Last weekend’s Pirelli World Challenge season-opener at Circuit of The Americas not only saw the return of the “Red Dragon” to top-level sports car racing, but also a podium finish for Jon Fogarty in GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing’s home race, in front of more than 300 red-shirted GAINSCO agents and guests.
Fogarty, who bounced back from a DNF in Race 1 after contact with another GT class car, took the team’s new McLaren 650S GT3 to a hard-fought third place finish, charging from 10th on the grid in Race 2.
What’s more, it marked Fogarty’s first podium finish in nearly three years, dating back to the team’s last full-season program in 2013 with its Corvette DP in GRAND-AM.
“For everyone at GAINSCO, it was super exciting for them to watch,” Fogarty told Sportscar365.
“Even though it wasn’t an outright win, getting on the podium and having a podium celebration for all of the GAINSCO people was really great for the whole program.
“Having a good run [at COTA], and particularly Sunday, gives us confidence going into the season.”
The 2016 season represents a significant change for the former open-wheel ace, who returns to sprint racing after more than a decade and rejoins the team that he has achieved most of his sports car racing success with.
Longtime team manger Terry Wilbert and engineer John Ward are among the staples that have remained with the GAINSCO/BSR team in its new chapter in PWC.
“Obviously with World Challenge, it’s a smaller operation but it does feel very much the same core, not only in personnel, but in attitude and feel,” Fogarty said.
“That just come from [the top down] with Bob [Stallings], myself and Terry having been together for so long. It’s great group of guys. It’s home.”
While the team ended the COTA weekend on a high note, Fogarty admitted it’s taken some time in adapting to the 50-minute race format, which adds elements typically not found in endurance racing.
Qualifying, for instance, is crucial in PWC, as well as maximizing the peak performance out of the tires, which were two elements that the team struggled with in the opening round.
“One thing you also have to be a little bit more aware of is that any penalty that the series calls you into the pits for [means] it’s pretty much game over,” Fogarty said.
“You can generally bounce back from those situations in an endurance race. You do have to be hyper-aggressive but at the same time, you have to be smart about it.
“I think the guys who win championships in World Challenge play that game pretty well, and we saw that in Sunday’s race.
“Everyone on the podium was there because they were not only quick but their driving was in the boundaries that the series sets.”
Fogarty faces a new challenge this weekend at St. Pete as he heads to the only track on the PWC calendar that the two-time Atlantic and GRAND-AM champion hasn’t been to before.
He’ll be getting a helping hand from his old driving coach, Mike Zimicki, who has more recently coached the likes of Danica Patrick, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay to success in the open-wheel ranks.
“He’s a great driver coach, spotter and just has really good senses,” Fogarty said. “I’ve learned which way the track goes but he’s able to tell me some of the nuances at each corner.
“Historically a track like St. Pete would be great for McLaren but I don’t know what impact the [BoP] will play.
“I personally thought we were at quite a disadvantage at COTA. I’m hoping for a little bit better BoP here. It’s obviously a good track for a nimble car and that’s what we have.”
While currently sitting 10th in the GT drivers’ standings, Fogarty is looking forward to the title fight ahead and realizes the importance of banking consistent results, especially early in the season.
“It’s extremely competitive, he said. “Obviously the Cadillacs are off to a great start. You can see that anything can happen and we’re only one weekend in.
“We have to keep running towards the front and just keep scoring points. Saturday was a little bit of a disaster in that regard but that could come around.
“We’re going to be there and competing [for wins] in every race. I think we’re going to have a strong season and that’s our goal, to obviously fight for the championship.”