Watkins Glen is a wonderful race track and it was the venue for Round six of the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Series (CTSCC). I first raced there, in the Skip Barber Regional Series, in 2006 and I really enjoyed the experience. It is an old circuit which gives you that added sense of danger. The armco is close by and when I say close I mean, in some cases, there is absolutely no run off area whatsoever. On top of that, there are so many different types of surfaces to deal with which means the car behaves very differently on certain corners. It is a very demanding circuit on both drivers and cars and it gives you almost zero margin for error.
The thing that made it interesting going into this weekend was the weather. We were 100% guaranteed to get rain, some of it was expected to be pretty heavy. It went according to plan on the first day. There was non-stop rain and unbelievably tricky conditions with the different surfaces. Surprisingly enough there were no incidents on the first day which was really a big achievement from all the drivers. Come the official practice day things started to tighten up at the front with multiple fast Hondas and BMW’s. We could hold our own and although our laps on the official time sheets didn’t fully reveal our pace, we felt we were in a good position. I think the general driver thoughts were that we all wanted it to rain on race day. From a team owner perspective anything that involves more risk to the car is usually frowned upon. The team manager, Andris Laivins and I were laughing as I wanted it to pour, he grudgingly agreed, but you could see by his face he wasn’t exactly sure.
With a string of bad luck this year we found ourselves all the way down in nineteenth place in the standings and with Marc Miller starting, we really needed an incident-free and dry qualifying session. We had to qualify higher than our championship order as it would be a non stop battle with more risk trying to come through the field from so deep in the pack. We got our wish and were able to qualify. The rain held off and Marc and Chad [McCumbee], in the sister car, went out nose to tail to get some laps on the board. The guys were happy and we ended up in a solid P5 with Chad in P7. Marc felt another lap he could have really strung one together and potentially put us on the front row but he was happy and so was I.
As the green flag approached the clouds gathered and it got considerably darker, we were very happy about this as we were extremely confident about our car in damp and wet conditions. The rain held off and I called the green for Marc from the pit wall. He made an impressive start and ran round the outside of a few cars right away. He was quick to come on the radio and say our ModSpace MX-5 was handling well. As the laps ticked by Marc continued to harass the Hondas in front of him. That is what I like about Marc he is always fast right out of the box even with minimal seat time. It was very reassuring to hear him say that the car felt ‘great’. His charge to the front was short lived as a caution came out for a pretty spectacular accident behind him in the last corner. This meant lots of clear up time so I think he was under caution in 4th place for at least 20 minutes. We were now getting very close to the driver change window, so I stood with my helmet on ready to go. They went green one more time for about 5 laps and when the next caution came out I knew it was time for Marc to pit for fuel and for me to get in.
I was not happy at all with my driver change. Marc was out fast but I messed up with my belts and took a little longer than we had practiced. It was still fast enough that we held our position and I came out of the pits in P5 but I knew we could do lot better. During the latest caution, the track conditions changed dramatically. It had rained on the back part of the circuit and the racing surface was now absolutely treacherous. On the restart I was super aggressive as I could see one of the Hondas drive away from the field so I wanted to get a chance to chase him down. It took a few laps to clear the third place car after the restart but once I got some breathing room I was able to focus on chasing down Ryan Eversley. He was on fire so it took fifteen laps of flat out driving to catch him and by this point, I also had Pierre Kleinubing chasing me down.
It became a 3 car fight for the lead with 45 minutes to go and that is when the heavens really opened. If the conditions had been treacherous they now reached a new level of danger. Even with all those laps driving in the rain back in Scotland this was right up there with the worst conditions I have ever seen. I was in third and watched Pierre and Ryan drive off the track in front of me and I swear it didn’t even look they had slowed down. They had and they braked nice and early but all three of us were aquaplaning and I was barely able to hang on. I was probably doing 30mph and I swear I could not steer the car! I got on the radio and told the team that it was a huge risk to be out there. At this point Grand-Am had thrown a full course caution and closed pit lane so everyone was forced to stay out. I then realized that the full course yellow had been thrown for a much more serious reason. A Porsche and a Mustang had completely flipped upside down and actually a BMW then ran into the Mustang while it was on its roof and the driver still aboard. At the end of the race I found out everyone was ok but it was nobody’s fault the weather had caught out half the field and in this particular area there was very little run off area.
We were hoping that the race would finish under caution and give us our second win of the season but that it wasn’t to be and Marc came on the radio and said sorry they are going to go green flag for one lap then checker. A wet track with slicks on, the field bunched up, three fast Honda’s behind me and the GS cars right in front of me was not the ideal position to be in. Well this last lap was fun to say the least. I got a great start and gapped [Ryan] Eversley’s Honda going into turn 1. As we were coming up through the esses he started to close in on me using all that Honda horsepower and he easily cleared me going into the Bus Stop. This started to remind me of Austin, Texas.
Leading on the last lap, losing the position on the long back straight and then have to fight hard to get it back. So that’s what happened. Exiting the Bus Stop, Ryan went to the inside and I took a chance to find more grip on the outside and committed to it. It was right on the edge but the grip was there and I didn’t want to give up the fight so easily. I managed to make it work and I was able to then defend the position into the next corner. From then to the finish I held my line and made sure everything was perfect. Ryan was still right there but we held on and got our second win of the season by a margin of 0.7 seconds. This was a special feeling as we worked so hard for that result and to claw our way back into the championship. We simply couldn’t have asked for a better team effort. The car was great, the strategy worked to our benefit and Marc and I drove flawlessly. It really was amazing on a track where we knew we would be strong but didn’t think we had the outright pace to win.
Indy is next in July, where the guys finished P5 last year. We have every chance of running up front and so we need to get on the podium to keep ourselves in the title fight. Currently we sit twelfth but there is still a long way to go.