Editor’s Note: We are incredibly grateful for our friendship with professional driver Jeff Westphal and his taking time to unpack the sport for us as well as the world of being a race car driver. Few of us truly understand what it takes to be a professional driver and Jeff’s column truly unpacks that for us. I big hat tip to Jeff Westphal and his team, Scuderia Corsa, for the win in Detroit and for helping fans understand the sport better through the eyes of the driver of the #63 Ferrari 458.
Travel, Detroit and being early…really early
As I board the first of my two flights on the Wednesday before the race, I’ve already had my mind focused on the weekend. The kind of focus that allows you to show up at the airport one day early for your flight, only to realize you’ve packed, got dressed at 0700 and left your place in a whir for nothing.
That was my Tuesday, so much to US Airways, the ticket agent’s and my surprise, I had the remainder of Tuesday to myself, which I then proceeded to make use of with a 3 hour bicycle ride to do some cardio work amongst other things. But as I sit on the plane, my mind begins to wander, clearing it’s capacity of all deadlines, jobs and errands that I have pending, because I know that come Saturday morning I will be focused on only one thing—be the best, the fastest, the smoothest I can be in our #63 Ferrari to give my teammate and I the best chance possible at a Ferrari taking the checkered flag first.
I was recently asked if I still experience butterflies or get nervous before a race. After thinking about this for a second, the once uncomfortable butterflies that make you pee 3 times in 30 minutes have now changed into a feeling of anticipation. The unknown still makes me uneasy, but in a way where I can start to visualize a host of different scenarios that will allow me to have a subconscious state of mind when I see the flag man’s arm begin to move and hear “green green green.” As if I have been in the moment before.
As discussed in an earlier AAR, one of the drawbacks of living in California (though I love the day-to-day life and what it has to offer) is long flights/travel days to most of my races. The schedule has a prominent “east coast swing”, so from here on to the Austin, Texas race, I will be flying more or less 4+ hours each direction.
Though on the flip side of sharing space with hundreds of people on a flying cigar, I have lots of time to sit down and write about how the weekend is going or has gone. This particular weekend is going to be busy one, as my client’s race team in World Challenge is going to be racing on the same weekend at the same venue. A Bonus, in one regard to be able to coach/engineer for them and their two Mustangs when I have time, but the downside is the management of my focus becomes more critical as well as trying to find any time at all to even get over to their paddock and help them.
Thursday comes along and I am at the track working on any little nuisance that will distract or take time away from us during the next 2 days. Since the on-track time is so precious, prep from all aspects of the team is paramount. A few meetings go by, equipment checks, and I am with my teammates (sister car #64 has 2 drivers) ready for a track walk at 15:30.
Walking the track
These WALKS can be very important, due to their slow pace as opposed to using a golf cart/scooter; I can pick up minute details in the street circuit. Being that the roads are used publically, and usually designed by a city planner, and executed by another party, details for drainage sometimes are larger than they need to be.
Crowns to the road are almost guaranteed to deal with rain runoff, man hole covers uneven, pavement and re-pavement seams that are not flush, and lastly drainage ditches are all things I am looking at more closely on a street course, on top of the usual corner shape, run off areas, pavement cambers, etc.
The bumps, cambers in the road can affect the car’s handling potential greatly, especially the bumps. There may be a way to avoid hitting the bump, or maybe there isn’t and so I should focus on telling my engineer as much as I can about how the car reacts to it after our first practice so we have the easiest racecar to drive come Saturday.
Work smarter, not harder applies here! The drainage ditches can be particularly dangerous, in that hit once or maybe twice in a 2.75 hour race you may get lucky, but used repeatedly it’s almost guaranteed of a suspension failure. Think of the worst metropolis city street you’ve driven on in a streetcar, with that one bump that you hit and think “yikes!” as you cringe over the jarring movement and loud bang the suspension made at the speed limit. Now imagine hitting that same thing at a minimum of 70MPH, but likely faster, now with a stiff suspension built to control a 3000lb vehicles inertia/platform at speeds of up to 160mph. OUCH!
The track walk (aside from a bunch of camaraderie caught up on between the 4 drivers) reveled that aside from the surface changing quite a lot throughout the lap with different concrete and asphalt, two of the curbs have been changed that will actually allow us to use them without destroying the underside of the car and disrupting the balance of the car mid corner.
This was a huge bonus for me personally because one of my Ferrari’s strengths is the balance and speed from braking zone to center of the corner. With curbs that are now usable, the angle I can attack the corner becomes wider, thus allowing me to carry more speed through the turn and have a better lap time.
