Every year in late January, the sports car racing world flocks to Daytona in order to kickoff a new racing season. There’s always a palpable nervous energy throughout the paddock at this event—new drivers, new teams, new combinations and new challenges everywhere.
This year is particularly full of newness for me, as I will be running in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge with Team Sahlen in their Porsche Cayman ST cars for the full season.
Though CTSC is where I really got started in professional racing, I have not raced in this championship regularly since 2008, and much has changed since then!
In a lot of ways, the opening race of the year usually feels like arriving for the first day of school as a kid, and for me it felt especially like I was returning to an old and once-familiar school after years of being away, so I’m trying to catch up with the changes and find my way around again.
Sure, on most weekends the racetracks and paddock space are shared with the TUDOR Championship where I’ve competed regularly the past few years, and there are quite a few familiar faces who crossover between the two series, but the entire on-track dynamic is totally different in CTSC compared with the TUDOR series.
The biggest adjustment for me is that my previous experience in the CTSC was mostly in the faster GS-class cars, and now I find myself in the slower ST-class, so I’ve got to watch my mirrors a lot more than I used to!
On the flip side, because I’m usually in a GTD-class car in the TUDOR Championship, I’m used to being in the slowest class on the track, so watching the mirrors isn’t such a difficult adjustment to make.
Either way, the closing speeds and handling differences between the GS and ST cars are totally different than between the Prototype and GTD cars, and it took me a few practice sessions to start to get comfortable with where and when you want to let the faster cars pass, and how to manage traffic most efficiently without losing momentum.
The other big adjustment for me is trying to figure out a who’s who of the drivers, where other cars have their various strengths and weaknesses compared with mine, and generally understanding all of my surroundings to start to figure out who I can trust, what I can get away with, and how I need to behave at any given time.
One thing that hasn’t changed since I last raced in CTSC is that the street-stock type cars are a bit more robust than the TUDOR Championship cars, so the drivers generally aren’t as afraid of using the bumpers and fenders a bit during the races! As a result, the on-track action is a bit more frantic in CTSC, and behind the wheel I find I definitely need a more ‘defensive’ posture than what I would generally have in a TUDOR series race!
With all of the adjustment and learning that was going on for me during the weekend, it was nice to find that one of the most seamless adjustments was starting to work with everyone at Team Sahlen.
I’ve known the Nonnamaker family as competitors in various classes for a long time, and their program is established and proven—last season they finished 2nd in the ST-class classification despite it being only their first year with the Porsche Cayman program.
With all of that said, I knew that Daytona would be a bit of a challenging weekend for us, with lots to accomplish in a short period of time prior to starting the race. When I finally got behind the wheel for the first time in free practice, I found that the cars were generally very well balanced and nicely setup, but it seemed like we were missing quite a lot of performance in straight-line acceleration and top speed, even compared to our competitors in similarly prepared Porsche Caymans.
As the weekend progressed, it became clear that we definitely had some sort of mechanical issue that was costing us significant horsepower on both of the Team Sahlen cars. Unfortunately, the compressed nature of the weekend schedule meant that we didn’t have enough time to fully resolve the issues, so we did our best to maximize our handling and race strategy strengths, and hoped to leave Daytona with as many points as possible under the circumstances.
All things considered, qualifying went reasonably well, and I was able to place the no.42 car 5th on the grid, so it was reassuring to see that we will almost certainly be serious contenders once we have our power issues solved!
The race wasn’t as fruitful for us, though, despite a good start and opening stint where I was able to keep the car in the top-five despite lacking the power to effectively stay in the draft of the lead pack.
I can safely say I’ve never had to do so much dive-bomb passing or defensive positioning on-track to try to keep the cars with more top-end at bay, and while it was a lot of fun, it was a bit frustrating to see the other cars ease away on the straights.
As the race played out, we were able to leverage a great fuel strategy and lighting-fast pit stop and driver change by the Team Sahlen crew into a brief race lead for the No. 42, but unfortunately it was short-lived.
My teammate Wayne Nonnamaker fought hard to maintain the pace even while our driveline issue worsened, eventually leading to the No. 42’s retirement from the race, which was a huge disappointment for everyone.
Meanwhile, I had jumped straight out of the No. 42 and into the No. 43 to finish the race in the other car that my teammate Will Nonnamaker had started, only to find that this car was also going to struggle to make it to the finish as a similar mechanical issue worsened.
We eventually limped to the checkered flag in No. 43, but a DNF and a 15th place finish weren’t’ exactly what we were hoping for to get the team’s championship campaign started…
Now the guys have a few weeks to address the mechanical issues and to be sure that we come back stronger for the next race at Sebring. You can bet that we’ll be ready to eat into the points deficit when we get there!