Anyone familiar with racing has heard of the 24 Hours of Spa, a prestigious sports car race that takes place at the historic Spa Francorchamps raceway each summer.
However, there’s at least one other 24-hour race at Spa, and probably one you’ve never heard about, and it takes place in October. It’s less prestigious, but it attracts fields of more than 100 cars. The race features cars that are not sold in the United States, and one most Americans have probably never heard of. The C1 Racing Club’s 24-hour race at Spa is the most prized entry on the C1 Racing Club calendar, and yet, somehow, three NASA drivers managed not only to get a car built overseas, but also to register it and compete in the event.
Three NASA Northeast drivers on Team C1 USA, Jon Meyer, Amy Dilks and Joel Karns, and two pay-to-play drivers Richard Mills, an Aston Martin test driver and another American Richard Fults, started from dead last and managed to finish 61st overall and 24th in class out of a field of more than 100 cars. But we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves a bit.
“While catching up with friends at the Nurburgring in 2017, I asked about the Citroen C1 event that a couple guys had just completed. Both are respected Ring endurance racing pilots,” said Jon Meyer. “(My friend) Dale Lomas said that out of all of the series and events he has raced in, the Spa 24 Citroen series was the craziest and most rewarding. He spoke of studying the opponent for three laps to learn a possible weakness.”
The entire racing series centers on the Citroen C1, a platform mate of the Peugeot 107 and based on the Toyota Aygo. These are popular city cars, not Autobahn stormers, but they are cheap, and this series is designed to provide affordable endurance racing. The engine? Three cylinders. Horsepower? 68. MPG? 61-67, which at wide-open throttle isn’t much less because you can race for three hours on a 9.1-gallon tank of fuel.
It might not sound like much fun, but it’s important to point out that eight of the top 10 drivers at the 2018 Spa race were British Touring Car drivers, so there must be something to it, right?
You build a C1 in largely the same way you build a car to go racing here in the States. You find a donor and then convert it for racing. The interesting thing about a C1 is that you buy the conversion kit from the C1 Racing Club. The kit includes a roll cage, suspension parts, seats and mounts and belts, fire bottle, master kill switch, fog lamp, battery cable, shaved tires, FIA window film and tow straps.
There are some options such as a lap timer, strut brace, lighting and pedal extensions, but those are the extent of the modifications allowed. The tires are 155-55-14 Nankang AS1 tires, which have a 340 treadwear rating — 340! — and sell for £100 Sterling for a set of four that have been shaved to reduce wear and improve grip. Yeah, cheap.
“From the factory, they understeer,” said Joel Karns, one of the three NASA drivers that went to Spa. “It’s a really short wheelbase, but they understeer terribly, so you set them up so they rotate, and they’re really tail-happy, and that helps them turn. Our strategy before the race, when we were on our way to Spa, we stopped off in Belgium at this drift place where you can drift front-wheel-drive cars, and for half a day, we practiced driving these GTI drift cars. And that made a huge difference, just getting used to the rear end giving out on you. You just keep your vision and steer where you need to go.”
The NASA trio found their way to Spa the same way so many other good things in life happen: relationships. Meyer knew a guy who knew some guys who knew some guys, and together they made it happen. Meyer had known Dilks since she was in high school and they both knew Karns, so off they went. Around the paddock at Spa, Team C1 USA became known as “the Yanks.”
There were some hurdles to jump and expenses to shoulder in terms of licensing and being an American looking to race in Europe, but they all got through it. Their friends in Europe found a left-hand-drive donor car and had it built to spec with the kit from C1 Racing Club. They arrived at Spa early enough to get some laps in during the week with a track-day organization, so all that was left to do was qualify and race. Easy, right?
Not necessarily. Because they didn’t qualify properly, the team started from the back of the pack. Also, because they started on full-tread tires, they couldn’t work their way forward. The car was just too slow.
“What was happening is the tread blocks were blistering and falling off. I couldn’t go the same speed as the other cars could do in the corners,” Karns said. “We were terribly uncompetitive at the start of the race. There’s no radios allowed in the cars, so I couldn’t call in and say, “I can’t keep up.” When we were talking to other guys in the garage after I got out, they were aghast that we started out on full tread tires.”
Karns stayed out long enough that he wound up scrubbing the tires enough that they stopped blistering. Then, during the evening, rain began to fall, and the team started making up ground because their tires were better suited to wet conditions. Karns was having so much fun, he stayed out on track past the FIA stint limit of three hours, and his team was assessed a five-minute penalty. At that point, they were one of the fastest cars on the track.
Bear in mind of course that we are still talking about a three-cylinder, 68-horsepower car.
“It was similar to driving a sofa, because part of it is it just shouldn’t be a racecar, but it is, and it is so ridiculously fun,” Dilks said. “You do get Bilstein shocks as part of the C1 kit, but the shocks just kind of keep it from tipping over. The stock springs are like paper clips. It was similar to driving a rally car where you do have to take the lean into (consideration), and then you had to kind of prepare the car for every corner to really go fast. There was a lot of body roll. It was a slow car, but that made it more fun because you could go 10/10ths. It was slower than even a B Spec car … and so you have to keep your foot in it. Doing that by yourself, OK that doesn’t sound very fun, but there were 120 cars on track, and I think 60 of them were in our class.”
Dilks treated the event as prep for the 25 Hours of Thunderhill in December in which she drove with the Shift Up Now all women’s team.
Of course, getting the cars to develop any appreciable speed on the long straightaways at Spa required drafting and bump drafting. Karns said the team’s goal was to finish the race. Sure, they mixed it up in the corners, three and four wide, but while some other teams were crashing the kerbs, breaking things, having contact and going off, Team C1 USA finished its first C1 Racing Club race in 61st overall and 24th in class. Nothing on the car broke, and they only used two sets of tires.
“There were teams from France, Belgium, the UK, kind of everywhere,” Dilks said. “I didn’t encounter many issues, because everyone seemed pretty excited that a group of Americans decided to take interest in the series. But they’re car people, so they’re like, ‘Oh, you like the same stuff we like. Cool!’ And that’s how it went. There was kind of this universal, ‘Yeah, we’re all idiots for doing this. We’re all in it together.’”
And by the time you read this, Team C1 USA will be suiting up for the C1 Racing Club 24-hour race at Silverstone, in Northamptonshire, England on April 27 and 28. They’ll be using shaved tires this time, and no doubt starting from a better position. Look out, Silverstone. The Yanks are coming.
For information on the C1 Racing Club, click HERE.
Before the 24-hour race began, Team C1 USA got to take some slow parade laps at Spa. Driver Joel Karns took his phone along and grabbed a little footage of the European cars that race with the C1 Racing Club.
Team C1 USA stops in the middle of the night for a driver change and refueling.
When the race is over, the teams convene in the paddock at Spa to celebrate.