Dateline: Wednesday, July 8, 2020

As you might recall, in my GT4 SprintX debut at COTA back in March, I peed on my balaclava.  Four months later…

What happens when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place? This!

Q: What the heck happened?

A: Hard work happened.  And FINALLY a little bit of racing luck happened.

Q: So you won a race?

A: Two, actually.  And a VERY close second-place finish as well.

The BimmerWorld trophy shelf might need a little reinforcing after this weekend.

Q: So, now that we know the ending, go on and walk us through the backstory.

A: Following COTA, I was completely second-guessing my decision to race in GT4.  Freak urination incidents aside, I was frankly embarrassed with my approach, my performance, and my results.  The team expected more, Bill required more, and I wanted to deliver more.  It would have been simple enough to admit that my 23-year racing odyssey had finally reached its conclusion, that I had discovered the limits of my own ability, and that I should just go back to hanging out with my buddies at track days.

My ego, however, would have none of that.

Q: This is getting kind of melodramatic, don’t you think?

A: I just won my first professional road race. Cut me some slack.

Clearly at COTA I was in over my head.  WAY over my head.  But the team and Bill both had my back.  And a plan was crafted to get me up to speed.

Q: And what did that plan entail?

A: That’s a secret.  And because several of my past and current competitors are on this distribution list (some for the first time – surprise!), I am not allowed to tell you.

Q: Really?  Where’s the fun in that?

A: Ok.  Fine. As long as you promise not to tell anyone.

We practiced. And practiced. And practiced.

Q: Did Dana finally let you get that simulator you have been talking about?

A: Nope.  And she probably never will.  We did this the good-old-fashioned way. We went to a racetrack and burned up a lot of gas, wore out a lot of tires, and torched a bunch of brakes. Just lap after lap after lap of learning. And looking at data. And more data. And more learning. I think I tested more between COTA and VIR than I had in the past three seasons combined.

Q: That doesn’t sound very glamorous. Or very secretive.

A: Yeah, you got me there. This was nothing but hard work. But oh my goodness, was it worth every minute. Going to switch to narrative mode now to pick up with our race weekend now already in progress.

Tuesday Track Walk

Now I normally would not write up anything about the track walk.  But I just have to tell you about the geese.  As you might recall, last year I nearly took out an entire family of eight at 100+ MPH as they lazily crossed the track between Turn 6 and Turn 7.  Well, I am happy to report that they are still alive and well.  In fact, as they saw us walking toward them on Tuesday afternoon, they made a point to recreate the incident with striking precision.  It made for a great story, a great laugh, and a great photo.  And that’s now enough about the damn geese.

I swear I could hear them taunting me.

Wednesday Test

Being VIR, it rained all the way to the track on Wednesday morning.  And that was the end of the rain for the day.  Under clear skies we ran a total of three one-hour practice sessions.  We worked on speed, we worked on pace, we worked on driver changes, and we worked on race management.  It was akin to drinking from a fire hose, the team and Bill feeding me nuggets of knowledge without pause.  Lap times were not the ultimate target, but I managed to get into the 1:56s early in the day.  There were no official lap times posted by SRO, so I had no way to know where that ranked us in the field, but I knew I had some work to do with Bill knocking out 1:55s and the occasional 1:54 for good measure.

Wednesday afternoon driver change practice. I am nearly getting good at this part of the process.

On the topic of team struggles, we need to come back to the Twins. Once again Jordan and Bryce were #82’s caretakers for the weekend. I am really liking these guys, but just as I was beginning to figure out who was who, COVID struck. And with their SRO-mandatory masks in place, I have completely given up on trying to tell them apart. Moving forward, I think I am just going to call them both by their last name, Allen. The good news is they are interchangeably awesome so it really doesn’t matter.

Allen (on the left) and Allen (on the right). Tell me you can tell them apart and I’ll call you a liar.

In homage to team scR racing days gone by (or maybe just because it’s Bill’s favorite restaurant), Wednesday night we feasted at the local Outback Steakhouse.  And in stark contrast to my last Outback experience at VIR, it was remarkably good.  Maybe the tide is turning here.

Thursday Practice

Being VIR, it rained all the way to the track on Thursday morning.  And that was the end of the rain for the day.  With only two one-hour sessions on Thursday, we had to stuff the proverbial ten liters of learning into a five-liter fuel cell.  Or something like that.  My 1:56.1 in the morning session was definitely at the pointy end of the Am field, and Bill’s 1:54.5 was good for second in the Pro field.  But we were on older tires, probably were carrying too much fuel, and spent much of our time focusing on driver changes instead of outright speed.

