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O’CONNELL: Sonoma Debrief

Johnny O’Connell files his latest Sportscar365 column…

Photo: Brian Cleary/

From hero to zero in about the blink of an eye. That’s probably the best way to describe the final round of the Pirelli World Challenge Series for me at Sonoma Raceway.

Having won both races last year, I know we all went into the event confident of a good result. We were quickest in the first session, and really had a pretty good balance with the car, until it all went wrong.

Exiting the Carousel with about five minutes left in the second practice session, I dropped two wheels on the exit. Something I’ve done before and has never been a moment at all.

This time however I hit a bump, the rear moved out and we shot across the track into the wall head-on at warp speed. Easily the biggest hit I’ve had since that wreck back in 1993 at Watkins Glen.

The car destroyed, a ride in an ambulance, and then disappointment at having let the team down.

Looking at the car back at the trailer it was clear there was no way that even as amazing as our team is that the Velocity Red Cadillac was not going to be running.

And then, I saw the Crystal White Cadillac ATS-V.R Coupe show car, roll outside of the trailer. She hadn’t run since Mosport back in 2015, where we won both races with her, and she would need a lot of work, but the entire team pulled together and went to work.

I’ve said it many times, but racing is a team sport. The driver is just the quarterback. This is never more apparent than in a situation like this.

When I went back to the circuit at 10 p.m. to see how things were coming along, all of Cadillac Racing was pulling together to build that car.

The guys that normally work on the No. 8 car joining in, the truck drivers, engineers, everyone was pulling together. And most awesome of all is that they were having fun. Joking around, enjoying the moment and challenge that they were presented.

Not one complaint. Everyone really honestly being just grateful I hadn’t been badly injured. Like I said it was a big wreck, and fortunately a lot of engineering also has gone into making the Cadillac ATS-V.R race cars what I feel is the safest GT3 car in the world.

When I arrived at about 7 a.m. the next morning, the car was built! We were able to do three-quarter of a lap to shake the car down and then we went into qualifying.

We did a lap good enough to start 13th, about a second off of the Ferrari that got pole. It was pretty hard for me to make total commitment for qualifying, not really knowing how the car would behave, so we left a little on the table and I think all things considered pretty good.

At the race this weekend were Gary and Robin Pratt. Gary always being capable of seeing the big picture, I think he had a premonition, as when I saw him in the morning he reminded me that “hey, that’s why we run two cars.” If one has an issue the other is still in the fight. And that couldn’t have been more true.

Michael in the No. 8 Vector Blue Cadillac ATS-V.R Coupe was dialed in. Qualifying second he took the lead and led flag-to-flag in both race one and race two.

This hasn’t been the easiest of years for Cadillac Racing with how BoP has panned out, so finally ending the year with wins that were the result of speed had a good feeling. Michael did a super job, and delivered when the team needed.

My races? Well this definitely was the type of weekend where I had nothing really to brag about other than what a good job the guys did getting the show care ready.

I’d killed the good car and no matter how awesome all of the execs at GM and guys on the team were in stating that the only thing that was important was my being ok, well you still feel really crappy for a while.

Back when I drove for Chip Ganassi in Indy Lights, he once told me never apologize for wrecking a car as long as I was pushing as hard as I could to be at the front.

Part of the job description being that now and then when you push a tic to hard, something is bound to happen. Like I said this one was big. It’s my hope that since my last big one was over 20 years ago, well it would be nice to never go through that again.

In closing, I think it’s important to note how again, Cadillac Racing came together. Worked as a team, overcame challenges and obstacles all season long. And when presented with a crisis like we had this weekend, still stuck together, built me a car and gave Michael a car he could and did win both races with. Solid.

Like always, to all that support us at Cadillac Racing thanks. Competition is important.

Competing against the world’s top brands is also important. Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes, Audi, McLaren and more. When we beat them, it makes a statement. It speaks to the athleticism that is the V-Performance series of cars that Cadillac sells. To change the way that Cadillac is viewed globally.

Let’s hope that 2018 allows us the opportunity to once again showcase the Cadillac ATS-V.R in all of its aggressive glory. For Cadillac fans, for racing fans. Stay Hungry.

Johnny O'Connell (@JohnnyOConnell1) is a three-time American Le Mans Series champion and four-time class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving for Team Cadillac in the Pirelli World Challenge.


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