A One Lap of America diary from team Gas Monkey Garage
Gas Monkey Garage team-mates "Big" Chris Smith and Rob Neumann embarked on the journey of a lifetime a few short weeks ago – the One Lap of America. Behind the wheel of a heavily modified 2002 Porsche 911 GT2 (type 996) supported by PaddlUp, the pair undertook the gruelling challenge of traversing 3,500 miles in just seven days, making stops at some of the country's most iconic motorsport venues along the way.
Racing got underway on Saturday, 29 April from Waterford Estates Lodge before visiting Nashville Superspeedway Roval Course, Barber Motorsports Park and Heartland Park Grand Prix Course among others. The event concluded at the Tire Rack Skid Pad, Indiana on Saturday, 7 May.
We caught up with Chris once he had recovered from the event to see what it really takes to complete one of America's biggest and best road races, and we began with a bit of background on the challenges that driving a 20 year-old GT2 across 14 states presents.
"It was very much a 'he who dares rodders' situation"
"I had a one-off custom made Fabspeed exhaust fitted to this car, I've been an ambassador of their company for a couple of years and they said if you put those turbos on the car it's kind of like putting Boeing 747 engines on a Cessna, you aren't going to get any gain from it so we removed the old system so it's now a straight-through system with a cross pipe, it's literally off the turbos themselves so that's why it sounds so good. I think we recorded 98 decibels inside the cabin which I believe is louder than what Laguna Seca allows outside the car and it was 108 decibels outside at Nashville motor speedway so it's pretty loud. To chill out when I wasn't driving I was wearing ear defenders!
"It's tough because you're trying to give it your all on the track but you have no insurance on the circuit – I got a quote and they wanted nearly $20,000 for the week. This car doesn't have the clubsport package as factories aren't allowed to produce cars with cages in America, so when it's wet it tries to turn round on you in a straight line, it was very much a 'he who dares rodders' situation. I think we did really well considering, we were in front of a new GT3 RS which is a wicked handling car, it doesn't have turbos at the back like mine so it was a lot more nimble so for a 20 year-old car, I think we did well.
"We had suspension issues before the final day, so we had about three miles to get off the freeway at this small town in Indiana - Kokomo - and there were six shops that could do alignments, we went to all of them and five of them said they weren't insured for that. For the last one, I played the Gas Monkey card and fortunately, the owner of the business watched the show, there were about five other people having their cars done and every single tech dropped what they were doing to come and help so we were particularly lucky with that."
When discussing the competition aspects of the One Lap of America, the focus was very much on the car's limitations, owing to its lack of the clubsport package. Luckily, Rob Neumann was part of the Gas Monkey Garage squad in 2022 and he knows a thing or two about setting up a GT2.
"People say that dog owners are like their pets, my car is like my dog – he's very temperamental!"
"It was good to have Rob with us, he managed to set the car up better than any of us. He's actually got the same car so he's no stranger to a GT2. He's got his own Porsche shop as well so he really knows what he's doing with the set-up. I've never really got the set-up that I needed out of it and he managed to set the car up so it handled the best it ever has. It gave me more confidence, he also told me that I was leaving a little bit on the plate with my braking zones so I was braking later and trusting his set-up on the car. Instead of it pushing on at the front or the back end coming round, he got it to the point where it would give you an indication before it was too late because usually if these cars break out you have no time to save them, hence the 'widowmaker' nickname. That really helped us this year, it turned it into the car I've always wanted. In the dry, that reflected against the cars that were around us.
"In the wet, it was on a standard set-up on the first day, we did the wet skidpad and we finished about 77th so we were chasing the points for the rest of the week. After that we went down to Grissom Air Reserve Base which was just over an hour away and we did the autocross, I think I span my car on the second run - a little too much enthusiasm and aggression - and that was when the penny dropped for Rob, he could see how the car was reacting and then the third run after he set it up was the fastest time - it was like stepping into someone else's car! Before then it was so temperamental. People say that dog owners are like their pets, my car is like my dog – he's very temperamental!
"A lot of the top teams spent a day at each track and that's how they get the times they do. When people sit at home and look at the times they don't understand what goes into it. Those guys have three months of prep time in the car and experience on the tracks. I think there were two tracks that I've been to before this year. We just rolled in, one of the turbos had an issue with it so I fitted that onto the car the day before it left. We were data logging on the laptop on the freeway, I was emailing the files to my tuner in Chicago and liaising with him to make sure everything was good with fuel etc. People don't see that, they think you just get in the car and you're off to the next place and you have the radio on. There's a lot that goes into it, even the minor details. Even down to carrying cash around in case you get stopped at any point.
"I had never been to Barber Motorsports Park and all of it is blind but if you crash or put oil down you have to pay for the damage and they're charging about five figures for anything. So when you roll up and it's wet and you've never been there and the whole thing has walls either side of you, you don't know where you're going and you have a warm-up lap and then three hot laps, it's pretty daunting."
We also asked Chris to elaborate on the social side of the event and the temporary lifestyle that all of its competitors must endure for the week-long contest.