Come Friday morning, all the anticipation and preparation comes to a head. We get to take the #63 on the Detroit street circuit for the first time to see where we are in the field. Though we were very quick last year, and I believe we would be good here again, the series has changed. The balance of performance has changed between the different manufacturers of cars (series rules on weight, hp, aero) and some additional talent has joined the entry list since 2013.
Having said that, we were consistently the best Ferrari of the field, yet we suffered straight line MPH and lap time to most of the Audi R8’s, Porsche 911’s and the Aston Martin. The series does a pretty good job of keeping things close to equal, however at the moment if you had to race 1 car I would tell you to grab an R8 as the rules are such that they have superior power, and grip to our Ferrari.
Porsche has played the game well (per usual) and lobbied to get extra help with aero, and horsepower due to the new model 911 being a bigger car that is ultimately slower in top speed than the previous generation and now all the 911’s are “turning up the wick” so to speak.
I don’t expect this B.O.P. to stay the same all year, however, it unfortunately could stay this way for a while. In the two practice sessions we had before qualifying, I had the quickest lap time in my car, yet we were still .7 seconds from the Audi leading the pack. Seeing the rest of the grid, I knew qualifying was going to be very, very close.
My teammate, of whom I have the upmost faith in (a brotherhood sort of trust) qualified our car quite well, running the best time a Ferrari had run yet with less fuel and new tires in qualifying trim, but it put #63 7th on the grid of 21 cars. The top 8 positions were within .8 seconds which equals two things—great racing for the fans, and extremely hard to pass for the drivers!
The feeling from the team and ownership was cautiously optimistic, with a little bit of concern due to an outright lack of sheer pace, so the brains went to work that evening and didn’t leave the track until 9pm or so with the plan for race day tomorrow. I have clients racing in a support series, so after all of my Ferrari duties were covered, I stopped by their hotel to look over data and video from their 2 Mustang team to help them get prepared for Saturday’s race as well.
Saturday morning was an early one, and guess who was restless all night,………this guy! After a late night arrival at the hotel (2300 or so) and a 0530 wake up call, I was dressed and sleep walking down to the super luxurious rental car ride to the track.
If you’ve ever been to the circus and witnessed lots of people get out of a very small car, that was Scuderia Corsa, like the Italian Fiat commercial, in a Chevrolet Spark. My co-driver, the boss, an engineer, myself and our luggage. Normally I can make do with 6 hours of sleep, but when driving racecars a lot, the high heart rate and adrenal spikes start to wear on me and typically can sleep 8-10 hours on a race weekend.
We arrive at the track for a 7am drivers meeting (never again IMSA if you’re reading!!!!) and then get dressed to practice driver changes for our 1 stop in the sprint race at 7:30. Actually I got yelled at by my engineer for being late and squeezing a breakfast in there with the team owner, so by 7:40 I was dressed and getting into the car.
Driver change practice consists of a system my co-driver, driver assist, and myself have developed to help one driver get out of the car (fully unbuckled and unhooked), and the next driver get in, buckled and connected, door shut and car ready to move in less than 25 seconds. Sounds like a short amount of time, except the strategy called for us to be able to do it in less than 17 seconds.
Honestly, we have never been slow in any of our stops as usually fuel takes just about 40 seconds, but with the short nature of this race, fuel was less time since we’d consume and need less fuel to be full again. And to put it into perspective, my best driver change with Alessandro has been 19 seconds, but that was our BEST!
After 5 or 6 tries, working on all the movements that I make, the driver helper makes and teammate makes during this process, we were able to get it done in 16.5 seconds. This seems like a small win in a big picture, yet with our stop being less than 17, we can pit, take 2 tires instead of 4, add fuel and change drivers without a wasted second. Our calculations told us that we could maybe do the race on 1 set of tires, yet taking the heavily used side of tires off to be safe would’t hurt as long as it didn’t set us back any more time in pit lane. This will come into play later as you read further, yet with these practiced and ironed out it was 8am and I was leaving the paddock to head out for our warm up.
Two more pit stop practices later in warm up, and now headed back to the tent we discussed the car’s balance with some changes we wanted to try for the race day rubbered up track. At 09:30 there was an autograph session that lasted until 10:45, Then by 11:00 I was suited and ready to take the car out to pit lane before the recon laps.
The fan walk which allows fans to get next to the cars on hot pit lane before the race lasted another 45min, and then it was go time. If I had my way I would take a nap in the trailer, but my engineer has been implementing his rules on procedure, which means I am ready to move the car for the entire 45 mins before the recon laps. Imagine yourself as a child denied dessert….. “awww mannnnnnn”.
As I climb in the racecar around 11:45, I start to visualize the start and what I want to happen. For me, visualization is key to executing a plan during a race since it’s so easy to get overly amped up, it’s one of the tricks I use to get my brain in the sub conscious.
