Welcome to my new column here for Sportscar365 where we will look back at each Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race.
This year I will be racing in the TUDOR Championship as well but the guys at Sportscar365 have asked me to focus on the Continental series ST class where I am running the season with Rennsport One and my co-driver Luis Rodriguez Jr. in a Porsche Cayman.
I did my first professional race in 1998, which means 2015 will be my 18th season in professional sports car racing. Over that time frame I can’t remember going into a season with as many new variables as this year presented.
Over pizza and beers one evening, I asked my good friend and fellow racer Ryan Eversley if he knew anyone looking for a Continental teammate. Ryan seems to have his finger on the pulse of everything that’s happening and as luck would have it, he knew of a new team that might be looking.
I connected with Justin Bellinzoni (no relation to the commentator Justin Bell-non-inzoni), who was the man behind this mysterious new team.
Luis Rodriguez Jr. was his new driver looking for an experienced teammate to guide him through his first ST season. I have never committed to a season knowing so little about what I was getting into but Ryan assured me that the team was full of good guys. I was about to be pleasantly surprised.
I visited South Florida to meet Luis and his very supportive father Luis Sr., and together we all visited the RS1 shop in Pompano Beach, Fla. The team was well organized and the cars looked great.
Luis was eager to learn and seemed like a sponge for any information I could provide. I left feeling as confident as I could have, but would it be different once we hit the track?
We decided to skip the Roar for logistical reasons, so the first time I would drive the car would be race week at Daytona. In our first session I didn’t do a lot of laps but remember thinking that the car was a bit on the free side, but all in all not too far off.
As Luis jumped in the car next, here was the real moment of truth. I hear from a lot of drivers about how close they are to the pros only to never actually see them do the lap time. Luis was confident, not in an arrogant way by any means, but he seemed to think he would be in the hunt.
Slowly he began picking up speed and then on his fourth lap I heard, “I’ve spun.” There was no harm in the spin but I was a little worried. In racing we have a saying; you don’t want to go out and have a big crash right away, you want to slowly work your way up to the big crash. This was just a spin, but was it an indicator of Luis being too eager?
Luckily for me it was not. From that moment on he never put a wheel wrong. In fact not only was he consistently avoiding trouble, but he was getting faster and faster.
Data revealed a few areas he could improve on and sure enough he did. In his first qualifying session of his pro career he managed to put the car fourth on the grid! Again, here I am very pleasantly surprised.
On race day Luis started and just like before stayed calm and cool. Daytona is a high-pressure environment and with the good qualifying spot the new pressures of expectations were compounding the difficult task. Yet he remained calm and took the green like a seasoned pro.
My biggest worry came when he first got passed, a few laps in. Now I know that fourth or fifth spot made little difference at that point in the context of the big picture but sometimes when a rookie gets passed they tend to go “on tilt” as the poker players would call it and make bad decisions.
But Luis didn’t; he ran the race he needed to and gave me a clean car when it was time for the driver change. Really, for his first weekend, he could not have done a better job.
Now it was my turn. We were in P6 once all the pit stops had cycled, a little ways behind the leader Eric Foss. Eric and I had talked about strategy before the race.
The Daytona ST race is about as close as you can get to plate racing on a road course. The draft is so effective that without one you can be a sitting duck. With one you can leave the pack. The plan was to find each other and head to the front, even if it meant one of us going backwards to make it happen.
As it turned out I was able to get on Eric’s tail pretty quickly and as planned, we checked out. I stayed right behind him and occasionally bumped him along the oval section.
Things were good at first but I noticed Eric braking earlier and earlier as the race went on. Something was up with his brakes. Our lap times started to get slower. I flashed my lights to signal my desire to pass and hopes he would be able to use my draft to keep up but he had no luck.
In the mean time my Rennsport One teammate Adam Isman had caught us and made quick work of Foss. Once clear we were evenly matched with him just out of range of my draft. with 3 laps to go I caught one of the Hondas driving very slowly down the middle of the road down the backstretch. There was no option but to follow him through the and that allowed Adam to take the lead.
Now I had a new conundrum. Pass him right away or try sit in second setting up for a last-lap drafting pass. The race on the last lap was going to be epic but it never came to be. Adam ran out of gas with two laps to go. He should have made it to the end easily so the team needs to look into what happened but either way it was unfortunate for the No. 18 car. Our No. 17 cruised to victory.
The loss of the 1-2 finish for us also put a damper on our victory celebration. But given where we came from in the months leading up to the team’s first race and the hope we had for the future, jumping in head first was certainly not as crazy as it seemed at the time.
I have an exciting season with great people to look forward to in the coming year.