King Of The Heap race all about? Fun, that’s what. It was a bunch of folks with useable machines having an adventure with them. The day turned out to be gorgeous, but KOTH races are going to be run in whatever the weather is that day. Rain, sleet, inch-thick ice…whatever. There are three more event dates coming up, and if there’s an open seat you bet your ass that I’ll be first in line to claim it. People were laughing, cheering each other on, pushing dead cars around in the hopes that the engine would fire. There was power sliding, tire smoke, engine smoke, and the sounds of everything from a dying 1JZ with a hater pipe and a two-step to a hopped up Hyundai Sonata. A day filled with laughter, friends, and cars being pushed far past their limits is always a great day. If you want to join in on the fun, CLICK HERE to check out the next upcoming date!