I’m going to start this story by telling you the ending first. Long story short: we won the 2019 NASA Honda Challenge 4 National Championship at Mid-Ohio, presented by Toyo Tires. When I say “we” I’m referring to Double Nickel Nine Motorsports because even though I was in the driver’s seat smashing on the gas pedal when the checkered flag flew in Ohio, I didn’t singlehandedly win the championship. The team won, I’m just a small part of it.
What made it special wasn’t just that our car crossed the line First. It was that both of our team cars crossed the line First and Second, marking the fourth consecutive year where our blue and orange Acura Integras both finished on the podium at NASA’s biggest Honda Challenge race in the country.
That four-year accomplishment is what we refer to as “The Streak.” Our streak isn’t the story of a professional racing team with massive budgets and unlimited resources. This is the story of a few autocrossers who got together and built an Integra for the 24 Hours of LeMons and later moved on to NASA Honda Challenge, where we won the big show — four times in a row.
After we won our latest Nationals, my teammate Keith and I jumped up and down on the podium and ceremoniously sprayed champagne everywhere for the fourth time in a row now. It is the crowning moment as a racecar driver at the National Championships: laughing with the Toyo Tires girls, picking up some hardware for the trophy case, and spraying champagne. That moment is the Instagram shot.
But, just like a lot of things on social media that aren’t aligned with reality, spraying champagne amongst beautiful trophy girls isn’t the actuality of racing; it is merely a few seconds of flying alcohol and then it’s over. The rough truth about racing is it’s hard work, sacrifice, business, dedication, wrench time, risk, and tough lessons learned.
Here are some of the “behind the scenes” of what it takes to win and keep our streak going for four years. It has absolutely nothing to do with knowing how to pop the cork on a champagne bottle. Nobody on this team races for a living or works on cars for a living. Everyone at DNN Motorsports has a real non-automotive-related job, and nobody is paid. The team just enjoys hanging out together, partying, and figuring out how to kick anyone else’s ass who shows up in our class. Here is how we do it.
Lesson One: Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. When you are racing at the top level, you have to bring the right gear, which means your car has to “want for nothing.” We continually have lists of improvements we would like to do to our Integras. Budget, time, and testing determines whether or not we improve on a car during a regional season.
Before we go to the Nationals, we want our car to have everything it needs, no matter how small the detail. This year we swapped out our lug nuts for Skunk2 Racing units to save a few ounces of rotational mass. We also began to replace steel bolts with titanium hardware under the hood (at great expense) to move more of the car’s required minimum weight (2,500 pounds) to the back of the vehicle for better balance.
To ensure we had our cars precisely at minimum weight for qualifying, we started weighing fuel and adding small 2.5-pound weights of ballast. When someone on our team realized NASA rules indicate that ballast has to be a minimum of 5 pounds, we searched the internet until we found 5-pound, 7.5-pound, and 10-pound weights that we could quickly swap back and forth to get a 2.5-pound adjustment and still be NASA legal.
Was it worth it? One of our cars hit the scales after the race at 2,502 pounds. You could argue that all of our playing around with weight probably added up to a bowel movement after a trip to McDonald’s. However, what we did with weight is an example of the level of detail we take to car preparation in combination with the intricate understanding of NASA rules. This is something we learned back in our autocross days racing in the Stock class — when you had to do the most you could with limited modifications.
We did not take a “set it and forget it” mindset. We continually tried to improve the cars during the entire championship weekend. After we set the fastest lap of the weekend and captured the pole position, we immediately put the car up on four jack stands and checked every bolt.
We even checked the alignment with Smart Strings and Smart Camber before and after every session to ensure nothing on the car changed. We used pyrometers and digital tire gauges to make sure our tires were working at optimal levels. At the Nationals, nothing is left to chance when it comes to the car. We triple checked everything because our motto at the event was “Refuse to lose.”
Summary of car preparation: Make sure the car is perfect, and then make sure again.
Not only does the car need to be in perfect shape, so does the driver, both mentally and physically. For the mental game, I spent the time and resources to fly to Ohio a few weeks before the Nationals to attend The School at Mid-Ohio, which gave me inside knowledge of the track. Being a team from California, we had never been around Mid-Ohio, and the National Championships is not the weekend to “learn” a new track.
The instructors at the school gave me the confidence I needed, but I didn’t stop there. I went back to California and logged time on my partner’s VR driving simulator and ran Mid-Ohio on iRacing over and over again until I could draw the track to scale on a piece of paper with my eyes closed. When I wasn’t doing that, I continually played with a drag racing Christmas tree app on my phone to hone my reaction times for the standing starts in Honda Challenge.
Physical fitness was something I have shamefully ignored for many seasons of racing. I started listening to podcasts of professional racing drivers and began friending some of them on social media. I wondered what they were doing that I wasn’t.
