Wed Nov 13 2013 15:55:42 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)
Screaming around corners on a crisp early November afternoon at Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Speedway is racing champion Donny Groff's idea of a good time.
But his experience racing is a bit different from that of drivers on major racing circuits. The crowd was far smaller, his sponsors more obscure and his vehicle's top speed and horsepower a fraction of those at Daytona or Indianapolis. But at least he had plenty of room for groceries—he was racing a minivan.
"The problem with racing is it's very expensive to get into, so we're always looking for entry-level categories," says Todd Fisher, who owns the track.
All sorts of so-called junk cars are repurposed for weekend races at smaller venues such as his, but some cars have become harder to get. The federal "Cash for Clunkers" program culled the supply of old, heavy eight-cylinder vehicles that were a mainstay at Susquehanna. For racers on a budget, minivans are often the cheapest vehicles still running.
"Nobody wants to buy a used minivan—they're not cool," says Mr. Fisher.
The owner of an automotive scrap business, Mr. Groff sees no shortage of suitable vehicles.
"There are kazillions of 'em out there. Back in the 1990s, they just sold so many."
After a chance visit to Susquehanna Speedway, where he watched a minivan race, Mr. Groff decided to get in on the act with a 1992 Chevrolet Lumina APV. He then graduated to an 1989 Plymouth Grand Voyager in his second racing season and finally the 1994 Plymouth Voyager with 199,000 miles on the odometer that he used this season to become co-champion of the circuit.
Minivans are quirky to handle, and that is a part of their appeal. At the November race, they wobbled and skidded sideways while cornering. Top speed on straightaways was about 73 miles an hour.
"It kind of looks out of control, but they're fairly safe," says Daryl Sipe, a 39-year-old recycler from Manchester, Pa., who pioneered the category years ago.
They are safe enough, he thinks, that he lets his 19-year-old son Zakari Kitner, this year's minivan co-champion, race them. But the young man's career hasn't been incident-free. He has had two major accidents, he says, and "four or five" minor ones. During the first lap of Mr. Kitner's very first practice run, a car flipped over in front of him.
Mr. Fisher doesn't permit racers to install any special equipment besides harnesses for safety. "If I allowed them to put on racing tires, they'd probably go 100 miles an hour and someone would get hurt," he says.
But others have pushed vans' technical boundaries. Paul Smith, who owns a trailer business in Seneca, Ill., loves tinkering with cars and decided to turn a 1989 Dodge Caravan into a drag racer several years ago. He managed to do a quarter mile in 12 seconds, hitting a scorching 106 mph.
"We'd take the van, go to the track, outrun a [Nissan] 280Z in a drag race and then carry home a washing machine from Best Buy on the way back," he says.
Unlike vans that race on an oval track, his vehicle was meant only to go in a straight line. It cost about $4,000 in parts on top of the $800 he paid for the minivan itself.
Even manufacturers, who take pains to stress vans' safety, occasionally get in on the act. Employees at Honda's U.S. subsidiary turned an Odyssey into a "Honda Monster Family Van" sporting about 500 horsepower. A version driven by French professional driver Simon Pagenaud scored second place in the exhibition category at this past summer's Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
For Mr. Pagenaud, who has won millions on the IndyCar circuit, that race was a sideshow. By contrast, the prize money earned by racers in rural Pennsylvania only defrays part of their hobby's cost. Most couldn't afford more mainstream categories.
"It's about the cheapest thing you can do in racing," says John Kitner, a 31-year-old school custodian who came in second in November's race, winning $50.
The races push the four-cylinder vans to their limits, as could be seen in November when Tom Hartman set a new track record for a 15-lap, 6-mile minivan race. As he accepted first prize, a $100 check, steam billowed out from under his hood.
Living in an area where auto racing is hugely popular, minivan champions sometimes leave their friends underwhelmed with their exploits.
"When you tell 'em, their basic reaction is: 'You race what?' " says Mr. Sipe.
He has since moved on to other divisions. Asked to describe how racing a minivan differs from sportier vehicles, most current drivers are at a loss for words—they haven't driven anything else on a track. A few have a basis for comparison though. Racetrack announcer Pete Haines, now 63 years old, did some professional racing of his own 40 years ago. "I ran out of money, talent and technical ability real quick," he says.
But he decided to give minivans a shot last year, saying it was "on his bucket list."
The race started well and he was impressed with how briskly the van moved. "I thought I was flying until [co-champions] Donny and Zak flew by me! I decided I was a better announcer than racer," he says.
His minivan, a 1995 Dodge Caravan, is still at it, though. Denise Alexander of Lititz, Pa., the only woman on the circuit, was persuaded to give it a try. Speaking after her second race ever—she finished last—the 28-year-old rookie was ready for another adrenaline rush. Her next stop after the track was to participate in a roller derby. She says people underestimate the speeds that can be achieved in a minivan. "They're not just for soccer moms," she says.