This awesome shot, like most here, are courtesy of Halston Pitman. The #82 is seen exiting Turn 12, the turn formerly known as Oak Tree.

In the afternoon session Bill bolted on a set of sticker tires, turned up the wick, and won the Pro practice session (that’s a racer’s joke if ever there was one) with a 1:54.4.  My 1:57.8 was almost entirely reflective of the ancient tires that we chose for my laps, but even so, it did nothing for my confidence.  But the driver change practice went nearly seamlessly and the data showed we had a chance to qualify up front if I just had my head screwed on straight on Friday morning.

Feeling kind of kicked in the teeth by my lethargic lap times, I elected to play hermit on Thursday evening.  On the way back to the hotel I spent about 30 minutes waiting in line at the Chick-fil-A drive-thru for my twelve nuggets of fried heaven.  And suddenly, all was right with the world again.

Q: Was your head screwed on straight on Friday morning?

A: Don’t get ahead of the story.  But I’d be lying if I told you that Chick-fil-A didn’t have some magical effect on my mood.  And my qualifying times.

Friday Qualifying 1, 2, and 3

Being VIR, it rained all the way to the track on Friday morning.  And that was the end of the rain for the day.  Because there were three races this weekend (the third race was a make-up race for the Long Beach COVID casualty), qualifying was a little bit different than normal.  I was required to start Race 1 (Friday) and Race 3 (Sunday) while Bill was required to start Race 2 (Saturday).  For this reason, during my qualifying session my fastest lap time would determine my grid position for Race 1 and my second-fastest lap time would determine my grid position for Race 3.  In other words, I could not be a one-lap wonder – I needed at least two great laps to put us in front of the Am group each day.  Bill on the other hand was only qualifying for a single race, so he was focusing on turning in just a single flier for Saturday’s Pro grid position.

You can’t tell from this angle, but the car is hustling at over 140 MPH in this photo. Again, my mom doesn’t need to know about this.

Regardless of whether you followed that explanation or not, let’s just cut to the chase.  Bill and I claimed the pole positions for all three races.  Boom!  Where did that come from?  My best lap time of 1:55.40 covered the second-place #47 Porsche Cayman driven by Matt Travis by a scant 0.04 second for the start of Friday’s race, and my follow-up 1:55.61 put the #82 in front of #47 again on Sunday, this time by exactly 0.1 second.

Bill had a bit more margin in his qualifying efforts.  He managed to lay down a solid 1:53.72.  The second-place #2 Porsche Cayman driven by Andrew Davis was about 0.6 second back with a still-respectable 1:54.34.

Friday Race 1

Friday afternoon was stinking hot by all measures.  According to the weather data provided to us, the air temperature was 91 degrees, the humidity was 60%, and the track surface temperature was an incredible 122 degrees.  And the racecar has fixed windows.

Because this is mixed-class racing, my pole position in class had me starting from fifth place overall.  The four cars in front of me were all in different classes, as was the car gridded in sixth place.  Our only direct competition at the start – #47 – was directly behind me when the green flag flew.

The start was not one of my finest.  I was arguably too conservative and allowed the two cars directly behind me – including #47 – to pass me before Turn 3.  The race continued rather uneventfully for the first four laps as I managed to keep my position and maintain a pace quick enough to engage #47 directly in front of me.  But then on Lap 5 I had a mental mistake (I was simply trying too hard) and ran a little wide in Turn 3.  This resulted me dropping two tires in the grass before turning in for Turn 4, requiring a lift off the throttle as #47 drove off into the sunset.

This is me not too long before I chose to drive off the track between Turn 3 and Turn 4.

I reentered the track without any apparent issues (more on this later), but I was now about six seconds behind #47. The gap grew slightly as my 30-minute stint came to a close and I handed off the car to Bill to bring it home. After a seamless driver change, Bill began his 30-minute charge approximately 30 seconds behind the overall race leader, but more importantly, approximately ten seconds behind #47, the Pro-Am class leader at the halfway point.

And then Bill did what Bill does.

Driving with grace and aplomb, Bill surgically worked his way through the pack. The ten-second gap to #47 became eight, then six, then three. With just a handful of laps to go, Bill worked by #47 and was on his way to a class win when a bit more racing luck came our way.

