Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Q&A with Tetanus Racing's Chris Champion and Mary Harris

Tetanus Racing's Dodge Neon has seen thousands of miles on-track, several different themes, a few Top 10 finishes, and a hell of a lot of fun in its long second life as an endurance racer in the Gulf Region. (Murilee Martin photo)

If the racing gods ever sought a car to prove that outward appearance means very little with regard to on-track success, Houston's Tetanus Racing could present a strong case to the deities with its ceaselessly beaten first-generation Dodge Neon. Having long ago eclipsed a dozen races with its original engine block, the car's lockjaw-laden patina leaves no doubt that looks mean little when talking about long-lasting endurance racers.

While Tetanus has never won a race outright, they've steadily improved from their status as one of many green teams in the Gulf Region to a class-act who have learned through five 24 Hours of LeMons' seasons how to assemble a race. At the May 2012 North Dallas Hooptie race at Eagles Canyon Raceway in Decatur (TX), Tetanus put both of their entries--the venerable Neon and an as-fickle-as-you-think-it-would-be Porsche 944--into the Top 10 of the 24-hour race while simultaneously helping to propel epic vacationer Mike Kimball to a Class C win in his 1966 Volkswagen Beetle. [Kimball towed the Scrubbing Bubbles-themed Bug from Sacramento to Dallas to Denver for races on consecutive weekends...with a VW Vanagon.]

At the helm of Tetanus Racing are husband-and-wife duo Chris Champion and Mary Harris, the former a dabbler in and fan of motorsports prior to finding LeMons and the latter a medical doctor who fell in love with the spectacle of LeMons while attending the team's first race and also studying for her board certification. Joining them have been a sizable extended family that comprises Tetanus Racing, which may have included (thus far) any or all of the following: Andy Thor-Sout, Shauna Thor-Stout, Dan Knight, Mike Knierien, Chuck Keeton, Joe Smith, Jimmy Richeson, Bryan Fitch, Sam Miller, Anton Lovett, Dave Kirschke, Jim Tomlinson, Steve Osborne, Brian Dawson, Dave Piazza, Juan Gutierrez, Ramon Gutierrez Sr., Ramon Gutierrez Jr, Ali Forman, Bruce Vanderzyde, and Graham Helfrick. The team also occasionally entertain arrive-and-drive participants (such as automotive journalist Jack Baruth) and Champion and Harris make periodic arrive-and-drive vacations of their own.

The Rusty Hub caught up with Champion and Harris--Tetanus Racing's dynamic duo--who had recently returned home after a busy few weeks that included a 24-hour race in Dallas, an arrive-and-drive in Colorado, and an overseas vacation that was, in part, a pilgramage to some quaint little race in France. In the course of the interview, we learned all about marriage and racing, judgment, the 944's pitfalls, and the team's future plans, not to mention a rare glimpse at "Speedycop the Man."

The Rusty Hub: You'd never really raced before LeMons, so how did you get into it?

Chris Champion: Well, although I'd never done any racing, I was quite the gearhead and a fan and that rubbed off on the early years of our dating and marriage with Mary. I think I just really awakened a latent automotive fandom in her.

Mary Harris: Well, I'll tell my half after you tell how you got dragged into it...

Chris: I always managed to come up with an excuse why I wasn't doing motorsports. I did the random autocross here and there, had friends doing NASA, but I was always just leery of the cost. When LeMons in 2008 said they were going to do Houston, my friend Chuck [Keeton] called me up and said, "Listen, this is our opportunity. You said you wanted to do motorsports; here's the cheapest way we're going to get to do it."

So I went to Mary and said, "Listen, I want to do this, but it's going to be a lot of money for a helmet and everything." And god love her, she looked at me and goes, "You can't do this if you're only going to do one of them. If you're going to spend that much money on a helmet and everything, you have to do more than one."

Mary: It can't be one of those hobbies that one or the other of us picks up and we buy all the crap and then we do it for the equivalent of one race and we put it down because we get bored. That can't happen.

Chris: So I went whole-hog into it and, despite having a hurricane happen during our race prep for that first race in Houston 2008, my friends and I had a blast with the Neon. I was completely hooked.

Mary: And while they were building the car, I was studying for my pediatric Boards because I am not the wife of a doctor, I am actually a doctor.

The Rusty Hub: Right.

Mary: They would be out in the garage doing mysterious things to the Neon and I would be in the kitchen studying for this major test. And I'd take a break, cook dinner, then take it out to the guys. They'd eat and I'd shoot the breeze for a minute and then go back in.

Their first race was the week before my Board exam happened so I had my lawn chair and I had my study books and I'm watching the Neon circulate and about halfway through Day Two, I was like: "I. MUST. DO. THIS."

The deal I made with myself was if I'm going to do it, I can't just drive; I can't be like "that girlfriend" or whatever. Since then, I've made it a point to at least make myself useful and now I've become a pretty decently handy person in the garage, but I did not start that way. So not only did I not know how to drive a race car, I did not know how to do something like, oh, I don't know...take the tires off. I'm much better at that now.

Early themes of the Tetanus Racing played up the sheer amount of surface rust on the car. For at least one early race, the team tow vehicle was a former transit bus, which earned notoriety as the official "Pace Bus" at LeMons' MSR race in 2009.(Tetanus Racing photo)

The Rusty Hub: Fair enough. So what's it like running a race team with your spouse?

