Maximum Attack.

Mike Hedlund Race Report: St. Petersburg, Pirelli World Challenge

My first trip to St. Petersburg was pretty damn good! We didn’t get the results we were hoping for, but the car is still in one piece (mostly— still pulling some bits of Audi and Cadillac out of the front..) and we were able to show we have the pace to run strong for the season.

This was my first time racing with the guys at DragonSpeed and we had limited testing before the season started as the Ferrari 458 Italia was being updated and converted from IMSA GTD (finishing 4th at Daytona!) specifications to current FIA GT3 regulations. I’m still getting to know the car and the team, but we’re making steady progress every time we go out on track!

Friday’s 9AM 25 minute first practice session went smoothly. I was able to do a dozen laps and learn the track. Traffic was crazy, but everyone drove well and were giving each other plenty of room. There’s always 1 or 2 drivers that don’t seem very aware of their surroundings, but overall it was good. Driving wheel-to-wheel with full spec GT3 cars is awesome! Even watching the McLarens, Audis, Viper, Mercedes, BMW and other Ferraris from inside my own car was cool! Thomas Enge putting down a 1:14.7 in the first practice session was incredible given the completely green track condition. I know he’s a great driver, but the BOP for the Lamborghini is heavily favored at the moment. It’s the same tub and engine as the Audi R8’s, but it weighs 200 pounds less and has a bigger restrictor (more power). The rest of the cars all seemed pretty close on speed.

Our second practice session wasn’t until after 4PM so I had plenty of time to study video and data with my buddy Ryan Dalziel who was there helping me get up to speed. We were able to make some changes to the setup of the car to get me a little more comfortable and were planning to try a few more things in practice session two if we had enough green flag running. At street circuits you’re always worried about red flags causing lost track time!

Fortunately, we had a full green second practice session. This allowed me plenty of time to get comfortable with the track and for us to make some small but definitely positive changes to our setup on the car. With over a race distance on the set of tires we were using and with all the traffic, we were still able to pull off a 1:14.9 at the end of the session which was 3rd fastest overall behind Thomas Enge (Lambo) at a 1:14.6 and Dane Cameron (BMW Z4) at 1:14.9. The official transponder in the car was having issues so we didn’t show up on the official time sheets for the session, but when they told me over the radio we were 3rd quickest I was surprised to say the least! I’ve spent a lot of time in this off season working on my driving and it’s pretty cool to start getting up there with the fastest of the fast guys!

Our qualifying session was 8AM Saturday morning and we were all expecting it to be wet. GTS was sent out first for 15 minutes, then all the GT cars were sent out. The GTS guys made a dry line on the track for us which was nice and since the rain stayed away we were able to run a full dry setup for qualifying. The track was very cold and grip was pretty low from all the rubber of the previous day being washed away from the rain over night, but it was improving with every lap. We knew the fastest times would be set at the end of the session, so we just cruised around for the first 10 minutes or so. For the last 5-6 laps I really tried to push, but I just couldn’t catch a break with catching other cars on track. There was some very questionable antics from drivers which I hope gets addressed in our next drivers meeting at Long Beach. It took what little self control I have to not DRILL 3 different people during qualifying for ruining laps when they weren’t even up to speed.. and one of them was a Cadillac which I may or may not have gotten into in the race… ;)

Either way, we were unable to set a lap reflective of our pace and would start P11 with a 1:15.1. Lesson learned! 

Even with the poor starting position, we all still felt we had the pace to fight for a podium position if I could get through traffic. I haven’t been racing long, but almost all of it has been in multi-class environments so I was hoping to use that to my advantage.

With such an early qualifying session combined with the fact I was still on West Coast time.. I went back to the hotel to take a nap before our scheduled 4PM race. Apparently while I was sleeping all hell broke loose: tornado warnings were issued, flood advisories, etc. I didn’t think there was any way there was going to be any on track action during a tornado warning, but I went back to the track at 2PM anyway to hang out with the crew, talk with our engineers and be ready just in-case they gave us the green light. At around 4PM we were told they were out checking the track and would make a decision if we were racing. A few minutes later Geoffrey Carter came through and told us that the series was given the green light to go by the race organizers, but after he inspected the track he thought there was to much standing water at some of the corners (4-5 inches deep!!!) and declined. Our first race would be canceled but our 2nd race on Sunday would go on as planned with a standing start and the grid set from qualifying times.

I felt bad for the fans but really think it was the rite decision for the series. There’s so many new cars and drivers and after the debacle that was Sebring, we had to be on our best behavior and do everything rite. With the flexibility of a double race weekend we still had a race the next day and a cross country trip to Long Beach 10 days later, it simply wasn’t worth the risk of wrecking half the field. If it was a single race weekend or later in the season I’m pretty sure we would have raced.

Sunday’s weather was back to the normal beautiful and sunny Florida! Track temps were actually 25-30 degrees F higher than we had seen in any of the sessions so we were all a little unsure how the cars would behave. We don’t have much experience with these Pirelli tires so we just had to cross our fingers and do what we could.

Heading out for our recon lap at 11:45PM for Sunday’s race we had a small scare with a TC Failure warning on the dash. The great Michelotto engineers were on hand as soon as we stopped on the grid and were able to plugin and fix the issue. Once lined up on the grid we sat for a few minutes, then followed the pace car out to do our one and only pace lap and came to a stop on the front straight to get ready for our standing start!

During the drivers meeting they went over the procedure and we were supposed to come up to the grid with the FCY “delphi” in-car yellow light enabled. Once that light went out, it would be 5 seconds until the start lights came on. Once the red start lights on the side of the track came on, they would go out within 5 seconds and that would trigger the start of the race.

However, there must have been some sort of issue because when we all got settled on the grid, the yellow light went out and the red starter lights on the side of the track didn’t come on. After about 10 seconds I heard a bunch of cars rev up like we were about to start, so I revved up and then everyone behind me did too. After about 20 seconds (and the car getting close to overheating!) we all dropped back down to idle. In all the confusion I let the clutch out and didn’t realize I was still in gear, so the engine stalled! And of course Murphy’s Law was in full effect, so as soon as the car stalled, the red lights on the side of the track came on and everyone revved their cars for the start! Luckily, just as the engine fired up (and it seemed to take FOREVER!) the lights went out and I was able to get a decent launch.

Now you have to keep in mind, the FIA GT3 cars are not allowed launch control. Some of the cars have a traction control system which can work like a pseudo launch control system by limiting wheel spin (Audi TC worked as pretty good launch control for me at COTA last year!), however the Ferrari is not one of them. We actually need to do our launches with traction control turned off otherwise the car almost stalls, and that is very dangerous on a standing start! Then sometime during the first lap we turn TC back on using a control knob on the steering wheel. This isn’t optimal, but the best we can do at the moment. Needless to say I wouldn’t expect to see us gain many position on the standing starts!

As it turns out, many others had similar issues with stalling or poor starts and relative to them, my start wasn’t terrible. However, I did lose some positions on the run to turn 1 as we avoided a stalled car and everyone parked on the inside entering the first turn. A few cars were able to get around me on the outside of the corner. We must have dropped down to 13th or 14th place on the first lap which was not good.

The car was quite the handful in the first 5 or 6 laps. Probably due to the rubber being washed off the painted surfaces from the rain the previous day and the increased track temp. Once the tires started to come in we had a pretty strong race pace and were closing the gaps to everyone in front of us. I made a mistake entering turn 9 after the high speed kink while trying to make a move on James Sofronas in the Audi and came SO close to wrecking us both under braking! I had to use the runoff and that allowed a couple cars to get under me before rejoining the track. Back to chase mode!

