Long Beach 2008

Long Beach. Long Beach was definitely one of my most memorable races to date. With all the build up to this season, it was tough waiting past not getting to drive at Sebring. Although St. Pete was an interesting race for us to come from behind, starting up front at Long Beach and taking the lead from Turn One and leading for my whole stint was a great booster for my confidence and team morale for the #6 car. Long Beach was certainly a fight with Lucas Luhr’s Audi and my teammate Timo’s RS Spyder. The Acuras were there looming in the background too.

I think there were a lot of firsts for me: my first time qualifying for an LMP2 car, first time taking a restart at the head of an ALMS field, peeling through the traffic in the overall lead. All those things were just great to get under my belt. With all the qualifying I’ve done in my career, it may not seem like a big feat, but qualifying a Porsche RS Spyder is a whole new ballgame. It’s hard to explain, but driving one of these cars on new tires and a light fuel load is like driving a whole different racecar. The performance you gain with the combination of fresh rubber and minimal weight gets you a responsiveness that exceeds anything I’ve ever driven. You almost have to take the mindset that you’re driving a new car on a new racetrack.

My mom and dad were there along with another group of about 25 close friends and relatives. They all camp out between turn one and turn five, right on that little peninsula, and they have a good cheering section going. It’s always great knowing that they’re there. It’s good that they get to see the race up close and personal. Because my family lives out on the West Coast, they don’t get to come to a lot of races, so it’s always fun to give them a good show. Someone asked me if my mom is comfortable watching me race—she is. She is very supportive and trusting and really positive about my driving. She’s been around it since the start (about 20 years ago) so she’s got a pretty thick skin, but I’m sure she’s more nervous than she lets me believe.

Long Beach has been a special place for me because it is a home race and I feel the energy from the support from family and friends and my closest fans that come to the race. It’s a great motivator for me and that extra energy has really charged me up. I’ve got to figure out how to channel that energy every time I get in the race car, but Long Beach was certainly a great race for the #6 car team, after a tough start to the season, and it’s great motivation pushing into the summer.

The start. I was somewhat bummed out to be fourth on the grid. I saw in my practice times and in reviewing the data from qualifying that my own consistency let me down in qualifying. With two and a half tenths spreading the first five or six cars, it was a tough pill to swallow to be fourth on the grid because I really felt like I had a car that could put me on the front row. I knew that the start was going to be very important. The long straight on Shoreline is what we fear most when racing with the Audis. Those guys just have so much horsepower and torque on starts and restarts that straight-aways are definitely not our strong suit. So I knew that I had to be ready on the start. I don’t think there’s a tighter corner on the whole ALMS calendar than coming out of the last corner at Long Beach, and the way you get out of that corner is imperative for the start. What I wanted to do, being in fourth and having the two Audis a row behind me, was back them up a little bit. Give the first three cars a chance to get down the straight a bit and then pack up as we came to the start—try to time it perfectly so that we’re all even as we went across the start line but I’d have a little more momentum on my side. At the start, as they were sort of jostling each other, I snuck up the outside of all three of them. It was an enthusiastic move but I felt like I was releasing brake pressure as I came towards the apex and I was able to leave a car width to the inside for Timo. It looked very touch and go on the TV replay but I felt pretty controlled in how it worked, so it was one of those moves where you don’t expect it and you don’t plan it and it just all works out.

Timo came up to me when we both got out of our cars after our stints and pulled me off my timing stand. He kind of had a deer-in-the-headlights look and said, “Where did you come from?” That was fun because we have a good relationship. It’s very competitive between the #6 and the #7 cars but it’s very healthy and we have a lot of respect and we race each other very clean. The golden rule in professional motorsport is that you don’t take your teammate out.

It was great to go side by side through the corner and have a Penskeone-two coming out of Turn One. It was great to run up front and to learn how to navigate through the traffic. I find that as you are the first car to come up through the slower GT cars, you really set the tone. It is a bit of a surprise for them when you get to them so quickly and after that they’re more aware of what’s behind them. But as the first guy coming up, you always have to take that extra little bit of care that they see you. At the same time, with the Audi breathing down our necks, we had to be very strategic in how we got through the traffic, somehow make holes that aren’t always apparent and then try to run from them through the infield. In the end, the first priority was to stay ahead of the Acura contingent and to bring the car home to Sascha in one piece. It felt great to lead overall, but that wasn’t my primary objective. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to lead, but the racer in me wants to lead and win every race.