Mary: [Laughs maniacally]

Chris: It gets interesting on occasion. For a while there, we would kind of alternate who would be the captain for a given weekend. These days, it's much more that specialist roles have developed, I think. A lot of the time, I'll handle a lot more of the preparation for the race and a lot more of the technical issues while we're there. But Mary has proven better at running the schedule and running the drivers, making sure that Person A fits into Seat B at Time C. I just kind of stay out of the way for a lot of that. So there's been some specialization, but honestly, I think it's the best way for us. It's not something that we have to work around; it's something we're doing together. It's not negotiations about, "Hey honey, can I go do a race?" because she's going to be all over it also.

Mary: If anything, I want to do more racing, in terms of LeMons than he does. He tends to be the one who pulls back and says, "You know, we should probably think about the whole thing called 'money' and make sure we have some."

Some specialization is the way Chris sees it; I see it...well, no, I guess that's right. I'm good at some things and he's good at other things. My job does not make me very available through some of the race prep so he's definitely taken over that.

But once we're trackside, for me, team management feels very much like my job, only more...well, different fun. It's kind of like a slow Code in the ER; you can sort of see the catastrophe coming and then you manage around it. And my job's also trained me: "What can we do with what we have right now?" So I find myself making a lot of decisions that are in the moment--not because Chris can't or won't--because that's what I do. It's fun.

The Rusty Hub: Recently, you guys put two cars in the Top 10 of a 24-hour race. Can you talk a little bit about that race?

Mary: Sure, because that was our third night race, our second 24...

Chris: Our third 24. Don't forget Nelson Ledges.

Mary: Well, I was saying with our car...

Chris: The funny thing is that we achieved seventh place with one car, ninth place with another and we were actually concentrating most of our efforts on a third car because we had teamed up with Team -Ing With Bad Ideas with Mike [Kimball]--CrazyMike [as he's known in the LeMons world]--and the Scrubbing Bubbles '66 Volkswagen. So we smooshed together, I think, five different teams in three cars for that full 24-hour race. We had a drivers' meeting with everybody Saturday morning and said, "Which do we really want to focus our efforts on?" and we thought our best hope for a class win was to concentrate with the Beetle.

So we achieved the seventh and the tenth with the Neon and the 944 almost despite ourselves because we were making more effort on getting a Class C victory with the Beetle, which we did by 80-something laps.

Mary: Hindsight being 20/20, if we had decided to be very "racy" with either the Neon or the 944, both of those cars probably would have been two cars up from where they actually finished. We did a lot of things sort of lazy. To answer the gist of your question, which is "How did we get the cars to run that long and that consistently?" it's all in the car prep. We are not Spank or Speedycop; we do a lot of work before the race starts.

At Eagles Canyon Raceway in 2012, Tetanus ran both its Neon and its Porsche 944 and teamed with Mike Kimball's Scrubbing Bubbles-themed '66 VW Bug. Above is what may be a doctoral thesis on managing resources for 72 hours of seat time in an endurance race, as scrawled on the windshield of Kimball's Vanagon/tow vehicle. (Tetanus Racing photo)

The Rusty Hub: [Laughs]

Mary: And we don't have their fame or their ingenuity, but at the same time, if you need, say, an oil change, we can do that. We started six or eight weeks before the race and went through our checklist and just made sure that both cars ran as well as they could.

Chris: Also, if you stack a team with that many really experienced LeMons and ChumpCar people and that many team captains, it gets really easy. We had two complete newbies--two guys who had never done wheel-to-wheel racing at all until that race--but then the rest of the team was all people who had done numerous races. When you have a good, experienced batch of drivers, there is no discussion about why something needs to happen; everyone knows. It's all just a question of deciding how and when. If you want to do well in a long-format race, just poach every single team captain you can find.

Mary: And then let them know that they're not team captain anymore. [Laughs]

The Rusty Hub: From the beginning, how much have you guys improved what you do, not just in terms of preparation, but also in terms of driving ability?

Mary: [Laughs] Do you really want an honest answer? Because it might scare the people who raced with us in 2008 and 2009.

Chris: We're still pretty slow; we've both gotten substantially faster than we once were, but as I said at one earlier event talking with other people: "If I'm the fastest driver on the team, then I've put together the wrong team."

Mary: Neither one of us has spent any time...well, "any time," that's not quite true...neither of us has devoted much time to skills improvement, which is unfortunate. The whole Tetanus Racing group would benefit for the two of us getting our act together and going out and learning how to be real racing drivers as opposed to what we are.

Chris: We did learn a lot from a former teammate...well, occasional teammate Joe Smith--he hasn't been able to race with us lately due to some job stuff going on for him--but Joe has been a great coach. It's always wonderful when we have some new drivers around because he'll hop on the radio and talk everybody through. We'll see great improvements in everybody's times just from hanging out with Joe for part of the day.

Mary: Nothing else outside of LeMons.

Chris: It's all OJT.

Mary: ...on-the-job-training.

The Margarita Neon, the team's second entry in a few early races, makes a brief appearance at No Problems Raceway in 2009. As is suggested by the photo's strange composition and barely visible tarmac under the car, the second Neon has long since floated away to greener pastures. (Tetanus Racing photo)

The Rusty Hub: You guys have been running the same Neon since the beginning. Is that right?

Mary: Same block.

The Rusty Hub: Wow.