We had our first and only FCY about 15 minutes into the race because of 2 cars that made pretty heavy contact in turn 4. My car was quick and now the leaders were back in sight so I was looking forward to fighting up to the front! When we went back to green I drove as hard as I could, but could only make up a few positions. Over time, cars became stopped on track due to mechanicals or contact and at first I thought they were going to go full course caution… and if they had done that, we’d certainly have finished under yellow. However, after a few laps I realized they were going to let us keep racing and simply keep the local yellows out around the stranded cars — BRAVO World Challenge, great decision! The downside of the local yellows was they were in great passing areas so it made it nearly impossible to pass a car in class for position, but it was much better than finishing under a yellow flag behind the safety car!

We managed to have the 4th fastest lap of the race, was one of the 4 cars that were faster than the tracks lap record and fastest Ferrari in the race, but I was only able to get up to 9th place by the checker flag. Overall it was a good race for us, but it’s always disappointing as a driver to not be able to get a good result for your team when you clearly had a fast car!

Thanks DragonSpeed, Extreme Speed Motorsports, Motegi Racing Wheels, my “super-Sub” engineer Rick Mayer, and Ryan Dalziel for all the support! Next stop, the streets of Long Beach on April 13th… come by and say Hi if you make it out to the race!

The life of a gentleman racer.

First of all, I don’t speak for everyone. While I’ve spoken with a bunch of “gentleman” racers at the track and I feel pretty confident most would agree with me, we all are a little different. Regardless, here’s my two cents.

A brief history lesson— what is a “gentleman racer”?

In the early days of sports car racing (think 1920-1950’s) gentleman racers were the core of the sport. The infrastructure for true Professional drivers was tiny, so the bulk of the entrants were wealthy folks with a carefree (some might even say reckless ;)) attitude towards living their life to the fullest. The sport was orders of magnitude more dangerous than it is today, but they still drove their asses off winning the biggest races overall: Le Mans, Sebring, etc,.  

Fast forward to today— the professional sports car landscape is a festering pool of over sanitized marketing monkeys, PR flacks, advertising consultants, various types of parasites and used car salesman moonlighting as big time team owners. Everyone attempts to look like a factory/manufacturer backed team with all the polish and flair of a NASCAR team and an equal amount of talking without actually saying anything. There’s an exponentially larger infrastructure for good drivers to make a living in the sport, so everyone does the same thing. Even the “gentleman drivers” get caught up in it as we try to emulate our heroes.

On one hand we all need to represent our teams and what few sponsors they have in a professional manner. On the other, us gentleman drivers have a little more freedom to be ourselves as we’re normally financing the bulk of the racing. Anyone who knows me knows I won’t pull any punches and I’ll always give it to you straight. But, I was also raised right and would never purposely put my team or sponsors in a bad light. Unless, they really deserved it. In which case it’s great being a gentleman racer because I can give them the middle finger and go somewhere else.

Just for the record, please don’t confuse “Amateur” with “Gentleman”.

When I first started racing, I took offense to being called a gentleman driver. Call me slow, an asshole, untalented, or in the way, but don’t call me a gentleman driver. I looked at it as an excuse to be slow, which drove me crazy. After learning more about the history of gentleman drivers, I still haven’t completely warmed up to it.. but it no longer bothers me. There were some amazing gentleman drivers in the past and I couldn’t ask for more then to get anywhere close to accomplishing what they did— which would be a HUGE feat today.

Why struggle against the Professionals?

Most people would probably think the gentleman driver simply wants to be in the “big show” and pretend to be a professional race car driver doing autograph sessions and taking pictures with fans. I’m sure there are a few who do it for that very reason, but I’ve yet to meet one at the track. I feel weird and embarrassed at the track when fans ask for a picture or an autograph. I want to tell them really they don’t want mine, but probably my co-drivers or that guy over there. But, I also love the sport so much I want them to have the best time possible at the races so I’ll do anything with little bit of a chuckle and some blushing. Ask anyone who’s driven with me, I’ve never left an autograph session if there were still people who wanted something. (note: I did leave early once, but it’s because I had to get back on track in the car!)

We do it because it’s ridiculously hard. Most people won’t understand how hard it is. Even club racers who are fast and are racing veterans won’t understand unless they’ve raced against the fastest professionals in the word. On one hand they’re nearly super-human performing in a way that a normal sane racing driver (let alone someone who’s never been in a race car) would think are impossible, yet they all started like the rest of us. With the exception of perhaps Senna, there’s no magic or supernatural ability.

Running my business is hard. But, in terms of what I’d consider to be successful, the adventure of competing against professional race car drivers is harder. They both take years and years of practice, ego bashing, failures, heartache and mistakes— Or as my friend and the person who taught me most about business, Bill Lee says, “chewing glass and looking into the abyss”. While I’ve been nearly homeless, heart broken, violated, and literally broke trying to succeed in the business world, never once did the thought of my life ending cross my mind.

And yet we still do it. Why? As I said before, it’s really fucking hard. If I looked at the numbers I’d say it’s impossible, but what good is doing anything that’s easy? It’s like calling out the biggest bully on the playground in elementary school. Sure you’ll probably get pummeled, but screw that guy! Even if you fail, you’ll have found you’re limit… and have one hell of a story to tell.

The day to day of a gentleman racer:

Prepare to be the Rodney Dangerfield of any event you attend. You’ll get no respect. If that doesn’t give you fuel to work harder, then you won’t be around long.

Be it big time professional races like the 24 Hours of Daytona or a local SCCA club race. At the professional races, everyone will see you as an old (even if you’re young) banker paying to drive with the big dogs. Everyone will be nice to you as they realize you’re probably paying someone they know (either mechanics, teams, drivers, etc) but you’ll always just be that guy. At club races, you’ll only be the guy “lucky” enough to have the money to race against the pros. Everyone you race against will think they could do it if only they had the money. If you beat them it’s only because you’ve spent more on equipment or coaching (funny how little time most club racers spend with coaches and how much time gentleman drivers spend with them). Granted, there are some supremely talented club racers out there (looking at you Hittle). But overall, the average gentleman racer in a professional series is better than most club racers.. as well they should be after spending that much time and money in the sport.

If you want to get faster, prepare to sacrifice a lot of your personal and business time. You can’t just show up at a dozen races a year and compete, even against the other gentleman racers.. let alone the professionals. You will practice, test, and train nearly as much as the Professionals.. in some cases more. You have a lot of missed track time and talent to make up for and very little time to do it!

9 out of 10 gentleman racers I’ve been around are VERY good race car drivers. Sure, they aren’t the Patrick Longs, Toni Vilanders, or Johannes van Overbeeks of the world, but they will decimate most amateur racers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking amateur racers, it’s just a product of how much work the true gentleman driver puts into their craft. When you see us on TV getting in the way of the professionals, keep in mind those professionals are simply the best in the world at getting that particular car around that particular track at that particular time. Period.

Having said that, there’s still a couple guys who probably shouldn’t be out there in the big professional races. But hell, I had only been racing 9 months when I did my first professional race (2012 24 Hours of Daytona!!) so I can’t throw any stones. (in my own defense, even though my car wasn’t competitive, i’d challenge anyone to find someone that’ll say i was “in the way”).

