I am feverishly teaching for Simraceway, at Sonoma Raceway while I am also thinking about how to make this deal happen. The deal that puts my rear hide back into a Grand Sport class racecar in Grand Am competition, which this weekend happens to be at the local facility of Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. Thus is the life of most professional racecar drivers. We are Jack’s of all trades, putting in more hours off the track on a cell phone or a laptop than actually behind the wheel doing what we love. But it’s that love for the sport that keeps us going. Keeps up testing the relationships of those close to us with our commitment, all for the thrill of taking the green flag and putting your racing craft and metal to the test of your 50-60 something peers on the track with you that day, all for the sweet smell of sticky champagne all over your uniform and hat at the end of the day, all for knowing on this day, you were the best out there.
The ride in question is Cameron Racing’s Mustang Boss 302R in the GS class of Grand Am Continental Sports Car challenge, the exact series I was hired to drive in by the late Insight Racing with their BMW M3 in races of past, but since then have been radio silence due to the team’s dispersion. Cameron Racing needed a second driver desperately due to the co-drivers sponsor who was attending the event to scout a potential investment in 2013. Being local to the shop I was a favorite for the job, not to mention my experience in the rough and tumble wheel-to-wheel series that is Continental Sports Car Challenge, (one of my favorite places to compete!) due to the depth of the field.
I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with the thought of competing again. I got up at 6am and drove down to Monterey, Ca so I could check in with Cameron Racing and see if I was needed to pilot the #150 Boss 302. I arrived in Monterey with roughly 3 hours until the first session of the promoter test day. My gut was telling me I was good to go, but as I have learned in this industry, nothing is every concrete. Contracts can be broken, promises unfulfilled, and the unexpected can, or should I say, “will” occur at some point. After I checked in with team principal Steve Cameron, he casually said “okay, go ahead and grab your stuff and hop in to test fit the car.”
Test fitting a sedan style racecar is much less time consuming than a formula car, all you’re really checking is ergonomics of switches, pedals and seat position. By contrast, in a formula car, you’re basically making a seat from scratch as well as adjusting the controls.
I suit up, open the door and greet the cockpit I would be manipulating the limits of adhesion in by sliding my 32 waist into the Recaro seat. Shortly after confirming the comfort inside the Mustang, I hop out, meet my co driver, some of his sponsors and media personnel. These are people I could get to know quite well if a deal gets done for 2013 which is my hope, however like I mentioned before, nothing is set in stone, so in essence it’s a first impression as well as a job interview all at once for both parties.
I head out at first to get a read on the car based on my experience with the series and tires, which could’ve been one of the most interesting contrasts I’ve felt in a long time. I was comparing the Boss 302R to the Insight Racing BMW M3 I piloted earlier this year, and found a few obvious differences.
The BMW was much more positive on the brakes, giving more feedback and confidence into the corner with a better balance in the chassis, however the Ford had massive traction off the corner, as well as a surprisingly linear power band. Imagine a big 180 corner, the BMW makes most of its lap time on the front half of the turn, where as the Ford is weakest, but the Mustang thumps the competition from the second half of the corner and onto the straightaway.
If I had to explain the sensation of the Ford brake pedal, it would be like a piece of wood. Hard pressure is required, and the feedback the pedal gives is vague with friction that feels like two 2×4’s are rubbing together. Initial bite was weak, which made the long, fast corners of Laguna Seca tricky since it was easy to overdrive our car on the way in, especially when following one of the more capable cars at corner entry. But boy do they come back to you at the exit.
I went from a straight face to a perm-a-grin at the exit of each corner in my helmet. This would prove to be an interesting race, as the BMW’s would have an advantage on new rubber, but on bad rubber the Ford wouldn’t be a bad choice, allowing me to set people up into the next braking zone. Only problem is it’s would require a pretty significant “stuff” on the brakes, which would result in a big loss in lap time with each maneuver.
Thursday ended with Steve Cameron and I talking about the setup changes we made during my short run of 10 laps, and what the best step is to get ready for tomorrow, as Friday would be a full day of practice, and by that I mean 2 sessions split in half each for both drivers, meaning we’d both get another 10 or so quality laps each before we needed to lock in on the qualifying package.
The car’s balance was actually close considering the strengths and capabilities of the Mustang, we decided to make a small rebound change in the front of the car to see if we could help the Ford keep some grip up front upon brake release at corner entry. Rebound controls the speed at which the front spring releases energy. Imagine you squish a spring with your fingers, compression or bump is the shock control or dampening of the spring being squished, and rebound is the shock controlling how the spring releases as your fingers un-squish the spring. Rebound affects the cars ability to transition left to right quickly, as well as where load stays in the car during braking and acceleration.
