The first time Erich Heuschele found himself piloting a Dodge Neon dragging another Dodge Neon behind it on a chain, he wasn’t on a race track at all.
“The first time we put the cars together was actually on this dirt road near Kevin’s place,” Heuschele said, referring to his co-pilot and colleague Kevin Stepinski. Both Heuschele and Stepinski work at SRT, where Erich is the director of Vehicle Dynamics and Motorsports Engineering and Kevin has been the transmission engineer on both the Viper and every manual-equipped SRT product.
“There’s this sort of triangular intersection about a mile from Kevin’s house that has a sharp, 80-degree curve with two deep ditches on either side. We’d just got the cars chained together and I wanted to practice driving, so we just hit the intersection over and over again until on one of the last passes we flew through way too fast and came this close to sliding off the road. I remember I got out of the first car and asked Kevin what happened, and he was like ‘oh yeah, I forgot to hit the brakes.’ Dude, that’s your job!”
Wait a second. Neons chained to Neons? Backroad skunkworks testing? Welcome to the world of train racing (also called ‘chain racing’), a sport that bottles the best elements of short oval, demolition derby, figure eight chaos, and teamwork in way that Formula 1 or NASCAR simply can’t even imagine. Even the name is exciting, “Figure-Eight Train Racing,” doesn’t that sound thrilling?
Let’s brush up on the basics. First, you’ll need a pull car, which is required to have an engine that is fully functional, and brakes that are fully not. Next, a length of chain, (or maybe two depending on the track rules) so you can yoke that mule to a second car that must possess a NON-functional engine, but good brakes and some form of steering. Finally, you’ve gotta find a partner with a driving style so incredibly compatible to your own that you can essentially operate the entire train as though you were a single human being, because you’re going to be hurtling that chain-train through a figure-eight track in a frantic bid not to get T-boned before the checkered flag flies.
“Chain racing was my first experience with behind-the-wheel figure-eight competition,” explains Heuschele, who has decades of SCCA competition under his belt. “Kevin was an experienced circle track guy, and he had done a couple of figure-eight school bus events where you basically pay the track $600 bucks and they supply you with a bus. We’d done those at SRT as a team-building exercise, and because you have to be ARCA licensed to drive, Kevin got the left seat.”
It was then that the pair realized just how cheap it would be to run in a train race, and how generous the payouts were for winners. “It’s a $750 price for first, then $350 for second, and even sixth through tenth get $100,” Erich tells us. “You’re looking at maybe $120 bucks to get everything to the track, and you’re only putting 30 miles or so on the cars each event. It’s incredibly affordable for almost anyone, and if you finish it almost pays for itself.”
Kevin and Erich are in car(s) 53.
Heuschele and Stepinski pieced together their first – and still-used-today – rig in 2013. Erich had an old, rusted-out Neon ice racer that still ran strong that was perfect for lead duty, while Kevin’s recently-dead, 264,000 mile Chump Car Neon served as the rear steer.
“We didn’t really do any research when we first started out, and the chain broke during our first race. I also managed to run over the chain while steering the second car, and it got wrapped around the control arm. That cut the distance between the two Neons from about six feet to barely two feet,” admits Heuschele, who explained that the atmosphere surrounding the train race events is “really weird” in terms of other teams being willing to share their setup secrets. Erich, however, has no qualms discussing the engineering solutions he and Kevin came up with on their way to eventually dominating nearby figure-eight circuits.
“We realized quickly, after it broke, that we needed to mount the chain completely differently. We’d been using a trailer hitch from a ’94 B250 van, which miraculously lines up perfectly with the rail spacing and even the holes on a Neon, but you can’t treat it like a tow bar where you have one length of chain on the right and another on the left, because unless you drive in perfect formation one side will always be slack,” he tells us. ” It’s really brutal when the chain slacks. It’s not a bungie cord, and the only real spring is in the flex of the body. We ended up using a pintle-style hitch instead of a ball, which has a closable hook, and we rang a D-ring and turned it 90-degrees with one length of chain across the front of the car, allowing it to slide. This kept everything tight even when it was off-center.”
Proper train racing vehicle setup also extends past the literal weakest link in the chain. Tire choice is also crucial, with Erich explaining that too many teams focus on equipping the pull car with good rubber while neglecting the back car entirely. Always on the hunt for used tires, he and Kevin prefer to run a sticky set of all-seasons because summer tires tend to take too many laps to warm up.
“The reality is, the rear car needs as much grip as the front car or it’s like pulling an inner tube with a boat, sliding all over the track and slowing you down. When that back car is sideways, it’s a whole lot of drag,” Heuschele says. “In a car, the rear suspension is there to stabilize the vehicle, while the front is intended to destabilize it and initiate a turn. It’s exactly the same thing in a chain race, and we make sure to have better tires, alignment, and suspension on our rear Neon as compared to the front, which is still running an inch taller than stock with no front swaybar from its ice racing days.”
So what’s it like to drive flat-out in a car with no brakes that’s chained to a rolling automotive anchor?
“Coming down that banking kind of feels like you’re racing a train to a level crossing,” Erich says, laughing. “You’ve got to react to what you see in front of you well before you get to the intersection and evaluate whether you can get through or not. I kind of prefer driving up front. I don’t have to pay attention to the rear car, I just pass and find holes in traffic. The race manager is really the second pilot, keeping an eye on our speed especially while cornering, hitting that completely unassisted pedal hard while I lift off a little bit. The back car is the one attenuating all the craziness, while the front is all gung ho!”
That second seat, too, is the main target of other drivers looking to put you out of the running, as Heuschele tells us it’s always car number two that gets hit in a bid to destabilize the rig and flatten a tire or two. In fact, Erich lists protecting the tires as one of the most important aspects of winning, because while you can finish on a flat there’s no way you’ll be fast enough to stay up front. “Technically, you can’t armor the car, although some guys run rub rails – which we’ll definitely do on our next rig,” he says. “They also frown on slopping any axle grease on your tires, but we’ve found Armor All can be surprisingly effective at deflecting hits.”
It almost doesn’t seem fair that Heuschele and Stepinski are allowed to unleash their engineering know-how on the unsuspecting chain racing circuit, but the pair’s calculated approach to competition has paid off handsomely, with six wins and four second place finished in 18 races over the past five seasons. The guys point to the fact that the reasonably well-prepared race cars in their train have an edge over the typical junkyard fare they run against, which often has trouble making it through the length of a race, suggesting that as long as you can get two properly prepped beaters to the track, you, too can enjoy the fiercely competitive, and surprisingly lucrative world of train racing. Just, you know, avoid a certain track near Toledo until you get the hang of things.
They’ll be waiting for you.