Lastly, the professional sports car racing industry is the home of shysters and used car sales man at every level. Drivers, teams, officials, everyone. Which kind of makes senses because let’s be honest, it’s an absolutely horrible business idea. People do it (including the professionals) because they love IT, not you. Keep that in mind when you interact with people. The dancing zebras are everywhere.

When you run across the drivers and team personal that genuinely want to help you succeed (because they’re smart enough to realize that actually helps them too!) and go out of their way to show it, never let them go. Stick to them like glue. They’re few and far between, but they are out there. 

The only people who will talk with you want something. Let me repeat that incase it didn’t sink in: every single person who will talk to you wants something (and 99% of the time it’s your money). Don’t let your guard down. And as I said before, never forget or get to far away from those few good ones that will look out for you.

Hopefully you’re not thinking this is all negative and a sob story. In closing let me be very clear— having the chance in this life to even be a “gentleman racer” is one of the most awesome things I’ve ever experienced. It’s life changing. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to consistently compete against the best professionals, but like the rest of the gentleman drivers struggling to keep up out there, I’ll be using whatever is at my disposal and taking whatever risks are needed to have that shot!

Monday mornings you’ll find me back at the office: studying data, uploading photos, poking the bears on twitter and attending meetings with my brain while my heart is still busy outrunning my demons at the track.

-mike

Operation: Go fast!

In 2014 I’ll be driving a Ferrari 458 GT3 in the GT class of the Pirelli World Challenge. Our friends at Sportscar365 have more info on that here. Throughout the season I’ll be making donations to charities based on my performance.

For *every* official timed session I will donate a set amount of money at the conclusion of the race weekend to the charity that receives the most votes on twitter before the race.

Every session will add the amount below for each position 10th or higher overall:

* $25 in practice sessions. ($25 - $250)

* $50 in qualifying sessions. ($50 - $500)

* $100 in race results. ($100 - $1000)

Typical race weekends will have 2-3 practice sessions, 1 qualifying session, and 1 or 2 races. This should award up to $2,250 - $3,250 to the winning charity each weekend. Of course, I don’t expect to be at the top of every session every weekend.. but I’ll try my best!

To decide the charity for each race weekend I’ll post a couple hashtags on twitter (@mike_hedlund) and then count the number of tweets containing them over a few days. Whichever hashtag receives the most tweets will be the winner.

I’d like to include local charities around the race tracks themselves, but that’s not a requirement. I’ll need a little help to find them.. please recommend worthy charities you’d like to see get some straight up cash money!

Even before I started racing I’ve tried to do as much charitable work behind the scenes as possible. I’m not the type that wants the attention for it (does that sound weird coming from someone who races cars?) but I think part of what I’ve been lacking in this regard is raising awareness, not just cash. Hopefully this will help a little!

If you have any feedback or ideas that’ll make this work better or smoother, please let me know!

Why don’t I like GTD in #TheFuture?

The goal of the class is to merge the 2013 ALMS GTC and 2013 Grand-Am Rolex GT classes. Never mind the fact that the existing cars in the ALMS GTC class ARE NOT EVEN LEGAL in the new GTD class, but let’s ignore that for now (hell, they may as well have combined GTC with DP).

The ALMS GTC class has always been a “Pro-Am” class and while the Rolex GT class was a full “Pro” class, the bulk of the field consisted of Pro-Am driver lineups (Am footing the bill— since there are very few outside sponsors, but that’s another topic). While the lineups were similar in most cases, the cars themselves were vasty different. The ALMS GTC cars are spec 997 Porsche GT3 Cups with very few modifications allowed. The Rolex GT cars are from multiple manufactures with different types of constructions — tube framed race cars, heavily modified Porsche GT3 Cups, and a short list of modified FIA GT3 cars (basically everything that makes them FIA GT3 is removed).

The lap times at various tracks where both classes raced was actually pretty similar. In general, the Rolex GT cars have a LOT more power and a little less downforce and drag versus the ALMS GTC cars. This results in the Rolex GT cars being about 1-2 seconds per lap faster than the ALMS GTC cars at most tracks. The Rolex GT cars when running on the Continental “R” sprint tire are actually pretty close to the Yokohama run by the ALMS GTC cars. The Continental “I” speedway tire is a completely different piece of garbage and we’ll save that for another discussion.

Consider this, the Rolex GT Porsche has a 4.0L UNRESTRICTED engine with an open exhaust, a smaller spec rear wing (less drag) and is allowed a lower front ride height. The ALMS GTC Porsche has the factory 3.8L engine as delivered from Porsche WITH a restrictor (so we don’t drive around the ALMS GTE cars on the straights) catalytic converters and mufflers. This is the difference in straight line speed. And keep in mind, even the current ALMS GTC cars can out run all the ALMS GTE cars at the end of a long straight (> 150MPH.. Sebring, Road America, COTA, VIR, Road Atlanta).

Now let’s talk costs.

I’ve posted this info before, but let me give another quick overview.

A new Porsche GT3 Cup direct from Germany is around $180k. It costs around $15k to ship it to North America. You spend another $25-50k in modifications to turn it into a ALMS GTC car. Let’s just say, at around $230-250k you end up with a competitive car and some spares.. ready to go racing.

To Build a Rolex GT Porsche you start with that same GT3 Cup from Germany. You have to buy a 4.0L engine, RSR gearbox, different brake package (completely different caliper, rotors, master-cyls, brackets, etc), cockpit adjustable anti-roll bars, modify the tub to fit the larger Continental rear tires, and a bunch of other things for endurance races. All in, you’re normally looking at around $450-$500k to have a car to go racing. Hell, let’s not even include the $80-100k inerter damper which is legal in Rolex GT** but not in GTC (well, it was until recently). Add that to the cost of a GTD car and it’s way more expensive than an off the shelf FIA GT3 car (which if you follow FIA GT3 regulations, wouldn’t be allowed since every component is homologated…).

[**edit: Thanks for the tip from Spencer Pumpelly — inerter style dampers were banned in Rolex GT after the 2013 Roar before the 24!]


You can also just go buy a brand new Grand-Am Rolex GT legal Ferrari or Audi for a little less than the cost of the custom built Porsche. Or, save a lot of money and buy a used FIA GT3 Ferrari or Audi and modify it to be Grand-Am legal yourself.

Either way, it simply costs more to go Rolex GT racing than ALMS GTC racing. That’s fine.. the cars are faster, the fields are mixed with various manufactures and you can have full “Pro” lineups. I don’t really have a problem with that.


So now back the current situation. 

The final regulations for the new TUSC GTD class haven’t even been announced yet (and we’re 2 1/2 weeks from the first official test.. lol?). But, they’ve given many public interviews and have given us a glimpse into where they’re going. These are the facts so far:

* Porsche developed a “GT America” car to replace the current home-built Rolex GT Porsches. It is the base car for the class and everything else will be performance balanced around it. The GT America starts off as a base 991 GT3 Cup and is then given a 4.0L motor, spec rear wing (same as the current Rolex GT cars), reduced front aero (ie: less downforce and less drag), and some endurance parts that people would have to install themselves anyway. The car will retail for $260k USD (plus shipping and spares before you can go racing). Makes pretty good sense to me if there was still going to be a Rolex GT class… but there isn’t, more on that later…
* The target lap time for the new TUSC GTD class will be the current (2013) ALMS GTC pace.
* ALMS GTE class is staying exactly the same next year in TUSC.
* All current (2013) ALMS GTC and Rolex GT Porsches will not be legal to run in the new TUSC GTD class. (How is it a class merger if one sides’ cars aren’t even legal anymore? May as well say GTC is merging with DP)


So, just to make sure we’re all on the same page: the cars that produce the target lap time, overnight, are now obsolete and illegal for the class. The GTD cars are still going to be ridiculously fast in a straight line and for all intents and purposes moving apexes in the braking zones and in the corners for every other class. Anyone moving from a Porsche in GTC or Rolex GT will have to buy a new car which includes the 4.0L motor not found in any other Porsche race car (please, correct me if I’m wrong). I suspect after the first test the series is going to soil themselves when they see how fast the GTD cars are in a straight line so they’ll quickly mandate a huge intake restrictor. So, the Porsche teams will have spent all this extra money and run a unique motor to restrict it back down to the 3.8L level (or worse). Brilliant.