One driver I have always looked up to was Johannes van Overbeek because he and I are the same age, are both from a similar part of California, and he has been to the real 24 Hours of LeMans (where I have only been to the 24 Hours of LeMons). He has won the 24 Hours of Daytona overall and is respected as being super-fast and calculating behind the wheel. What I noticed was every Instagram photo of this guy is him eating kale or riding his bicycle over 100 miles. Meanwhile, I was sucking down Big Macs and driving a beat-up truck to Pick and Pull to find more cheap Integra parts.
I decided I needed to prioritize my physical wellness and joined Orange Theory Fitness. I crushed the 5 a.m. workouts five days a week for eight months straight heading to the Nationals in 2019. I’ve won races as a fat dude, and I’ve won races when I was in shape — it was easier when I was fit. I found myself making less small mistakes (like missed shifts) late in races.
Summary of Driver Preparation: Get your fat ass in a gym, and don’t wait until two weeks before the race to do it. Ain’t gonna work.
Data Doesn’t Lie
Racecar drivers are liars — period. If you ask one if they put a wheel off on the exit of Turn 1, they will tell you they didn’t. When you are pulling gravel out of the tire bead, they will still deny going off track. Video and telemetry take away this driver “I didn’t do it” bologna.
My crew chief Stephen Young is my conscious. He looks at the Racepak data and tells me, “You are leaving two feet on the right side at the entrance to Turn 14.” Instead of arguing with him and saying things like, “Yeah, there is a friggin’ concrete barrier there, I’m just leaving a few inches for safety,” I just go out the next lap and try to grind down my right side rearview mirror on the concrete barrier. Thus, giving myself a larger radius through Turn 14 and getting a faster lap. Thank you, Stephen.
Summary of Data: If you have it, use it. Knowledge is power.
The eyes in the sky separate the difference between our team and other teams. We work hard to ensure our spotters are in the right positions to see as much of the track as possible. When we got to Mid-Ohio and saw how far of a jog it would be to get from the paddock to a good spotting location, we went to Walmart and bought a $70 kid’s BMX bike, so our guys could get where they needed to be on time.
As a driver, I trust my spotter 100 percent. If they say it’s clear, I go. If they start yelling, “Yellow flag!”, then I back off from a pass to ensure I don’t get disqualified. Our spotters have saved the day thousands of times. We couldn’t do it without them.
Summary of Spotters: Get some good radios, and get them somewhere high. They are your overwatch.
Driving (With Aggression)
To enjoy the ultimate prize, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price: everything. Drive the car as if someone else’s body is inside it. Drive it as if somebody else will be paying to fix it. If it is a 45-minute race, the car only needs to last 45 minutes and one second. Do whatever needs to be done to get out front early and crush the souls of your competition.
Summary of Driving with Aggression: Go like hell — as if there is no tomorrow.
Okay, now that you are driving around the track like a madman (because I just told you to), forget all that, and be extremely intelligent on track. Make smart passes. Racing is a chess game. Use strategy. Manage your tires. Manage your fuel. Watch your gauges. Watch for yellow flags. Don’t take any risks that will eliminate you from the race or get you disqualified. Be smart.
New Summary of Driving With Aggression: Go like hell — as smartly and safely as you can to ensure you finish the race.
Confusing? Yes. Racing is a balance between risk and reward at 100 miles an hour, with 400 decisions to make every 50 feet.
Make Sure You Are Legal
At the 2019 NASA National Championships, our car was pulled into impound for some extra attention. This is not new for our team. When you win a lot, you get inspected a lot. I don’t sweat it because we work very hard to bring a 100-percent legal Honda Challenge car to the track.
The NASA tech inspectors looked over our ECU to make sure it was stock, and an alternate chip was not added (per Honda Challenge 4 rules). Then, they made us unplug the ECU and then attempted to start the car. If the car started, it would tell them we had a “different” and “hidden” ECU running the engine. We weren’t worried about it. With the ECU unplugged, our car wouldn’t start, and we were able to keep our fourth championship. Time to party!
Summary of Make Sure You Area Legal: Just be legal, and you are good. Simple as that.
Bringing It All Together
The reality is racing isn’t just spraying champagne and looking cool with the podium girls, it is a ton of hard work. It is a team sport that requires lots of support to be successful. You can’t do everything yourself. To win a National Championship, your car has to be prepped to the max. You, as the driver, have to be physically and mentally ready for hardship. You have to use data to improve yourself and the car during the weekend. You have to have good spotters in good positions and trust what they are telling you. You have to drive like a crazy person and be smart behind the wheel to finish for the win. And, when it is all said and done, your car has to pass impound, which means you need to race a legal car. If you and your friends can do all that, then you just might be National Champions.
Below is a video of Double Nickel Nine’s origin story and our championship “Streak,” which is currently four-years strong. The team rocks the motto, “Wrench. Race. Win. Repeat.” And this video shows why. Enjoy.
Photos courtesy of Brett Becker, Downforce Media, Stephen Young, and Herb Lopez.