Coming into the penultimate Rolex Sports Car Series round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the GT championship had become a two-race shootout. Robin Liddell and I were third, but only 3 points out of the lead so our only aim was to be ahead of the No. 63 Ferrari and the No. 44 Porsche.
Most of our year has been a case of extremes. For the first 7 races of the season, our GT results embodied the Ricky Bobby spirit of “If you ain’t first you’re last.”
We won four of the first seven races, but in the other three, we finished laps down due to various issues. By the time we finally had a P2 finish at Indy, I was just happy we had broken the first-or-last streak.
Our GS season in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge has been less extreme, but we have stood atop the podium after some hard battles twice this year. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the pace from race to race to beat the No. 13 Porsche often enough, so they had all but locked up the championship heading into the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca round.
A week before the race in Laguna, I had a conversation with my GT and GS engineers, as well as our strategist regarding driver order for the races. There are pros and cons to driving two races on a weekend, but this weekend, the biggest disadvantage was that the races were very close together on Sunday.
We agreed I would start both races so I wouldn’t have to get out of the GS car and immediately hop into the GT car without any time to recover. Although the Continental Series often provides great battles at the end of the races, being the starting driver meant I got to take part in one of my favorite activities: Qualifying. I love qualifying.
Saturday afternoon was qualifying for both cars. Although I love qualifying, I feel a huge amount of pressure going into those 15-minute sessions. No matter how many times I qualify and race, I still get butterflies in my stomach. I’ve been asked on multiple occasions if I’m ok or not before a qualifying session or race.
In reality, starting on pole in an endurance race is not as crucial as sprint races, but qualifying is the only time when you can really be at the absolute limit of the car. The tires have a definite peak, and as a driver, you have to be able to get the maximum out of them on the lap that they’re at their best. That challenge of overcoming the pressure and getting everything right on that lap is why I love qualifying.
Unfortunately, you can’t get it right every time. I made a mistake in turn 3 on my fast lap in the GS qualifying, and would start P4. Although I drove better the next lap, the tires had lost their peak and the grip wasn’t there to go quicker.
GT qualifying was relatively tight in the top three or four spots, but I put a good lap together to get pole. It was my 3rd pole of the year and the 4th for our car at a track where we’ve struggled in the past, so it was a good sign for the race.
In the GS race, I moved to 2nd on the first lap and held it for the rest of my stint, although I was holding up the third and fourth place cars as I struggled with entry oversteer at the end of my stint. Matt Bell got in and struggled with the same issues, and was running P5 or P6 towards the end of the race.
However, you should never walk away from watching a Continental Series race with 20 minutes to go because something exciting is bound to happen. This time, it involved one Aston Martin going off on his own, Matt making an incredible pass around the outside of turn 11, and Bill Auberlen having a problem to put Matt P2 at the end of the race.
It was a great drive by Matt and a great result for us to put us in a pretty safe spot to claim P2 in the championship.
The GT race didn’t go as well. A problem with the clutch on the first pit stop caused us to lose some spots, and although the car was good when we were running alone, it was hard to drive in traffic any time we got off line. So Robin struggled to make up ground and we ultimately ended up P7, dropping 13 points behind the No. 44 Porsche for the championship.
At this point, we can only aim for the race win at Lime Rock. It is disappointing to not be in a position where winning the championship is in our control, since we need the No. 44 to have problems at Lime Rock Park to make up enough points.
However, I think Robin said it best when we looked back at our year up to this point. He said that if we lose the championship, it’s not because we struggled at a track where we’ve never been strong, it’s because of our DNF’s earlier in the year.
Regardless, Stevenson Motorsports is currently top three in both championships they’ve entered this season, which is an impressive feat. We’ll be looking for two more wins at Lime Rock Park, regardless of where we finish in each championship.