Watkins Glen POV
05:30 Monday morning comes up pretty quick when you arrive home Saturday night and only have Sunday to catch up on the normal responsibilities of life like paying bills and running the business. In any case, in a comfortable window seat I sit as I watch Nevada, Utah, and Montana pass underneath the plane on my way to Indianapolis.
Some may be thinking, “Indianapolis…., isn’t Watkins Glen in upstate NY?” Correct, my next race is this Sunday in Watkins Glen, New York for the famous 6HR sprint. However, I acquired a consulting deal for Audi North America (shhh, don’t tell the boss!) meaning that I fly in to Indianapolis Motor speedway during their Model Year 15’ event for guests of the VW group.
I land the evening of the 23rd with the hopes of meeting some friends from another race team based 1 HR outside of Indy for dinner on my short trip, then head to the racetrack tomorrow afternoon to fit into a 2015 Audi R8 and give hot laps around Indianapolis’ road course. The same road course that I will visit with my Ferrari 458 GT in one month’s time, so it should prove to be helpful in preparation for that event.
After a few hours of hurling an R8 around the track for passenger’s enjoyment, I jump in a car and head to the airport Tuesday night and fly to Buffalo, where I will drive to Rochester, New York for my “Good Morning Rochester” interview on Fox Wednesday morning.
I am excited for all the change—different environments and tasks in the upcoming few days—yet it’s important for me to not loose focus on the big picture. The most important thing is that I prep for the 6 HR sprint race around the rolling hills of upstate New York this weekend.
Last year “the Glen” wasn’t the best event for us, so I know I speak for the team and my teammate when I say I am excited to start off on a better foot this year. We Won the last race at Detroit which was a high of emotion, yet it comes with yet MORE ballast weight added to our Ferrari 458 to balance the performance between cars, even though our car wasn’t the fastest…….. ?
So now we are heavier, but so is the Audi and the SRT Viper (which is the right call by IMSA). Aston stays the same, and Porsche looses ballast weight, to the effect that the Porsche is now 250lbs lighter than our 458. This should come into play for Porsche around the NY circuit because the track features many bending braking zones; long corners that require you to carry a light brake pressure into the first third of the corner, which all happen to be quite high speed (3rd gear or higher).
Precisely what a heavy car struggles to do, and a light car is pretty good at if you imagine a Bentley vs. a Lotus as an example of nimbleness. Nonetheless, I will show up ready to fight as hard as I can, maximizing the tools I have, be it a heavy but beautiful tool at that.
Tuesday I wake up and get a medium to long distance run in, keeping my heart rate up in the race car driving realm (145-160 bpm) for 45 mins-1 hour, helping ready my body for the work load ahead on Sunday. Then I stoke the fire, or feed the beast as it were, and pack my stuff before heading to Indy wearing a shirt with 4 rings on it.
Upon arrival at the track, I am told that a massive storm is rolling in, so we wanted to be prepared to start the hot laps around the famous oval at lunchtime. Two sighting laps, and 12 individual hot laps later, my 2014 R8 V10 had ½ a tank less fuel, and a right rear tire that was just about down to the steel belts at the outer shoulder.
Fortunately a massive storm came through, with a tornado touching down not far from the track and heavy rain causing the remainder of the day to be cancelled pre-maturely. Normally I would want to drive as much as possible, but seeing as I was doing 170mph in a street car (no roll cage), on street tires when the most important tire was almost dead, and I had a line of 20 more people to give a ride, I was eager not to have ask the Pirelli p zero to do more.
A chorded right rear means it was moments away from failure around the high load banking at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. My flight departing Indy was scheduled at 8pm, since I was supposed to be driving the R8 until 17:30 or 18:00, but I arrived at the airport early, logged into the airport Wifi (which was just below the “FBI-surveilance van7”) and started to catch up on some work.
