Dateline: September 15/16, 2017
Ferrari Challenge Circuit of the Americas (COTA), Reader’s Digest Version
The trophy count for Risi Competizione/Ferrari of Houston/Ferrari of The Woodlands continues to increase as our rookie season unfolds! With a third-place finish on Friday and a first-place finish on Saturday, the championship points race has narrowed significantly. While we are still sitting squarely in third place in the overall standings, we are only about 12 points out of the lead and about 7 points out of second place. Coming from behind on the last lap seems to be a theme this season, so by this measure we are sitting exactly where we need to be heading into our final event at Homestead at the end of September.
The podium photos were pretty terrible, but this shot tells the story just as well!
The Damage Report
Zippo. Nada. Nil. None. Billy didn’t even run over my sunglasses again. Amazing!
Setting the Stage
This event was run in conjunction with the World Endurance Championship, or WEC (yes, Mark Rushbrook of Saturn ChumpCar fame was there with his two Ford GTs in the GTLM class). The big boys had their six-hour endurance race scheduled on Saturday afternoon, and Ferrari Challenge was there as the opening act. Yes, it’s rough, but somebody has to do it. Their schedule had our track time highly compressed on Friday and Saturday, but with COTA being in our backyard, that wasn’t viewed as anything negative. The way we saw it, there were a season-high 26 cars lined up to compete in our class, but we were armed with the home track advantage.
Now, a word about COTA. Twenty turns, 3.4 miles, and not a single corner with a consensus line. Back when the track was first paved about five years ago, I had the opportunity to drive it in a variety of different cars in a variety of different events. While all of my experience there was in street cars, coming into the event I had a pretty darn good idea of where the track went left and where the track went right. Unfortunately, since my last time there in 2015, certain sections of the track had fallen into poor repair. This in effect made certain sections of the track (like the exit of the high-speed carousel) more like a Supercross track than the billiard-table-smooth racing surface I recalled.
Now, a word about the weather. Who decided to schedule a race in Austin, Texas in September? Humans really should not be allowed to participate in ANY outdoor activity in Austin, Texas in September. This explicitly includes activities where you have to wear three layers of fireproof clothing, put on head sock, put your now-socked head in a helmet, and then strap yourself into a racecar with a marginal air conditioning system whose only design purpose is to overheat the engine while in operation. No joke on that one.
The Risi guys heading up to grid. Don’t they look hot? I mean…really warm?
Without exaggerating, the track temperature was 118° F on Friday afternoon when we took the green flag. I can honestly say I have never been so hot and uncomfortable behind the wheel of an automobile. Ever. But that’s the last time I will complain about how hot it was. Honest.
First of all, it was ridiculously hot. But that’s the last time I will complain about how hot it was. Honest.
On a positive note, in spite of the heat, the car ran without a hitch on Thursday for both of our practice sessions. Maybe all of our teething pains are behind us? Without having to take time to troubleshoot electrical gremlins, the crew (and driver) could focus on making adjustments to the setup in hopes of actually going fast. At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, while multiple changes were made to the chassis and rear wing, the net effect on lap times was particularly underwhelming. For the racers in the audience, the car just pushed everywhere. Part of that is the nature of racing at COTA, but nothing we did seemed to free the car up.
Scott Foley gets a huge thanks for all of these awesome on-track action shots!
After a full day of practice, our lap times had us circulating between 6th fastest and 6th fastest (no, that’s not a typo – it’s consistency). Nothing to write home about to be sure, especially when trying to exploit a presupposed home track advantage.
First of all, it was ridiculously hot. But that’s the last time I will complain about how hot it was. Honest.
In a weird scheduling twist, the two qualifying sessions for Race 1 and Race 2 were run back-to-back on Friday before Race 1 took place. And now I’ll take the heat (pun intended) for a pair of middling on-track performances. Never really finding a rhythm, never really finding a groove, and never really finding a setup that seemed to allow the car to rotate, my driving was completely uninspired. Not terrible, mind you (my ego forced me to make that qualification), but flat. Completely flat. After sweating it out for 30 minutes in each session, our 6th and 9th place qualifying spots were no reason for cheer in the team trailer. And then something cool happened.
For those of you that know me well, it probably won’t surprise you to find out that after turning in such a lackluster performance I began to sulk. A little bit. Or maybe more than a little bit. But in any case, I put my head down and focused on the session data and in-car video in an attempt to find the missing link with a furrowed brow. As I stared at the laptop screen in an attempt to find some magic beans (that’s a shout out to you, Tom), Scott (the team manager and de facto mother hen for Risi) simply stated without looking up, “Don’t forget to have fun.”
Fun? Really? This is supposed to be FUN? This is hard WORK. And it’s HOT. And I’m freaking five seconds off of the pole today and I have never been that far off the pace – ever! – and I have a ton invested in this car and for once I am not getting hit every three laps so why the heck can’t I just figure this all out because I’m supposed to be, like, an awesome racecar driver and this is, like, my home track and I have actual fans – at least six of them! – out there in the stands who are expecting something far more than this today.
AND IT’S HOT!
All to which Scott merely replied in his monotone way, “You’re here to have fun. Don’t overthink it.” I think he might have actually finished the second sentence with “rookie” in a Yoda-esque kind of way, but I can’t be certain.
The green flag fell at 5:30 p.m. for Race 1 on Friday afternoon (and in case you are wondering, yes, it was still hot). Starting on the outside of Row 3 in 6th place, we got a GREAT jump at the start. Problem was that the car in front of us did not, and by the rules we were forced to tuck in behind him as we motored up the hill into Turn 1.