Mary: I am gunning for a patch. I want [LeMons Judge Phil Greden]--on the forums, he's been talking about merit patches--I want the patch for "block that has survived the longest." Not only do we have the same car, we have the same hunk of metal running the thing. Part of it I attribute to us not knowing how to be really racy drivers for the first half-dozen races. We couldn't punish our car because we didn't know how to.

The Rusty Hub: [Laughs]

Mary: Unfortunately, I think we're becoming skilled enough that melting the block is becoming a possibility. We've also put a little wear and tear on that thing. The Neon gets re-themed every second race because we might not be California, but gosh darn it, I can pretend. And that's the extent of the changes.

Chris: There have been small tweaks over time, but it's still largely a 90 percent lock, stock Neon. We did a second Neon early on, but that didn't work out well. That second Neon was a twin-cam that blew up quite spectacularly a few times and we gave up on that.

Anyways, we've now decided to up the ante. Joe, as we said the great coach, wanted to grab a rear-wheel drive car and finally found a dirt-cheap, somewhat dry-rotted Porsche 944 down in the Texas Rio Grande Valley for us. Now the technical challenges stack up.

Mary: Because the 944's a good idea... [Laughs]

Chris: It's a great thing and I think that anybody who may not become a legend of LeMons who's going to get out there with a Borgward, just consider Neon because they're cheap to find, they handle well with a little bit of work, and they're very forgiving. You can just grab one and go racing. I know there's some teams who have managed to pull off victories here and there in the Midwest, but we haven't. Not yet. [Laughs]

But it's still a blast of a car to get out there. Like I said, their resale value is rapidly approaching that of week-old sushi so they're pretty easy to find.

Andy Thor-Stout (left) and Ramon Gutierrez Jr. examine the Tetanus Racing Neon's fried brakes with the panic and dismay common to many crapcan newcomers at the team's first 24 Hours of LeMons race at Motorsports Ranch (MSR) in Houston in 2008. (Tetanus Racing photo)

The Rusty Hub: You won a Heroic Fix for the 944. What happened with that?

Mary: Oh god...I guess I can tell the...I'll tell my part and Chris can tell...Can I tell the reach-around story?

Chris: Oh...sure...

Mary: OK, good.

The Rusty Hub: [Alarmed and puzzled]

Mary: So our 944, the original one, blew up in spectacular fashion--Chris can tell you how. My job when things explode is I am the parts-acquisition specialist. As things are being disassembled, I pretty much immediately get on the phone and find whatever it is we're looking for.

Now, we broke on a Saturday afternoon. I knew from prior experience trying to do the build the car that getting 944 parts was going to be a little bit challenging so that I had to work quickly since things would be closing in the next two hours.

What I found via Craigslist and some other Internet searching was one of those junkyards where they pull the part for you and put it on a shelf somewhere. I found an engine--supposedly ran when the donor car was parked--and they stuck it on the shelf and they assured me that this engine was going to be fantastic. So two hours there, I grab the engine, put it in the back of the pickup truck, and drag it back. Meanwhile, back at base, the old engine came out.

Chris: Well, we disassembled the top half of it.

Mary: OK, the top half comes off. I don't know--like I said, I'm the parts acquisition person; I'm not particularly good at looking what I'm acquiring unless I know exactly what I'm looking at and a 944 engine is not yet my area of expertise--bring the thing home and roll up. And we've got Speedycop [Jeff Bloch], X-args [Anton Lovett], and our team chief mechanic Dan [Knight] eagerly waiting for this engine to show up. And as soon as I pull up, everyone kind of looks at me like, "Are you dumb? What did you just do to us?"

What I didn't check was to see if the engine was a good-looking engine in a real sense. They'd taken the spark plugs out of the engine and left it exposed to the elements so even if this engine had run when parked, it's not going to be so happy now. So the guys take off the top of the donor engine and find...

Chris: We found three snake eggs in cylinder #4, one of which had hatched. We had blown a timing belt and bent five valves. Like I said, we started disassembling the top of the motor while they went to get that with the mindset "Well, if the engine is not good enough to swap in, at least we'll...if we're going to swap it, it's way less [work] this way and if we're going to pull parts, we can do the disassembly." So we ended up doing a valve transfer job--including hand-lapping the valves--on a spread-out pizza box in Dallas.

Mary: And we basically had the heroes of LeMons in our pits: It was Speedycop, Spank [British car masochist Mike Spangler], X-Args, Zachreligious [Zach Fox, one of the froods from Mostly Harmless Racing], and DC Doug [Doug Kirchberg from Speedycop's Gang], everybody doing something critical to make the car work. At one point, it was DC Doug and Anton leaning, trying to...I guess mount the valves? They were doing something to the valves that required a lot of pressure.

Chris: I was under the Neon when this happened. I don't know what happened...

Mary: And Speedycop was standing immediately behind me with his butt sort of right near my shoulder because I was sitting on the ground. And DC Doug was enthusiastically happy at this point of the evening and trying to get a rise out of Speedycop. So DC Doug is continuously pushing on Speedycop and just punching him. And eventually if you put 400 pounds of large man against anybody as solid as Speedycop, he's going to fall.

So he falls on my head and, in order to preserve myself from hitting my head on the concrete, I reach around Speedycop and manage to...learn more about the man than I ever wanted to know.

The Rusty Hub: [Laughs]

Mary: And I can just tell you that Speedycop is not compensating for anything.

