Dateline: Thursday, March 5, 2020
I am pretty sure that this past weekend at the Circuit of the Americas was the single most daunting, intimidating, humiliating, humbling, and educational in my brief 23-year racing career. But it’s amazing how getting kicked in the teeth can be so motivational. At least in hindsight.
Not to take away anything from the past few years of competition, but I clearly need to raise my game to be a player in this series. The drivers are incredible, the field is stacked with talent, and an M4 GT4 does not drive anything at all like a TCR Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Welcome to the next chapter of scR motorsports, where very little of what I have learned up to this point will carry me to the podium.
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In keeping with the theme of “everything is new this season” I am going to adopt a different approach to this newsletter. Abandoning the tried-and-true Q&A style, I’m going to rely more on pictures and narratives. And maybe this will work. And maybe it won’t. But I am sure the teenager will fill in whatever gaps I create.
So, enough already. Let’s unpack COTA 2020, GT4 style.
Thursday Test 1
Sometimes we’re tested not to show our weaknesses, but to discover our strengths. Yes, I stole that little phrase from the motivational masterpiece that is the Internet, but I sure found a lot of weaknesses on Thursday. A new car, a new team, a new series, a new teammate, a repaved track, and the required driver change mid-race all dictated that we turn as many laps in practice as possible, but unfortunately I had to spend the first practice session on the sideline while the team worked through a small transmission issue that came up during Bill’s first few laps at speed. So even though I looked great in my near-purple Bimmerworld racing attire, we missed the morning session altogether.
And then we had the Twins. Just in case there wasn’t enough newness to go around to confuse me, I was introduced to the car’s two handlers for the weekend – Jordan and Bryce. Who are, among other things, identical twins. They even wear the same clothes and hats on race weekends.
One of them has a beard. I think that’s Bryce. But don’t quote me on that.
So much to learn…
Thursday Test 2
In case you missed it in the pre-season newsletters, this year I (the Am) have been paired up with Bill Auberlen (the Pro) in the GT4 SprintX Pro-Am series. What this means is that Bill and I will share the same car in each of our 60-minute races. The format each weekend is that I will qualify for our starting position in Race 1 and will take the green flag in Race 1. After about 30 minutes, I will come into the pits, hand the car off to Bill, and he completes the race to the checkered flag. On day two the format reverses itself, with Bill qualifying the car and taking the green flag, handing the car off to me about 30 minutes later to finish the race. No pressure there at all, especially since Bill has been winning races as a BMW factory driver since the Earth’s crust began to cool.
So, back to the narrative. The team elected to put me in the car first on Thursday afternoon. After one warm-up lap to figure out if the transmission was going to behave (it did), I was finally able to start my weekend of learning. Given the tightness of the schedule, I was only able to complete seven laps, turning in a best lap time of a 2:22.0. But it was far from a decent lap. And I knew it.
This is me not going particularly fast. But I am using all of the track turning in for Turn 20. So there’s that.
Just to prove that it was far from a decent lap, Bill took the car out and promptly did what Bill does best – he went stinking fast and laid down a 2:18.5. And I am pretty sure that he did it with one eye closed, with tires that were overinflated by 15 PSI, and with an active school zone on the back straight.
Friday Practice 1
Another Internet gem: There is no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs. And on Friday morning I was looking a pretty damn steep flight of stairs. A 2:22.0 just wasn’t going to cut it, even with the caveat that I had only completed seven laps in a car that I had never really driven before in a live-fire drill. I took the wheel with perfect track conditions and no room for excuses. Nine laps later I had iterated myself down to a 2:19.99, but knowing full well that there was still learning to be had out there. Bill then did the Bill thing and blasted off a 2:17.2 on the same tires.
This is Bill going so fast all you can see is the back of the car.
Friday Practice 1.5
Because the GT4 SprintX Pro-Am format does not allow for a ton of seat time for the Am drivers on Friday, we elected to run the optional Am practice session that morning. Sixteen laps into the weekend, I was ready to settle into a groove and start picking away at the lap time deficit in front of me. A 2:17.2 is a long, long way from a 2:19.9 even though, according to my mom, I am “right there.”
Unfortunately, it took a while for the groove to come about. On the out lap, the car developed a large vibration in the middle of the Carousel. I pitted immediately as it wasn’t going to be conducive to great lap times. The crew diagnosed it as debris on the tires and sent me back out see if it would clean itself back off again. That was a big negative so I brought the car back in to change the tires in the middle of the session. This was not at all going to plan as the clock continued to run.
This is me pinching myself as Bill gives a pep talk before my second Friday practice session.
With about 20 minutes left in the session and fresh tires beneath me, I actually began to drive a little. I was only able to knock out five timed laps before the session ended, but ended up consistently in the low 2:19’s with a best of a 2:18.7. I felt like I was on to something. But just barely.
