Where to start…. Well, the weeks leading up to my first go at this historic event has been a little hectic but it’s mostly all of my own doing, so I really can’t blame anyone but yours truly.
As a pro driver, most of us pick up consulting work between races as it’s a great way to expand your network and earn while you wait for your next primary earning weekend. Keeping the lights on is important, and although there are pro’s and con’s to living everywhere in this beautiful country, one of the con’s to living in California is that the day-to-day cost of things, land, etc is quite high. So it requires more income to be comfortable, and San Francisco is a prime example of this. Happy Hours are my best friend, but enough of the locational issues.
In the last 15 days I have been coaching at the racing school—my clients privately and then for my Ferrari team’s client-based “Ferrari Challenge” race program in Palm Springs, N. Los Angeles, & Sonoma. A travel schedule something like—travel Tuesday to palm springs at night after a full day in Sonoma with the racing school, Wednesday at palm springs with private clients, fly home Wednesday night, Thursday & Friday back up in Sonoma, drive down for Sunday in palm springs with Ferrari challenge clients, Monday in N. Los Angeles with Ferrari Challenge, drive back up north for Wednesday in Sonoma with the racing school, and then squeezing in a 4 day commercial shoot for BMW (Thu – Sun), precision driving in 10-13 HR days.
The Monday of race week, I was back in Sonoma for a Ferrari Challenge client test day and Tuesday morning at 07:00 on the plane to Sebring, Florida. For those that think drivers just wait about until the next race, this gives you a look at my “work week”, which isn’t all glitz and glamour of the pre-grid with a beautiful red Ferrari 458.
Having said this, I am tired from all the travel and hectic schedule, amidst trying to move forward with other big life acquisitions at the same time, but I LOVE IT. I get to cherish the day or two sporadically in the month where I can escape for a few hours and run 5-13 miles, hop on my road bicycle and just check out for 2-5 HRs, enjoy some scenery and push my cardio limits up the hills around the SF bay area.
Now I sit on the plane, taking all the clutter of managing schedules, clients preferences for learning during coaching days, scheduling new coaching days in the future, invoices, setting up endorsement deals, etc. Then I get to focus on one thing…making my 4 Continental Tires and my Ferrari 458 work to the maximum for every square foot of the Sebring 12 HR race circuit this weekend.
The 12 HR is a race I’ve never competed in, on a track that I’ve never seen in it’s entirety, so my focus is 110% now. Time to be that sponge I was when I started my racing career knowing literally nothing about anything, just that I liked to go fast and had a knack for driving a car on a knife edge of hooked up, and sliding into corners.
Listen to every piece of advice from the mixed experience of my co-drivers for this endurance event, study video, and to some degree, some GOOD OL’ trial and error. The race circuit is extremely bumpy, so much so that our car will likely touch the ground 3-5 times per lap and there is nothing we can do about it. We compete on an old airport, which means little “bumps” for military aircraft that are acceptable become massive rollers for a 1.5 ton racecar sitting 2.5 inches off the ground.
I am extremely excited for this race though, because I think it’s a chance for some redemption from our Daytona 24. We’ve added a new driver to our roster since Toni has World Endurance Championship commitments from Ferrari, and I think the ex-Formula 1 driver Stefan Johansson will be a great person to bounce ideas off of regarding the circuit considering he’s won here before.
Wednesday is an easy day for us, team meetings in the morning, I will be coaching some private clients in a support series of ours for the day with their Porsche GT3 Cup cars, and we have driver change practice later in the day with the crew to make sure we are competent in and out of the car during the event…… that whole 25sec. or less target time for driver in and out of the car, ready to leave the box with gear on.
Thursday we hit the track for the first time, with 4 hours of practice prior to the race, and 4 drivers to get up to speed. The inevitable red flag during practice causing run-time loss will occur, so I reckon we actually will have to get the car set up, and 4 drivers ready to race.
Just after the 2-days on track leading up to the race, my synopsis on the 12HR circuit is as follows:
1. This track is Mega
2. Can’t believe I am here for this historic event
3. Turn 1 is a mother
4. My back is going to be sore after this race
The track didn’t take too long for me to get comfortable, I had 12 times through start/finish over 2 days and 4 sessions, and I was able to do a 2.05.xx on 2-stint old tires, which should put me in the 2.04’s on new rubber (pole position was 2.04.2). It is extremely bumpy, so much so that if you tighten up expecting the hit each lap it ends up hurting worse. Its best to relax and be Raggedy Ann, I expend less energy that way. I found the nighttime here isn’t as bad as I expected and the visibility was quite good with our headlights (with “good” being a relative term for 40 meters of visibility). I cannot wait to take the green flag tomorrow and put in my stints in the asset.
Qualifying; the top 15 cars of 25 were within .9 of a second, and the top 8 were within .5 second, so the racing should be tremendous, and our #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari qualified 5th. I am cautiously optimistic about tomorrow’s race due to the fact that this event is notorious for being equally as grueling as the 24HRs of Daytona, so we will head into the race tomorrow with our best foot forward, and I will bring the A-Game since TNVC expects nothing less ;)
Fast forward to Saturday morning, all the pre-race festivities are done, bar the opening ceremony and the national anthem, which I enjoy. It’s a sporting event, but the pride for our freedom in this country is something I am very grateful for, that we get to enjoy events like the 12HR of Sebring and not worry about many things people in other parts of this world deal with on a daily basis, and we have our heroes to thank!
