‘Improvise, Adapt, Overcome’ - GT4 America: Road America

August 30, 2020

After some momentum at Sonoma, we were looking to be back up front at a track that, although may not be the best place for the McLaren, is certainly not the worst. Road America has a history of erratic weather whenever we tend to visit in the summertime. Two out of the three times I've been here, we've had torrential rain at some point in our stay. Last year, I was racing a Civic TCR in IMSA. We had a great strategy call to start the race on slicks, even though the track surface was soaking wet. The result was a chance to battle for the lead, but ultimately, our luck had run out in the second half. The year before that, in the MINI, we had a suspension failure late into the race. I was hoping to change my streak of bad luck at Road America, and with three races to make it happen, there were definitely multiple chances for success.

On top of my race weekend, I also started college at Ohio State the same day I left for the track. Remote learning may not be the ideal way to start my pursuit of an engineering degree, but it certainly makes balancing racing and school a bit easier. It was also great to have my fellow classmates from our dorm floor tuning into the races.

I arrived Tuesday night to kick off our race week early the next morning. A couple of extra test sessions are always appreciated at a place like this. Road America is a tough track to get used to in a new car - as it's just over four miles long. Our first test session went well for Jarett and me. We were able to try a lot of different adjustments to the cars and found a decent baseline for the rest of the week. I developed a slight misfire on the 36 car that we had to investigate at the end of the session. This is where things took a bit of a turn. We tried some small things to fix the car, but nothing seemed to make the issue go away and we were forced to sit out the next two test sessions. We were left scratching our heads by the end of the day, Unfortunately, Jarett came in with the 18 car during one of his test sessions to discover a major problem. The exhaust had broken, melting nearly everything on the back of the car. 

Our reality was setting in - we had started the day with two cars running, and at a decent pace too, to us finishing the day with two potentially terminal issues. The team stayed until 11:00 that night before they knew for sure that these cars wouldn't be running the next day. So, we headed back to the hotel for the night and were up early to assess the extent of the problems. As it turned out, the damage on the 18 car was bad but fixable. All the team could do was work on it until it would run again. We had a few people working on the 36 car as well, constantly in touch with the McLaren engineers over in the UK. The hours ticked by, and official practice did too. The 18 car was slowly being put back together, while the 36 went through nearly every electrical part on the engine in an attempt to find a solution to our problem. That night, the 18 fired its engine for the first time in over 24 hours. We decided as a team to run the 18 car under the 36 number for SprintX that weekend, as we were in a tight points battle and had sponsor commitments to Window World for the season. I really appreciated that Jarett would forgo his Sprint races to keep us in the Silver class championship fight.

It was a wet Friday. A downpour hit hard before our qualifying, causing a delay to get us out there. Eventually, I was able to head out for qualifying, turning the McLaren’s first laps since Wednesday. It was the first time I had turned laps in this car in the wet, but luckily I had been around Road America in similar conditions before. I kept bringing my times down, making sure the car was working properly before eventually settling in 5th place. I hit traffic on my final timed lap, so we pitted early to get Jarett in the car. Little did we know that the officials would advance the session so quickly, giving us a huge advantage by putting Jarett in the car so early. Jarett was halfway through his out-lap when it started pouring. As the first car out in the session, he had some decent track conditions to turn a lap in. Graham, our engineer, came over the radio and told him he was three seconds clear of the car behind him in each sector! The conditions kept getting worse as his lap continued until Jarett hydroplaned and spun in the second to last straightaway. He didn’t do any damage and was able to complete the lap, which was still good enough for 5th place! To put it in perspective, I was running in the 2:36s during qualifying 1, while the fastest time in qualifying 2 was a 3:05! The session was red-flagged shortly after since the conditions were just too dangerous to continue in.

Remarkably, the skies cleared and the track dried for our race later that day. We had some setup data from the short practice we did have, but we weren’t totally sure how the car would be over a full race distance. Regardless, this would be a good reference for us for the other races - we could always make some more adjustments later. Coming to the green I got pinched in my lane and wasn’t able to move out. I still had a good run in turn one, grabbing fourth position. The cars in front were racing hard out of the gate, so I was able to slip by into third, then second a lap later. A caution came out shortly, which gave me a chance to get by the lead KTM on the restart. I tried to make a move into turn one, but got a bit wide and left the door open for an opportunistic BMW behind me to slip by. I got the KTM in the next corner and was back into second place. We pitted shortly thereafter, putting Jarett in the car to finish. The balance of the car fell off in the middle of his stint, but Jarett put up a fight and brought it back at the end - putting us 4th overall and 2nd in the Silver class. For not knowing what the car was going to do, we were incredibly happy to not only finish the race but come home with a respectable result too!

We found some small issues and made a good amount of changes for Race 2 on Saturday. As the time to the race neared, we got increasingly more worried about the starting grid. Eventually, SRO released the grid, which was based on Practice 2 lap times. More than half the field was unable to set a lap in qualifying two, including us which put our car well into the back to start in 19th place. Jarett was starting this race, and he was ready to make some moves to the front. In under five minutes, Jarett was up seven positions. He kept picking off drivers one by one until he was inside the top 10, in a three-way battle for 8th. I took over early to try to get some clear track and lay down some laps, but the KTM had snuck up behind in the pit sequence and was flying. As one of our Silver class competitors, I wanted to keep them behind me for the championship points. Trying to defend from a car that was on average 1.5 seconds faster than we were was stressful, to say the least! I kept pushing through the field in front with the KTM hot on my tail. Eventually, after some tight racing for over 30 minutes, he snuck through with two laps to go. I was disappointed to not have held on, but we were really happy to have finished in a solid position after starting so far back.

There was a lot of confusion with the starting positions for Race 3. SRO had made some issues with the grid, so they decided to let the teams choose the driver order. We decided that Jarett would start. Our car was on the grid in 5th place, based on my second fastest time from qualifying 1. As usual, Jarett got an excellent start and put the car up in second place by turn two. We were feeling like we had a good chance for an overall podium again. Unfortunately, we ran out of luck for this race. Some electrical issues forced Jarett to cycle the main power while on track, which cost us about 30 seconds. We kept going but finished down the order. It wasn’t how we wanted to end the weekend, but we still were happy with the results we achieved in Race 1 and 2.

This weekend was definitely a testament to the crew and people working behind the scenes to make our program happen. Our team just kept plugging away at the cars as the hours passed, and got everything in working order in time for qualifying! I’m really proud of the effort we put in and the progress we have made since the start of the year. We’re in a tight battle in the championship now, we’ll just need to bring it home in the next couple of rounds. Our next race is back at Circuit of the Americas in a few weeks. I think we’ll be better than we were earlier this year, but only time will tell!