Chris: [Laughs]

Mary: And he prefers to go left. And it was the one time all night that Spank put down his video camera so no one has any pictures of it.

Chris: ...the motor actually ran better after all this trackside valve-lapping so we decided it must be the snake oil and that's been our theme for the last two races: Professor Tetanus' Magical Mystery Snake Oil. We got the car out there for Sunday morning and it amazed everyone in HQ, our stories of actual snake eggs. We were delighted to get the Heroic Fix.

Mary: I never want to get it again. Ever.

Chris: The only thing I would like less than a Heroic Fix is an I Got Screwed trophy. Actually, I got one of those at NSF Racing so I can check that off the list.

Chris Champion drove the Rocket Surgery Racing Renault 4CV at High Plains Raceway in June 2012. The Planet Express-themed, mid-engined Renault is a LeMon par excelence created by Rich Von Sneidern. (Murilee Martin photo)

The Rusty Hub: I didn't know you'd raced with them.

Chris: Yes! The great thing I've enjoyed about LeMons and going around and doing a little bit of arrive-and-driving and talking to to people is we've gotten to go around and meet a lot of people that we wouldn't have had the chance to meet otherwise. We went out to the West Coast and we drove with Spank last year and had a blast with him. And I raced the Cordia Turbo--or perhaps one should say the Hapless Cordia Turbo--with NSF Racing back in March this year.

Mary: That was the race I judged.

The Rusty Hub: At [Carolina Motorsports Park], right?

Mary: Right. And then last year we both went up to the North Dallas Hooptie and raced in the--not North Dallas Hooptie, what am I talking about, High Plains--raced in the [Rocket Surgery Racing Renault] 4CV. This year, Chris went back up; I had to work.

Chris: And that is such an entertaining car. Rich Von Sneidern has put together a really entertaining car and goes all out with the costumes. The Bender costume they had, Zachreligious' wife made the Zoidberg mask for me; it was really fun to get dressed up and see everybody pointing cameras at us; just the kind of fun I wouldn't have gotten without Lemons, flying around and meeting cool people and doing silly things with other people's cars.

The Rusty Hub: You've seen pretty much all of the regions. What can you say about each of the different areas of the country in which they run LeMons?

Chris: Well, I still haven't made it to the Northeast and haven't made it to any of the kind-of Upper Midwest races.

Mary: Well, we did go to Nelson Ledges.

Chris: Oh, yes. Nelson Ledges.

Mary: That was a surreal experience. I don't think we can judge any of the rest of that region based on Nelson Ledges. It was the first true 24.

Chris: It was our first true 24.

Mary: That's true. They're never going to go back to that track.

Mary Harris (front) and Chris Champion (back) pose with Brian Pollock's (left) Property Devaluation Ford Mustang after returning to Texas from the 24 Hours of LeMons race at Nelson Ledges in Ohio in October 2009. Joe Smith (right) also manned the wheel at the grueling and notoriously mud-caked LeMons race. (Tetanus Racing photo)

The Rusty Hub: I've heard that was a crazy race from everybody that's ever talked about it; they said it was just nuts from start to finish.

Mary: It was like LeMons on acid or something.

Chris: LeMons with a lot of mud.

The California races, that was a blast. We went to Sears Point with Spank and the field was huge, the was an interesting spread of--it seems like the Gulf regions, we don't have as huge a gulf in terms of car capability out on the track because it seems like all the Houston and Dallas drivers have all gotten faster together. If you look at the lap times from 2010 compared with 2008, boy, we've gotten a lot faster, but we've all gotten faster in lock-step, whereas California, it was interesting to be in the Mini Moke with cars barreling right by us and then I'd catch up to a Corvair and be a rolling roadblock. Just a cross-atlantic chicane for a bit.

The Denver crowd is really nice. I really enjoy that track, although it's aptly named as the "BFE GP" because it's quite a haul out there. They're a fun bunch up there; I really like to see how many people there--even though they don't get many races a year--are taking their themes seriously and going all out. It's just a really great atmosphere around that track.

I had a blast out east at CMP, that was our first time out there...

Mary: CMP, all the jokes that Phil makes about it being very NASCAR-y, I was prepared to disregard. But really, honest-to-goodness, there is some NASCAR stuff going on up there.

Chris: [Laughs]

Mary: Where rubbin' really is racing and "Yes, Ma'm, I'm just going to let you talk at me 'cuz I'm going to go race again" while chewing on the tobacco. It's really, really enjoyable and it was definitely fun to judge, but it felt like I was going a little bit back in time in a good way.

The Rusty Hub: What was the experience of judging like, seeing it from the other side?

Mary: It was...good times, it was bad times...No, I'm not going to quote terrible litera--well, very good literature actually.

However, judging really does make me as a driver appreciate the rulebook in that it is simply written, it is easy to understand, and generally speaking, when somebody comes in with either a tech or a rulebook violation, it's usually pretty cut-and-dry. As LeMoneers, we're all pretty smart folks; however, when we do screw up, we do it in spectacular and obvious fashion.

Chris: [Laughs] No half measures.

Mary: No half measures, so if a judge is telling you you did something, they're not doing it to bust your butt. They're doing it because multiple people have told them, as the judge, you "done did wrong." The best thing about being a judge is I now know how to approach them, which is have a good attitude, take your licks, and remember this is all about grins. Racing is serious and competition and all of that; however, this is LeMons, have a good time.