At the front of the pack, the overall leaders were having issues of their own. Several had to serve drive-through penalties for speeding on pit lane during the driver change period, and others simply did not have Bill’s pace. But the most pivotal moment came as the overall race leader ran out of gas coming down the front straight on the very last lap, allowing Bill to pass him for the overall win a mere 200 feet from the finish line. It was a completely unexpected bonus to not only claim the Pro-Am win, but the overall win as well.

This is Bill demonstrating how a Pro properly poses for a great picture after climbing out the race-winning car.

It wasn’t over yet, however.  During the post-race inspection, it was discovered that our right-rear suspension was adjusted out of specification and would result in our disqualification.  Talk about throwing a wet towel on the fun.  However, a closer look revealed that a few key components in that location had been bent during the race, most likely during my little journey through the wilderness on Lap 5.  The officials agreed, and allowed the on-track result to stand.  Disaster averted!

To celebrate that evening, Bill and I went back to Outback Steakhouse.  Again.  It really is his favorite place.

Saturday Race 2

Saturday afternoon was even more stinking hot by all measures.  The air temperature was now 93 degrees, the humidity was *only* 49%, and the track surface temperature had climbed to an incredible 131 degrees.  Did I mention previously that the racecar has fixed windows?

In spite of the aggressive weather, Bill was locked and loaded to start from the overall pole.  However, as the field lined up two-by-two coming down the front straight for the green flag, some of the competitors jumped out of line prematurely.  This led to the starter performing the “wave off” routine, effectively telling the group they needed to try it again before he allowed them to begin racing.  The pack responded by heading into Turn 1 at a reduced pace, saving their tires and energy for the coming restart.

Unfortunately, one of our competitors two rows back didn’t get the memo.  In the spirit of giving him the benefit of the doubt (and because I’m not above making an occasional mistake myself), I’ll refrain from calling him out by name.  But screaming up through the pack like a hero, the #***REDACTED*** ***REDACTED*** ***REDACTED*** driven by ***REDACTED*** ***REDACTED*** dove into Turn 1 with the afterburners full on and drove straight into the back of our car.  The impact was severe enough to crush the right-rear fascia, crumple the right-rear fender, and bend the right-side exhaust pipe in four places.  Oh, and it also sent Bill flying off the track and into the grass.

Thankfully, Bill was able to re-enter the track without additional drama and regained his position at the front of the pack before the restart.  At the green flag he quickly assumed the lead and during his 30-minute stint opened up a gap of approximately 15 seconds to the #15 Aston Martin driven by Kenton Koch in second place.

Bill at the restart, leading the pack into Turn 3. You can’t see the dragging rear fascia from this angle.

After another seamless driver change, I was now out in front with a comfortable cushion behind.  The next-closest competitor was #15, now being driven by Bryan Putt (yes, the same guy involved in the “Putt-bumping” episode in TCR last year).  With team engineer David Wagener in my ear, I was given pretty explicit instructions to maintain the 15-second gap to #15 as best I could.

While on TV it might have looked like an effortless drive, this might have been some of the most anxious time I have spent behind the wheel of a racecar.  Being all alone on the track, it is tempting to let your mind wander, to fall off your pace, and to make mental errors.  Thankfully none of that transpired, and after an extremely slow (and cautious) final lap around the track I drove under the checkered flag still more than nine seconds clear of our closest competitor.

This is me getting embarrassingly tangled up in my radio harness after climbing out the race-winning car. Total Am moment.

Q: You took the checkered flag?  When was the last time you did that?

A: Saturday, March 10, 2018 at 5:16 PM.  Approximately.

In spite of getting punted off the track early on, #82 passed through the tech shed without incident.  There was a small amount of work that needed to be done that evening to replace the exhaust and make the rear fascia look presentable, but it wasn’t anything that the Twins couldn’t handle.

To celebrate that evening, Bill went back to Outback Steakhouse.  Again!  It really is his favorite place.  I simply could not envision another Victoria’s Filet in front of me, so I chose to join the rest of the team at that Mexican place I can’t remember the name of.  Remind me next time to go to Outback with Bill.

Sunday Race 3

Of course, the buzz in the paddock on Sunday morning was all about the “three-peat” and “going for the turkey.”  No pressure there, right?  Thankfully (I just realized I have been using that word a LOT in this newsletter) Bill pulled me aside and gave me some great advice.  In short, he took off my leash and told me to just have fun.  We had our poles, we had our wins, and we had nothing more to prove.  Just have a good time out there, James.

As you have probably forgotten by now, I was starting Sunday’s race from the Pro-Am pole, but was in sixth place overall.  The five cars in front of me were all in different classes, and our only direct competition at the start – #47 – was directly behind me when the green flag flew.  Groundhog Day.

