Man, do I love Road America! It’s simply a magnificent track, maybe the best in North America. I’ve competed there more than anywhere else on the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge schedule. I ran there in Skip Barber in 06, 07 and 08 and again in the F2000 Series in 2011. It’s a very challenging layout where horsepower makes all the difference. Our Mazda MX-5 has phenomenal handling and is great under braking but we lack in straight line speed compared to pretty much the rest of the Conti Tires grid. Our work was cut out for us if we were to come away with a result. The best thing we could do going into the weekend was compare us to the Freedom Motorsport cars, the only other team in the Series that run MX-5s.
Our team boss, Andris [Laivins] and the crew worked incredibly hard, over the last few weeks, to make sure our CJWR MX-5s were perfect for the weekend and that work paid off early as both cars ended up well within the top 10 in official practice. We were some 1.2 seconds off the fastest cars but that was very encouraging.
Marc [Miller], my team mate, was qualifying our #5 ModSpace/Avalon Luxury Pontoon Boats car this weekend while Tyler McQuarrie had the same duties for the ModSpace #3 team. This would be Chad McCumbee’s first time ever finishing a race. He was excited about the prospect of taking over from Tyler around the same time I was scheduled to jump into the #5 car. Marc left pit lane and put a fast lap in right away, it was good enough for P7. He was held up by traffic over the next couple of laps but he was able to remain on the pace. He was looking to draft with one of the other cars but wasn’t able to better the lap.
By the end of the session we had dropped to P11 but I told him on the radio that it was absolutely fine and that was a solid starting position. Tyler had a great last lap that put him a few rows in front in P7. The session ended early due to an accident resulting in both our CJWR cars moving further up the grid. In all, it was a very satisfying qualifying session for both cars.
This was a historic event as it was the one and only time that both Grand-Am and the ALMS were at the same event. Not only did that mean we had a hugely packed paddock, but we also had a crazy schedule. We had our fifteen minute qualifying session at 9:15am on Friday and we were the finished for the day. The next time I would step in the car would be during the race, more than 24 hours later, after our fuel stop and driver change. So what do drivers do with so much free time? Well for us, as a team, it is important to look over our data and discuss possible set up changes. The whole team got together for a detailed race strategy meeting. We were finished by 12pm and after some time showing some of our partner’s guests around the cars, it was off to the golf course!
There’s nothing too unusual about that other than the fact that of the four drivers at CJWR only 25% of us play golf! But we weren’t going to let little issues like that spoil the afternoon. Looking the part on the golf course is essential which meant our first stop was to the local thrift shop for some natty threads. I made sure that everyone knew it was a joke so I got the mandatory visor, a terrible polyester shirt, magnificently clashing shorts, black socks and white golf shoes, all for $20! The rest of the guys including our two PR and sponsorship guys did the same thing and we all looked the part insofar as we all looked ridiculous! We arrived, picked up our rented golf clubs and three golf karts (golf karts and racing drivers are not the greatest of combinations). Tyler McQuarrie is sponsored by GoPro and he brought 3 cameras attaching them to everything. I saw Chad buying a glove at pro shop so I did the same. It turned out that I bought a glove for my right hand (right handed golfers wear gloves on their left hand apparently) which left the team rolling about the first tee laughing.
Despite being a Scot, I have never played golf before which is a bit of a shocker. I tried a driving range once and found it to be an extremely infuriating experience. I crushed my opening tee shot with the driver, it must have gone all of fifteen feet. At the first hole, it was clear that I was the worst out all of us with Tyler following close behind. The two Scots sucked, which was epic. Please look out for the video when it appears on the CJ Wilson Racing site, it will be very funny. I probably should not be admitting this but we had golf karts completely up on two wheels, bump drafting, spinning each other out between holes, players jumping out of speeding karts to get to the toilet and much other drama. It was a fine diversion from the universally terrible display of golf. Anyway by the end of the day we were all exhausted, I hurt my wrist due to constantly beating the ground with with the club. Tyler said he hurt his shoulder and everyone was in pain, some due to the fact that the clothes they bought were several sizes too small. It was hugely enjoyable and lots of fun.
We knew we had our work cut in this one and we were there to the best job we could. Marc got a great start maintaining his position. The first full course yellow came out on lap one. The drivers couldn’t get past turn 5 without running into one another. Within about ten minutes we were back under way. Marc was working hard, he would climb some positions but then lose them on the straight, then gain them back then lose them again on the straight. I’m sure the in-car footage was great but for a driver of Marc’s talent it can become very frustrating as he ultimately knows that no matter what he does in the corners the straights would kill him. The faster cars miss apexes, mess up their braking zones then still pull away from us on the straights – a real dog fight. Driving like that can be incredibly tiring, you have to be on maximum attack the whole time and the moment you reduce your aggression other cars will slip past and you can go backwards very quickly.
After a superb thirty five minute stint by Marc he brought the car in for fuel and a change of driver. The team executed a perfect stop and I was away. We jumped up places for sure but were not certain how many as some cars stayed out under the caution and therefore owed the field a pit stop. The #3 car’s race came to an abrupt end when it was hit by a GS Class Mustang during the driver change. Chad was just climbing into the car to start his first ever drive to the finish of a Conti Tires race when the big class car hit the Mazda, breaking the suspension on the left front and putting car out on the spot.
On the restart I quickly became embroiled with one of the Hondas. But the familiar pattern returned, even with a great start I lost four places on the straight. I would fight to gain four back that lap and then lose them all again next time around on the straight. I started to figure out a way to position the car and only lose two to three places each time on the straight, so, with me still aggressively passing three to four cars per lap, I was able to move up the order. I managed to work my way up to P6 before another full course yellow stopped my momentum. Restarts did not benefit our car and we really needed long green flag running, we weren’t getting enough. About an hour in, I started having trouble with one of the Hondas and we made contact more than once. Unfortunately the final time we touched and it was heavy enough to knock out the front alignment.
The car now went from being ‘great’ to ‘unbelievably scary’ under braking with a lot of understeer in right hand corners. I got on the radio to the crew and we decided to push on and we would only pull in if it got any worse. I was now running outside the top 20 and had nothing left up my sleeve. I couldn’t carry speed in the corners and I couldn’t brake which eliminated the two major advantages the awesome little Mazda has. The only option left was to conserve fuel and try and run the rest of the race without a stop. My lap times had slowed down by over 5 seconds a lap and to out disappointment we couldn’t quite stretch the fuel, forcing us into a late “splash and dash” stop. The next time I crossed the start and finish line the checkered flag was waving. We had come up just short. Jim, my crew chief, had been asking once every few laps for a fuel reading as they were planning the stop well in advance if needed. I look back and laugh because I remember him asking me for my fuel reading on the lap before we stopped? I told him 1.2 gallons.
The next time I passed the pits, he again asked for the reading. This time I responded with “Jim, the fuel reading is 0.0, repeat, 0.0 – Nothing!”
He casually came on the radio and simply said “no problem.” I honestly thought that he had misheard me because. It tuned out that he had heard me and he was now waiting to hear me tell him that I had turned on the reserve. This would give us enough fuel to complete one more lap. The car began to falter half way through that lap, I hit the reserve and we pitted. We had another rapid and flawless stop. I exited the pits with enough fuel to complete the final lap. The crew said we finished P13. I was shocked, I expected us to be way further down the order but the attrition rate and the fact that many other cars also had to make late stops meant that we actually came away from the weekend with a decent points haul with some of the key players finishing behind us. That puts us 10th in the standings with three races to go. So this weekend we’re heading for Kansas Speedway, wish us luck, we’ll need it!