We arrived at Barber Motorsports Park with high expectations, fresh from our win at Circuit of the Americas. We knew the MX-5 was going to be competitive here, even before we turned a wheel. The track is very twisty with very few straights, something which really suits the Mazda platform. Suffice to say the whole team was pretty ecstatic when we got there.
The first test session went great and we were P4 with plenty left in the bag. We made some minor set up changes and we were back out for session two where we ended P4 again, this time with the car more to our liking. We were ready for qualifying.
The track had been wet/dry all weekend. We missed the official practice session as it was wet and we were guaranteed that race day was going to be dry, so we took no chances of damaging the car. Overall I think this was a benefit for us as our car was strong on the test day and our main rivals had no dry running and therefore couldn’t find any more speed before qualifying.
Friday morning came and it was my weekend to throw down one good lap to get us up the front for the start of the race. I left pit lane with my CJWR team mate Chad [McCumbee] right behind me in the sister car and started to warm up my tires. I was setting a gap to the next car ready for my first qualifying lap. I got within three corners of the start and finish line and made a small mistake. I spun the car in turn 11 as I hit some mud and Alabama dirt that had been dragged onto the racing line during a previous session. Luckily enough Chad got round me and there was no further incident. I got the car pointing in the right direction and proceeded to get back on it ready for a good lap. But I noticed a black flag in the second last corner, so I came in. There had been a huge accident with one of the BMW’s which caused the session to be stopped. Luckily the driver was ok but we lost the entire session as they couldn’t fix the track in time. This resulted in us starting the race in championship standing order which put me 8th on the grid.
I was a pretty disappointed about the lost qualifying session as Marc [Miller] and I were sure that this was our chance to get our first pole position of the year. I was, however, excited to start back in 8th and I relished the opportunity to work my way through the field. I love starting in a group and finding gaps, so this was quite exciting for me.
Getting into the car, pre-race, I was nervous as I knew the event last year had been littered with incidents and much of it had been run under caution. Coming on the front straight watching for the green flag is so exciting, it really never gets old. I anticipated the green flag perfectly and made up one place into turn 1. I’ve got to admit it was so tight at the start, I can now look back and smile at how close the racing was at the start, that’s the stuff I really love the most. By the end of the first lap, I was in 4th place and catching the leaders. I got as far as 2nd and then had a great battle, for the lead, with Jesse Combes in the BMW. We swapped the lead a bunch of times before the first caution came out. So with 45 minutes gone, it was time to swap with Marc. We did a pretty fantastic stop, very fast and very precise. We got left pit lane ahead of everyone else who pitted under caution. Marc ended up in P2 on the restart because Tom Long in the Freedom MX-5 had pitted before the caution and now had the lead. I wasn’t worried one bit as I knew Marc would hunt Tom down. I was right to be confident as, over the next few laps, Marc cut the lead from five seconds to two. With an hour to go Marc came on the radio and said he had lost drive in the Museum turn. There was disappointment on the face of pretty much every crew member in pit lane. Marc managed to get the car back to our pit where the team fixed a broken drive axle but we lost position and, eventually, 15 laps with the repair. It was important to get back out and the team’s commitment helped us gain a 24th place finish and 7 vital points which was absolutely worth all of the effort. Chad and Jason in the other car finished 3rd, it was a great result for them but a mixed result overall for the team.
One of the best parts of the trip was the fact that my brothers, Gregg and Stuart, came over from Scotland, to watch. We spent a day in NY before all traveling together to Alabama. Their eyes lit up when Andris [Laivins], our crew chief, told them they could be part of the pit crew during the race and that they would be responsible for the fire bottle. That meant full masks, full fireproof suits and jumping over the pit wall into pit lane during a live driver stop. They were over the moon to be part of such a great weekend and I was so happy for them to see me drive in the Continental Tire Series. It was quite a big difference from my old karting days. We had a blast the only thing that was missing was a good result but just like at CoTA, Marc and myself proved that we are one of the best driver combinations in the series and once again we are looking forward to clawing our way back into the title fight.
So we move onto Atlanta in two weeks and we are far from out it. We will make up the deficit and it will make it even sweeter when we do.