California is a really neat place; it features some of the globe’s most beautiful landscapes, offers great weather and is famous for being the home of so many celebrities. But, for one weekend each year it serves as the proving ground for some of the world’s most iconic sports car manufacturers, which compete head-to-head in the pinnacle of sports car racing – the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón at Long Beach!
Long Beach does not have your typical road racing circuit, but rather a 1.7-mile (2.74 km) long temporary street course staged in the downtown core of Long Beach, Calif. right alongside the Pacific Ocean.
Recognized for being the longest-running street course auto racing event in North America, April 20, 2013 saw the 39th annual running of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. For me, it is another day at the office.
I arrive on Thursday afternoon in time for a scheduled track walk with my BAR1 Motorsports co-driver Chris Cumming and our engineer John Travis. We use this opportunity to look at the track surfaces, run-off areas, passing opportunities, curbing, safety measures, etc. During the walk I coach Chris on gear selection, braking references, the type of feedback to expect from the race car, etc. All in all, this is a pretty standard item on the pre-race “to do” list.
On Friday morning we gather for an early practice – our only practice in the ALMS – and, by 7:30 A.M. the green flag is waiving at the starter stand to mark the beginning of the session. Now, I understand it’s an IndyCar weekend as well, but it sure feels like we are low on the totem pole if we are first on track, virtually cleaning off the dirt and debris from the daily city driving that has taken place on these streets all year long. Nonetheless, my competitors are in the same boat, so I strap in, visor down and head off the first and only two-hour practice.
Our pace is quick right from the out lap! Our engineering team has a great set-up on the car, which means that only minor changes will be necessary. This is always nice when you have minimal track time to set the up car before qualifying. For the first 30 to 40 minutes, we are quickest in class and actually second quickest overall! As had been expected, the track begins to grip up and everyone is getting faster with each lap. We begin to develop understeer in the car, a lack of front grip from brake release to mid-corner, which makes it difficult to get the car to the apex and delay’s the throttle application on exit. With 20 minutes remaining, our tires now have plenty of miles on them, so it was decided we would make some minor changes to the set up and I would get in for a mock qualifying run. Unfortunately, we did not get to do this as I make a bonehead move trying to push too hard on the old tires. I get on the power too early out of the very off-camber turn five, resulting in wheel spin followed by a lazy half spin before rolling backwards into the tire wall. With damage to the right rear floor, the team did not want to waste a set of new tires nor attempt a mock qualifying run. It happened so quick that I was unable to counter steer and correct soon enough. I was so frustrated with myself, these kinds of mistakes don’t happen often as track time lost is so valuable. We end the practice in P3 just 0.234 seconds off the quickest lap.
Because we did not get to try a new tire run on low fuel, we were aiming a bit into the dark for qualifying. Never a comfortable situation. I post a lap time of 1:16.6, well below the previous lap record, but not good enough. I qualify in P4 just 0.423 tenths off the pole position of Bruno Junqueira.
At 4:30 P.M. PST the green flag waives and 33 cars roar down Shoreline Boulevard. At only two hours in length, this event is the shortest race on the calendar for us. Our strategy is quite simple. Chris would start the race and run until our pit window opens then I would be in for the second and final stint. This pit window represents a handful of laps which a) allow Chris to complete the minimum drive time required (40 minutes) and b) allow us to fill up full of fuel and make it to the end without another stop.
With Chris off to a great start and maintaining a gap within striking distance of the race leader, everything is going to plan. I am relaxing in pit lane, awaiting my turn and keeping hydrated. Though it is another beautiful day in California, zero cloud cover means we’re getting plenty of direct sunlight. Our engineer was missing a few shingles on his head if you know what I mean and I didn’t have the heart to tell him just how red his scalp was getting. It was quite funny, but I’m sure he felt it the next day.
As part of our marketing program with MBRP Performance Exhaust Inc., around 30 guests had come out join us for this event. While most were seated in turn 10, a handful joined us in pit lane to get close to the action. As I was explaining our race strategy to some of our guests, the television monitors show the No.8 off track in turn one. I knew Chris was close to the car in front for position, but I was unsure what happened. As it turns out, it was a rear lock up in the brake zone for turn one that pivoted the car into the wall. It’s a bumpy section of the circuit and sometimes a downshift at the wrong time can cause a chatter in the rear end. There was some damage to the front splitter/nose, enough to have to make a pit stop for emergency service.
On a positive note, our team’s pit stop practices are paying off. The BAR1Motorsport crew executed the replacement in minimal time to get Chris back into the race. Unfortunately, because this is a really short lap, the pit stop put us three laps down from the leader. At this point, it is important to have a championship mindset. That means we need to complete a minimum of 70% of the race distance to score championship points.
Shortly thereafter, I’m back in the car to finish off the approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes left in the race. As a race driver, it can be tough mentally to push for quick laps knowing that any pass you make is not for position. It is wishful to think that with quick pace and some cautions we can get some laps back. The team radios to me that the car ahead is the race leader, so I push hard and set the fastest lap of the race – a 1:17.2 – and pass the leader, Colin Braun, before turn nine. That gets us one lap back, however, with time running out it would appear as though we would remain two laps down.
With about five minutes remaining in the race, I am called in to the pits for a driver change. It turns out that time spent in the pits for emergency service does not count towards the drive time (who knew?), so Chris had come up just short of completing that requirement. What an excellent job by the team to notice this; Chris got back in the car and was able to complete the minimum drive time. Shortly thereafter, the checkered flag was out, we finished P6 in class… with 8 valuable championship points.
It was a disappointing result, but it goes to show that in racing, anything can happen. We need to refocus for the next round at the famed Laguna Seca circuit and keep the championship title in mind. I qualified on pole for this event last year, so I’m going in with high expectations. That said, I’m extremely confident in our ability as a team.
Stay tuned for my next blog post “From the Cockpit” following the American Le Mans Monterey on May 9-11!
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