Kevin Helms was hungry for a championship when he arrived at the Mid-Ohio Sport Car Course. With multiple previous championship podium finishes but no victories, he was at the 2012 NASA Championships for one reason: to win. Helms, and his staff at Hondaworks, labored tirelessly to prepare the car and hoped everything would go smoothly at the track to give Kevin a solid chance to come home the 2012 Honda Challenge 1 champion. Unfortunately a loose oil-cooler line had other plans for Helms. During a qualifying race Thursday, Helms was leading, and everything was going to plan when an oil line came loose, spilled oil on the track under his tires and sent him careening hood-first into the guardrail. Helms was unhurt in the collision, but the unibody in his 1999 Honda Civic hatchback was done. It was only Thursday and his chances for a championship title were wadded up in a ball of twisted Honda Civic.
Helms hung around the track, helping other Honda drivers with their efforts, performing everything from engine work to welding. Eric Olson, a customer of Hondaworks, suggested Helms drive his Type R Integra in the race. The only problem was that the car was located about 9 hours away. Two very long road trips later, the team had a car to run for Saturday’s race. However, the intake manifold was illegal for H1 and they would need to install a different one before the race.
The team worked late, suffering through some ugly Ohio weather while the white Acura Integra sat in the muddy paddock grass, but Hondaworks got the car ready in time. After practice, Helms said the car was solid, but not as fast as his Civic. He was happy to get the chance to race but still disappointed that he wouldn’t be driving his own car, which, in his own words, “Would have guaranteed me the Championship.” Meanwhile, across the pits, 2011 NASA Honda Challenge 1 champion Jonathan Meris had been busy trying to overcome a few hardships of his own. Meris, who finished just ahead of Helms the previous year, had sold his championship-winning Acura Integra before he decided to come back to the Championships to defend his title. When he made that decision, Meris, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., realized he would need a new racecar. And fast.
So he decided to build another blue Integra. The build wasn’t coming along quite as quickly as it probably should have, and when it was time to leave for Ohio, he had a freshly painted shell of an Integra with a cage welded in and an engine mounted under the hood. The rest of the car was incomplete. Meris, along with his crew, Anthony Samonte and Enrico Cruz, began the lengthy tow from California to Ohio on Monday night at about 10 p.m.
They stopped at a random shop in Iowa and welded the exhaust on the car. They also found an alignment shop in Iowa where they could put a few suspension components on the car and get it aligned. Then they continued on to Ohio, but during the late night hours, they fell asleep while driving and crashed the truck and trailer into a ditch on a toll road near Toledo. The trailer suffered minor damage but was still operable. The half-built 1994 Integra seemed fine in the trailer, so they continued on to Ohio.
Once they got to the track, they pulled their tools and car into garage two and got to work. The car had a long way to go, and it would still have to pass tech inspection before it could hit the track. They worked on the car through the first Honda Challenge qualifying race, the second qualifying race and all practice sessions. Competitors and friends came by to help with the build. Because it was taking so long to get the car done, Meris missed every opportunity to get the car onto the track at Mid-Ohio.
Saturday morning, the day of the race, the crew continued to piece the car together. The Honda Challenge race started at 12:25 p.m. At 11:50 a.m., the car was on jack stands, with no wheels, and the brakes were still being bled. At 12:00 the car didn’t have a single sticker on it, no car numbers or any of the required NASA decals. At 12:10 the car didn’t have a steering wheel or a radio antenna. Shawn Sampson from Sampson Racing Communications showed up and installed one while the crew slapped on the stickers. Meris jumped into his driving suit.
At 12:15, the grid whistle was blowing. Meris slid into the driver seat and drove the car to grid. He was about to enter the track without ever having taken a single corner in the car. The crew didn’t know where to set the shocks or the rear sway bar adjustments. They put every setting in the middle and hoped for the best. While the car was on grid for about five seconds before the field was sent on track, crew members were peeling the backing off Toyo Tire stickers to put on the front fenders when suddenly the car drove away, the pace lap had begun, and Meris headed out on track. The car hadn’t been weighed or tested. Nobody was even sure the car would finish the first lap, let alone handle well. The crew kept their fingers crossed and waited for the start.
Meris and Helms started from the back of the grid for the championship race. Helms and the rest of the field left Meris behind as he struggled to get his fresh-as-could-be Acura going. Helms had gotten such a good start that he clawed his way up to second before an off at the Carousel put him back to third. As the race wore on, Meris worked his way through the field and began to reel in Helms for third. Helms and Meris diced with each other on track and the race was starting to look like a repeat battle from 2011. At the checkered flag, Meris was in second, with Helms in third. Meris was later disqualified for being some 40 pounds underweight, which bumped Helms to finish in second place for the second time in two years.
Let’s hope the 2012 Championships go a more smoothly for Meris and Helms.