As I type this, we’re about 2 1/2 weeks away from the first official test of the new combined series, and even if people wanted to go out and buy brand new equipment there’s no rules published regarding driver requirements (which has a HUGE effect on budget. think what the cost differences are if 1 person pays for all the endurance races or it’s shared between 2 or 3 people) and specific car/class regulations.


If I had to take a guess, I’d say that Porsche was in talks with Grand-Am and had developed the GT America to replace the existing “frankenstein” Rolex GT Porsches before the merger was announced. After which, Grand-Am was pushed around and capitulated to Porsche or simply didn’t have the balls to tell them how it was going to be. To hell with everyone else, the GT America was going to be the base of the new class. Now don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before on this blog I LOVE Porsche. The guys there are awesome, they run a great business and I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am (which isn’t far!) in racing without them. But on the same token, I expect and trust the series to be the final arbiter on these types of things and to look out for the series and the entrants, not just a manufacturer. And similar to when entries and teams are caught cheating yet the series does nothing to punish them or even disqualify them, I feel cheated by those who should be the gate keeper. I don’t hold any ill-will towards Porsche (or teams caught cheating).. I hold it for those in charge who don’t stop it from happening or refuse to correct it after the fact.

Now let’s talk about the pace.

No matter which cars in what particular configuration are allowed, let’s just say for the sake of argument that the current (2013) GTC target pace is good (which I don’t think it is, but we’ll save that for another post). As I’ve said before, the current GTC cars are very fast in a straight line when compared to their closest class in the races (ALMS GTE, which will remain the same in 2014). At the end of a straight when speeds get near 150+mph the current GTC cars will simply start to out run the ALMS GTE cars (because they have similar power levels, but WAY more downforce and drag). It sucks for everyone. The GTC drivers can’t lift because it will just kill our lap time. The GTE drivers REALLY don’t want to be held up in the braking zone or in the corner because we’re so much slower it will kill their lap time. This leads to GTE drivers being SUPER aggressive under braking and on corner entry in order to get by the GTC car. The GTC drivers (even the Am’s) who run all year know this and come to expect it.. but it simply adds a LOT of risk that doesn’t really need to be there.

Just look at the big accident involving the GTC Porsche and GTE Porsche at VIR. If the GTE car had not got through before the esses, he easily would have lost 1.5-2.0 seconds on that lap. In a class that’s as competitive as GTE, that loss is staggering and is the reason why big risks are taken. Granted, crashing out cost a lot more time but you have to understand, this is racing. If there is a gap, most of the guys out there are paid to take it. The GTC driver hadn’t been racing all season and perhaps wasn’t as aware of the risk the GTE driver would be willing to take to get the pass completed. That’s not an excuse for what happened, simply an observation.

With that in mind, the series was put into a very interesting position 18 months ago. They knew they were going to have to combine the ALMS GTC and Rolex GT classes into some sort of “sub-GTE” category and most likely it would be a Pro-Am class. Instead of allowing an existing set of cars (FIA GT3) with some simple BoP adjustments (ballast + intake restrictors) on spec tires that would alleviate a big part of the GTE/GTC overtaking risk and give the “Am’s” something fun to drive… we’re left with the same GTC and Rolex GT problems: The cars are unique to the class (hence no resale value or market), they’re expensive (FIA GT3 is expensive too, but at least you have a market to get rid of it when you’re done.. and they’re way more fun to drive AND they look cooler), the cars will still be ridiculously fast on the straights leading to big risks being taken by the GTE cars (and Prototypes for that matter) to get around them before the braking zones and twisty bits, AND they’re going to have terribly slow lap times.

In essence, what the ALMS GTC and Rolex GT teams are being asked to do is spend more money (and for GTC teams, A LOT MORE) to go SLOWER (in the case of the Rolex teams). I just can’t see how this makes sense to anyone except Porsche (so they can sell 10 or 12 cars. TEN or TWELVE).

Conversely, you could allow the FIA GT3 cars with ballast and intake restrictor to keep them much slower down the straights than GTE which allows the safest and least impact in multi-class overtaking. You give the guys paying the bills (the Am’s) cars which are ridiculously fun to drive, fast, and look awesome. You give the fans tons of different makes of cars that look and sound epic. And most importantly, you keep them out of the way in the braking zones and in the twisty bits. But the downside is Porsche. The teams would be forced to use the FIA Porsche GT3-R which is near the end of it’s life cycle, but surely will be replaced with a 991 version for Europe in the very near future.

The current direction won’t kill the class, but it’s definitely limiting interest in the class.. and hasn’t that been the achilles heel of sports car racing in general? Even now when times are really pretty good, there will be a solid grid of GTD cars. There’s simply to many people trying to make a living in the sport that can hustle up the funds and entries to make it happen. But will it be awesome and will it keep people in the series? Doesn’t appear that way to me!

But what do I know, I’m just finishing my 2nd year of car racing at any level. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but In that time I’ve tested or raced cars in ALMS GTC, Grand-Am Rolex GT, ALMS LMPC, FIA GT3, and Grand-Am Rolex DP. I’m pretty comfortable with my opinions of each.

There’s got to be people behind the scenes pulling strings who know what they’re doing, rite? I think I’ll go have a beer..


-mike

Driver rankings in #TheFuture

A quick history lesson:

In sports car racing, and specifically endurance sports car racing, there has always been amateur or “gentleman” drivers. These are men and women who don’t make a living as professional racing drivers and typically have a successful career in some other industry. In the last decade or so with rapidly escalating budgets and dwindling car counts the “gentleman” driver has become, perhaps, more important than ever.

These Gentleman drivers are often recruited into a team and basically sponsor the team in exchange for driving and in most cases, hope to improve their skill and pace behind the wheel. In endurance racing typically 2-4 drivers share a car throughout a single race, so if a gentleman driver is paired up with a professional, he or she can learn a great deal.

Of course, in the majority of the cases the gentleman drivers are significantly slower than the Professionals. This puts their car or team at a severe disadvantage to other cars which are competing with a full lineup of professional drivers. For some of us, this doesn’t matter— we want to compete against the best in order to improve ourselves. However, for a lot of people this is a large hurdle to overcome when spending large amounts of time and money on racing.

For this reason, in the last 5-6 years or so, the so-called “Pro-Am” classes have begun to take hold of endurance sports car racing. This allows the teams which have amateur or gentleman drivers to essentially compete among themselves for wins and podiums. As we’ve seen, this increases the pool of people who are willing to spend 6, 7, or even 8 figures a year on racing, each employing dozens of people (including professional drivers, engineers, crew, etc,.) for the season and thus increasing the car counts in endurance racing around the world.

