We headed into the final race at Road Atlanta with high hopes. It would be the final race of the 2019 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge - one last shot at a good finish in TCR. I would also have a different co-driver for the weekend, my former teammate Mark Pombo joining me for his home race. It was great to have a familiar face back in the yellow #52.
We kicked off the weekend with a successful test day, mostly free of trouble. It was a good chance for Mark to get acclimated to the Honda Civic TCR and for me to get acclimated to the track. Last year I missed the last race of the IMSA season at Road Atlanta as I was in the UK to compete as a recipient of the Team USA Scholarship. I instantly loved the track. Its high-speed corners were fantastic in the Honda Civic TCR. However, we were a little uncertain of what our pace would look like in official timing the following day.
We had our first share of trouble in Practice 1 on Thursday when a fuel pump issue put us out for half of the session. Regardless, it was still a good chance for Mark to get used to the Civic’s demanding driving style. I hopped in the car at the end for about 15 minutes, getting my lap times progressively faster each lap.
Mark went for a bit of a wild ride in Practice 2. The car snapped loose on him, forcing him off track and into the tire barrier. I’ve been in Mark’s situation and I know how awful it feels. We weren’t sure if we would make it out for qualifying in time, as the car looked pretty damaged. Luckily, upon further inspection, most of the mechanical components were intact.
The team would try to get everything fixed for qualifying, which was only a few hours after Mark’s crash. It didn’t look good, and as the cars rolled out for Practice 3, 30 minutes before qualifying, most of the components were still off of the car. Luis, our team owner, told me to standby just in case. With most of the L.A. Honda World crew hard at work on our car (and the liberal use of duct tape), it seemed like there was a sliver of hope to get out on the track.
No one had any idea how the car would run - or what issues would appear once out on the track. And I certainly didn’t expect us to be able to challenge for a position, but I figured at least we could identify any problems with the car before the race tomorrow. Miraculously, the engine fired up and the team rolled me out of the garage with merely four minutes left in the qualifying session. I took the out-lap to feel the car out, eventually trying to put some heat in the tires. I tried to push for the first timed lap, but the tires just weren’t ready. Luckily, I had another shot at it.
Somehow, the car handled pretty well! The crew did a pretty good job of guessing the tow and alignment with the setup since we never had time to check properly. A brand new set of Michelin tires sure helped too. I ended up qualifying 7th, only a few tenths off of my teammates, who would start 3rd and 5th for the race on Friday. It was definitely a highlight of the weekend. Laying down a competitive time with a car that looked, quite honestly, like it would fall apart down the back straight was incredible. I’m so proud of our entire crew for helping me get out there in the first place, and I’m glad I could bring back something positive out of what originally looked to be a bit more of a dreary day. It was the fastest time the #52 had turned all weekend too. I told the crew, “I’ve never been more happy with a 7th place result before!”
Once we had a “proper” setup on the car for race day, I knew we had a car to be competitive at the front. I got a decent start, moving up to 6th even with an Alfa Romeo making an illegal move to get in front of me before start-finish (which he was later penalized for). I worked my way up to 4th before the first full-course caution came out, right behind my teammate Shelby in the #37, who was sitting second in the points standings. When we went back to green a few laps later, I was opportunistic with the restart and used some GS cars as picks to make it past him in order to challenge for a podium spot. I began to close in on the leaders, building a gap to the pack behind me, when we were hit with another full course yellow.
This time, the pits were open, meaning we could service the car if need be. We could go just over 50-minutes on a full tank of fuel under normal, green-flag conditions, so we decided to take fuel and tires to extend our pit window. It worked great, and we came back out on track in 3rd, right in front of the two Hyundais.
On the restart, I played traffic perfectly to get into the lead on the opening lap. Another caution came out a few laps later, which gave me the chance to build a large gap on the restart. I put down a few personal bests, creating a four-second lead over the Atlanta Speedwerks Honda in second place. Unfortunately, that didn’t last for long, and I caught some GS traffic which allowed the championship-leading Hyundai and the 3rd place Audi to close the distance.
I fought hard but just didn’t have the pace to hold the lead any longer. Just with the nature of the balance of performance this season, we lacked the acceleration that the Hyundais had onto the backstretch, which allowed the #98 car to slip by me before the braking zone. The Audis have a huge straight-line speed advantage to the Hondas, which allowed the 3rd place car to get a run around the outside of me into the chicane. I outbroke him into the corner, but he tried to keep his nose on the inside on the exit of the corner. I shut the door on him, but he clipped my right rear sending me into the gravel trap. I managed to save it, just barely missing the tire barrier.
I still was in 3rd when my team called me in to pit a lap later. We did our full-service stop: tires, fuel, and a driver change. We nailed our stop, the team taking a slight bit longer to look the front end over for damage after going off track. We sent Mark out in 4th, hoping for another caution to bring him back up to the front of the pack. Unfortunately, we were the cause of said full-course yellow. Mark’s lower control arm sheered clean in half, causing him to lose steering input. He kept it out of further damage.
To top it all off, our teammates in the #37 and #73 cars both retired due to engine issues. It was an unfortunate way to cap off our season for sure, but I’m glad there were some positives to take away from the weekend.
We’ve had a rough year in racing, with lots of issues simply out of our control. However, it’s always a pleasure to work with the LAP Motorsports group. I just wish we could have brought home a win for them at some point this year to get them the result they truly deserve!
There’s still one more shot to secure another podium with the final race of the SRO GT4 America SprintX Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway next week. Can’t wait to cap off my 2019 season, hoping to figure out the next step from here!