The national anthem sounds off, “gentlemen start your engines,” my Ferrari V8 roars to life, and away I go starting the parade lap behind the safety car. The safety car pulls off after I’ve done my best to heat my tires prior to the start, and the green flag is dropped. I make use of the start and immediately take one position on the outside of turn 1 of a street circuit that’s dirty and slippery, but I make it stick, now 6th place chasing the mega fast Aston Martin with it’s V12 and high top speed. The Aston had 5 mph more than us at the end of the straights in practice, but I knew I might be able to coerce the driver into a mistake by applying pressure, so the mirrors I did fill between all corners.
What felt to me like 10 laps later, I finally got the Aston to miss an apex (inside of the corner) and stuck my Ferrari nose in with a plan of rotating my car (sliding purposefully at the entrance) so I could open up my steering input, and apply the throttle to get the best straight line acceleration possible with little wiggles and wheel spin as I was side by side with the Aston on my left. Since the back straight has a slight right bend in it, I was able to hold enough of an advantage with the shorter distance on my side of the track to be able to stay just ahead of the freight train v12 into the braking zone of turn 7, and I am finally be FREE!!!!!
5th place, Now it’s time to unleash the Ferrari and push. I immediately open a gap to the Aston behind since I was able to carry more speed through the corners and run clear of traffic, setting the fastest lap time on the track and chasing down P4. As I reel in the one SRT Viper Gt3 in our class, he has contact with a slower lap-behind car he was overtaking and spins, which after a small slide to change the angle of my car at the apex to avoid him meant we were P4.
P3 pulled into the pits due to damage on the car of some sort, and now I was P3 with 2nd and 1st in the distance. I put the head down and pushed some more while keeping the tires alive so my team mate has the most car possible when he runs to the finish, and before I knew it I was very close to the leaders when a yellow comes out due to a damaged car dropping parts all over the track. I switch the fuel map for the engine in the car to the most conservative (to save fuel) since we are under yellow, and the trio of P1, 2 and myself catch the pace car.
After a few laps of caution before the pits were open, I hear on the radio “we will stop this time for fuel, driver and tires, watch your gap and call out turn 12.” All part of the plan, when I get to T12 I radio into the pit “Turn 12” and I hear “okay, get close to car ahead but mind gap, watch your pit speed, and call out pit lane.”
Five seconds go by, “Pit lane!” as I cross the stripe that measures our speed with our speed limiter on and look for my pit box. “Watch the lollipop, turn now, 3,2,1 stop!” I lock the brakes and slide the last 2 feet to the pit board as I shut the car off in 1st gear, move my seat all the way back, loosen the shoulder belts, undo my harness, disconnect my helmet radio, and climb out of the now open door. I get out of the way as fast as I can, and then slowly walk back over the wall as the race is out of my hands, which is the blessing and the curse of endurance racing I suppose.
My teammate gets in super fast like we practiced; the crew nailed their marks with the tire change and the car left the box in 19 seconds with fuel and 2 new tires. As he drives down pitlane, the two cars that were ahead of us are still servicing during their pitstop/driver change, and so we inherit the lead of the race.
The remainder of the 45 minutes can be described by sudden moments of panic, followed by an assuring calm from within that honestly is unexplainable, but I guess I just felt this was it…all while not wanting to watch.
Alessandro drove super hard, fending off the fastest Audi for the remainder of the green flag racing, and we crossed the line in P1! Actually the Audi tried to pass us with 6 mins to go, Alessandro broke early suckering the #45 into passing us on the outside, which put his tires on the dirty side of the track and caused him to run wide, which let the Porsche in 3rd go by, and then the #48 Audi in 4th by on the next turn since the #45’s tires were still dirty, and then the 555 Ferrari tried to squeak by in the 3rd corner after that, ultimately causing contact to the #45 that was behind us originally.
Now I never wish bad things on anyone, BUT the #45 is the fastest car at the moment who also happens to be P2 in the championship standings, so their contact and poor finish GREATLY helps us in the championship. The other car in the points we are chasing was the 555, which had contact and finished poorly as well—cha-ching!
Ultimately, the podium, champagne, interviews, photo shoots flew by in a blur of pure joy, and then I had to cut it all short, grab my packed bag and head to the airport for my flight in 2 hours. Lifestyles of a race car driver, great job from the boss, now on to the next one.
This feeling will fortunately or unfortunately last until the next race, at which point we are all searching for the next success, the next big triumph, but until then, Team TNVC, Scuderia Corsa and all involved are celebrating the achievement, hard work, perseverance and preparation that we accomplished.
Next up in our TUSC Championship is Watkins Glen in Upstate New York, for the famous 6HRS of the Glen.
Photo Credit: Bob Chapman – autosport Image