Long story short, I boarded my delayed flight, barely made my connection in Chicago of which my bag did not, and arrived at Buffalo around 00:30. Once the rental car debacle was sorted, I drove the 1 HR to Rochester where I was able to catch 3HRS of shuteye before the Fox interview Wednesday morning.
Wednesday of the walking dead
Wednesday I will refer to as the walking dead, I felt that way at least. I ordered a coffee on my way to the studio, and proceeded to pull all the energy out of the reserve tanks to look and sound as alive as possible for the short segment on “Good Day Rochester.”
Even with my sleep walking stature, we did such a good job the studio came out again to do an impromptu second spot, score! I’ll be honest, I wasn’t as nervous as I expected to be, maybe I am finally getting used to camera’s looking at me without freezing up and loosing my train of thought.
After a 1.5 hour drive to the hotel, I took a nap which was much needed, then ran some errands with the team to finish out the day. Pretty lack luster by most standards, however it was welcomed after the travel day preceding. With that said, I tried to shut it down early, hydrate and put in some time to sleep so Thru-Sun I am fresh.
Thursday, my teammate and I head to the track just before lunch time to unpack the truck, unload our gear, get tech to sign off on our equipment, the car and prep the whole team for the weekend ahead, with driver change practices, systems checks, and redundancy—with all aspects that we can to make sure we are as prepared as possible come our first practice session.
Going into a weekend like this, practice time is at an ultra premium. We have all 4 classes competing, some drivers that aren’t regulars participating, which usually create a lot more variables than usual, and a long race track which means a lot of time to complete a lap and only 3 hrs before qualifying to get all 3 drivers up to speed and the car competitive. This requires MASSIVE prep, from all angles. Set up, strategy and execution will be very critical, so in a sense it’s like Detroit but 3 times longer.
Friday was the first day we hit the track, and with the current state of the BOP (balance of Performance) it’s important that we maximize EVERY aspect of the lap. We are the heaviest car, we don’t have the best straight line speed, and there are other cars that can stop shorter than us, so we need to be the best we can be in all aspects of the corner to be able to have a shot during the race.
Porsche, for example is not as good in the corner, however, has great braking and mega top speed, so it can rely on those traits as defense when fending off a Ferrari or a BMW. The BMW has great cornering ability; with the most down force in the group. It can brake the latest, and corner the fastest yet it lacks top speed. With that said, Watkins Glen has very long corners, so the Z4 GTD car looks to be a favorite which we knew from seeing that car in the infield of Daytona.
After the 1 Hour session Friday afternoon, we found the #63 to be pretty good in most areas, yet it could improve in braking stability. I look at long corners like an opportunity to take my braking zone and blend some of that into the corner, thus allowing me to brake later initially, and carry more speed through the first 30% of the corner.
I’ve spoken of this technique before, and the Glen loves this trait in a car. However our car was difficult to manage in this respect, as we were loosing the back of the car during the braking zone, which made the turn in and entry inconsistent. Inconsistent means slides that are small, then big, and a speed that is not ideal.
All the drivers sat with the engineers after our session, as we usually do in our team protocol, and explained the situations around the track and places we’d like to do x,y,z with the car but we cannot at the moment. Then the engineers kick the drivers out, and confer to make the adjustments that will best suit all of our needs.
We hung around the track while the crew got on with the engineering’s decisions for the #63, which consisted of longer 4th, 5th and 6th gears to solve a non-handling related issue, and adjusting the shocks to control the back of the car during braking.
At 17:30, engineering met the drivers outside the trailer for the track walk. We all walked 1 lap of the 3.4 mile circuit to discuss the undulations of the track and make engineering aware of what we are talking about in our braking zones.
Along the way Joe La Joie, our chief engineer made some jokes to lighten the mood, which is always entertaining since the typical engineer sense of humor is quite dry, and watching an Italian driver who speaks some English try and make sense of a dry engineering joke with some Texas twang on it, you can imagine the conversations that ensue.
