So the “France” Family that owns NASCAR, buys out Dr. Panoz whom owns ALMS, then combines the two sportscar championships, and the offspring of that merger is the United Sportscar Championship. Four classes of cars, racing together for the same real estate to win each respective category’s honors, points, prize money and prestige.
The first stop on our calendar is Daytona International Speedway, for the 24Hr of Daytona. Sports car racing’s Super Bowl, a place that I’ve been before and am looking forward to going back with a sharp weapon!
The test days prior to the race are to get not only the car pointed the right direction with shock, spring, sway bar and wing settings, but also to get the 4 drivers and crew to gel together as a unit prior to the event with all of their respective duties and tasks. The race will have 67 teams, 29 of them in our GT Daytona class (GTD), that are all preparing for the battle ensuing.
The car will have 4 drivers, require 24+ pit stops, one full brake pad and rotor change, consume a little bit of oil, and A LOT of 100 octane fuel. During our test, the engineer and strategist wasn’t so concerned with overall speed, yet a car that’s good in all conditions (hot/cold, dry/wet) and comfortable to drive as a 24Hr race cannot be won in the first 23HRs, but it sure can be lost! We had the speed for the top 10 in practice sessions, which really doesn’t matter much because everyone that’s going to be there at the end is trying to play poker anyways, as a driver behind the wheel, you can tell who will be strong and who will struggle. Leaving the 2-day test, I estimated there was about 10 cars that could win, a number that has gone up since years past.
Fast foward to race week, in typical fashion for a Saturday race I fly in on Tuesday, spending time on Wednesday with the team working on the small little prep things like adjusting the radio harness in the adapter on my helmet to plug into the car to speed up our sub 30 second driver changes. Radio checks, system checks, scrutineering checks were all performed. We were done by 3pm or so, which allowed me to get the final cardio training done for the week, a 4-mile run at a moderate pace later that evening before dinner.
Many ask why training is so important, because surely your just sitting down and turning a wheel. I respond, go drive a go-kart (indoor or outdoor) as fast as you can, for 2 Hours plus straight without making mistakes that will cost tenths of seconds….. Heart rates are 160+, the cars are 100-140 degrees F inside, and we have to wear a whole lot of fireproof gear. Just for example, usually I loose 4-6lbs in a 24HR race from start to finish.
Thursday and Friday we were on track, making sure the pavement was where we left it (literally), giving all 4 of our drivers (myself included) the last few laps of prep before qualifying. My team mates this year consisted of; Alessandro Balzan – last year’s champion who will be joining me in the car for the whole 14′ season, Toni Vilander – a Finnish factory Ferrari driver who has been competing in similar red cars for the last 10 years, and Lorenzo Case – an Italian pro driver with Ferrari GT2 experience, most recently finishing 2nd at the 24HRS of Le Mans.
Balzan and I will race the full season together, Toni joined us for the 24, and Lorenzo will join us for the remaining long events (Sebring, Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, Petit Le Mans). Toni was slated to qualify for us, and we knew the car was pretty solid, but with his herculean effort we landed P2 of 29, starting on the front row of our GTD field. Honestly speaking qualifying for such a long race isn’t so much the focus, but it’s more of a confirmation of our plan, car, drivers and strategy. Starting towards the front is never a bad thing. We went to the at-track catering tent after all the prep was done on the car as a team, all 50 people to enjoy dinner together before the start of our 36HR day and 24HR race.
Saturday, race day….. So many feelings, with the new series being ironed out, there are a few rules that are changing up until the drop of the green flag, that truthfully could influence who gets hired to drive and who doesn’t. As drivers we are always jockeying for approval from the owner providing the car/team, but at this moment it’s time to shift focus to the race, the competitors, the strategy and physical work load I am about to put my body through. Manufacturers are still making pleas for help with the BOP (Balance of Performance) to give there car more of an advantage going forward into the season, a set of regulations controlling weight of car, intake restriction, wing gurney size, vehicle ride height, and maximum rev’s used from the engine. IMSA will use this every race to “keep the balance of performance”……. In the past, it was who wrote a bigger check but here’s to hoping that doesn’t happen with new management ;)
The green flag drops and I have a feeling of confidence as I have great faith in all of my teammates. This 24HR, I feel I am apart of the most competitive driver line up that I’ve ever raced with, so that allows me to relax a little bit more when I am not behind the wheel, sliding our car around the 3.5 mile race track’s hairpins in the infield, and flat out on the banking, lap after lap.
For the first 16 Hours we were fluctuating between 1st and 5th position, depending on pit stop cycles, and things were going fantastic. I had a radio issue in my first stint (Hr 4-6) where I couldn’t hear pit lane, which made strategy calls and pit stops much more volatile than they needed to be, but we got through them successfully without loosing much if anything. The car felt good, fuel mileage was in check with what we calculated prior the start, and it was my job to get in later on for the 3rd time in the race, and take us to hour 18.
The pace of the race was faster than it ever has, but while I was moving the Ferrari around the track in the 1.49.00 range, I was also lifting off the gas 30 yards before my brake point, then braking after my usual brake point to save fuel, and stretch our mileage. We learned that the Porsche, although given the same amount of fuel was able to go 6 laps more than us, which was dangerous as we closed in on the end of the race. The tactic described above is standard protocol to save a little distance of full throttle with the least speed lost, conserving fuel on a 25 lap fuel tank length. I came into pit for the second time, handing the car over to Balzan and being told that I was done for the race. “Ahhh”, fatigued, dehydrated, hungry and wired all at the same time, I retreat to the catering tent to grab breakfast.
As I sit eating buffet style scrambled eggs, I watch the live feed on the TV near the long table. Much to my chagrin, I see our #63 Ferrari off track, pulling behind the wall under it’s own power. Balzan was passing a lapped car (#19 Porsche) who was 12 seconds off the pace and 40 laps down at the time, when the amateur driver panicked, lost control of his car, tagged us and pushed us into the wall, breaking our steering rack.
“Seriously!!!???? All of this hard work, prep and execution thus far, gone.” We would end up loosing 30+ mins (16 laps) in the garage while the crew feverishly changed the steering rack to get us back out on track to collect points/positions for the season championship, but all hopes of shooting for the win or the podium were finished. Such a huge let down, felt like I was kicked in the gut actually…borderline queasy.
We came back into the race in 13th and ultimately finished 11th, ahead of many of the full season competitors that are expected to be strong, but bittersweet because of the potential shown from the team. One would ask do I blame Balzan? Its a solid question, but driving with him all of last year, and seeing the #19 on track, there wasn’t a lot he could do to avoid that situation. We will move on forward, and prep our car for the 12 HR of Sebring, another barn burner of a race, with intensity and history. The pit crew did an amazing job, executing 25 pit stops flawlessly, with little to no sleep, multiple driver changes, and lots of gallons of fuel with no problems at all, which is a great sign moving forward into the remaining races.
My feelings are disappointment, yet excitement for the next event, a combination that awkwardly abnormal, yet commonplace in this sport, because for the next 5 weeks, I will be thinking about Daytona, and dealing with that feeling until we get another task…… Sebring