As the Risi guys know all too well, Turn 1 at COTA oftentimes ends in tears and bent sheet metal, but thankfully the entire field passed through without incident. Coming around for the first lap of the race were still in command of 6th place, but more importantly had managed to avoid anything requiring a trip to the body shop.
As the race progressed, #234 progressively began to find speed. And more speed. And we began to have fun. One by one the competition fell into the rear-view mirror as we marched our way through the field. By Lap 3 we had worked our way up to 3rd place. And then people began to get, well, stupid.
#234 moving toward the front while the Mullet Snake (the COTA tower) watches.
After puttering around under a full-course yellow on Laps 5 and 6, we turned up the wick again. Passing #208 in Turn 11, we assumed 2nd place and easily motored down the back straight at over 160 mph. That is, until #208 attempted to outbrake us from what seemed like an adjacent zip code. With #208 barreling down on the inside of the track heading into Turn 12, we saw the train wreck unfold directly in front of us. With absolutely no hope at all of making a clean pass (or stopping in time), #208 unceremoniously plowed nose-first into the car directly in front of us. While we thankfully missed out on the sheet metal origami session, it forced us to come to a complete stop and wait for the wreck to clear. During this time, no less than four competitors went blowing by at full race pace, sending us all the way back to 5th place.
Over the remaining six laps we picked our way through the field (and a crazy amount of disabled cars) and ultimately crossed the finish line in 3rd place, less than one second behind the car in 2nd place. In the process of catching back up to the leaders we set the second-fastest race lap in our group and, more importantly, gained a ton of confidence for the race start on Saturday morning.
After our podium finish on Friday afternoon, starting in 9th place on Saturday morning didn’t seem to matter much. We knew the car had the pace to finish toward the front, and heck, the track temperature was only in the high 80’s. Let’s go racing!
The green flag flew, and again everyone managed to get through Turn 1 without incident. By the end of Lap 1 we had moved up to 6th place, and by Lap 4 were firmly in 5th. Driving under prolonged green flag conditions allowed us to move up into 4th place on Lap 7, with the gap to the leaders getting smaller and smaller. Having done this just a few times before, we were confident that if we were in striking distance on the last lap an opportunity would present itself.
Lifting the inside front tire coming out Turn 11.
Turns out we were wrong. Three opportunities presented themselves in the final 20 turns of the race.
Opportunity One: With the white flag flying, we were chasing the two cars battling for 2nd (#203) and 3rd (#264) heading up into Turn 1. In an attempt to make a pass in Turn 1, #264 misjudged the situation and essentially drove straight off the track. We motored by cleanly, tucked up inside, and drafted #203 down the hill and into the high-speed esses. With only 19 turns to go, #234 had somehow found its way back to the podium!
Opportunity Two: After exiting the high-speed esses, we got a GREAT run through the high-speed Turn 10. Approaching Turn 11, #203 had already moved over to the left to pass a slower, lapped car. This didn’t leave much room at all to his left for us to make a pass, but apparently there was just enough track there. Going three wide into Turn 11, #234 came out first, was able to track out completely, and ran away down the back straight. The advantage was maintained all the way into Turn 12 and through the low-speed esses leading into the high-speed carousel turn.
Opportunity Three: At this point, we were about four seconds behind the race leader (#228) and had mentally accepted the second step on the podium. Which, frankly, wasn’t so bad. But coming through Turn 18, #228 slowed substantially, allowing us drive under him between Turns 19 and 20. And then, literally in the last corner of the last lap of the race, we were in the lead. A lead which we only had to maintain for about 200 feet to take the checkered flag and bring home the win for the hometown crowd! As a bonus, in catching back up to the leaders we set, and then promptly reset, the fastest 458 race laps of the weekend by over one second.
Time To Celebrate
While winning the race and spraying the champagne was thrilling in its own regard, the next three hours were their own awesome blur. And somehow, for the first time all weekend, I completely forgot about how hot it was. I was truly having fun. Friends, family, and fellow competitors continually stopped by, shared fun stories, gave sweaty hugs, and (while rolling their eyes) watched me sign a stack of freshly-minted Risi Comp #234 Hero Cards.
Shelby was the first in line to get daddy to sign a Hero Card for her!
Did someone say Hero Cards? That’s right. Hero Cards! In preparation for the home-town race, Carol from Ferrari of The Woodlands designed and printed up a box of Hero Cards to sign and hand out to Risi Comp fans after the race. In fact, your very own Hero Card is electronically attached to this e-mail, albeit without the personalized signature and smell of stale champagne. While on one hand this was madly embarrassing, it was incredibly flattering to see so many toddlers (mostly prodded by their moms and dads) come up and ask the “winning racecar driver” for a signed picture of his “Fi-wow-wee” that they could take home. Maybe we planted a few seeds with future racecar drivers on Saturday morning?
The afternoon was closed out with a wonderfully relaxing cookout graciously hosted by Al and Caryl (not to be confused with Carol the Hero Card designer). We ate great barbecue, we watched intense in-car race video, we shared more stories, and we gave more (but far less sweaty) hugs. It was a perfect way to close out an amazing weekend at the track.
Now Back To Business
Homestead will be our final race of the 2017 season, as we are not planning to attend the Ferrari Challenge World Finals in Italy this October. At Homestead, our goal simply is to win. There are 45 championship points up for grabs at this event, so being only 12 points behind the overall points leader means that it’s anybody’s championship at this point. We need to be fast, we need to be consistent, and we need to be trouble-free both days if we are to bring home a championship for Mr. Risi and his team.
Next stop: Homestead, Florida!
See you at the track…and don’t forget to have fun.