Round two of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge at Sebring was a very exciting prospect. I probably have more laps under my belt, around here, than anywhere else. I competed in Skip Barber Nationals in ‘07, ‘08 and ‘09 at Sebring and I also completed my two-day advanced Skip Barber Racing School course here in ‘06. My favourite Sebring memory, however, is my debut, in 2012, in the then Playboy MX5 Cup Championship with CJ Wilson Racing. I qualified on pole by a full second and led every lap of the race. It was to be a launch-pad for me as I went on to clinch the title later that year. That race was my absolute favourite ever performance, until this weekend.
Leaving pit lane for the first time in practice just brought all of those great memories flooding back. Every unforgiving bump was just another awesome reminder of how much I love the challenge or this concrete airfield track. I was relishing the chance to take my two favourite turns on the track, name T1 and T17. The #5 ModSpace MX-5 was on the pace right away and we felt like we had the fastest cars in ST. The track surface and bumps really suited our little Mazda. I was the designated starting driver for this event. My job was to get the car to Chad in one piece. That can be a challenge at the best of times at Sebring which has a well earned reputation for being a car breaker.
“The car is perfect, do not change anything,” I told our crew chief, Andris [Laivins] at the end of that first session. It soon became apparent that the ‘do not change anything’ strategy was not going to work as the track conditions changed completely from session to session. The following session, for example, found us struggling with oversteer which no doubt looked cool for the photographers Turn 1, but it wasn’t exactly comforting. I like a car that oversteers more than understeers as you can drive it with the gas pedal but these conditions made me think. We were still fast, really fast, but could this car be driven on the limit for 2.5 hours without a mistake being made? While I think it was probably possible, we decided to make some changes to make it a little bit more driveable. The following day was our final practice session and it soon became obvious that we had hit the sweet spot and I had a car that was on rails for qualifying. It was time to grab my first ever Conti Tires pole!
As the 15 minute ST qualifying session got underway, Tyler [McQuarrie] and I remained in pit lane waiting for a clear gap we felt that we just needed a couple of traffic free laps to own the front row. We drove around getting as much heat in the brakes and tires as possible and came round turn 17 as fast as we could ready for an all out qualifying lap. Right away I was on a serious lap but it was short lived as I went in a tad too hot into the turn 7 hairpin and never got the run out the corner I wanted. The lap was still good but I backed it off and I radioed Tyler to tell him that my lap was no good and I would give him a tow down the back straight to help him. I was able to do that while setting myself up for another shot at P1. The next lap was one of the best laps of my entire life. It felt like I was right on the ragged edge, the area where you almost feel you’re going to wreck in every corner. I was right on the limit and maybe over it a wee bit. I heard the top 5 with lap times on the radio from my 2013 team mate, Marc Miller, as I entered Turn 17. I was stifling a grin as I knew what lap I was about to run but the job was not finished I needed to make sure I got through T17 as fast as possible. I got the best run all weekend and cross the line 1.1 seconds faster than P2. That was a perfect lap! I came into pit lane on the next lap and just sat in the pit box waiting on the session to end. I was pretty certain that would do it. I got thumbs up from everyone and then I got official confirmation on the radio, we had snatched pole for tomorrow’s race. There was tons of excitement throughout the team as Tyler in the #3 car qualified in P3 right behind me.
What followed is a part of racing but man was it a set back! Three hours after qualifying BOTH of the CJWR cars were disqualified from qualifying due to a technical infraction in the front bumper. This was a big disappointment for us with an issue so small that it had zero affect on the performance of the cars in qualifying. We were pushed to dead last in ST, literally 31st and 32nd place on the grid. That changed the team morale completely and suddenly we had to agree on a completely different strategy for the race.
We discussed multiple strategies which could help position us for a strong finishing stint but at the end of the day it came down how many cars could Tyler and I pass in the opening laps. I had confidence that I we get to the front but being so far back it is all too easy to have contact with another car or get caught in a pack of cars dicing for position.
The lights turned green and I was off from the inside of the second last row (another car failed tech and ultimately started behind us). Right away I went to the outside and start making positions as everyone began defending inside. This lap is now my favourite one of my Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge career to date. I felt there was just enough room at each corner to pass anywhere between 1 and 5 cars. By the end of the lap I had gone from 31st to 16th and without any real contact other than a bent mirror which I fixed on the back straight. The important thing was that I kept reminding myself that we had 2.5 hours to do this. I do not believe I took any risky moves out there. I think they were aggressive but calculated and meant that it took just under a half an hour to work my way up to P2 – from virtually dead last! The team was excited, I was excited but the job wasn’t done. I now had to close a 13 second gap to the leading Freedom Mazda driven by Randy Pobst. By the end of my stint I was within 5 seconds of him and the adrenaline was flowing like crazy. The next thing was to make we nailed the pit stop, with a great driver change and no unnecessary penalties. Our change was good, fuel was good but we had am issue with one of the rear wheels and we lost some time in the pits. We were far enough ahead that we still left pit lane comfortably in P2 but it was frustrating to give back the time I had gained on the leader. Within 25 minutes, however, there was a full course yellow which allowed us to close the gap on the leading Freedom car.
Towards the end of my opening stint I had noticed that I was starting to lose brakes and the pedal was getting lower and lower. There is no question that some of that was due to my charge from last place but there was some other reason why the pedal was getting softer. This, unfortunately, put a hold on our challenge for P1 as we couldn’t get close enough under braking. We get another caution with about 25 minutes to go so it looked like Chad would get another shot at the leader. This was however the correct reason to finish under the safety car as our sister car with Marc Miller driving had a suspension failure in turn 6 and had a huge impact with the tire wall which completely blocked the track off. We finished under the safety car in second place our first podium together in the ModSpace Motorsports car but it wasn’t about celebrating anymore it was about Marc. He was transferred to the local hospital where he suffered 2 broken ribs, fractured ankle and some pretty good bruising but he is doing fine and was released from hospital later that day. It was such a shame as the #3 crew was having a great race too and was also challenging for a podium. The important thing to take away from the weekend, however, is that our team boss, Andris, builds very quick and very safe race cars as the cage was completely intact despite the significant impact.
For Chad and I, we moved closer to the top of the championship standings. We are now in the Top 10 in points heading into races at two venues where we have a shot at winning (Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Lime Rock Park) so we are perfectly positioned for a championship fight.
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca will be up next is next with our race taking place on Friday, May 2nd.