Just like last time out at Road Atlanta, the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course has fantastic memories me. It was here last season that the Mazda MX-5 Playboy Cup championship turned, in my favour, with a big win. I couldn’t wait to get back out here this time with more power, more cars on track, more strategy and more excitement.
My first time at the track was in a Skip Barber Regional race back in 2006 and, despite my limited experience of the place it was exactly how I remembered it. The track doesn’t make you go “wow!” but when you drive it well, it gives you a great feeling of success and going into this weekend we knew our light and quick ST class MX-5 was going to be well suited to this place.
This weekend, Marc [Miller] was finishing, which gave me the chance to qualify and start the race. Qualifying was key for us because the twisty sections from turns 7 through 12, where our car shines, are very hard to pass in and, therefore, a very easy place to get held up.
After practice Marc and I were extremely happy with the car and knew our ModSpace MX-5 had a shot at the front row. Chad McCumbee and Jason Saini, my team mates, in the other CJ Wilson MX-5 were also very confident their chances in qualifying.
At the start of the 15 minute qualifying session, Chad and I waited for the rest of the ST pack to leave pit lane. Continental Tire qualifying has been insane so far this year with accidents, stoppages for wet weather and with only 15 minutes total we couldn’t wait too long to get on it. We wanted to make sure we both got a flyer in early. I think we were p11 and p13 on our opening lap. The message from the team radio was pretty emphatic, we weren’t fast enough. So we got our heads down, running nose to tail the next time round and we put ourselves in P3 and P4. We returned to the pits on the next lap. We thought there was a bit more left in the car but decided to settle and stay behind the wall and save the car from any unnecessary risks. Right at the end we were shuffled down the order to 5th and 6th which was a tad disappointing but the cars were great and we locked out row 3 on the ST grid.
I regularly get asked about what it is like to be in a professional race or simply drive a real race car? I could go on and on for days about this as it is such an amazing experience. For most pro drivers, the excitement really begins when they wake up for the first practice day. I have had many jobs over the last 10 years and getting up in the morning has often been a problem, I have never had any issue getting out of bed on a race weekend.
When that alarm goes off at 5:15am, it is like a flick of a switch for me. Now I know people wake up like this all the time but for those who normally enjoys rolling around in bed for another hour or so, like my room and team mate, Marc Miller, it’s an interesting experience. I room with Marc so that we can go over data and discuss plans the end of each day. He laughs at me every morning because he does not know what to expect. I am either making weird animal noises MIXED with singing and laughing in the shower, jumping and somersaults on my bed or practising my moonwalk in front of the mirror. This amount of energy in the morning for me is unheard of but it only happens on race weekends. I really love my day job as a coach at Monticello Motor Club and I totally enjoy getting up for that but this is just different. This is so special and a feeling that I hope remains with me throughout my racing career. My question would be – do other drivers not get this same feeling?
So after 2 days of excitement race day finally arrived. We had done our autographs at the fan walk. I don’t ever mind doing this but there does become a time about five minutes prior to the start where I want to be alone and regain my mental focus. I was ready for this one. On the pace lap I immediately start warming my tyres and checking out where the grip was. We made our way round to the final turn where we lined up in our usual two-by-two formation. Jim, my crew chief, had just given me the confirmation that the GS class ahead had already taken the green flag so unless this start was really messed up I knew we were going green this time by.
Green green green!! We were under way I got a great start and took the fight to the front two rows. After the first few corners the front group of 6-7 cars already showed a small gap to the rest of the field. This was great for Chad and I as we seem to always get held up on the first few laps of each race but this time we maintained position and together we made a very wide Mazda MX-5. I got to P4 and then briefly third then back to P4, there was a brief spell in fifth before fighting back to P3. I kid you not, it was like that on every lap. This was a hard and aggressive race from the get go and anything we gained we lost on the long back straight. It was frustrating at times but hugely enjoyable to be involved in and I am sure a blast to watch on TV.
Forty minutes in, I got involved in some bumping and banging as some of the other drivers made a number of somewhat questionable moves on me. Despite this, the car was still going strong despite the fact that my wheels were now slightly out of alignment. Unfortunately my race in the #5 ModSpace car was about to come to an abrupt end. As I made one of the now constant passing moves the car had lost all power. I pulled sharply to the outside before I got rear ended by 35 cars and while coasting, I reset the master switch, ignition and fuel reserve switch. Nothing worked and the car came to an agonizing hault between turns nine and ten. It wouldn’t start and when the group I was battling appeared in my mirror about to lap me, I knew our race was over.
I got towed back to pit lane where the team replaced the throttle body was the cause of the failure and they let Marc complete the last hour of the race in order to salvage some points. Ultimately, we were so far down the order that we were unable to pick up any points which was a hard pill to swallow. This wasn’t the team’s fault and I was assured from the team that the failure was not caused by any on track incident. It was a simple malfunction that we did not expect. The other CJWR car was put out of action on the last lap of the race while battling for P4 so there was disappointment throughout the whole team. Watkins Glen, one of my all-time favourites, is in less than two weeks and at the mid way point in the season, we can still do this. Any championship thoughts have to be cleared from our minds though. We need to be flawless from here on in and we could do with a perfect win/podium streak to pull that off! Ultimately we are going to Watkins to podium and will take each race as it comes.
Keep saying our luck will change so onto the next one.