And if that's the way you approach a judge, you're going to be fine. And if you come up all scowl-y because judging is hard--it's work; I was hoarse by the end of the day and I had answered the same question 50-million-bazillion times--I have no patience for another excuse. If you come up and admit you're wrong, you were good with me, life is happy. If you come up and whine and complain to this very tired human being--i.e. me--by the end of the day at CMP, I just don't want to here it.

At Carolina Motorsports Park in Spring 2012, Mary Harris got the opportunity to sit on the LeMons Supreme Court and dole out punishment to miscreants, as pictured above punishing a member of the Our Lady of Perpetual Downforce team on their mind-boggling Honda Civic. (Murilee Martin photo)

I imagine Jay and Phil, who have done this umpteen-million times, really don't want to hear it anymore because they've heard all of our crap. It was really informative and I'm really glad they did it and really glad they let me do it. And if anybody ever gets offered the opportunity to do it, if they say "No," they're silly.

The Rusty Hub: You two just got back from Le Mans. How was it, I guess, is a good place to start?

Chris: It's a wonderful thing. I think anybody doing Chump or LeMons is, by definition, a gearhead and all gearheads should make the pilgrimage and go to Le Mans some time in their life.

Mary: Yeah.

Chris. And you should get out there and do it before you're 900 years old because there's a whole lot of walking involved. We went in 2010; the only Gulf region race in LeMons that we have ever missed was so we could go to France in 2010 for Le Mans and we had an absolutely wonderful time. The atmosphere is in some ways kind of similar in the days leading up to the race, except the accents are different as thousands and thousands of Brits come down and camp out days ahead of time, drinking beer and watching qualifying. We really enjoyed that.

This year, we went back and made more of an effort to follow more qualifying, more of the track events and a little less of the beer and campsites. The scale of it is absolutely stunning because what we're used to is a 2-point-something mile track for a decent-sized track for what Chump or LeMons ever does. Well, that's just the circuit that's always there, but when you've got an 8-point-something mile track made up of public roads, it's just amazing what you could do. We would find ourselves walking from one vantage point to another, stopping, watching and listening for a while, then moving on to another. Finally, we'd look back and see Ferris Wheel off two miles away from us and go "Wow, we just walked from there and it only took about 10 percent of the duration of the race."

Mary: The best thing about watching Le Mans as a LeMoneer is I think we have a much better understanding of what the teams and the drivers are actually doing and accomplishing over the 24 hours than most other fans. We've been up at three o'clock in the morning behind the wheel of a car; we know how tiring that is and how disorienting the lights can be. My admiration has definitely grown for Allan McNish, Tom Kristiansen, and all those guys. You know, before they were the "race car drivers;" they were the special god-like people. Well, now we do this stuff to; not on the same level, but it does definitely inform my experience as a fan.

The Rusty Hub: Sure. Did you invite any guest drivers while you were there?

Chris: [Laughs]

Mary: [Laughs] I wish.

Chris: No. We took along a couple of extra LeMons stickers; we were hoping to try to chat to a team, but we never really got a chance to chat with anybody. I was really hoping we could get someone to stick a LeMons sticker on either their pit board or on the dash or somewhere a camera would catch it. But no such luck.

Mary: But instead a camera caught us. That was kind of cool.

Tetanus' 2010 effort at No Problems Raceway was proudly brought to you by Food™. ["Food™: It's for eating."] They also managed to spend some time scribbling one of the more entertaining "Bart Simpson" penalties on the rear quarter panel. (Tetanus Racing photos)

The Rusty Hub: Yeah, I saw that. You got interviewed on Le Mans TV.

Mary: We were just walking along on the pit walk day and we think that it was probably Chris' hat that caught the cameraman's eye because it was the cameraman who sort of found Chris and I in the crowd--more Chris than me--and then kind of dragged the announcer over. The announcer started the interview in French and Chris tried to respond in kind. He rapidly switched over to English, which allowed me to contribute. I was grateful for that.

Chris: Yes, my French is that bad that tell after three words, he thought, "Well, I'd better switch to English." So we chatted to him for actually about two, two-and-a-half minutes about who we were rooting for in each class and what we were hoping to see and whether or not Toyota could go the distance, but the tiny snippet little of us talking about the LMP1-class drivers did make it in.

Mary: I'm flattered that everybody recognized us.

The Rusty Hub: You've done somewhere north of 18 or 19 races altogether with arrive-and-drives and so forth; do you have a favorite race or a favorite moment in that?

Chris: Uh...let's see.

Mary: Chris has done 21, I've done 19. And that's between Chump and LeMons.

Chris: That's just LeMons. I've done 23, counting Chump.

Mary: Oh, well la-di-da. Then I should have done 21...wait...because I've done two less races than you, right? Three. Well, I'm falling behind; I've got to fix that with an arrive-and-drive.

Chris: I think one of my favorites--other than doing that 24 [at Eagles Canyon in May 2012]--I really like the long-format races and I really enjoy the night races because those tend to be the ones where we've done better. In those situations, preparation, reliability, and consistency kind of mask the fact that I'm not that good a driver.

Mary: [Laughs] And the fields tend to be smaller so that helps for us, as well.

Chris: So my fondest memories, I think, are pretty much from the long-form races. Nelson Ledges, I will never forget how terrifying it was to drive Brian Pollock's Property Devaluation Mustang at night in the rain at 100 miles per hour because, as Nick Pon put it, "Couldn't you feel the death hovering over you?"