Second half of the race. There were more yellow flags in the second portion of the race and yellow flag situations are an advantage for the Audis. The thicker the traffic is the more advantage there is for them as well. Unfortunately a GT car that had a failure in front of us caught us out. The Panoz had something let go in their drive train; that happened in front of Sascha and he made contact trying to avoid that. I think we showed toward the end of the race that Sascha was the fastest car on the track, but the strategies were different. The Audis pitted earlier than we did and went for track position and clear track while we ran closer to the end of our fuel window. I actually had a puncture while I was in the lead and that’s what forced me to stop when I did. It was lucky timing that when the puncture came we were in our fuel window and we ducked into the pits. There was quite a lot of adversity past the halfway mark that we overcame. So though it’s tough to lead and not win, the race was certainly a fun one just to get those laps led under my belt and to know what it feels like.

Between races. After Long Beach, I went to VIR and raced a GT car. I also went to Salt Lake to do some coaching with some of my IMSA Cup clients. I work alongside Dennis Aase in his squad of IMSA Cup drivers, as well as other teams. I find it’s very rewarding and there’s a great element of giving back to work with guys that are newer to the 911 Cup car scene. All my experience leading up to ALMS racing was in Cup cars and it’s always been a part of my yearly activities, through the RSR, DP and now LMP2 years. I stay active in the club scene and also with the IMSA Cup as well as the Yokohama Drivers Challenge in Cup cars.

In between my travels to Salt Lake, it’s just been a lot of fitness training—out on the kayak a lot as the weather is really nice down here. We go out for a one hour kayak run up the coast at a moderate pace to train body core stability. Practicing keeping a stable core while paddling up the Intercoastal into Tampa Bay is good training for being in the racecar and stabilizing your core against the g-forces.

And then there is always the tedious invoicing and paperwork that goes along with the job of a driver. It’s not all about being behind the wheel, so I try to balance my day with plenty of that and also we’ve been working hard on building my website up a little bit more. We’re in a pilot phase of offering a couple of pieces of my own merchandise with Troy Lee Designs, Shock Doctor and CDOC. We’re trying a couple different designs, putting them out there and getting a response from my core fan group. A lot of them are PCA members and my visits with the local PCA corrals at each of the races are places where I can get some feedback from them.

Le Mans. I’m penciled in to be at Le Mans, although the team hasn’t been decided yet. This will be my fifth consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans. In between the pre-test and the race there’s some time off and we have one of our quarterly fitness checks in Potsdam with Porsche’s team of doctors and trainers. So we go back there for checks and then drop into Weissach and visit all the engineers and mechanics that make everything work behind the scenes. It’s a fun month and a great time to catch up with old friends in Europe and to have a little bit of time in between the pre-test and the race.

Obviously the race is a whole week’s worth of events. It’s not just about showing up for the weekend. It starts very early in the week with tech and the drivers’ parade. And the element of testing is so unusual at Le Mans. Practice can be from 8 to 12 in the evening and with debriefs you usually don’t leave the track until well after 2 a.m. You really have to have a different mindset as to how you operate during the week of Le Mans. You get onto an interesting sleep schedule with the aim to be well rested and to have your body clock pretty adjustedto the wild hours of Le Mans. It’s a sleep and work combination that is unique.

Salt Lake City. Next up, though, is Salt Lake. We pre-tested there just before Long Beach. There is a new layout on the circuit this year, a little bit shorter and more of a perimeter run. Salt Lake is such a unique race track with its fast flowing very smooth and quick corners. It’s an unbelievable facility, but definitely takes a different driving style. Our test went really well, so we’re optimistic for the race.

The success of the Spyders the last couple of years shows that we have a lot of potential at Salt Lake coming up to this race. Last year was just a dominant performance and certainly that gives us a lot of confidence, but the Acura contingent and the Audi contingent, although they are in a different class, have really progressed. The new track layout probably isn’t advantageous for the smaller LMP2 cars because there are fewer of the twisty and double and triple apex corners than there were on the infield portion of the track. I still think it was a good move for the ALMS to go to the newer configuration. The flow of the lap is a bit quicker, maybe with more opportunity for passing. We haven’t lost my favorite sections of the track and I think that the most challenging characteristics of the track have been preserved. So we never count our chickens before they hatch, but we like to think we can run for an LMP2 victory and you never know where the overall standings may finish up.