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ASCHENBACH: Sonoma Debrief

Lawson Aschenbach files his final Sportscar365 column of 2017…

Photo: Richard Prince/GM

There are times in racing where you can be dominant and other times where you will struggle. That’s the nature of the beast. No one wins every single race.

Successful weekends are hard, but it’s the ones where you struggle that really test the mental focus of the driver and team.

When you find yourself running in third or sixth or 10th with a train of competitors behind you trying to make their way past, those are the times where you have to be aggressive, strategic and smooth. One slip up and they get by; but in a sport where every point counts you can’t give up.

You won’t be able to keep the position every time, but if you can will yourself and the car to obtain those finishes, you will be rewarded with a new sense of confidence.

Blackdog Speed Shop and Chevrolet had a lot on the line as we rolled into Sonoma for the final two races of the Pirelli World Challenge season.

We locked up the Driver’s championship in Austin, but we were focused on the Manufacturer’s and Team titles.

The need for a solid weekend at a track where we struggled historically was overwhelmingly high. We had to be perfect and get the maximum out of the car, and I needed to push myself to the same extent.

Winning a Manufacturer’s Championship for Chevrolet was our primary goal for the year.

Coming into the weekend, our Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R performed flawlessly all season racking up 11 podiums and one win. The car is jack of all trades. It showcases the ability to have pace in low- and high-speed tracks, while providing a stable and confident platform for the driver.

Sonoma Raceway is a low-grip circuit with significant elevation changes, low-speed hairpins and difficult transitions. Limited passing zones and blind corners create tough racing conditions that can easily create contact… as we unfortunately found out later. This track truly tests driver and machine. It’s one of the toughest places to race in the world.

As practice started our car rolled off the trailer fast. My engineer, Eric Miller, had the hot rod headed in the right direction. I was confident in our lap times but worried about tire longevity.

We were racing one of the heaviest cars in class, so tire management was a key component to our success.

After tweaking on it I felt we had a good shot at pole. It was going to take a perfect lap, but I was confident and ready. We found ourselves fourth… not great, but we got every last bit out of the car. It seemed that a few other cars a bit more left in the tank.

In the end, the race is where is counts. The green flag flew for Race 1 and we immediately jumped into third place. I was pushing as hard as I could to keep pace with the two leaders while defending the train behind. It was a brutal race, and we ended up finishing sixth.

We fought with everything we had, but it wasn’t enough. We were teetering on losing the Manufacturer’s title and we needed to find a way to repeat our performance in Race 2 at a minimum.

The pressure was on, but I feel fortunate to race for a team like Blackdog Speed Shop and I know we thrive in these spots.

We started third Sunday, and when the lights went off for the standing start the Chevy LT1 gave me the torque needed to launch into second up the hill into Turn Two. I pushed hard to pass the leader, but we didn’t quite have enough to get the job done.

Fortunately a well-timed caution allowed me to cool the tires to get ready for an important restart, one of my favorite parts of racing. It gives you the opportunity to make a move. Cool tire temps and build-up forces a driver to get out of his/her comfort zone.

As we came to the green flag I was primed and ready. The leader took off out of the last corner and I stayed close waiting to pounce up the hill into Turn 1.

Just as I hoped, there was a clear lane on the inside of the front straight kink and I went for it. No turning back at this point. I was committed and couldn’t back down.

It worked! We moved into the lead at Turn 2 and I was able to build a small gap to give us some breathing room.

A red flag came out with about 10 minutes to go. The timing was perfect but hearing who was involved made my insides lurch.

It was for my teammate, Tony Gaples. The crew let me know he was awake and alert after a big hit in the high-speed Esses.

It was comforting to know from history that Pratt & Miller builds strong, safe race cars. They are the best in the business and this allows the drivers to push their limits every race.

The win was just what we needed to cap off a great season.

In the process we swept Manufacturer’s, Driver’s and Team championships! These years don’t happen often, so you need to cherish these moments. This is as good as it gets!

Also, Tony got his first GTSA win of the year! Hopefully his next one will come with a lot less drama!

I’m extremely proud of our accomplishments. We could not achieve these results without the support of Chevrolet, Pratt & Miller and Blackdog Speed Shop.

The hard work, dedication, and focus by every single person involved in making the GT4.R a reality was rewarded righteously.

Thanks to everyone that allows me to pursue my dream!

On to 2018!

Lawson Aschenbach (@lawsonaracing) is a former Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and Pirelli World Challenge champion, driving for Blackdog Speed Shop in Pirelli World Challenge and Michael Shank Racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

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