This was it, time to test our theories about how to improve our Ford around Laguna Seca’s twisty circuit. I was impressed with how technical Steve Cameron was; he’s a fantastic engineer/owner. The changes we made were positive, as I was able to put the car in 14th out of 30 plus cars during the yellow-flag-plagued practice sessions but most importantly, we were one of the fastest mustangs which is the better bench mark seeing as this track was unlikely to favor the pony car.
The Top ten was mostly Porsche’s, and BMW’s with a few Camaro’s squeaking in there. My team mate was roughly 2 seconds off my pace, which isn’t unheard of in this series as you get all kinds of experience levels, but if he could just keep the car clean in the first 45 minutes, I would be able to go to town with the field in the last hour and forty five minutes. Some of the best Pro-amateur pairings have a one second discrepancy between the two drivers, so we weren’t out of the ballpark.
As the day went on, I caught myself doing the thing that all drivers say you mustn’t…thinking about the business half of the sport, sponsorship, dollars needed to start my own team, or find a team that wants to hire me, so on and so forth. It’s tough to focus on the task of driving when so much goes into getting that small amount of time in the car. Until a deal is signed, I can’t blame myself, but I knew I had to find a way to curb those thoughts and think about the car, only, when I am in the car. The most productive a driver can be, is when he isn’t worried about his future, just driving in the moment. Thus is the paradox that is being a professional racing driver, if only I could find some Maldonado funding!
I was going to crash in a friends hotel room who was also racing at the event, but I decided I’d like to have a room to myself, so I found some dinner for cheap, and a room to boot where I could rest my head and be ready for the drivers meeting at 9am at the track on Saturday morning. I knew I would get a good deal on my hotel room when I checked into the place and the front desk also doubled as a gas station convenience store counter…… yes……I said it. The hotel was bordering a gas station—one of those all in one spots about 20 minutes north of the racetrack. I just kept telling myself, you have to do what you have to do!
Excited would be an understatement, I was ecstatic, back racing and on my game! I stop by the Starbucks on my way into the track to grab breakfast (coffee) and head to the meeting. If you’d have asked me 3 years ago about breakfast, to say coffee only would’ve been sacrilege, but over the years I have learned how to cope with what you get, and not be unsettled by small stuff.
Drivers meeting down, back to the car we go, making last minute changes to the interior to speed up our driver change effort for the race today. Up next was qualifying, where the starting driver will do the job. This meant my teammate would have the qualifying responsibility for our #150 Mustang, as I sat out and cheered him on. I gave him a few last tips on how to get the most out of the car, and then wished him luck! I spent the better part of Saturday entertaining the potential sponsor for 2013, who turned out to be quite an enjoyable person.
My teammate’s first flying lap put us in P20, and then something strange happened. Laguna Seca has radar guns in a few spots on the track with MPH readings digitally above that spot on the track. On his flyer I saw 119mph under the bridge which was normal. He lost time to me at the exit typically, meaning that I was faster down most of the straights by a mph or two and the best cars I saw posted a 121mph.
However, his second lap I saw 116, and the third I saw less. Followed by a radio message, “I smell something funny, I think the motor is hurt”. My mouth hung agape. I asked Steve to please tell me he was kidding, but he wasn’t. We got back to the trailer, and the car appears with no useable drive, just coasting in to the transporter. Upon trying to re fire the engine, it seems we lost an oil pump and surprisingly had sustained some damage on the top end (not the bottom end). Either way it would require an engine change as a precaution for the crank and rods (bottom end) running with no oil, and engine change that we did not have time for. The race began in 2.25 hours, and Steve said he needed 4 to get a block in and out of the tub. Keep in mind these cars started life as street going vehicles, or close to it, and have been modified into racecars. So taking off the nose of the vehicle isn’t a 2-minute, 6-fastener job like it would be on most racecars.
At this point, Cameron Racing was dead in the water, incapable of making the green flag, we’d have to sit this one out. Gut wrenched would be an appropriate description for how I was feeling; so close to getting back in the saddle, yet so far. If I have learned one thing in my few years competing as an athlete in this sport, it is to expect the unexpected, and always be prepared for the worst.
Unfortunately the weekend didn’t go as I had planned, however I was able to make an appearance and a good showing in front of the series/teams I plan to race with next year, as well as meet the potential sponsor of Cameron Racing for 2013 whom seemed to really like me, which could end up in a favorable situation next season. All in all, I just want to be racing my car door to door with some of the best competition in the United States, and frankly the world. In the US most drivers are under rated, but when some travel abroad to compete and run at the front in other sports car events (DTM, WEC, FIA GT3) it gives a whole new perspective to the hierarchy of motorsport. Especially if you’ve been faster than your teammate whom competes in Europe ;)