Though a vast majority of the attention at Daytona International Speedway has been taken by the new era starting with the Rolex 24, the weekend also hosts the start of the 2014 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge series, with the BMW Performance 200.
The championship, previously the main support category for the Rolex Series, hosts some of the closest racing in the US – and possibly the world – with a range of makes and models in the two classes (Grand Sport and Street Tuner) that stretches from American muscle cars to hatchbacks and even the open top Mazda MX-5.
One of the teams taking up the task of running the diminutive coupe is CJ Wilson Racing, with a pair of cars in the ST class of the series, the #3 driven – in a re-shuffled line-up for the new season, by Tyler McQuarrie and Marc Miller and the #5 shared between Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer.
Team owner Wilson suggests that the line-up change comes as he tries to maximise the potential of the drivers at his disposal while he McCumbee and McAleer jokingly suggest that the reason behind the move was their similar sounding surnames, but whatever the real reason the new partnership appears to make perfect sense.
“Our partner ModSpace really has a good relationship with Chad and has a developing relationship with Steven,” Wilson explained to www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk “we wanted to put both of them together to see what would come about from them.”
McCumbee focuses more on the relationship between the drivers; “There was a lot of times last year when I felt like we were on the same page in a lot of different areas. I think age-wise we’re two months apart so there’s a lot of similarities in things we’re going through in our life and things are just coinciding and there’s a lot of drive we have and where we both want to go is very much the same.”
Though they may be similar in age the route the two drivers have taken to got to this point in their careers is very different. While McCumbee came to sports cars after a NASCAR career Scottish born McAleer has arrived in the series via single seaters and the spec Mazda MX-5 series, from which he graduated having won the 2012 title.
McCumbee says; “I’m blessed to have this relationship with ModSpace for the last few years and I’ve been in the upper echelons of the Stock Car world and I know how hard it is to get there and now to be in the road racing and the sports car world I see those [Rolex 24] garages over there, and I see the talent pool and I want to be there and that’s the same road he’s been on the same time. This is all new to me, so I can lean on him and ask him ‘what are we supposed to do in this situation?’ and he can ask me questions about things in the professional world of motorsport in general that I’ve experienced.”
Their target – obviously – is to win the class title, and given the performances of the team last year there is every possibility of this season ending with a title. With Miller McAleer took a pair of class wins, including at the Circuit of the Americas where he moved from third to first in the final lap, an episode that illustrates how close the series often is.
“This is the first series I’ve ever been in when the cars have not been spec. When we ran MX-5 cup the previous year all the cars are the same. You can change the set-up and so on, occasionally one car feels a little quicker than the other,” McAleer remembers the closing stages of the race. “Those last few laps at COTA were working out where I thought the BMW was strong and where I thought I could get him. I didn’t know it was Terry Borcheller, and it turns out he is pretty far up in the sport but to me it was just another car that I had to get past so it was a lot of fun.”
Wilson adds; “One of the most interesting things for me is that every car out here is an actual car. So the BMW 1-Series actually is a BMW 1-Series and it has advantages because of that, the 3-Series has different advantages, then the MX-5 has different advantages, every car has different little strengths and weaknesses based on the weight, their weight distribution, power, aerodynamics. It’s crazy.” His words could act as a viewers’ guide to the championship.
“Sometimes you’ll watch an F1 race and you’ll be like ‘that was an unbelievable race’ and that’s because there will about three or four guys duking it out, but here it’s like 10 or 15. The top 15 or 20 people could all theoretically win the race with a different set of circumstances of fuel mileage, when are the yellow flags or who gets taken out by someone. There’s an element of unpredictability in touring cars that you can’t replicate in any other series.”
“Then you take these huge superspeedways like Daytona where you’re dealing with all these other factors – pack racing, drafting and all the other stuff you see in Stock Car racing or the other series – but because all the cars are similarly balanced you’ll get this big pack of cars that’s 15 or 20 deep all the time and there’s always action, there’s always people passing each other, there’s always contact. Even the fastest car in the series is going to get caught if it makes a mistake.”
Unfortunately the different strengths and weaknesses of the different cars are not kind to the MX-5 on the Daytona highbanks, and McCumbee and McAleer realise as such, placing the focus on the long haul of the season in lieu of the ability to race for the win.
“There’s not many options here,” McCumbee concedes, “but there’s tracks we go to that we are phenomenal. Our Mazda is the best handling car on the race track. In the twisty bits we’re the best, and we go to some tracks and we’re awesome but here, as much as it pains me we’re not good on the oval, we’re not and that’s part of what we’re doing.”
Key to their championship aspirations are knowing how much to take, and knowing when to take what they can, something McAleer believes wasn’t always done in his first season in the championship.
“We unfortunately put ourselves at a disadvantage right out of the box at Daytona last year and I feel that partially that was my fault for overdriving the car,” He says, though that self-assessment seems rather harsh given that McAleer’s Daytona debut was ended when debris from a battle ahead punctured the radiator of his car. “I believe the other CJ Wilson car finished in the top 15 just literally by running around and picking up the places.”
“I’d say that’s one of the biggest disciplines of any professional sport is that mental control,” assesses Wilson, who is also a Major League Baseball pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. “In a situation where we can’t compete overall going flag-to-flag we have to get as many points as we can and incur as little damage to the cars and our psyches by beating ourselves up for that last tenth or whatever.”
“We can’t race for the top ten but we’re guaranteed there’s going to be accidents,” says McAleer, “there’s going to be penalties and if we do the best we can as a team – make sure the pitstops are good, make sure as a driver you don’t overshoot the box or come in too fast because you’re hot-headed. If we finish 17th and 18th with a perfect strategy then at least we walk away from this weekend saying this is the best we could have done.”
“We have to be smart,” concludes McCumbee. “The competitive edge is in all of us, and at some point in the weekend we’re going to get frustrated, we’re gonna be pissed but the end result is we’ve got to keep our heads about us. We’ve got to out and be smart and just log miles and finish the race. The difference between finishing 15th or 16th staying out of trouble versus a 25th because we were trying too hard and crashed could mean a championship at the end of the year.”