After two top-three finishes in the No. 9 Stevenson Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R, we came into Laguna Seca with a lot of confidence and a feeling that we had a good shot to continue our podium streak.
Our near victory at Sebring left us craving that elusive first win of the season and we were firing on all cylinders working toward that goal.
Laguna Seca is one of the hardest tracks on the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge schedule. It is a low-grip circuit that can create big setup and tire issues. You find that the tires fall off fairly fast, and if you have a particular issue with the car it will continually get worse during a long stint.
It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you have a major setup problem, but in reality you are dealing with the same issues as everyone else…an extreme lack of grip!
We rolled off the trailer fast and after a few changes by our engineer, Chris “Crumpets” Mander, we narrowed in on a good setup that would be strong for long runs during the race. It was important to make sure we didn’t have too much oversteer at this track.
If you do, you will be hanging on for dear life toward the end of your stint and it will be hard to put the power down out of corners.
My co-driver, Matt Bell, and I felt good about our chances after being in the top-three for both official practice sessions.
Not only that but he threw down a brilliant lap in qualifying to take consecutive poles with our Camaro Z/28.R. Fortunately for us, this is his “home track” and he understands all the little nuances that most drivers overlook.
As the race started Matt opened up a good lead and held his position at the front. Things were looking promising and I was confident we had the car to beat. A caution came out before the minimum drive time requirements (45 minutes) so we decided to stay out.
A few cars came into the pits before and during the caution to take advantage with early stops. It was very clear that there would be a lot of different strategies and we never really knew if ours would work until we saw how the cautions fall.
Strategy can win or lose a race. It’s tough to call when to pit because sometimes you need yellows to come out in particular windows going forward. Sometimes you gamble and it works … sometimes it comes back to haunt you.
We ended up pitting a bit later than normal, and Matt brought the car in from the lead after about an hour and 15 minutes.
We did fuel, tires and a driver change. We came out of the pits around sixth or so as the people in front of us who pitted early gained the advantage and were ahead. I pushed as hard as I could to try and play catch up, but we still had one issue: we couldn’t make it on fuel unless we had more cautions.
The guys in the pits decided to gamble on making it a one-stop race for us. There are two things to remember when making that decision: you need to save fuel AND you end up going longer than anyone on one set of tires.
It’s a tall order, but once you are committed you need to be fully engaged in the strategy and do everything you can to get to the end.
We got a break toward the end of the race when a caution came out. At that point we had inherited the lead because all the other cars made their second stop and we cycled back to the front. This was the benefit of the one-stop strategy and at that moment it looked like the right way to go.
It was a great gamble, but as the green flag flew we knew we were still short on fuel and the cars behind us had fresher tires. I continued to push while saving fuel and was able to lead for a few more laps, but it became obvious that we weren’t going to make it to the end.
This is one of those times in racing that you need to swallow your pride and realize that, although you may have been the car to beat, you will have to give in and slow down.
Making it to the end to get valuable points was more important than winning the race at this point. I slowed down and started falling back while trying to hit our fuel numbers.
It looked like we were going to be able to salvage a fifth place finish and come out of the weekend with a solid result.
Unfortunately with two or three laps to go we started to lose fuel pressure. Our numbers said we could make it to the end, but something was wrong. We were running dry and before long the car started to sputter.
I barely made it back to the pits and the guys had to give me a splash of fuel before rejoining the race. At that point we lost track position and crossed the finish line in 11th place. Definitely not the finish we were expecting…but that’s racing!
After such a promising weekend, we got the short end of the stick and lost some ground in the championship. Saying that, you win as a team and you lose as a team! In my mind we’ve got the best team in the paddock and everyone on the program works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen.
Things happen in racing and it’s what you do after adversity that really shows the true character of a driver/team. I have no doubt in my mind we will give it everything we have at the next event and overcome this finish!
Congrats to our team car and drivers, Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis, on their win!
On to Watkins Glen!