Mary: "...the smell of death."

Chris: That has a certain emotional weight attached to it, but the more positive one was the 14-hour overnight race in Louisiana last year, which started at 8 p.m. and was a blast. It was a small field, but that was one of the first ones we did where they had live timing and scoring up and we were able to keep an eye on. We had a great all-night battle with the Danger Ranger guys from Louisiana, a good bunch of guys we'd raced several times and we were just back and forth with them all night: three laps up, five laps down; three laps up, three laps down.

Mary: And that was gratifying because for the longest time they were faster drivers. That was one of the first times we could see that not only was our car better, we were better at driving it. That was an accomplishment.

Chris: So we had a wonderful battle with them and it lasted all night, but finally, I took a short nap and I woke up to do my morning stint and they looked at me and said, "The Ranger blew up about half an hour ago. Spare the tires, go out there."

Mary: I was awake when the Ranger blew up and off in the distance in the back of the No Problems Raceway course, you just saw this [makes explosion noise] cloud of gray, noxious smoke rising toward the sky and then, to my sadness, it was the Danger Ranger. I had really wanted to race those guys and win with both cars going. That would have been a true skill win. The counterargument to that is the skill went into our car prep so it didn't blow up. That's also meritorious. I was still sad that they exploded.

In Texas, proper gear for car repairs include Stetson hats. In this case, Tetanus Racing members Dan Knight (white hat) and Bryan Fitch (brown hat) demonstrate this while examining a tire at Texas World Speedway for the February 2012 LeMons race. (Tetanus Racing photo)

Chris: And I'd say that the recent one, in the middle of the night, I was racing the Neon at the 24 at Eagle's Canyon and it just clicked there for a while. I just had the feeling I love where you're in the car, the turns start to connect for you and the traffic isn't wigging one out for a little while. And I just sat there and played connect-the-dots with the apex cones for good, long while and had a great stint, a great time with a couple other cars around me. Handed the car off the next person intact and went on to take a nap.

Mary: So most memorable for me...The first thing I remember very clearly, the first true driving memory I have is the very first Houston race I was in--which was the second ever Houston race--they had the short course and there was a tire chicane. First time in the car, I didn't know what to do with the mirrors, I could barely get my brain around flag stands. And approaching the chicane, a Spec Miata driver in a Miata comes flying through and just threads this tiny little hole right in front of me. And I thought, "Oh crap! I'm going to die!"

But I survived and the whole rest of the race I was just enjoying the fact that I was still breathing. That was probably the best experience to get me back in the car, which is why that's significant.

And then there's watching the Escort flip in front of me. That was caught on our in-car camera and it was quite memorable.

And then the only night race I've ever been able to do since my night vision has deteriorated over the last couple years, was Nelson Ledges at night and I had a really, really good time. I wasn't maybe as skilled as I should have been in the corners, but I could overtake a whole lot of people on the straights and that was a lot of fun.

Those are my top three; I've had lots of good times since then, but that's the three I remember the best.

Chris: I'd also say that some of my fondest memories from the last two years have to do with things not even in the car, especially when we can rope someone new. I love when we find someone else who also is interested in motorsports like I was who has never done it. Getting them into the car and if they get out big grin on their face, that's a great feeling as a team captain, to look at someone and go "Hey, we've got another addict."

Mary: "Welcome to the party, drink the Kool-Aid."

Chris: This February, I think it was, at Texas World Speedway at College Station, a gentleman from Colorado who frequently races with Troy [Hogan of LRE]--Chris [Cool]--cracked up everyone within earshot when he got out of Troy's Z-car. It'd had some problems and finally started working well again; Chris got out there and had a great stint. He had just gotten out of the pits and as all of us were sitting in the bleachers watching the cars go by. Suddenly Chris comes by and yells out, "Whoooooooooooooo!!!"" loud as heck and then, "That was frickin' great!!!" echoing off the concrete all around us. Someone turns around and goes, "He's a little shy, but I think he liked it."

Just witnessing someone else putting into words: "Whoooooooooo!!!" I think everyone around grinned, going: "Yep, I know how good that feels."

The Rusty Hub: You're a doctor, Mary. Do you any general medical advice for people that you see people doing that they shouldn't be doing?

Mary: Well, I'm not...So...

Chris: Put a finger on it...

Mary: [Laughs] In terms of medical stuff, the best advice I can give is just use that thing attached to your neck. Use your head. Don't use tires as jack stands; if you don't have the appropriate tools for the job...sometimes, the BFH is not perhaps the right thing you should swing around. Please do drink way more water than you think you're going to need. Don't neglect eating. And, as big of a pain in the butt as it is, use appropriate safety equipment, especially when around things that could explode and that includes your race car.

If someone dies doing this for a preventable reason, we're all out of a hobby. And that would suck. I don't have a magic mystery pill to make everything safer.

Mary Harris replaces the crank-position sensor on the Tetanus Neon at MSR Houston in October 2011. (Tetanus Racing photo)

The Rusty Hub: One of the other things of note is that you're one of the more successful women in the series; what's it like being one of the few woman in a more or less male activity and do you see that changing?

Mary: I do see that changing. Especially earlier--more in 2009--I really was one of the few females I could see in the paddock. Now, I see quite a few women--especially on the Coasts--in the pits. The California races are chock full o' women.