Just before the end of our lap, I took off as planned to get a run in and do one more revolution of the circuit. Four Miles later, I was pretty beat as the elevation around the track is constant, and in typical Westphal race weekend mindset, I probably ran faster than I should’ve given the lack of my training in the past. It was four miles in 32 minutes flat, with hefty elevation.
For me, those numbers are pretty good unless I’ve been running more consistently. Anyways, I digress…. Dinner with the team was next, and back to the hotel to get prepped for much more driving on Saturday. Two Practice sessions, each 1-hour long and then a 15 minute qualifying to follow immediately.
Saturday morning we hoped to make the correct changes Friday, and we would soon find out since we didn’t have a lot of chances to get it right before it counts. We blitz through practices with the car in the top 10 each time, and each session getting easier and easier to drive, while the lap time gets better and better.
Alessandro Balzan was going to qualify the car, and we know straight away that pole position will not be ours. We internally re-named the BOP to; balance of points. We won in Detroit, and even though we won with strategy and execution, not pure speed, we still got more of a handicap.
Yet I understand why the decision was made by the series, a Ferrari possibly winning the championship 3 years in a row doesn’t look good for Porsche, BMW, SRT or Audi. Porsche and BMW looked mega fast, like eye opening and jaw dropping. 15-minutes later, we were sitting P10 after a great job by Ale.
The pole was 1.2 seconds faster than us, and 1.0 seconds faster than the highest placed Ferrari on the grid. This result is something strange though in terms of team dynamic. We all know the efforts we put in, from ownership all the way to tire prep, so it’s satisfying and yet unsatisfying since we aren’t at the sharp end of the grid.
A confused air is about the team, but having said that we all know that the Ferrari races well, and we have a driver line up that can maximize our opportunities. The team all goes to dinner and we continue the week long hydration, as the weather report has shown temps in the mid to high 80’s with humidity in the area, which can really wear on you in a long race purely through fluid loss. I am feeling cautiously optimistic about our chances, we don’t have the outright speed, but I am ready to fight, and I can tell my co-drivers are in the same place.
Sunday morning I wake up with a determination that I honestly haven’t felt in a long while, it’s as if the day was a long list of items that I was going to check off regardless of what circumstances come my way. It’s a mindset I’ve had before, and I’m not sure what triggered it, but I’m glad it was present.
I had my work cut out for me, it’s a hot day, I need to do 2-hours straight in the car at minimum for strategy reasons, and I have a lot of cars to go chase down. Not long after arriving at the track, I am suited and shuttling the car around the track for the pre-grid fan walk to begin for the 45-mins preceding the green flag.
Every race we have the grid open to any ticket holder, a chance for fans to see the cars on pit lane ready to go to battle. I make an electrolyte drink with one hour to go before the green, and walk back to the car catching up with fellow drivers and fans along the way.
The national anthem was about to start, and we get the order to climb into the car. Just then a fellow Arfcommer stopped by to shake my hand and thank me for visiting the boards and writing about my race weekend experiences, which I really appreciated.
It was great to meet you, and it’s my pleasure to share the racing from my eyes as I know that if I weren’t as fortunate to be racing I would love to read something similar to this that TNVC, myself and Ar15.com are composing. On grid, a uniformed service member accompanied each racecar for this event, and as I was strapping into the V8 Ferrari I thanked my Army soldier for his service in our nations defense, listened to both the Canadian and American national anthems, shut the doors, fired up the engine and began to plan my race. I say plan my race because I have a picture of how I see it going, how I will drive the car into and out of every single corner, and what I am going to do in risky circumstances at the drop of the green flag.
1.5 laps later, I am starting to catch the pack in anticipation of a green flag, which of course means go go go! Upon entering T1, I am being squeezed on both sides by an Audi and Porsche who’s cars weren’t as fast, so I know they are trying to gain any advantage they can at the start, at which point I fall back on our teams mantra for the race, defensive state of mind for 4 hours, sprint in the last two.