Friday Practice 2
Our second combined session of the day was dedicated to practicing our driver change routine. During each race, we are required to come in around the 30-minute mark and hand off the car to the second driver while the race continues to run in the background. To make it more interesting, the car cannot exceed a speed of 50 KPH on the pit lane, and there is a minimum required pit time of 80 seconds. What this means in simple terms is that from the time driver one stops in the pit box, there is a window of about 40 seconds where all of the switching must take place before driver two is rolling again. If that didn’t make any sense to you at all, just know that this is a highly-choreographed procedure that requires a bit of practice to make it run seamlessly. Any time lost in the driver change translates to being further behind the pack when re-entering the race.
Our BMW M4 GT4 and the Mullet Snake on Friday afternoon. Classic composition by Halston Pitman.
To help with the timing of the driver change, both the crew and the dash track when we enter pit lane, how fast we travel down pit lane, and when we need to be moving again to minimize our time away from the racing action. We spent most of the session taking a lap, making a driver change, taking a lap, making a driver change, and so on. Frankly, it wasn’t as difficult as I had originally envisioned, and we managed to get pretty good at minimizing our down time.
I’ll repeat (purely for the sake of my ego) that this session was not meant to produce fast lap times, but in the end Bill once again laid down something in the 17’s while I was in the 20’s. I want to be like him when I grow up.
Saturday Qualifying 1
Still feeling kind of buoyed by my 2:18.7 on Friday morning, I was confident that I would find a touch more speed for qualifying. It would take something around a high 2:17 to land on the Am pole, so I spent a good deal of Friday evening combing through the data and video trying to learn as much from Bill’s performance as possible. He helped tremendously as well, sharing as many tips, pointers, and words of wisdom as he thought I could digest. I arrived at the track ready to go, completely confident that I was on a path toward success.
But then it rained enough to use the wipers. And then the car in front of me laid down oil all the way from Turn 6 though Turn 11. And while I didn’t toss the car off into a wall, the sensation of driving on a sheet of ice did nothing for my confidence or my performance. A red flag shut down the session on Lap 2, and when we were shown the green flag again ten minutes later, we were told we would only have three laps to put in our best qualifying time.
In case you didn’t see it live, I did not put in a good qualifying time. Not knowing that the loss of traction was due to oil, I didn’t realize that there was much more grip off of the racing line coming out of the Esses, and as such I drove with far too much caution. I picked up a small amount of speed as the track dried slightly, but my 2:20.7 made me the 11th fastest of the 17 Am drivers, and 18th overall on the grid of 28 cars. Nothing to write home about at all.
Sitting on the grid in 18th place overall. And not happy about it.
Saturday Qualifying 2
By the time Bill took over for his qualifying session, the track was completely dry. Kitty litter had been used to clean up the oil, and his best of a 2:15.9 (yes, you read that right) reflected just how perfect the conditions were once I got out of the car. But it seemed like everyone else found speed as well. Even though he was the fastest BMW in the field, Bill was 8th on the Pro grid. The Porsche 718 sitting on the Pro pole was more than a full second faster with a 2:14.6. These guys are not messing around.
Saturday Race 1
Sitting on the grid in 18th overall means that you can’t see too much when the green flag flies. But in spite of this, I had one of my best race starts ever. Not exactly sure about the play-by-play, but by the time we came back to the start/finish line after Lap 1 we were in 14th place overall and were in the middle of a tight pack of six cars battling for 12th through 17th.
Lap 1, Turn 1, four wide, zero contact. Maybe the weekend highlight.
For the next five laps I remained in the middle of the group, experiencing some of the closest racing I had even been a part of. I am 100% confident that I passed more cars in this 15-minute window than I had in my entire time racing in TCR. It wasn’t making the highlight reel on the broadcast (rarely does the car in battling for 12th get much airtime), but there wasn’t a corner where I didn’t have to focus on defending from behind while simultaneously trying to work my way around the car in front.
And then on Lap 7 it ended. Coming through Turn 11, the #63 Ginetta (don’t ask me, I don’t know what one is either) two cars in front of me went WAY wide at the turn exit. As a result, he got a horrible run down the back straight and I was able to easily pass him going into Turn 12. But apparently someone in race control saw it as our #82 BMW going WAY wide at the turn exit and then capitalizing on the situation by passing for position. Which results in a drive-through-the-pits-painfully-slowly-while-the-race-goes-on penalty if you’re believed to be at fault. It basically ends your day.
See? It wasn’t me. Honest. It’s that guy up there in the car with a weird name who’s driving through the green stuff.
The crew got on the radio as I approached Turn 14 to tell me that the race officials had declared me the bad actor. And that I had to serve a drive-through penalty. I immediately knew what had happened and that they had tagged the wrong car, but in the middle of the race there really isn’t a way to plead one’s case. With this in my head, I turned in for Turn 15 just a tiny bit too early and clipped the orange concrete apex marker with the left-rear tire. Which I frankly didn’t even care about, as that happens all the time without consequence.
