It was a very anxious few months leading up to the opening round of the 2014 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and I was more than happy to be back driving the CJ Wilson Racing ST Class Mazda MX-5. A shuffle in driver line up this year has provided me with the opportunity to drive the #5 ModSpace car with Chad McCumbee. Chad and I got on very well last season and we were both very excited to be paired together this year. I did, however, feel a little sad, parting with last year’s team mate, Marc Miller, we had a great year in 2013 and we loved racing together. I know the line up may shuffle again sometime in the future but in the grand scheme of things, it looks like we will all stay under the same tent going forward and I’m excited to be with an excellent group of guys for years to come. Tyler McQuarrie starts his first full season with the team as Marc Miller’s partner in the #3 car. Both drivers are very quick but heading to the Daytona we knew the layout would not suit our light and nimble Mx5s due to long periods on the banking, but we knew we had the best possible driver pairings.
I made my debut in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge at Daytona in 2013. It was my first time in a non-spec series and I was blown away with the difference in performances in cars. It may not have been the ideal place to get my first experience of the car and the championship. I was extremely frustrated with the straight line speed of some of the other cars in our ST class. My driving was erratic and squeezing every single bit out the car only to see us some three seconds off the pace was frustrating and made me drive the car even harder. I clearly over-drove the car in the race, going off more than once, and the race was cut short due to an accident in front of me which sent debris through the radiator. I then missed my pit window and inevitably blew the engine only 29 minutes into the race.
This year my approach would be different. The off season development work on the car meant we came to Daytona with a little bit more straight line grunt. With most of the other ST teams working hard over the winter too, it was not a great surprise to see a similar speed differential to last year. However this race was about being smart, driving within the boundaries and not risking the car. Chad was a little disappointed as he qualified the car in 21st place but we both knew that was about the speed of the car and we both had the same approach to the race. The plan was to stay out of trouble and keep each other calm on the radio during the inevitable times of frustration. Chad drove brilliantly and brought the car in, after just over an hour, in 19th place. Our crew did the fastest stop of any team in the field and by the time I was strapped and on my way we had jumped to P6. We were under caution and the other team car was two spots back in P8. Everyone in the CJWR pits did their job perfectly and we had put ourselves in a position to get a lot of championship points. We knew both of our MX-5s were going to be sitting ducks on the restart as there were a ton of more powerful cars behind us.
This year was going to be different and no matter what happened, I was going to keep my focus and stay calm. I didn’t make it easy for anyone but I accepted it as this was all about getting the car back in one piece. Sadly there were numerous cautions throughout the second part of the race. Cars would crash out in front us but faster cars coming from the back would pass us on restarts. During long green flag runs we actually did OK in the draft of the cars in front and our lap times were quicker than last year so we could see the car clearly had more speed. In the end, we crossed the line in P14 from 35 starters with a car that only barely had Top 20 speed. We exceeded our expectations and came home with a great opening result.The other Mazda had some engine trouble mid race but they still hung on to an 18th place finish. Ultimately the team was very happy. A lot of cars got wrecked in the opening weekend and a number of championship contenders had issues so we feel it puts us in a good position to start off the season and we will only be closer to the front for the remaining races. Daytona may be our toughest track on the schedule but we move on to Sebring International Raceway in March supporting the 12 Hour Endurance race (one of my favorites) where our cars might not be the outright fastest but we will be much closer to the front and we will have potential of both cars being in the top 10. There are some strong cars in the field this year but we can still win this Championship with consistency.