I back out of the position, giving up two positions almost immediately, but knowing that I can fight them individually and win in a few laps time, so I sit back and settle in. We typically loose front grip at high speed when we are chasing a car ahead closely because it takes the air away from our front splitter, so I expected that to be a factor in the race but it was MUCH worse than I have ever felt it, or anticipated.
So much so that two corners that are flat out, no lifting or braking necessary, actually needed a lift off the gas to stay on track. With that said, on my charge back up through the field, after I got the front tires back underneath me, I called into my team to inform them about this condition, and which car style it was the worst behind so my team mates are not surprised when they hopped in.
During the next 2 hours, I had many close calls. Mostly with prototype class cars being overly aggressive in traffic and hitting my mirror, almost shoving me off the road but it’s all part of the deal—but it was anything but relaxing, I can tell you that.
My first pit stop went pretty well as far as I can tell, no penalties and it seemed that I didn’t loose too much track position. Racing while also being conscious of Damage control and trying to make positive ground is tricky, I can’t be too cautious yet I need to calculate the risk constantly to avoid a rash decision that risks the integrity of the car for the last 2 hours. Many gear shifts later, little slides on power, and sometimes uncomfortable entries to corners slicing through traffic and passing cars, a yellow comes out at near the 2 hour mark for me after I’ve stopped once for fuel and tires.
The yellow was in the pit window where the strategy stayed good, so we took it to stop, change tires, add fuel and change drivers. I’ll be honest, I was slightly glad to hear that we were doing a driver change as I had been loosing LOTS of fluid in the car and my lower back was beginning to cramp a little. On the upside, the team notified me that I was P2 at the moment, which was great surprise! I knew I was passing cars along the way, but I did not know that we were so close to the front. SCORE!
I drive into pit lane under yellow when it opens, loosen the belts, stop in the pit box, turn off the ignition, turn ignition back on for the next driver, undo my belts, slide the seat back, take my radio harness out of the dash connector and hop out of the car. Brandon climbs in and leaves pit lane, while retaining P2 on the grid, which feels great because we put ourselves in a really good spot for the remainder of the race.
The race goes green again and into turn one the 23 Porsche brakes later than he ever has, hits the #30 Porsche who looses the car and tags us, sending us spinning to the outside of turn one and de-beading our right rear tire.
Brandon gets the car fired again, and limps it around to bring it back in and check for damage/repair the flat tire that is now rubbing on the bodywork creating blue smoke as he limps around the 3.4 miles. I’ve been in his shoes in a race before; 1. You feel gutted that something like this just occurred. 2. The lap around the track takes FOREVER at 45-50mph. I remember yelling, “NO, no no no!” at the monitor watching the live feed, because all the hard work just done in the past 2 hrs is now gone. We are 2 laps down by the time we re-join the race fully and back in 10th. Brandon did a pretty solid job clicking off laps in traffic and moving forward, ultimately we arrived back in p6 for Alessandro to get in for his 2-hour stint.
I don’t think I’ve seen Alessandro drive so hard, so consistently ever. He got up to speed when the tires came in and began to hunt down the leader to un-lap ourselves, ultimately making it past the dominant BMW and putting us one lap behind in the closing minutes.
He really did a great job so my hat is off to him for a great drive. In the end we finished 5th, which felt bad because we knew a podium was ours yet we we’re relieved as it could’ve been a lot worse, and it WAS a lot worse for many of the cars ahead of us in points.
Even still, the team was reluctantly celebrating the finish, as we all felt robbed. Hopefully the BOP changes to the BMW and Porsche but I doubt it will, at the moment the BMW is going to be a shoe in for the W at Mosport if things stay the way they are currently.
But having said that, it is time for Alessandro and myself to get prepared mentally and physically for our fight at the High Speed Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2-weeks time. After long flights home, it’s time to run, cycle, eat healthy and hydrate as I anticipate another hot and humid one!