Now, back to the present:

The FIA has the most followed driver ranking system in the world. To make a long story short, every driver who applies and is granted an FIA racing license must supply a history of their racing experience and is then given a rating for the year:

* Bronze (newbies)

* Silver (faster amateurs)

* Gold (professionals)

* Platinum (top tier professionals, factory/works drivers, etc)

The basic differences are Bronze and Silver being reserved for non-Professional or amateur/gentleman drivers and Gold and Platinum identifying the Professionals. Each one slightly differentiating the level of “amateur” or “professional”. In Europe this was needed as the driver requirements for certain series and classes were more strict than in the United States. For example, in certain classes in Europe a Bronze could pair up with a Platinum, but a Silver could only pair up with a Gold. The idea was to keep the overall driver ability of the car in some sort of balance with everyone else.

In recent years here in the States the sanctioning bodies have relied on the FIA ranking system. It made sense as a first step in separating the drivers and allowing certain drivers into the newly created “Pro-Am” categories. And of course, the local sanctioning bodies always reserved the rite to classify people on their own in cases where the FIA grading didn’t seem appropriate.

Now, if you’re not super involved with endurance racing you probably don’t see any problems with this. Hell, I’ve only been racing cars for a short period of time (about 2 1/2 years) and up until this season started, I didn’t have a problem with it either. When I decided to go race against the “Professionals”, I didn’t care what anyone ranked me or who I raced against.. I just wanted to kick their ass— I didn’t even know there were Pro-Am classes!

If you’ve ever met a racer, team owner or anyone involved in a racing team (amateur club racer or professional), I don’t have to tell you this, but if you haven’t— they are the most competitive people you will ever meet in your entire life. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, what’s at stake, or who they’re doing it against. They will use any advantage they could possibly get their hands on to beat their opponents. It’s just the way it is and that’s what makes it so fun.

Back to the rankings:

With the above out in the open, you might be starting to see how the ranking system opens up a massive grey area in the rules. It’s *very* hard to make a living as a professional sports car driver. There simply isn’t that many available cars and teams to go around for everyone. But there are a LOT of quality drivers trying to make a living at it. They freelance, move from team-to-team from race-to-race filling in at the last minute, flying to club races and test days to coach amateurs, host track days, etc.. anything to allow them to keep in the (small) racing industry and out of a normal day job.

Then you have different level of amateurs or gentleman drivers. Some have successful careers and got into motorsport because they love cool cars and racing. Others, perhaps, tried to become a professional driver at a younger age and didn’t make it, so they went another career route.. only to come back to racing when they were older and lucky enough to have the resources to support their racing habits themselves. Even others are young up and coming drivers who might have their racing habits supported by their parents or family business. And in the last few years, there are some really good drivers coming out of countries that have direct state sponsored funding!

It’s not an easy task to create a simple formula and apply it to this diverse group of people and come out with a simple “pro” or “am/gentleman” rank. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s impossible.

You’re never going to be able to keep everyone happy, but I think we can do a far better job than what we’ve done up until now. And since I’m not the type to complain about something without providing an alternative, let’s get onto it!

First of all, why spend the time on this issue?

As a “gentleman” driver myself, it seems like a no-brainer. If you can create a better and more level playing field for gentleman drivers, you will have a larger pool of people to market your series and races to. A larger pool of eligible people means more entrants, more cars, more teams, more employed crew, engineers and drivers. Larger fields leads to filtering up higher quality drivers and teams. Larger fields with higher quality teams and drivers leads to better racing, more fans, and more media coverage.

You’re probably saying to yourself, “there’s already Pro-Am classes, so how would it generate more entries?”. That’s a valid question and one that I wouldn’t have been able to answer last year. But after spending a short time racing, it’s clear that the ranking system is a joke. And just like most things I’ve found in racing, just because it’s a joke doesn’t mean it’ll get better. Racing has the worst good-ole-boy-club, it’s-been-that-way-for-years-so-why-change-it culture I’ve ever seen. 

The fact of the matter is the current regulations and the application of those regulations don’t lead to a very inviting “Pro-Am” ranking system for real amateurs and gentleman drivers. The current system is basically a tool to keep the “slow Pros” in cars and driving at the expense of more gentleman entries. Hey, I’m all for helping people out but at some point you have to see the forest through the trees.

For example, you can have a guy or gal who has no day job, travels around coaching (so they can pay rent), trains 6 days a week and claims to be a “Professional Driver” in the media entered as an “Am” in a Pro-Am class. If you’re a “gentleman” with a day job during the week and being asked to spend 6-8 figures a year to compete against that, what would you do? The first thing I said is F*ck the “Am” classes, just race against the Pro’s (but I understand most people aren’t that crazy). Then, if you *did* decide to stick with the “Am” classes, you immediately hire those “Am’s” for the longer races before your competitor does, which drives up the cost even further. Instead of 2 “Am’s” hiring 1 Pro for the longer races and splitting the cost, you have 1 “Am” hiring an “Am” and a Pro which double the cost of every endurance race. But hey, if you don’t want to be competitive and just drive around at the back of the pack it’ll only cost you $25,000-100,000 per weekend (depending on race length). What a deal!!

Then you have the wicked fast “gentleman” drivers who actually have day jobs. But, for whatever reason.. either god given talent, luck, or just plain lack of self preservation, are damn near the same pace as the Professionals on a good weekend. All the real “Am’s” and “Gentleman” want to be this guy, but it’s hard. There’s a reason there’s so few fast Pro’s and there’s a reason there’s even fewer people with day jobs at that pace. 

And this is why I think it’s impossible for some formula in a rule book to rank drivers. In my opinion, someone (or a group) has to get off their ass and do it by hand every season.

But, you say, “surely it’s not possible to manually check each individual driver before the start of every season!”

I say, why the hell not?!

 

Teams are being asked to spend a minimum of $1 Million dollars a year to race. There’s a very finite list of drivers who must apply for entry into the series every off-season (and even fewer who enter after the season starts). The *bulk* of those should be “easy” decisions.. either Pro or Am based on current status. Hell, if you were really lazy you’d only have to consider rankings for those drivers in the Pro-Am classes anyway, which cuts the number in half. Your telling me we can’t rely on the sanctioning bodies to sift through a list of 100-200 people, most of which will be repeated year after year, and classify them? That’s bullsh*t. 

 

Here’s my proposal:

Create a panel of 5 or 7 (odd number) people inside the sanctioning body. Perhaps they could be a mix of USCR management, team owners, current or ex-drivers. Rotate them every year. All panel decisions are made public immediately.

Simple 2-tier USCR driver ranking: Pro and Am.

Before the season starts, all drivers who wish to race in the USCR must apply for a racing license (just like we currently do with Grand-Am and ALMS). If the driver didn’t race the previous season with USCR, then they submit a written history of their racing over the last 5 years (same as we do with the FIA). 

 

A drivers ranking is determined by 2 primary factors:

* pace relative to class and co-drivers in previous events.

* time spent between races. (i.e.: day job or preparing for races)

If *either* of those 2 factors indicate your a “Professional” you get a “Pro” ranking. Period.

If I can find the pace of drivers in previous races, it’s unacceptable for anyone internal to the series to tell me they can’t. There’s always unknowns when looking at raw data, but if you look at it close enough you can see patterns and you can make intelligent decisions.

If you’re an “Am” within some % of average pace in a race environment to the “professionals” you should be marked for “review” by the panel.

