Dateline: September 15/16, 2018

Q: This was the final race of the year for the 458 Challenge, right?

Exactly.  As you might recall from our last update, our performance at Watkins Glen moved us up to second place in the 458 Challenge Championship race.  With but one weekend to go, we were 19 points behind the overall leader (car #246) but only 4 points in front of the car in third place (car #224).  Mathematically we were still in the hunt, but needed a flawless performance at Road Atlanta to bring home the year-end trophy to Risi Competizione.

Ferrari Challenge, Round 4: Road Atlanta.

Q: So were you flawless?

The venue was Road Atlanta, a 2.5-mile circuit cut into the countryside in Braselton Georgia.  I had raced there previously, but not since 2009.  Our most successfully outing at Road Atlanta dated all the way back to 2001 when scR motorsports placed fourth at the ITA Runoffs.  Back in the day, right?  Sporting our banana-yellow polo shirts (man, I loved those shirts), we hustled that little Saturn around the circuit with a best lap time of a 1:46.0 that weekend.  Memories…

Q: That didn’t answer my question.

I know.  You’ll have to wait.

Honda, Honda, Honda, Saturn!  Road Atlanta, 2001 ARRC.

Q: You keep using car numbers to describe the other competitors.  Do these guys have names?

You know, that’s a good point.  I have traditionally done that to keep things kind of impersonal.  I’m also not sure if our fellow competitors would want all the notoriety that would come out of being named directly in one of our newsletters.  That said, I’ll randomly make up stage names for them to give this particular newsletter an air of camaraderie.  Let’s randomly call the driver of car #246 “Martin” and the driver of car #224 “Trevor” for the rest of the narrative.

With but one weekend to go, we were 19 points behind “Martin,” the overall leader, but only 4 points in front of “Trevor” in third place.

Q: Aren’t those their real names?

Maybe.  Maybe not.

Q: What did you do to prepare for the weekend?

Three weeks before the big event, the Risi team loaded up #234 and headed to Road Atlanta for testing.  Since I had not been to Road Atlanta for nearly a decade, I also decided (ok, was coerced) to use a driving coach to hopefully bring me up to speed that much quicker.  If you’re a motorsports fan of any sort, you will probably recognize him by name – Colin Braun (that’s his real name, not a pseudonym).  If you don’t recognize him by name, let it suffice to say that this 30-something-year-old has been genetically and socially engineered since before birth to drive things fast.  Really fast.

Overheard in an Ovalo, Texas living room sometime in the spring of 1988: “Today marks the start of the second trimester, honey.  Drink some more Red Bull and watch that 1978 Le Mans video again.”

To be fair, I don’t think that Colin has ever driven a Saturn around Road Atlanta, but he made up for that gaping hole in his resume by pushing me in exactly the right directions.  Crappy weather conditions (wet, drying, wet again, drying again, repeat) prevented a ton of track time for us, but by the end of our session together I was certainly FAR better prepared than had I tried to figure things out for myself.  I left with a new personal best lap time of 1:27.1, a full 19 seconds per lap faster than we had run in 2001.  (Note that my pride prevents me from sharing Colin’s best lap time at the moment.)

Q: Are you finally done with the background and setup material?

Yes.  I mean, no.  We haven’t talked about the wrecker yet.

Q: You wrecked during the race?

Nope.  But Zack – with his eight-day-old license – got the rental minivan stuck in the Turn 10 viewing area.  Don’t tell Hertz.

He won’t be smiling when he hears he’s paying the wrecker driver.

Q: Great – so how did the race weekend go?

On any other weekend in any other series under any other circumstances I would have qualified our outing at Road Atlanta as an overwhelming success.  A pair of second-place podium finishes (both times just a fraction of a second behind the winner at the checkered flag), setting the fastest race lap each day, and surviving the effects of Hurricane Florence without a scratch on the car all made this weekend one for the highlight reel.

Yes, Sunday’s weather was about as dreary as it looks here.

