As I drove through the gates at Road Atlanta the memories of last year just flooded back as I caught sight of that fantastic sharp descent from turn 10B under the bridge down onto the main straight. It was the scene of one of the greatest moments of my life, winning the Mazda MX-5 Playboy Cup Championship in front of CJ and the entire CJWR crew. I love the place and it was great to be back here seven months on from that momentous October day.
Road Atlanta was the first venue, on this year’s Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge calendar, where I had real racing experience. This meant I could quickly get a handle on just how much more the ST Class MX-5 offered at the track. I came away from the season finale, last year, impressed with how challenging and fun the track is. I now think it is one of my favourite venues in North America.
My team mate, Marc Miller, was first out in the Thursday test session, about half way through we swapped and I did my first laps in our ModSpace MX-5. We finished the session P3 on the time sheets and we were certain that we had some more in the bag. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t trying, the car really was on the edge and I came in with a huge smile on my face. After looking at the data and some video, Marc pointed out that I should be careful using some of the kerbs. I knew certain kerbs unsettled the car and more so in the stiffer sprung ST car but it does widen the radius so I was all for making it work without using too much and damaging the car. When we watched some in car camera footage it showed some seriously heart stopping, high speed moments on track which I honestly didn’t remember. It didn’t just happen once or twice in the session, it happened two or three times a lap! This told me that I was 100% on the limit but my comfort level was there and I could have driven like that on every lap. This simply meant that the moments that would scare most of the population didn’t worry me too much. I believe this came from my ability to quickly adapt to the car and track and was I having a blast in the process.
In the team debrief we discussed some data set up with Jason [Saini] and Chad [McCumbee] in the other CJ Wilson Racing MX-5 and we all had similar ideas on how to improve our lap times. The #3 car, of Jason and Chad, looked a little loose on the exit of corners compared to our #5 car. This was preventing them from developing a flow throughout the lap. Over the course of the day we all worked hard to try and find improvements for both cars. Road Atlanta has such a long back straight that we really had to get the handling absolutely right in order to gain as much time as possible from turns 1 through 7 (the twisty, technical stuff) as we knew we would lose a lot on the agonizingly long back straight.
We managed to finish 4th in testing, which we were very happy about. We knew, however, that track position would be key during the race because if we didn’t maximise our advantage through the turns we were going to get passed on the straights and then blocked in the corners. If this occurred we could easily plummet down the order.
On Friday, we had a warm up session before qualifying and we went out on fresh tires. The ModSpace car was on rails and we felt very confident. I managed to throw down a lap that was good enough for P2 in the session less than half a tenth off the fastest lap; it got us very pumped for qualifying.
Our excitement and anticipation quickly diminished as a massive rain storm meant that, for the second race in a row, qualifying was cancelled. The grid for Saturday morning’s race was set by Championship positions. We would have to start in 18th place thanks to the broken rear axle at Barber. I really wish we were able to qualify in the rain and I would love to see that rule change in the future. Rain shouldn’t stop a professional series with professional drivers but anyway, I’m not complaining, I just love the rain and so does Marc and we both felt we could have excelled in the wet.
Saturday arrived and, suffice to say, Marc and I were pretty excited. We had a challenge on our hands, to say the least; we needed a top 10 finish to get back in this championship. Marc started the race and he was gaining positions literally from the drop of the green flag. Marc was really pushing, he would gain positions in the corners and lose some on the back straight, and he was working hard to avoid losing positions to the higher horse power cars. It was pretty frustrating as we were losing ground to the leaders. Ultimately, Marc did an amazing job bringing the car in, for our driver change, in 8th place. After the first forty minutes of intense competition, he brought the car back without a scratch on it! The performance Marc put on was really astounding and I could not have asked him to do a better job in terms of our track position and the condition of the car. After a 12-second driver change I was underway. I got a good jump on the restart and quickly started to challenge the two cars in front. There was some unbelievably tight racing and it was the first time I have really been in the thick of things. I saw many moves happen directly in front of me that resulted in contact and cars spinning.
There were some heart-stopping moments where you take a sharp intake of breath, followed by a quick sigh of relief before getting back on with the job in hand. I worked really hard and got the car to P5. I was closing in on the two I-Moto cars driven by Pombo and Kleinubing and I had opened up a large gap on the 6thplace car. As I was getting closer, the team told me to pit for required fuel as we wouldn’t have been able to last to the end. I think I could have passed the I-Moto duo but holding them at bay would have been a different story. The team, I believe, made a good choice and took a gamble to pit under green hoping for one more short caution to allow us to catch up and as the leaders still had to pit for fuel. Potentially, we could have jumped to 1st place for the restart. As I exited pit lane, the second full course caution occurred. We were P12 at this point with all the cars on front still needing fuel, things still looked promising. Unfortunately our call was unlucky as the caution involved multiple with a prolonged clean-up time. This meant that all of our rivals, in front, could conserve fuel and possibly avoid a final pit visit. We had one short green flag run for 20 minutes, where I gained 2 spots. This came to an end quickly as a further caution came out for a huge accident in the last corner. This unfortunately sealed the deal in terms of the cars in front, none of them would need to pit now. The race finished under caution, with our #5 ModSpace car in 10th spot. If we had stayed out, yes, we would have been at least 5th, but if luck had been in our favor and there had been no cautions we would certainly have made the podium.
We were all a bit disappointed as the other car had some transmission issues, so it was a mixed weekend for us. With our 10th place we move from 18th to 13th overall and actually gained points on the overall leader from 43 points to 36 points, so we really have to take it away as a solid points weekend for us.
The next race is at the fantastic Mid Ohio Sports Car Course in June. I won there, last year, in the MX-5 Cup and we know our car will be very strong there. We will be squarely aiming for at least a podium finish, which could really bring us back into the Championship fight.
As far as we are concerned that is our bad luck out of the way for the rest of the season and the fight for the title is very much still on.