If no series data is available (i.e.: it’s a driver from outside the US), the panel should review what data is available from the series he or she has ran in outside the US. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at who they were racing against and how they performed to get a general idea which group they should be in.

If you spend all your days and weekends preparing, training and practicing for racing then you’re a professional. It doesn’t matter how fast you are. For example, if I won the lottery, quit my day job, and traveled all around the country driving and working with coaches (while still paying for all the racing myself), then I should be ranked as a “Pro”.

Conversely, if I go back to work or school Monday morning after the races and spend all week sitting at a desk.. yet on race weekends I’m within some % of my “Pro” co-drivers and other “Pro’s” in the class.. then I too should be marked as a “Pro”.

Now the reason I think we should have a panel deciding this is for the grey areas when interpreting the pace and time away from motorsport. The panel should take these into account and then vote on it.

At any point in time a driver may petition the panel to change their ranking for the upcoming year. However, all petitions and votes are made public.

In terms of stability within the teams there can be absolutely no change of rankings until the season is over. If an “Am” who was funding a program was suddenly upgraded to “Pro” it would basically kill the team for the year.

The funny part is, I believe everything in my proposal could be done within the existing rules and processes for driver rankings. The ALMS already takes the FIA ranking as a baseline, then feels free to adjust it based on some other random factors behind closed doors that seem to baffle veterans and newbies alike. All we’d need is a panel of people, some openness, and a bit of elbow grease to get it done.

I know a lot of Pro’s aren’t going to be happy with me posting this, but I love you guys (at least the ones who’ve helped me in the past, the rest of you using me as a moving apex can pound sand! :)) I’m not trying to keep you out of races, in fact just the opposite! I think with a proper application of rankings we would see more entrants which would make more full-time “Pro” seats available. This is especially important since HALF of the available paid weekends are going away next year…

-mike

 

 

GT racing in #TheFuture

With the merger announcement made last year between the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am there’s been a lot of talk about the P2 and DP classes merging, and rightfully so. They’ll be the top class fighting for overall wins and for the series to be successful they’ll need to be sorted out.

However, there’s been almost no talk of the GT classes from either journalists or USCR. I’m going to lay out my thoughts on the GT classes here as part experiment (to see how close I was once the series starts) and part knowledge transfer to share what I’ve learned from talking to team owners, drivers and people in the paddock at the races. Hopefully, this will be short and sweet. Part 1 is what I predict from USCR for 2014 based on what I know and Part 2 is what I would do if I were King.

Part 1, What I Predict:

The current ALMS GT class, which will become the USCR GTLM (LM for Le Mans) class in 2014 will remain completely as-is. Down to the ACO regulations for each car w/ any additional BOP done by ALMS in the past (i.e.; Corvette ballast, etc). It will continue to be open tire as all the teams have tire contracts that are not easily voided. This one is easy enough and USCR has basically said from the beginning that this class will remain as-is.

The current ALMS GTC and Grand-Am Rolex GT classes will be combined into the new USCR GTD (D for Daytona) class for 2014. Here’s where it gets a little tricky…

Currently ALMS GTC is defined as a Pro-Am class. This means there must be at least one “amateur” (I put amateur in quotes because I personally feel the way amateurs are defined in the sport is an insult to anyone with an IQ over 31.. but we’ll save that for another time) in the car for each race. In order to score championship points in the race, the “Am” must drive a minimum amount of time. The time requirement differs based on the length of the race, but typically falls into what would be an “equal” stint with his or her co-drivers. For example. at a normal “short” race duration of 2 hours and 45 minutes, the minimum drive time for the “Am” is 60 minutes. The GTC cars typically go 70-75 minutes on a full tank of fuel so the driver change strategy is basically the same as if you had 2 Pro’s in the car. At the 12 Hours of Sebring the minimum drive time was 3 Hours which is basically a minimum of 3 stints in the car to earn points.

Being a Pro-Am class, these drive time rules make complete sense and put a high emphasis on the “Am” in the car having to do a very good job in order for the car to be competitive at the end of the race. The cars with the stronger Am’s tend to do better than those with the weaker Am’s.

In Rolex GT there is no “Pro-Am”. There are cars which have “Am” drivers and cars which have all Pro lineups competing against each other at the same time. For the longest time I struggled with understanding how the Pro-Am lineups were competing with the full Pro cars (and competing they were, just look at my good friends at Magnus Racing! they’ve been kicking ass!). It wasn’t until I participated in a couple non-24 Hour races that I started to understand.

The Minimum drive time is “around” 30 Minutes for the driver to score points in a Grand-Am Rolex race. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short 2 Hour race or the 24 Hours of Daytona. In the first 30 minutes of the race all the “Am” does is try to stay on the class leaders lead lap. If they can do that, they then hand over the car to the Pro and he battles his way through the field (which is typically bunched together by numerous caution periods). That’s all there is to it. Not very exciting from the “Am” point of view, but it seems to generally work to keep the racing close at the end and “Am” supported entries on the grid.

Now, if the USCR GTD class is categorized as a “Pro-Am” class next year, I’d guess USCR will go with the ALMS philosophy on driver time requirements.

Since we covered the driver requirements, let’s move onto the cars!

For those who aren’t super familiar with the GTC class and the Rolex GT class, here’s a quick primer:

ALMS GTC cars are nearly identical to the cars as delivered by Porsche Motorsport. You literally call up Porsche, say “I want a GT3 Cup” and after wiring them around $220,000, it’s on a boat or plane headed your way. Your team gets the car, puts about $20,000-40,000 worth of brake rotors and fancy dampers (shocks for us Yankees) on the car and you’re ready to go racing in the GTC class (there a few other small things like brake ducts and quick fill oil ports, but really.. that’s it as far as time and money are concerned). Once you show up at the track, a friendly Porsche Motorsport engineer (hey Andrew!) comes by and gives the team a small restrictor to be placed in the intake manifold (more on that later) and re-flashes your ECU. Viola.. time to go racing!

Conversely, if you want to race a Porsche Cup in Rolex GT, the procedure is as follows: Wire $220,000 to Porsche and wait for the car to arrive. Wire $175,000 to Porsche Motorsport North America for a new 4.0L Rolex spec Cup engine and RSR gearbox. Have your guys at the shop spend a few weeks (hopefully they aren’t billing you for this labor.. it’s your team rite?) modifying the chassis to accept the RSR gear box. While the team is working on the chassis you have to spend another few days tubbing the rear wheel wells to fit the giant Continental tires. Place your order for about $20,000 worth of dampers (not including spares). Place an order for a complete Tilton brake master cyl setup (about another $25k). Bolt on a small spec rear wing, pull the windows out of the expensive carbon fiber doors, install window and driver safety nets, adjustable ECU map switches, and cockpit adjustable sway bars front & rear (which isn’t easy, have fun fab’in up your own parts). Congratulations!! You’re the proud new owner of a $450,000 race car that isn’t legal in any other series in North America! But it’ll be damn fast at Daytona and a championship contender.

Or you could go buy a new Grand-Am spec Ferrari 458 or Audi R8 for around $350,000 which isn’t legal anywhere else either. But hey, you’ll save $100,000 which *might* just cover the cost of your co-driver for the season.