But we didn’t win the 458 Championship.  And that effectively takes this weekend off of the highlight reel.  Excuse me while I pout a little bit over here in the corner for a few minutes.

Q: So walk us through the Thursday and Friday practice sessions

This part is simple.  We were fast.  Really fast.  With the exception of the second Friday practice session where we were just bedding in brakes, nobody on track in a 458 could match our times.  This includes “Martin” and “Trevor.”  In fact, during the Friday morning session we set a personal best time of 1:25.6.  Which was close enough to Colin’s times that we were feeling kind of good about our chances of being flawless.

Rick and I also spent a ton of time working on qualifying technique and strategy over the two practice days.  The goal was to focus my efforts on qualifying lap #3.  Not lap #4.  Not lap #8.  But lap #3.  If we were going to qualify on the pole, we needed to put down a perfect lap early in the session before the tires started giving up.

Q: So were you flawless in qualifying?

We will never know.  Qualifying lap #1 was spent warming up the tires.  Qualifying lap #2 was a recon lap to get the car up to speed.  And in the middle of qualifying lap #3 we got hung up by a slower car that never saw us coming.  Which would not have been so bad except for the fact that the session was red flagged before qualifying lap #4 could begin.  And just like that, four days of practice was essentially for naught.  We never got a chance to lay down our perfect lap.

When the grid was posted, our “best” lap was our recon lap.  Which by design wasn’t supposed to be all that fast.  Still, it was good enough for third place on the grid behind “Martin” and “Trevor,” which wasn’t what we were striving for, but sometimes racing just doesn’t play out like you plan it to play out.

Awesome shot by Jeff Grossbard heading under the bridge and into Turn 11.

Q: You can stop using quotes.  We know those are their real names.

How did you figure that out?

Q: So Martin beat you on Saturday, right?

Both Martin and I got a GREAT start on Saturday and motored by Trevor before Turn 1.  Trevor tried to make a move going up the hill into Turn 2, but we maintained position and came through Turn 3 in front, successfully moving into second place.  And that’s where we finished.  On paper there wasn’t much to talk about, but behind the wheel it was an incredible race.

Over the first few laps of the race, we reeled in Martin and began to fill his mirrors.  In doing so, we set the fastest lap of the race.  Trevor was far enough behind that he was never a threat for position.  To Martin’s credit, he drove a clean race, defended his position as needed, and managed to keep us behind him all the way to the end.  We were able to pull up alongside him a few times, but never could put the car far enough in front to make it stick without risking another trip to the body shop.

At the finish line we were about two tenths of a second behind Martin.  That’s about 30 feet.  Trevor finished in third place, about nine tenths of a second behind us.  While we ran a great race, never made a mistake, and were the fastest car on track, Martin’s win locked up the 458 Championship for him that afternoon.  We smiled and sprayed the champagne, but knew that Sunday’s race was going to be for bragging rights only.  Mathematically we were out of the running for the overall title.  Boo.

Saturday’s margin of victory: about 30 feet.

Q: How was the weather on Sunday?

We had a hurricane blow in.  Besides that, it was pretty ok.

Florence heading straight for Atlanta.  She would arrive about 12 hours later.

Florence (or the remnants thereof) showed up on Saturday night and rained on our parade.  Literally.  By the time we got to the track on Sunday morning everything was already a soggy mess.  But, contrary to popular belief, real Ferraris don’t melt if they get wet, so we strapped on the rain tires and headed out to see what Mother Nature had in store.

Q: Did anybody skip out on the race because of the rain?

Well, I don’t want to name names, but this racer named “Martin” decided to park his car and watch.  Which was LAME.

Q: How was qualifying in the wet?

Awesome.  Terrifying.  Insightful.  Nerve-racking.  Insane.  Brilliant.  Irresponsible.  Fantastic.  All at the same time.

Life at 149 mph.  Can you see the braking marker?  No?  Well, neither can I.

Q: Did you get the pole?

