Salt Lake City 2008

Salt Lake City. From the drop of the green flag of the first session of the weekend we knew we had a tremendous battle on our hands, mainly with the Acura opposition who have been our main focus this year. You throw a couple of Audis and an Intersport car into the mix and you’ve got ten cars that realistically can win the race. That’s a lot of positive energy amongst the whole ALMS paddock and especially in the LMP2 class. In saying that, we started a little bit behind the eight ball at the beginning of the week from a pace standpoint. The Acuras had been there testing as recently as early that week and we felt that we had quite a bit of work to do after the first day of testing.

We got right down to business and really hammered through a lot of different set up options and improvements in handling, and we shared that responsibility between the 6 and the 7 cars. Between the two Penske Spyders we can get so much accomplished by sharing the work instead of what some teams might do, which is go in completely opposite directions in their own philosophies of engineering and driver style. That close relationship between the two cars and the open book of information we share meant that we really narrowed the gap and by the time of the final test before qualifying we were up on top.

Qualifying was a lot like Long Beach in that it was ultra tight, but the performance of my car and what I did out on the track was very different from Long Beach in that I felt that I got every little last bit out of what we had to work with and it just wasn’t enough. I knew from my experience in Long Beach that the competitive nature of the LMP2 class and the nature of how the car reacts on empty fuel and new tires meant that my performance as a qualifier for the second time around had improved, but I didn’t have much to show for it being fifth on the grid. But I also knew from Long Beach that if you’re in the top five you’ve got a shot at victory and I had a much more positive outlook going into the race.

Our focus was on getting the most out of our car because we hadn’t started the weekend quite the way we would have liked to and that was based on the track changing so much. The desert atmosphere changes a race track more than any other type of environment. The heat, wind direction and also the sand that blows across the track meant that we had a completely different race track than when we tested there right before Long Beach. So we didn’t have our eyes much on the Audis but we knew as always they’d be a threat in the race because of the variable traffic. That’s something that’s a big help for them because of the added torque and horsepower. When you’re navigating through traffic, you have lots of points where you have to lift and adjust line and react to a lot of compromising situations as the prototype cars, and that’s where the Audis really have an advantage over us.

My stint. We’d fallen down I believe to tenth place through the opening half of the race, so I knew that I had my work cut out for me when I got in the car, but I also knew that Penske had a perfectly planned strategy up their sleeve on fuel mileage. I spent the first half of the race listening on the radio to our guys, my engineers and Roger, who is really our main strategist. I was listening in to them and hearing, “We’re looking good. When Patrick gets in the car we’re going to be able to make it to the end.” I knew and so did my engineering staff that there were quite a few cars that weren’t good to go to the end, but we were because of when we decided to take on fuel early in the race. We had a long term view on the race and I think that’s a big advantage in running with the Penske team because they are always looking to the end of the race. It’s not so much about leading the first laps or being the leader at halfway or any of that; it’s all about how this is all going to pan out and where we’re going to capitalize and outsmart the competition.

What I knew when I got in the car was that we were just around the top five. Sascha had been pushed off early in the race by a GT2 car and he did a great job to keep his head on straight and just focus on the job at hand which was navigating through traffic and getting back up into a solid position before turning the car over to me. When I got in the car, we were further back from the overall leader than we wanted to be and so I knew I had a lot of work to do. But I was really confident in our strategy and so I knew my job was to get in and drive absolutely as fast and consistently as I could and not worry about the other cars or about where I was on the track for position—just try to put in the most solid hour of driving time that I could. I knew there was a good chance that it would go green all the way to the end, so it was less about racing for position and more about just pure hard driving, navigating through traffic, being solid, executing every single pass and trying to narrow that gap to the cars ahead of us. So my sprint started from the time the car dropped off the jacks, and everything went to plan. The strategy was very close but absolutely perfect, and we came home with a one-two overall and couldn’t have asked for more.

It’s a great feeling to have such confidence in your team that all you need to worry about is getting in and driving to your absolute limit. You look at the time sheets and you look at the fastest laps you’d see that we weren’t dominant over one lap, but we were the best team of the day. It’s very rewarding when you beat people through teamwork, through perseverance, through everything clicking from the strategy to the pit stops to the drivers. That’s how you win championships and that’s a really good indication of who I’m working with and how professional they are. The #66 Acura car might have been the quickest car of the day, but they finished third and that’s indicative of the ultra competitive nature of LMP2 right now. In saying that, we don’t know how fast we could have gone if we’d needed to. We were playing a chess game out there and it wasn’t about flexing our muscle or taking unneeded risks in traffic, so there was a little bit left on the table if we needed it but we were watching the other cars and seeing what they were doing and just tried to play it smart. I think that’s the perfect race.

Ask Patrick:

Q: Does race strategy unfold as the race goes on—in real time, so to speak?

A: Absolutely. It can’t all be planned in advance. Everything that is done from the drop of the green flag and even before the drop of the green flag is based around the number of pit stops that you’re going to need to make. When you have a race with a lot of green flag laps, that plays an even more important part. To answer your question, yes, real time strategy is the game. We’re looking at x amount of fuel in the tank, with x amount of miles that we need to cover and the variable of how much time we’ll spend under yellow, because that eats into the race time and your consumption of fuel changes under yellow. We do keep an eye on what the other guys are doing, but the number one battle in endurance racing is being the best you can be as a driver and as a team.

Send your comments and questions to Patrick at askpatrick@pca.org. Although he can’t respond individually, he’ll get to as many as possible in his blog.