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Hitting the track for the first time

The ups and downs of a debuting racecar team

Race cars

Cars from Red Green Racing, left, and BNIB make their way around the track at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville. Wheelhouse Racing, a team made up of first-time racers from Oshawa and Whitby, didn’t get in quite as many laps as these two cars.

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

Five minutes is a long time in racing.

It’s especially long when that five turns into 30, 40 and upward.

Working under a bright springtime sun – enough to give this reporter his first sunburn of the year – members of

Race cars

Members of Wheelhouse Racing work to get their Mazda back on the track. This was the first time racing for the team of Oshawa and Whitby car enthusiasts.

Wheelhouse Racing were working to get their race car, a stripped down Mazda sedan, back on the track at Bowmanville’s Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, or Mosport as everyone calls it.

The tank that holds the coolant for the engine had ruptured, and the claims on the package of five-minute epoxy picked up after a mad dash to a hardware store was not living up to its name.

The team, made up of six drivers from Oshawa and Whitby, were making their racing debut that weekend, taking part in the ChumpCar Canada series. The series sees teams procure cars for less than $500, and get them in racing shape. Make sure your car has a roll cage, racing seat and harness, take out all the glass aside from the windshield and a few other items on the checklist, and you’re all set.

Six guys wanting to race

Matt Swanson says he and his friends have talked about building a racecar for years. The group, all car enthusiasts, was held back by the high budget that typically comes with the sport.

“We became aware of this particular race series that caters to more of a…lower budget. It puts an emphasis on track time and time in the driver’s seat, as compared to a lot of other pro series out there where you don’t get a lot of time on the track and it’s mega money to race and build a car and put together a team,” Swanson said in the days leading up to the weekend race. “We kind of just jumped in headfirst.”

The series – the first time ChumpCar had made its way north of the border – would see teams take their cars around Mosport for seven hours on back-to-back days. There will be other ChumpCar races at various tracks in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta throughout the summer, ranging from back-to-back seven-hour races like the one at Mosport to a 24-hour endurance race at the Castrol Raceway in Leduc, Alta.

The endurance racing of the ChumpCar series is inspired by the Le Mans series, a famous race in France that sees cars go up to speeds of more than 200 mph for 24 hours.

There is, of course, one big difference between the French race and the one Swanson and his friends would be taking part in.

“The only difference is they’re racing $1-million cars, and we’re racing $500 cars,” he says with a laugh.

So with that price point in mind, Swanson and his friends took the web to find the car that would take them to the checkered flag. One day while browsing Kijiji, they found what they were looking for: a Mazda 626.

While the mid-90s Japanese sedan may not come to mind for many when the word “racing” is mentioned, Swanson knew this was the car to go for.

“We thought it was a good platform because we were able to make it fairly lightweight and it’s got a good six-cylinder engine in it with a lot of torque and a lot of horsepower, so on a big, fast track list Mosport, it probably has a big advantage over the four-cylinder Honda Civics or even some of the BMWs and Porsches,” he says.

So the team went to work on stripping the car. The seats, gone. Interior panels, gone. Radio? Definitely gone.

By the time race day came around, all that was in the car was a racing seat, roll cage, fire extinguisher system and various gauges to help the team determine how well – or possibly how badly – the car was doing.

As for the rest of the car, Swanson says it was kept as close to production as possible.

“The upgrades come in the suspension and tires and wheels…that’s really how you make the car handle (better) and drive a lot faster,” he says, adding the team had managed to shed about 700 pounds of the car’s original 3,100-pound weight.

After taking the car out for a spin the weekend before at Cayuga Speedway outside of Hamilton, the team – now dubbed Wheelhouse Racing – was ready for the straights and bends of Mosport.

“We’ve definitely got a car that’s fast enough,” Swanson said days before the race. “We’ve never built a racecar, none of us are trained as mechanics and we’ve never done wheel-to-wheel racing before.”

Race weekend

The Saturday afternoon at Mosport was one of the warmer days – nearly 20 C – of the spring thus far. Cars ranging from stripped down 1980s BMWs to a Chrysler PT Cruiser with the roof from the front seats and back cut out to make room for a pipe coming straight up from the floor raced around the track, reaching speeds that would see a pretty hefty speeding ticket if it were on the 401.

The Wheelsport Racing team, however, was not on the track. They were in the parking lot. The Mazda wasn’t working.

The tank that holds the engine’s coolant had ruptured. No coolant meant the engine would overheat. That meant no racing until it was fixed.

The car had only been able to run for about an hour at the start of the race at 9 a.m. It was now past 2 p.m., and the car still wasn’t running. Epoxy picked up at a local hardware store – complete with “five minutes to dry!” claim – had clearly exceeded its professed timeframe.

It would be another hour before the team was able to get the car back out on the track. All in all, the team was able to put in 39 laps that day, well short of the leader – McKibbins Biohazard Racing – which put in 208.

An email sent to The Oshawa Express that night by Swanson said the team was going to be back the next day and stronger than before.

“We had everything up and running,” Swanson said a few days after the race. “We ran for a good three hours in the morning.”

The car was then taken off the track due to a familiar culprit: the ruptured coolant tank. But this time, the team came prepared.

“We knew how to fix it this time, and we were back on the track for the last couple hours of the afternoon,” he said. “We ran pretty strong all day. We actually ended up in the middle of the pack in our class. A little better than we thought (we’d do), all things considered.”

Getting back on the track

Having been car guys for quite some time, the weekend at Mosport will be far from the last time Wheelhouse Racing and its Mazda 626 take to the track. In fact, the team already has its number in for an upcoming ChumpCar Canada race at Calabogie Motorsports Park, about an hour’s drive – and that’s highway driving speed, not racing speed – southwest of Ottawa in June.

Racing in July and August is out of the cards – Swanson says two team members are expecting babies around that time – but hope to be back for the series finale in October at Mosport.

After that, Swanson says he hopes the team goes international.

“This summer, we’re going to get the car sorted out and maybe look at some trips down to the U.S.,” Swanson says, adding there are numerous ChumpCar races south of the border. “They race at all the famous racetracks – Watkins Glen, Daytona, Virginia Speedway. We have a couple on our bucket list that would be nice to get on to.”

Coming out of their first racing weekend, Swanson says he and his teammates learned a couple of important lessons they will be bringing into future lessons.

“The weak point seems to be the cooling system in that car. We’ve already got two extra spares,” Swanson says.

The other lesson? Five-minute epoxy does not dry in five minutes.