Barely missed it.  Trevor ended up scoring his first pole position in the series, which might have been due to his previous experience at Road Atlanta in the wet.  We were still figuring stuff out each and every lap, and knew there was a bunch more time in the car.  The 1:40.4 on the grid sheet didn’t reflect all we had in store, and the next closest competitor was more than four seconds off of our pace.  It was shaping up to be a two-car battle if the rain persisted.

Q: Did the rain persist?

Oh yeah, it did.

Q: Was it a two-car battle?

Oh yeah, it was.  We got a GREAT start and motored by Trevor before Turn 1.  Unfortunately, we had the inside (read here: slippery) line going up the hill and Trevor was able to hang on and take back his position going into Turn 2.  And for the next 30 minutes I was driving completely blind.

This picture speaks for itself.  Nice shot, Billy.

Turns out that a 458 Challenge car on rain tires throws up one HECK of a rooster tail.  If you’re the car in second place, you are effectively driving only by using The Force, as visibility is literally zero in most of the areas that you would ever think about making a pass for position.  With discretion being the better part of valor, I stayed in Trevor’s slipstream for the first 17 laps, not brave enough to pull out into the unknown to try to find out what was waiting for me.  On several occasions we came up on lapped traffic so quickly that I literally never saw the other car until it was beside me.  In spite of this, I stayed in Trevor’s wake as we outran the field.

With one lap to go we had both passed every other car on the track, including one competitor that we managed to lap FIVE times.  No, that’s not normal, but when you’re lapping five to eight seconds faster than everyone else that’s how the math plays out.  On the final lap I made a move in Turn 10a, trying to go around the outside, but it just wasn’t meant to be.  In an oddly symmetric way, our finish on Sunday looked just like our result on Saturday – we crossed the stripe three tenths of a second behind Trevor.  But the thrill of the chase was off the charts.

On the official Ferrari news and media page, it was heralded as the “battle of the day” and I really can’t disagree.  Had I actually WON the race I probably would be writing something now along the lines of, “It was the best race ever!”  But I didn’t, so I’m not.

Sunday’s finish.  Yes, there is a car 40 feet in front of me.  No, you can’t see it.

Q: You survived 30 minutes of racing blind at over 150 mph and you’re complaining about that?

Yes.  Yes I am.  Because I’ll tell you firsthand that finishing second is unilaterally the worst place to finish.

Q: So where did you finish in the Championship?

Second.  Ten points behind Martin and three points in front of Trevor.  Don’t ask me how I feel about that.

Q: How do you feel about that?


Q: Come on, you have to find a silver lining here somewhere, Debbie Downer.

In so many ways this was an amazing season.  Statistically, there was nothing to complain about.  Out of eight races this season we managed:

  • One pole position
  • One class win
  • Three second-place finishes (our last three races of the year)
  • Five podium appearances (63%)
  • Six fastest race laps (75%)

Without exception, the Risi team never failed to put a car on track that was capable of winning.  Setting the fastest lap of the race six out of eight times speaks so clearly about the level of preparation, knowledge of setup, and attention to detail that comes from their decades of racing at the very highest levels.  It’s flattering and humbling to have Mr. Risi’s name on the side of my car, but along with that comes a responsibility and duty to compete to my highest potential to honor the team’s effort and reputation.  It’s hard work, but I would not have it any other way.

James, Martin, and Trevor in season-ending championship order.

Q: So what’s next?

Great question.  I really don’t know yet.  Finishing second has done nothing if it has not compelled me to come back with Risi in 2019.  That said, decisions still need to be made as to what car to campaign, which series to join, and how much disposable income I am willing to throw at this completely selfish and senseless hobby.  If you happen to be a potential sponsor, I’ll be accepting applications after 5:00 tomorrow afternoon.

In closing, thanks so much for reading (and laughing) along with us this season.  Stay tuned to this channel, as once we get things figured out for next season, you will be among the first to know.  There is more fun to be had, and eventually we’re going to get this whole championship thing figured out.

See you at the track!