After spending all that money on the Grand-Am spec car, you’ll be lucky to run about 1 second faster at most of the tracks where both GTC and Rolex GT run. Most of it comes down to tires and horsepower. The GTC Yokohamas are better than the Continental GT tires (and WAAAAAAAYYY better than the Continental “speedway” GT tires.. worst tires on the planet don’t even get me started..). However, the Grand-Am cars have a LOT more power and generally less drag (due to less downforce).

Now how do we go about balancing these cars to run together? That’s the beauty of 2014. I don’t think it’ll be much of a problem — the bulk of the GTC teams will go away.

2014 will be the first year that the new 991 based Porsche GT3 Cup is available in North America. From talking with people in the paddock, everyone believes this car will be the new “baseline” for the USCR GTD class. It’s faster rite off the boat than the current 997 based Cup that’s run in ALMS GTC, which is great because it gets the baseline closer to the current Grand-Am Rolex GT spec. And since the new car will be available and it costs so much to upgrade the old car to the “current” Rolex GT spec, I doubt any single ALMS GTC team will enter current hardware into USCR GTD next year. Viola! Problem solved…. (at the expense of some teams.. but hey, this isn’t UNICEF!)

One slight hiccup, the new 991 Cup appears to go about it with the same motor as the old car.. which means it must have more mechanical grip and more downforce. Exactly the opposite philosophy that Grand-Am has used in Rolex GT historically.

How are they going to balance the current crop of Rolex GT cars with the new 991 Cup for 2014? My guess is big restrictors across the board to bring them down to the straight line performance level of the new 991 Cup, which will be slightly slower than the old Cup (and probably rite about the speed of the restricted GTC cars) due to the same power and more drag (downforce). However, once you take the motor away from the current Rolex GT cars they’ll be complete dogs! They already have very little downforce and questionable tires. Mechanical grip isn’t so bad as the chassis have a lot of development into them, but the tires aren’t as good as the chassis. How many people are lining up to drop $350,000 (or $450,000 in the case of the new Viper!) on a new USCR GTD car to go SLOWER than the year before and not even have a market to get rid of it after you’re done?

Btw, the current Rolex GT cars are faster down the straights than ALMS GT cars. Can you say chrome horn in the corners? They already restrict the GTC cars to make it easier for the ALMS GT cars to overtake on the straights. Could you imagine GTC cars with another 75+ HP? As awesome as that’d be for those of us who drive in GTC now, ALMS GT drivers would all have grey hair by Petit and I’d be going through a lot of rear bumpers.

My predictions for 2014 USCR GTD:

* ALMS style minimum drive times for the “Am” in the car.

* 991 Porsche GT3 Cup as-delivered, new baseline for the class.

* All current Rolex GT cars get a restrictor to get power inline with 991 Cup.

* New (larger) spec rear wing allowed to increase downforce to match 991 Cup.

* Increased maximum front splitter length (from 2” to 3”).

* Spec tire changed to Continental “Speedway” I-spec tire for ALL tracks to slow the cars down another 1-2 seconds per lap.

* Tube frame cars not allowed  (with Stevenson non running GTD next year it only leaves Turner. With BMW pulling support from Turner, I expect them to switch to a GT3 chassis next year.. if they stay in GTD)

Part 2: Now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you what I’d do if I were King for 2014.

* ALMS type minimum drive times for the “Am” in the car.

* Full FIA-GT3 spec permitted. BES ballast and restrictor sizes used as the baseline for each car. USCR does local changes when needed to balance performance.

* Spec tire: current Continental “Sprint”, optional “Speedway” tire if cars are too fast.

* Previous generation Rolex GT permitted w/ full Pro driver lineups. ABS and Traction control permitted. Leave the window open for possible wing and splitter enhancements to improve performance if needed.

My reasoning is very simple: let us race cars which are readily available that have performance envelopes that make them not only fun and challenging to drive, but also provide great entertainment for the fans. A byproduct of this is that it also allows teams and drivers to easily come over from Europe to race in certain (or even all events!) as well as provides a market to move and switch between cars during the off season. This also provides a lower barrier to entry by used GT3 cars being plentiful around the world.

My inclusion of the previous generation cars also allows current teams to keep running w/ relatively low cost for upgrades (it costs about 5 sets of tires to put a motorsport ABS system onto a race car, I’ve done it). This also allows the current fully Pro teams to keep running instead of putting the drivers out of work or the teams out of business. The cost to move up to a DP from a Rolex GT car are about 2-3X seasonal budget. Trust me, I’ve looked into it… :-)

The biggest risk for this plan is speed differential between USCR GTLM and GTD. As they’re unloaded from the factories, the FIA-GT3 cars are very similar in outright pace to the GTE/GTLM cars. This is due to the fact the GT3 cars have slightly more open rules in regards to aero as well as utilizing ABS and traction control. They’re also a fraction of the cost to buy and operate as the GTE/GTLM cars. However, I think a spec tire and possibly slightly larger restrictors would allow the series to easily maintain the appropriate performance differential between the 2 classes. Just by using the current Continental “Sprint” compound tire the full FIA-GT3 car is going to lose 2+ seconds per lap versus the “Confidential” factory tires used by the GTLM cars.

Another major issue with my plan is Porsche. I love them. They’ve created a very successful business around supporting customer racing in North America. I wouldn’t have been able to get to where I am in racing (which isn’t very far.. don’t get me wrong!) without Porsche Motorsport. But let’s be honest, they don’t have a full FIA-GT3 spec car. I suppose you could build one that’s competitive on your own, just like the current Rolex GT Porsche… but it’ll probably reduce the class from being half Porsche to just a handful of Porsche entries. 

The other thing you’ll hear people say is “but the FIA-GT3 costs are starting to get out of hand, how much longer will that class of car be successful?”. I don’t have the answer to that, but there’s simply so many race cars available now it’s a SHAME not to take advantage of it while we can! Maybe in 3 or 4 years we’ll have to revisit the class, but we do that every few years anyway!

Not doing something now because you’re afraid of what the future holds is a recipe for mediocrity.

I have a lot of respect for Scott Atherton and Scot Elkins, but I feel they’re missing the boat on this one either due to management by committee behind the scenes or lack of confidence on their own. I’m sure the series will be OK either way, but I want it to be F***ING AWESOME! 

These issues should have been discussed and debated out in the open months ago. The fact is no matter what they announce, some people are going to be upset and changes are going to HAVE to be made. The earlier everyone knows what the plan is for next year the earlier these discussions and changes can take place.

-mike

2013 - American Le Mans Series, Laguna Seca.

image

After a rough start to the ALMS season at Sebring and Long Beach, I was really looking forward to racing at a track I was familiar with! That’s not to say I was expecting a good result, there’s so much in racing that’s beyond your control.. but it was nice to go somewhere and not have to spend any time figuring out where the track goes! :-)

IMSA allows the ALMS GTC class to practice with the IMSA GT3 Cup series on promoter test days, which is really nice for us. It allows me time to learn the new tracks and in the case of Laguna Seca, it gave us time to try a few new things for the weekend. The IMSA GT3 Cup group had two 40 minute practice sessions on Wednesday which we were able to participate in. Since we wouldn’t be back on track until Thursday at around 5PM, I decided to drive down for the day and head back home for the night so I could go to work Thursday morning, then drive back down to the track Thursday afternoon in time for our first official ALMS practice sessions.

Our first session on Wednesday started pretty well. We began with last years race setup on the car, but knowing the track conditions would change for the race weekend weren’t too concerned with the balance or pace— which was ok, but not exceptional.