But this time there was a consequence. The contact unloaded the rear of the car just enough that it began to rotate to the left a bit more than normal. Which isn’t a big deal unless there is a Ginetta two feet back waiting to make a move. As I recovered the steering and got the car pointed in the right direction again, the two cars came together, his right-front wheel squarely whacking my left-rear wheel. Which, from the outside, looked like a non-event, but resulted in a broken wheel bearing and a bent toe link. Which pretty much ended our day right then and there.
Apparently, I was hit by a Ginetta. No, I still don’t know what that is.
We finished the race before Bill could even try to make a heroic comeback. If you click this link, you will find us nearly all the way at the bottom. Ironically, the only car we beat on Saturday was the #34 Mercedes AMG which crashed out two laps earlier. I guess that number wasn’t very lucky after all.
Sunday Race 2
Even though we couldn’t continue on Saturday, the damage was minor enough that making the repair was easy for the Twins. The car came right back into alignment, and the left-rear corner required no body repairs at all. It clearly felt and sounded inside the car much worse than it actually was.
When the green flag flew on Sunday morning, Bill was lined up in 8th on the grid, but immediately moved up to 7th. He then circulated flawlessly for the better part of 30 minutes, keeping just behind the lead pack. In short, he drove like the factory-sponsored machine that he is.
This is Bill being very fast on Sunday. Note he stayed well clear of the Ginetta.
When I was given the five-minute warning for the driver change, I headed to the restroom to finish putting on my balaclava (that’s a fire-retardant head sock) and helmet. At the risk of giving away too much information, I also decided to get rid of a few more fluid ounces of ballast. Which was a great idea until the balaclava resting on my shoulder fell down and into the toilet mid-stream.
I’ll pause here for you to laugh out loud. At this moment this is new information for all of the guys sitting in the pit box wondering why I took so long to get changed. I didn’t have the courage to tell them on Sunday afternoon.
Doing some quick mental math, I figured I had enough time to run to the paddock and swap my now-christened balaclava for a nice clean one. And while that part worked out just fine, it was a bit confusing for the guys sitting in the trailer who could not figure out what the heck I was doing. Now everyone knows the rest of the story.
So back to the race in progress. As I got back to the pits, I was told that Bill was on his way in and that I needed to be ready to go. Thankfully, even with my changing-room theatrics I had plenty of time to catch my breath and wait with anticipation as Bill rolled the car down pit lane. I was being handed a car sitting in 7th place overall and was focused on doing my best to improve that.
This is me hopping into a racecar. It’s not a graceful thing to watch, but at least I got this part right.
The mechanics of the driver change went just like practice. Belts, ignition, flip a few switches, and stare at the dash. At the proper moment, I took off as per the routine, but then I made the mistake of looking back at the dash as I rolled down pit lane. Due to my inexperience with it, I was momentarily confused by what I saw (I’ll save you the gory details) and stopped the car again before entering the track for fear of having left my pit box too soon. The crew immediately sensed my error and instructed me to get on track ASAP. Flustered by the whole sequence of events, I dutifully rolled out on to the track, but in the heat of the moment I completely forgot to turn off the pit speed limiter.
Hi folks! My name is James Walker, Jr. and I’ll be your host for Amateur Hour this afternoon.
Wasting another handful of valuable seconds getting that mess figured out reversed us in the order by four positions overall, and back to 9th in class. I (too slowly) gathered myself up and got back to speed, but at this point the damage was done and I was out turning laps for the sake of turning laps. The single highlight came when I caught up to and passed the #8 Audi R8 for 8th place (nice symmetry there) in the middle of Turn 10 (but I had actually set up the pass in Turn 8). It was a small victory in an otherwise ho-hum 25 minutes of competition.
I’m pretty sure at least part of the car was on the track surface.
Q: Did you finish in 8th place then?
A: When did we switch back to Q&A mode?
Q: Just now.
A: Fair enough. Yes, the car came home 8th place in class after being qualified 8th place in class. In spite of my rookie blunders we came away with points, and if you squint really hard you can’t see the small wrinkle in the left-rear fender from Saturday’s skirmish with the Ginetta.
Q: So is the glass half-empty or half-full?
Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. And not that I am calling this past weekend a failure, but if we can still finish in the points after I pee on my Nomex, just imagine how we’re going to start moving to the front of the pack once I get my stuff together. I have every confidence that I am a better racecar driver now than I was one week ago, and I am so grateful to Bill and the entire BimmerWorld crew for being so supportive and encouraging. I learned a TON about how to approach professional road racing last week and have no doubt that I can succeed in this arena if I just put my head down and work at it. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be an awesome journey.
See you at the track!