Chris: I should have mentioned that when talking about the other regions. Yes, we did notice more female racers in California and even at CMP than we get here in the Gulf Region. I don't know what's going on there; I think all these Gulf people need to tell their girlfriends and wives to get off the couch and join them.

Mary: Given--especially in California--the number of women racers that there are, I don't necessarily think I am one of the most successful female racers, I think I'm one of the loudest.

Chris: [Laughs]

Mary: And one of the most present on the forums. Judge Phil in particular has been trying to find ways to make LeMons more accessible to women because one of the problems with being female is that, for all the trying to sound very positive, this is still very much a boys' club. And I'm just loud and annoying enough to not care and determined to do this whether or not I feel warm, fuzzy acceptance vibes from everybody else.

I like the fact that--especially on the coasts--that attitude is changing. I do see it continuing to change and I do want more women to do this because it's not something that's strength-dependent; it's skill and perception-dependent. You don't need big, bulging biceps for that; you need a brain. You don't even need physique; brain and eyes and one working arm.

It is, I think, more challenging as a female to feel welcome. Hopefully by being one of the loudest, folks who want to come in behind me will have an easier time of it.

The Rusty Hub: Do you have any general advice for a new team or someone who's just kind of discovering LeMons?

Mary: So I've been thinking about this all afternoon because I read your other interviews online; I noticed you like to close with this question. This is what I've been thinking about: Lots of folks have given the advice of take a deep breath, get informed, and then go do an arrive-and-drive to see what it's like and have been discouraging, to some extent, going out and building your own car.

The Rusty Hub: Right.

Mary: I see where they're coming from, that might be the wise thing to do. However, I think part of LeMons is based on insanity. You have to be insane to want to do this so if you're insane and feeling a burning desire to build a car and you've never done it before, build a car. One of the best experiences of LeMons is watching your baby being bled on and worked on and cussed at and shared conversation over and pondered go cross the finish line.

Being an arrive-and-drive is fun; you do well, you get the satisfaction. But that's a lower level, I think, than when it's your team's car chugging through.

Chris: And there's a lot to be said for the joy of just dismantling something. The Neon was pretty enjoyable to just yank parts from it and go, "Are we going to do anything with this?" "No. Throw it in the dumpster." You can do things with a LeMon that you can't do any other time in your life, like take a grinding wheel to a perfectly good hood, essentially to make it rust. That was quite an experience and you don't get to do that with an arrive-and-drive.

Mary: Every newcomer should put some thought into it: "Am I in this because I just want to race?" Well, OK, go and be an arrive-and-drive. That's what you want, that's what you should, that's the easiest way to do that. "I'm in this because I want to take something I build and bring it through a 14-24 hour race." OK, build your own car. Or if you want to go and be a legend, then you have to find yourself some sort quirky, Eastern European, two-stroke thing rotting in a field and go. Or put a motorcycle engine where nothing should ever be or whatever. Think about it; don't be crazy, but go ahead and be insane because that's what this whole series is based on.

This long straightaway is not the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans; it's a highway. For the May 2012 race at Eagles Canyon Raceway, the team had originally planned to tow the Neon about 20 miles on a car dolly to put on a two-car trailer (which would also have the team's 944) for the haul to ECR near Decatur, TX. One of the dolly's tires called it quits after 18.5 miles or so, stranding the car on the side of the highway until the cavalry arrived.  (Tetanus Racing photo)

The Rusty Hub: One last question for you guys--I thought I'd throw you a curveball and have a different question after that--what's next for you guys? Any ideas for a crazy build like you just described or are you sticking with the 911--sorry, 944--and the Neon?

Chris: Well, for now, our friend J.T. [Jim Tomlinson] has been on vacation and he was looking for a way to occupy himself. He's got a new baby around the house and lives a little bit further away from the rest of us. But here's the danger of positive reinforcement: J.T. went out and bought another 944.

Mary: Yeah...

Chris: I don't know. I keep saying that the 944, the first time something blows up on it more seriously than can be fixed trackside with pizza boxes, I think it's going to be a candidate for an ill-advised engine swap.

The Rusty Hub: Excellent.

Chris: But I can't quite convince everybody else what the "right" ill-advised piece of machinery to go in it would be.

Mary: He wants a V8 Rover engine in there.

The Rusty Hub: [Makes startled and excited noises]

Chris: I know. Can't you just hear Phil going, "You idiot!" That or I think I'd be OK with the Buick 3800 supercharged V6.

Mary: Although more immediately, the crazy idea we're toying with is going up to Road America with the Neon. We've never ventured outside of Texas and Louisiana with one of our cars. That decision is going to be happening shortly. So long-term: Possible craziness with the 944. Short-term is how far are we willing to take our rustbucket? [Editor's Note: They have since elected to go to Road America with Troy Hogan and his LRE Datsun Z.]

Chris: One of our biggest stumbling blocks is that although we've both learned how to weld as a result of doing amateur racing, neither is a fabricator on the skill level of Rich Van Snider or the Angry Hamsters guy or Marc [Labranche] with the amazing effort for the MR2 with the radial. We're just not quite that level of space and tools and practice. Sure, I'd love to find some econobox to make into a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive car like Rich did with the 4CV, but until all these mostly stock cars we have blow up, I think that's what we'll stick with.

