I’m trying my best not to think about it, but following the last race weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, we’re now exactly halfway through the 2019 IMSA season.
There are a few reasons for not wanting to quantify how far in we are/how much longer we have to go.
Personally, I find that it really does not have much to do with the pressure that builds as you get closer to Road Atlanta, especially if you start to consider championship implications.
For me, I just don’t want it to end! I’m so damn fortunate to be working with two excellent teams this year. I’m enjoying the time with my teammates in both programs, the people who support us, the results we’re achieving, and the challenges that we’re facing along the way.
The usual, hectic rhythm of the summer historically does not begin for me until Watkins Glen; from then on it’s five races in the following nine weeks.
Basically, if you start the summer poorly, there’s rarely a chance of recovering and any potential run at a championship you may have had prior to Watkins essentially goes right out the window.
This year, however, that rhythm was broken up in a pretty big way as I had my first ever visit to Detroit’s Belle Isle with the Meyer Shank Racing team and the Acura NSX GT3 Evo.
Last time I drove on a street circuit prior to this event was back in my single seater days; USF2000 in 2012 at the streets of St. Petersburg.
I more or less kept that fact on the DL going into Detroit since I figured Mike, Mario, and the rest of the team didn’t need any more to worry about.
To make a long story short, that was a pretty tough 48 hours for the #86 MSR team.
We generally struggled to find balance in the car during practice and qualifying, although we did run inside the top three cars for the first stint of the race. Following a slow stop due to a wheel gun failure, the day just went from bad to worse when Mario experienced a failure in the left rear of the car whilst catching the pack for a restart in the high speed turn 13 section of the track.
Those walls are pretty unforgiving of course so our day was done. Not the best way to roll into Watkins.
Three weeks between Detroit and Watkins Glen really wasn’t a whole lot considering the rebuild and repair process that needed to take place. Race teams like MSR can pull off miracles when called upon, but nobody is every actively looking to display that attribute in their race team.
Mario, Justin, and I all felt the least we could do is get the team the best result possible at Watkins to shine some light on their efforts since Detroit.
Fortunately that effort paid off well, as we found ourselves in the pole position for the second time in 2019 and a complete front row lockout for MSR and Acura for the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen.
This was not just a pretty big psychological victory for the team as a whole, but also absolutely crucial towards our chances at a race win, as we knew our NSX GT3 would work best in clean air for Sunday’s race.
It’s also important to note that later that day, the (miserable) streak of rain at any/all IMSA events this year remained unbroken, as it threw just a little more chaos in the already borderline medieval contest that was the four hour Michelin Pilot Challenge race.
Watkins Glen was the second of two four hour long endurance events in the Pilot Challenge this year, and frankly, Alan Brynjolfsson, the Park Place Motorsports team, and I were not looking forward to it even after our win at Mid-Ohio.
With the Porsche Cayman 718 GT4 being a brand new car for 2019, there are still always going to be some teething issues that come with that. High ambient temperatures and humidity do not suit the car too well, so we ended up with a wonderfully balanced car for an entire stint that struggled to breathe in hot, thick air.
Thanks to the reliability of the Cayman, a perfectly executed strategy by the Park Place team, some absolutely mistake free driving by Alan, and a quick moving downpour in the closing half hour of the race, we found ourselves finishing inside the top five although we had no business being there.
Considering MSR’s qualifying effort, confidence in a result for the Six Hour was quite a lot higher, although that alone does nothing to make it any less difficult.
Personally, this would be my first ever running of this race, so I really had no idea what to expect in terms of rhythm or feel of a six hour event, although as soon as it started, it was clear that the pace of the entire race would be ultra aggressive.
And that’s exactly what we were; aggressive with our pace, strategy, and in traffic. Were we the outright quickest car on the grid? No. But the MSR team, Justin, and Mario had flawless execution and ultimately we got it done. That was my first IMSA WeatherTech win and it sure was a special one.
The common theme of this summer portion of the schedule is the fact that you have zero time to reflect and recover before being thrown right back into the fire. Nothing intensifies this process more than the turn around between Watkins Glen and CTMP.
Last year, CTMP proved to be a difficult track for both the Cayman in GS and the Acura in GTD alike.
The long duration, high speed corners tend to not suit short wheelbase cars well, so expectations across both programs were kept in check.
The biggest goal was to pull a larger gap to the cars behind in the GTD championship and, conversely, close the gap to the cars ahead in the GS championship and that’s exactly what we did.
A solid enough run to eighth in Saturday’s GS race was relatively disappointing, but overreaching for the second week in a row really helped us in terms of the championship.
Alan and I now find ourselves 15 points out of the lead with five rounds remaining. If all of us at Park Place/VOLT continue executing the way we have been, we will be just fine.
Qualifying third with the MSR No. 86 was also not quite where I wanted to be, as CTMP is a track that I’ve come to love since spending most of 2011 up there running around in Formula Fords with Brian Graham – who’s an absolute legend by the way.
The real goal was to stay ahead of our closest championship rivals, and that’s exactly what we did in both qualifying and the race on Sunday, with a nice run to second and another trip to the podium in as many weeks.
With this, Mario and I also extended our championship lead and even more importantly, we helped bring Acura to the top of the manufacturer’s table, which was a great success!
There’s nothing like the high of winning races, so despite thinking long term and championship in both GS and GTD, the push to be aggressive and win races remains strong. It’s worked so far, so why change it now?
As stated much earlier on, spending this hectic portion of the season becomes much more enjoyable with people who want to be there and win as badly as you do.
Thank you to my teams at Park Place and Meyer Shank for being just that. Also, as always, thanks to Alan and VOLT, as well as Trim-Tex, Sirius XM, Autonation, Acura, and Honda HPD for the never ending support.
See you in Lime Rock.