In contrast to my cautious start on Friday afternoon, I took off running on Sunday morning.  Coming through Turn 2 I was able to pass the #26 BMW M4 driven by Chandler Hull for fifth place overall, with #47 being forced to slot in behind him.  This was a huge improvement and gave me just a bit more confidence that maybe, just maybe, I am putting some of this stuff together.

The four laps that followed were some of the best driving I have ever done.  I ran nose-to-tail with the #25 BMW M4 driven by Tim Barber, setting some of my fastest laps of the weekend in spite of having a full load of fuel on board.  The rhythm was right, and I was actually having fun.  For some great in-car video of this stint, you can click on this link.

Another fantastic shot by Halston Pitman, this one taken on Sunday morning. Can you see me smiling?

An incident on Lap 5 involving another competitor brought out the safety car, and we began to circulate the track waiting for the racing to resume.  For four laps we puttered around the circuit.  Having noted that my tire pressures were creeping up, I elected to cool it down for the first three safety car laps.  This would 1) allow for happier tires at the restart and 2) would save a bit more traction for Bill when he took over at the end of my stint.  In my mind, these were both important things to consider.

What I failed to consider was that as I was cruising around saving my tires, they began to accumulate crap.  In more technical terms, crap is affectionately known as “pickup” or “marbles” and consists of the debris found all around the track as the result of tires wearing down over time.  Now normally this crap is not found on the racing line itself, but rather at the track edge.  However, for whatever reason the track surface, including the racing line, was littered with the crap on Saturday afternoon after our race and nobody cleaned it off overnight.

I watched my fellow competitors flailing to and fro for three laps as they (wisely) continuously cleaned the crap off of their tires.  When the safety car lights went out signaling an imminent restart, I too began to flail to and fro, but it simply was not enough to properly prepare the tires for the green flag.  As the field came through Turn 16, I jumped on the throttle at the perfect moment, but the car simply slid off line and into the grass at the exit of Turn 17 with seemingly no grip whatsoever.

In order to keep from spinning around backwards, I lifted off the throttle and gently steered the car back onto the track surface.  While doing so, it seemed like the entire field passed me heading down the front straight.  In reality, I dropped from my fifth overall position to eleventh overall, and from first in Pro-Am to something like fifth.  Literally a fall from grace.

The broadcast crew was generous enough to speculate that I had been hit from behind at the restart forcing me off the track.  Oh, how I wish that were true.  It was 100% my error, and I can promise you it will never, ever happen again.  Scout’s Honor.

Two laps later it was time for the driver change.  I had failed to make up any positions, so it was all on Bill’s shoulders to atone for my transgressions.  And thus, he went to work.

Seeing that this newsletter is already long enough, I’ll just press fast forward and tell you that when the checkered flag flew for the final time, Bill was 0.7 second behind #47.  While nobody can really be upset with a second-place finish, knowing that we were so in control of the race just 30 minutes earlier made it kind of hard to swallow.  We went to the podium ceremony without a lot of swagger in our step.

Pro tip: When the trophy has a “2” on it, you don’t hold it quite as high.

Q: Looking back on the weekend, what’s your take?

A: It was one of the most successful racing weekends I can remember.  And it’s not just about the trophy count.  I learned SO much about every aspect of the sport and was able to apply most of it with relative success.  Certainly, I have farther to go, and Bill is relentless in his pushing me in new directions, but this was exactly the antidote I needed after COTA.  I am no longer second-guessing the decision to move to GT4.  I belong here, and I intend to keep on winning.

Q: Whoa.  That’s kind of bold, don’t you think?

A: Maybe.  But ask me again after Sonoma.  I think we are on to something here.

Like a Timex, she takes a licking but keeps on ticking.

Q: How are you feeling about the Championship at this point?

A: That might be the biggest story of the weekend.  After COTA we were mired in a ho-hum tie for 10th place overall in GT4 SprintX Pro-Am.  We had accumulated a grand total of 4 points to the 50 points of the Championship-leading #47.  Following our solid performance at VIR, we moved all the way up the leaderboard to 2nd place.  Our 72 total points still trail the 89 points accumulated by #47, but we are clearly in the hunt.  With four weekends of racing left in front of us, it’s time to start pulling away.  Let’s do this.

See you at the track…but only if you first fill out the health attestation form, have a temperature of less than 100.4 degrees, and wear a mask!

#82 GT4