In his first blog entry for theCheckeredFlag.co.uk Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge driver Stevan McAleer reflects on the second round of his season and a first race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Driving with CJ Wilson Racing Stevan and co-driver Marc Miller take on a 2.5 hour race at the F1 track. We don’t want to give away the ending!
After a disappointing weekend at Daytona, I arrived at the seriously cool Circuit of the Americas on the Wednesday of the race. CoTA really is, however way you look at it, a purpose built Formula 1 track and an A+ facility. My team mate in the #5 CJWR MX-5, Marc Miller, and I were psyched to say the least. I asked the person next to me, on the plane, if he knew how far the track was from the airport. I can’t describe the rush I got when I saw it right out the window, as we came into land, and the excitement was real.
I arrived at the track at around 4pm to help the team finish setting up the awning and trailer. Our spot in the paddock was right by the already famous spotter tower with it’s amazing viewing platform 300 feet above the track. My first priority, on Thursday morning, was to go up and see what the view was like. I am totally scared of heights and that, combined with the freezing wind chill and the swaying of the tower made the whole thing pretty daunting – but more of that in a moment.
Thursday morning was a promoter test day for the Continental Tire Series. My team mate, Marc and I agreed to split the races down the middle this year in terms of who finishes and who starts. This week, it was my turn to finish the race so he went out in first practice. After helping Derek Guthrie, my crew chief, get the final touches ready to the car, I made my way, as promised, to the spotter tower. I will cut to the chase. We’ve established that it’s high, maybe too high for such an early morning start. I got to the top in time to catch the final 25 minutes of Rolex Series practice. After playing around the edges and walking across the glass floor which almost gave me a heart attack, I started to study the Rolex cars. Not so much the prototypes but the GT class. I wanted to watch their lines and how much kerbing they were using. This was important information to relay back to the team. “Can we cheat by short cutting a corner and get away with it right?” Ha! A better way to put that is, “can we over use certain areas where we will not get penalized and gain an advantage?” After a quick hello with one of my old Skip Barber instructors ‘MHP’, as he is known, I made my way back down to convey all of this new data to the other three CJ Wilson Racing drivers.
Marc Miller and our team mate, Jason Saini in #3 head & shoulders car were fast straight away first practice. I was quite excited by this. Standing there with my helmet on I eagerly awaited the 20 minute mark of the 45 minute session where we would practice a live driver change. The #5 car entered pit lane and now it was my turn to play. We did a quick driver swap then I was able to relax and gather my thoughts for a few seconds as Derek took the tyre pressures then before I knew it, I was away!
I could not believe that Turn 1 could be as steep and blind as it was. As I began to get comfortable, I started beaming under my helmet and telling my crew, over the radio, that I was so thankful for the opportunity and how “bleeping awesome it was!” I’ll be honest, I messed up a few times, missed a few shifts which frustrated me a little but I had a blast. We had a great day going P1 in the opening session and then P3 in the next. It was looking like a promising weekend.
Friday was qualifying day. Marc was qualifying the car this time around and he really did a great job putting the car in P3. I could not have been more excited even if I’d been in the car. The day got even better when my team mate, Chad McCumbee, in the #3 CJ Wilson Racing MX-5 took the first pole position ever for our team and Chad’s first since he raced at Salem Speedway in an ARCA stock car in 2005. We left tech inspection with both cars cleared and our heads held high. Race day could not come fast enough.
Over the course of the weekend, I had begun to think I wasn’t driving fast enough. I missed some shifts on great laps and on other fast laps I was held up by traffic. I was more annoyed at the fact that my lap times showed me being 3 seconds slower than Marc, Chad and Jason. The data showed I could match their times but I hadn’t recorded a fast lap at all. Marc told me he was a little worried so I went home with him early and we skipped dinner to look over data and video. I knew I had it in me and wasn’t prepared to let a possible podium slip away because of some errors so I studied the data for a few hours.
Race day – Again just like Daytona the excitement was through the roof but at the back of my mind I knew that we really needed a good result. We simply had to make up for the bad finish at Daytona. Going into the weekend, I think we would have both been happy with top 8. After practice we knew we had a real shot at a podium, maybe even a win. Marc got a great start and held his starting position under the green flag. Ten or so laps in he made the pass for 2nd and began to chase down the leader, Chad in the other CJWR team car. Things were going perfectly to plan. At the 30 minute mark, I began to get my race gear on ready for the call to swap drivers. As I was doing this, I got the call to hurry up as the race had just gone under full course caution. This meant Marc was pitting and I was taking over. The first thing I thought was wow ‘ok here goes.’ Second I thought ‘wow! I am going to be driving as fast as I can for close to two hours straight.’ I was so excited the guys said they thought I was dancing in the pit box.
Marc brought the car into pit lane in P2. We did a great driver change and I left pit lane directly behind Jason Saini who had taken over from Chad in the #3 team car. They did a great stop also and we both left pit lane in the same order. I have never had as much fun in my life as I did over those next two hours. So much happened I could be here all day telling stories. The racing was fierce, the track was great and the last 10 minutes of my race I will remember for the rest of my life. Having come out in P12 due to any of our rivals not making pit stops, I worked my way up to 4th place before another full course caution bunched up the field. The race went green again with about 25 minutes to go. We lost some positions due to our lack of straight line speed. Some of the FWD cars are quicker in a straight line so they beat me to the first corner. The cool thing with this it made for a real exciting race for the fans. So as I said I got shuffled down to 4th but got in my rhythm and caught 3rd with 10 minutes to go. The driver in 3rd was reigning Continental Tire Series ST Champion, Pierre Kleinubing and, of course, he made it as difficult as possible to get by. I cleared him and started my hunt on Tom Long in the Freedom Motorports MX-5 in P2 and Terry Borcheller’s leading BMW 135i. I caught them and cleared them as the white flag come out. I was actually leading a Continental Tire Series race with one lap to go. I had to keep focus. I knew everyone was watching, I knew the team was watching and for God damn sure Speed TV was watching. We got to the long back straight and I knew I didn’t have enough of a lead to hold off the straight line speed of the BMW so Borcheller cleared me fairly easily. The moment he passed me, I told myself that this was our race and I was going to find an opening to retake the lead. 5 corners to go I got by him and I won’t lie I was pretty excited with the move I made on him. I made it stick and now I just had to close the deal. Tom Long made a move to take P2 away from Borcheller on the next corner as he had the momentum and I tried my best not to smile. I could already taste the Champagne. However many race have been lost on the last corner so I kept my composure right down to the line. WE DID IT!!! We won Round 2 of the Continental Tire Series at Circuit of the Americas! I screamed down the radio the entire lap; I couldn’t believe what we had just accomplished. The tears were there, the emotion was there and when I saw Marc Miller’s tears as I pulled the car into victory lane, I knew that he wanted it just as much as I did!
The Team was going crazy, the fans were going crazy for the last lap battle and Mazda had completed a 1-2 finish. I don’t think I have ever felt so good taking a chequered flag. Multiple interviews later we rushed to the Grand Prix podium, where we stood on the top step. A very proud moment for CJ Wilson, his team, Marc my team mate, Declan Brennan my crazy Irish manager, and for Jason & Chad in the other car.
The team perspective leaving Circuit of the Americas was 180 degrees from where it was leaving Daytona . We are going to go after the 2013 Continental Tire Series ST Championship and the fight starts at Barber Motorsports Park, in Alabama next month.
Bring it on!