"My friends and I don't like to do that, it's frowned upon!"
"The road legs are worked out so that you can get from one track to the other at the speed limit and you might get a few hours of sleep. My friends and I don't like to do that, it's frowned upon! We'll stop and have a decent dinner if we can and push on to hopefully get in between 10 and 12 at night. It was Cinco de Mayo so we went and had a Mexican and a margarita or two one night. One day just blends into the next though and by day four you don't know where you are, what states you're going through, you just have Waze, and your radar and laser equipment, at that point you're just trying to get through it because you do get a certain amount of fatigue.
"You're up at 05:30, you're out of the door for 06:00 then you grab a coffee and head to the track, and then you do a track walk and you haven't had breakfast at that point. One day just rolls into the next. So in the morning I'd grab a bottle of water and chuck some Pedialyte into it on the track walk – which is something mums give to their kids to keep them hydrated."
We then moved on to the event itself, its illustrious history and how it has changed in the 12-year period that Chris has been taking part. The tracks chosen for the event have been a topic of discussion in recent years, with many larger, faster circuits being exchanged for smaller, more technical driving challenges. As a concern that was raised by several of the competitors this year, it was an unavoidable talking point.
"It's quite difficult to put down 700 rear-wheel horsepower on an autocross track!"
"The One Lap of America has an incredible history, it's a derivative of the original Cannonball Run and the original organiser was Brock Yates, for those that don't know he was actually in the film! This is the ninth time I've competed, the first time was 12 years ago, I knew Brock back then and we had a chat and a picture or two. Unfortunately, he had advanced Alzheimers and he passed on a few years ago so his son Brock Yates Jr. organises the event now. Admittedly, it's more low-key, it's not racing across the states so the points are all decided on the track.
"The core event itself has pretty much stayed the same. In 2010 I did it with Mike Musto who runs the media at Hemmings and we did it in his 1968 Dodge Charger RT restomod, its basically got a hot 440 motor and it had no air conditioning. I remember going through Philadelphia and it was like 106 degrees outside, the car was gloss black, it was bumper to bumper in traffic and we were just melting inside. There wasn't enough Pedialyte sachets to keep us going! We were in the vintage category and we came second to an optima 1969 Camaro LS7, $250,000 car so we did really well.
"Interesting to note at the start of the event, they have to go through all of your safety equipment, I pulled off from a track and I saw Mike running towards me yelling like he had rabies, I had popped the power steering hose off inadvertently with high RPM and one of the headers had sparked a flame, he found the extinguisher quickly so there was no damage, it was all done and dusted in a couple of seconds luckily.
"The event itself has changed in one respect, we used to run a lot faster tracks, Road America, Road Atlanta, and Brainerd Motorsports Park which has the longest straight on any American track and when you come back onto the start-finish you join the drag strip which has loads of VHT down so it sticks to you a lot. So that has a 3/4 mile straight and at the end, it banks right with no guard rail so you're doing 165mph and tap the brakes and take a leap of faith hoping the car will go around it.
"We just don't seem to run those kinds of tracks any more which was one of my quips with the event because my friends and I run high-power cars and they aren't really built for autocross. It's quite difficult to put down 700 rear-wheel horsepower on an autocross track! So a lot of the Caymans, M3s, those kinds of cars get the best out of the event whereas we used to get our fair crack on the bigger tracks and claw some points back, but now it seems to be pretty one-sided. A lot of people are now looking to do other things because of that and I think the tracks they visit will affect my decision on if I do it or not next year.
"You put your heart and soul into the car, you're away from home for eight days and the costs are big, I probably put another 40 grand into the car this year. It would be nice if it took a step back five or six years. It's still one of the country's best events of this kind but it's not what it once was because the tracks are becoming slower and slower."
Before we finished our chat with Chris, he had one more story to share with us and it was a great way of highlighting the team spirit and camaraderie running through the veins of this spectacular, one-of-a-kind event.
"I just gave the woman at the toll booth a twenty and said hold the cop up for as long as possible."
"There's a guy that runs each year in a black Turbo S with a phoenix on the hood like a smokey and the bandit kind of thing. His name is Scott Coors from the Coors beer family. I've known him for years, he's a really good guy. Anyway we pulled out of Hallett Motor Racing Circuit and there was a cop about half a mile away but he shot up behind us. We pulled down onto the tollway at about 40mph, the indicated speed limit and you got straight to a toll booth, Scott managed to get in between the cop and us and he called me and said "I just gave the woman at the toll booth a twenty and said hold the cop up for as long as possible."
"It went from five lanes down to one lane in a contraflow immediately, I remember the speed limit was 55mph and he said he did like 38mph all the way through it for six miles and he called us and said just 'go go go!' so we pushed pretty hard for about seven minutes and we never saw that cop again, so we bought Scott a beer that night! A great bit of camaraderie that helps forge friendships. I met a lot of these guys at these events and we're lifelong friends now and that's why this is still the premier event in America."