The opportunity to compete for a living has been my dream since I was a child, so I am humbled by my good fortune. I put on my gear around 9am, and head out to pit lane for pre-grid, and opening ceremony. As I leave the trailer, I feel the “zone” starting to come over me, that feeling you get when you’re out of body, present on location for a task with no other alternative but success. I train physically to allow myself to tap into this focus more easily. Running and cycling long distance help my brain function in subconscious, which is when my brain can process the most information while awake. It’s 10am, “clear the grid” over the loud speaker is called, so all fans must return to the paddock or their respective viewing areas. I walk over to wish my teammate good luck for the green flag, knowing I’ll be getting in shortly after him. Not long after the flag drops, the ear buds go in, and the TNVC lid goes on, as do the gloves….
An early caution causes the team to put me in after 20 minutes or so of racing, to save Alessandro in the heat of the day for his time later in the night. We drivers must complete a minimum drive time in the car in order to score the points of the finishing position of the car, so my task is to get my required drive time in the beginning half of the race, protect the car, and of course keep it towards the front while battling the cabin temperature in the mid afternoon of Florida.
I am the most fit of the drivers in the car, so the thought was to use me when conditions were the worst. We opted to take early yellows to refill the fuel tank so that one stint for a driver would actually be 1.5 fuel tanks, maximizing drive time without completely wiping us drivers out.
I lost 2-3lbs (water weight) in my first 1.5 hours due to the safety equipment and the heat inside the cabin, and it wasn’t even a HOT day. You wonder why the $2000 race suit is more expensive than the $650 one, this is why. The suits we were given from a sponsorship program (Company will remain nameless) are like plastic bags, not very expensive (or good looking) and they will protect from fire, but they will not breathe to help keep the person cool. If I had to choose, I’d probably use this suit for snow racing.
Upon getting out of the car it became apparent that I was overheated, dizzy, on the verge of throwing up, my hands had little feeling and were stiff to move and my low back was cramped. I took a Gatorade and a recovery drink with magnesium, as well as plain water and took a cold shower in the motor home.
Within 25 minutes I was starting to feel like myself again. I started stretching to loosen the muscles up in the lower back and legs, and then suit up and head back to the pit lane within 1 Hour of my first stint. That first stint’s result was: lost positions with our splash of fuel, I believe down to 14th, then I drove us to the lead, pitted and we left pit lane with my co driver behind the wheel in 3rd.
It’s very important to stretch our lower back as drivers, on TV it looks like we drive into a corner, press the brakes and turn the wheel. Actually we are breaking at the threshold of the tire grip, just before locking them up (with no ABS) and the brake system requires WAY more effort than the streetcars most of us drive every day.
To put in to perspective, when the pedal is pushed on a standard road car (car, truck, suv, etc.) very hard to stop in a panic, normal civilians use somewhere between 250-300 psi of pressure in the brake system. In race cars, I’ve needed 1200lbs of pressure on the initial input, which to be honest even with my training for this purpose feels like I am kicking the brake pedal about as hard as I can, trying to make my kick the same amount each time, and have subtle variations for the different grip levels in all the different corners of the track. Think about doing this 5-15 times per lap, every lap for hours while the car is 120+ degrees and your wearing many fireproof layers in case there is some catastrophic failure.
My next stint, I was suiting up not long after recovering from my first, honestly feeling like I wouldn’t mind them using a different driver rather than doubling me up after my first one so quickly, but I tell myself, “It could be worse!” so I keep quiet and prepare for the task at hand. I was given the car in 6th place, and left pit lane with a full 90 liters of fuel and new tires. It was a caution, so I met back up with the pack/field behind the safety car and awaited the green flag to start racing.
The team called in the cars ahead for position, the green flag dropped and off we went. What felt like 5 minutes later, I was in second catching the leader, made the pass and put our #63 Ferrari at the front of the field again. I led for quite a few laps, basically until we needed fuel, then another caution came out and I slowed behind the pace car, waiting to hear orders from the team. It had been over 40 minutes, yet I had felt like it was a blink of an eye. The team said I had reached my minimum drive time and that they would be pitting during this yellow for “full service”, which means driver change, fuel and tires.
Upon my exit from the car, the team owner and his partner greeted me on what a great stint they thought it was, which I was happy with as well. I gave my feedback on the balance of our racecar from beginning of stint to the end, so they can prepare the car the most potently for the sprint at the last 2 Hours of the race. We had a very well balanced car from full fuel tank to empty, which is a great sign for the rest of the race to come.
At this point, I was feeling like we had a chance for redemption post Daytona, the car was in good shape, and we were sitting in a good position with less than 6 HRs to go. I went back to the motor home, took a shower and put on some dry clothes while I listened to the radio from car to pit box.
With around 4 Hrs to run, I heard a message from the #63 that we had a fuel pressure alarm come on, with the engine suffering greatly. Long story short, after 20 minutes of diagnosis in pit lane on why the engine wouldn’t run, we had a fuse blow that provided power to the fuel pump.
Unfortunately the bad luck has struck again, as we lost 9 laps from this first instance of no fuel pressure. The car uses “direct injection” which puts the fuel injector at the top of the cylinder, which has a better atomization of liquid than traditional fuel injectors. The positives are better mileage with more efficient fuel distribution in the cylinder, and more horsepower per fuel used. However the downside is the injectors need extremely high pressure to operate correctly, something like 200 bar from the high-pressure fuel pump. And when that pump operates at ANYTHING but 100%, the engines power output is compromised, or doesn’t run at all.
We had the problem crop up two more times before the end of the race, so it’s worrisome on why it keeps happening, however the team will investigate it and hopefully have a solution before our next event which is May 2-4 at Monterey (Laguna Seca Raceway). We ended up 18th which was a massive disappointment based on our early race pace, but that’s racing!