To become a legend, that's great for people who are good fabricators. I think there's a lot of teams like us who want to say "I'm going to strip the interior out of this thing, do a few mods to it with junkyard parts; I really just want to make the thing run and go." And that's where we are.

The Rusty Hub: By the way, everything you described about the general advice, that's pretty much my experience was the exact same. Most of the fun was watching the thing that I worked on doing all these awesome things...or breaking.

Chris: Unfortunately, the flipside of that is if something goes really spectacularly wrong, you really have no one to blame but yourself and your beer buddy.

Mary: [Laughs]

Chris: So we usually blame an anonymous Chrysler engineer we just dubbed Bob. If you can't get a bolt out from the Neon, it's Bob's fault.

Mary: It's totally Bob's fault that in 1995, they made two different kinds of Neons and the kind that--I'm the parts person, I know this intimately--all the parts that you can get at AutoZone, pretty much except something electric, is the wrong part for our Neon. Bob, seriously, you screwed me.

Chris: Bob, we're pretty sure, has lots of family back in Stuttgart. We've dubbed him Gunther, where everything in the 944 is built like a seven-layer dip and if you need to fix it, it's way down there in the beans.

Mary: The first time we lose the clutch in that thing, I'm kicking that car to the curb. Not doing that.

The Rusty Hub: How's it feel now? Is it passable?

Chris: It's passable. The shift linkage is kind of like moving a straw around a slurpy, but the clutch feels OK so far.

Chris Champion gives one of the most ironic gestures in the history of ironic gestures in the Margarita Neon at No Problems Raceway in Louisiana in 2009. The Neon was the Tetanus Racing's first second car  (if that makes sense) and it lasted a handful of laps before turning a connecting rod and a piston into several much smaller pieces. (Tetanus Racing photo)

The Rusty Hub: It's got something giong for it then. Anything else I forgot to ask about or any egregious errors?

Mary: The only thing I want to add is an answer to one of your earlier questions: "What's it like to manage a race team as husband and wife?" We do have marital fights over this; I don't want anybody to think that we don't. The best example I can think of is the washer--this is a classic "I told you so" marriage story--our clutch fell apart in Louisiana because the washer at the end of the clutch cable fell into the...

Chris: ...fell into the bell housing.

Mary: I mean, for months, that washer had to have gone somewhere--E=MC2--where'd it go? All the guys argued that, well, we raced for six hours with that washer causing us no trouble. Surely, it got shredded and is now tiny bits of shavings and it's not going to cause a problem.

Chris: It caused a problem. So now, written on the underside of the hood, Question #1 is in big, red marker "Did you ask Mary if that's a good idea yet?"

Mary: Because when we found the washer ended up being the source of our problems, I was so mad I had to leave the paddock area so I didn't just stare at all of them and go: "Told you so! Told you so! Told you so!"

The Rusty Hub: [Laughs]

Mary: So being a LeMons team marriage isn't all rainbow farts and giggles.

Chris: [Laughs]

Mary: But it is ultimately usually rewarding.


Lightning Round - 5 questions answered kind-of fast.

Tetanus Racing's crew at Motorsports Ranch in Houston in October 2011: (from left) Bryan Fitch, Sam Miller, Dan Knight, Chuck Keeton, Chris Champion, Andy Thor-Stout, Shauna Thor-Stout, Anton Lovett, Mary Harris. Not pictured: Jack Baruth, Dave Kirschke, Jim Tomlinson, Steve Osborne. (Tetanus Racing photo)

(1) The Rusty Hub: In what year did Chrysler build the most Neons?

Chris: I think that was 1997. It might have been 1998, but I think it was 1997.

The Rusty Hub: It was actually 1996 so says Wikipedia anyway. Actually, it was on Allpar, not Wikipedia. I trust Allpar a little better.

(2) The Rusty Hub: Everybody outside of Texas always hears not to, but what would happen if someone did mess with Texas?

Chris: [Laughs]

Mary: Shotgun to the face.

The Rusty Hub: OK. Good to know...

Mary: I was completely anti-gun before moving to this state. Now, what do we have downstairs? A shotgun.

Chris: I was going to go with a Tex-Mex embargo.

(3) If the Tetanus Neon was a disease, what disease would it be (besides Tetanus, obviously)?

Mary: Septicemia.

Chris: OK...I would go with herpes because once we've got it, we just can't get rid of the damn thing.

Mary: Septicemia: The laymen's term would be blood poisoning.

Chris: Good answer!

(4) If you could get one stint in any LeMons car or ChumpCar, which would it be?

Mary: I've ridden in the Pacer, ridden in the 4CV...I've kind of fantasized a little about the Limo...

Chris: Ugh...

Mary: [Laughs] And I would also like to...the guys who went to Le Mans...

Chris: Eyesore.

Mary: I've like to drive Eyesore's Miata just to see what a proper race car feels like.

Chris: In the same vein, I'd love to take a stint in the Hong Norrth MX-3, the faster of theirs.

Mary: Good one! The orange one.

Chris: No, the black one.

Mary: Well, it's black with the orange piping. The other one's got blue.

Chris: Yeah.

(5) The Rusty Hub: What would the title be of Tetanus Racing's biography if it was written now?

Chris: "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

The Rusty Hub: Who would ghostwrite it?

Chris: I think I would take up Peter David.

Mary: Oh, that's a serious answer. I was going to go for one of those sci-fi authors that you so like, like Iain M. Banks or something.

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