For our 2nd session on Wednesday we wanted to get a little crazy and tried a drastically different spring rate and a different brake package. Because the track conditions were so bad in the 1st session, we weren’t expecting much but it was a valuable test session for us. Needless to say, it didn’t work out very well and the car was extremely  difficult to drive!

With those two test sessions in the books and a single long session on Thursday available to us, we had to act quickly. We had a new set of developmental dampers that were delivered to us Thursday morning (original plan was to try them on Wednesday) and we had to decide if we could risk further testing or continue tuning a “known” setup. Because the GTC class is so competitive this year, we felt there was no choice.. we had to try the development dampers looking for more speed!

The upside of a single long session is it allows both drivers plenty of time to work with the engineers to tune the car, the downside is there isn’t  time for big changes… you simply can’t get the car back to the truck and back out on track in time. We weren’t happy with the balance or pace of the car with the developmental dampers, and after spending 90 minutes tuning and trying to make it work our session was over. Strangely, the changes we were making were not having the desired effect… they were almost doing the opposite of what we were expecting!

Not only were we having issues with our dampers, but our dash board stopped working! For those unfamiliar with a Porsche Cup car, it might not sound very important… but without the Motec dash not only do you have no idea what gear you’re in, lap times, predictive times or if you’re on the pit lane speed limiter but you also don’t have shift lights!!

After our one and only session on Thursday, we were in a bad place. We had big question marks on our brake package, our dash didn’t work and our “base” setup wasn’t great. Our developmental dampers performed horribly, and with only 1 practice session left we had some tough choices to make!

image

That evening we had found that one of our 4-way adjustable developmental dampers had zero’d out all of it’s settings on it’s own at some point during our practice session. That explains why Jan and I were so unhappy with the car and why Luke our engineer was pulling his hair out. But, that left us in another bad position for our practice session on Friday. With one practice session left Friday morning and one Friday afternoon leading straight into qualifying, we had to start rolling the dice.

We decided to go with last years setup and simply make some tweaks in the upcoming practice session to make it work for us. With the pace we were showing, if our brakes and dash board kept working we thought we could still be competitive. Friday morning went ok, we made the car better but still not great for either Jan or myself.

By Friday afternoon we thought we were in a pretty solid place. We weren’t able to get the car perfect, but we were pretty close and thought we’d be excellent for the race. Jan was going to qualify, so I was going to start the session on old tires, then half way through we’d do a driver change (at speed for practice) and Jan would finish out the session with a qualifying simulation on new tires which would lead straight into our qualifying session. The car would not have time to go back to the truck between our final practice and qualifying.. any changes we’d want to make would have to be done in the pit lane. We had made some changes to the base setup and needed to verify it was the rite direction. With the help of Porsche and one of the IMSA teams we were able to locate a spare Motec dash and continue debugging our electronic problems, the only downside was we wouldn’t be able to use the data as it didn’t have all the fancy memory upgrades.

On my second lap during the final practice session I clipped the tall red FIA curbing at the inside of Turn 6. It’s there for a reason (to keep us from short cutting!), but man is it big and harsh! After I hit it, I kept my foot in it all the way up the hill while radio’ing in to the team that I smacked the hell out of the left front and that we needed to check it out. As I put on the brakes to enter the corkscrew, the front left tire collapsed (in 5th gear!) and most of my deceleration collapsed with it! I went straight off into the gravel at the top of the hill. Luckily once I came to a stop, I managed to get the car moving by doing my best ninja impression w/ the clutch and was able to get out of the gravel trap on my own without a tow (which would have ruined the practice session for everyone else). 

The tire was down and the wheel was broken. The team put a new wheel on the car and I went back out rite away to make sure it was still (relatively) straight. After a lap shaking out the gravel I was back up to speed. However, since it happened so early and because the hit was so harsh we couldn’t really evaluate the changes we had made before the session. I was positive I had knocked something out of spec as the car was driving different in left and right turns and locking the left front wheel in most braking zones.

Unfortunately for Jan, he had to go straight into qualifying with a bent car. Rule #1 for a co-driver, don’t screw up the car for the next guy… woops! In my own defense I normally don’t do that….

Jan was still able to qualify P5 out of 10 cars which was awesome. It put us rite in the middle of our class which is fine for a 4 Hour race. 

image

Friday night our JDX Hertz crew was hard at work inspecting the damage I had caused. I wanted to make sure we had a really good look at everything as I didn’t want any surprises during the race. Before I went to bed Friday night I got a text from Luke, corner weights were knocked off by 150lbs and our damper was bent. Ouch! That left us in a pickle.. we only had the developmental damper set left.. which was “self adjusting” the only time we had used it. Not only that, we only had a 20 minute warm-up in the morning before the race started. Not a great way to start a 4 Hour endurance race… self adjusting dampers using a “best guess” setup to make them work, a borrowed dash board and the first time we were running this brake package in a race!

Jan and I both agreed that when the race started Saturday, no matter what issues we had or how the car drove or braked, we were going to drive the m*er*f*ing wheels off the damn thing!!

Our Saturday morning warm-up was pretty uneventful. We each did a couple laps to try and get a feel for it, and it was over. Time to hang out with our awesome Hertz guests at the track, do an autograph session, and meet with other people to take care of some business. 

After all that work and struggling during the week, it was now 3PM and time to GET IT ON! Whatever issues you had go out the window, the only thing to think about is how to get the most out of what you got.

image

I would be starting the race, and then at some point after reaching the minimum drive time (1 Hour 10 Minutes) I’d hand over to Jan.. our plan was a single driver change.

The race started pretty smoothly. I think I made up 1 or 2 positions early in the race while trying to get a feel for the new setup on the car (we had made a bunch of changes after the warmup). We had 2 early cautions which ended up splitting the strategy for our class. Some cars elected to come in early and top off and possibly get fresh tires. By rule, each car must start on the tires that were used in qualifying the previous day. About half our class opted to stay out, expecting more yellows in the future and maintain track position.

By chance at the 2nd restart, I was in P2 directly behind our class leader, who was directly behind one of the prototypes that would be taking us to the green flag. It’s a little abnormal for GTC cars to be so far at the front on a restart, but I didn’t care! On the restart I immediately went on the attack and was able to make a pass for the lead entering turn 2. Knowing that the fastest prototypes were rite behind us and probably cursing me for holding them up, I went a little wide and left the inside open on the exit for the Rebellion P1 car (and overall leader) to easily get under me… but I wasn’t expecting the Muscle Milk P1 car (and overall P2) to pass me on the inside entering T3! Either way we all managed to get through there without taking each other out and then I focused on absolutely maximizing my speed and minimizing my lap time loss while being passed by the faster classes. After about 2 laps it had calmed down and most of the faster classes had made their way around me and I had a 5-6 second gap on second place in our class. At that time I put my head down and drove as hard as I could. If it stayed green, I knew we’d need as big a gap as possible to come in and do a driver change that wouldn’t put Jan at a big disadvantage to the cars that stopped earlier.

After about an hour, the team radio’d me and said we’d be doing a full-stop w/ driver change in 3 laps. We hadn’t had any cautions and I couldn’t see the P2 car in class in my mirrors anymore.. so I was hoping we had a solid gap. If it wasn’t for being gang raped by a train of 5 or 6 GT cars all battling for position on my in-lap, that would have been my fastest lap of the race. As it stood, it was the lap before that. :-)

We had a very smooth stop and driver change (while under green, pits were empty) and Jan was back out. We didn’t have enough of a gap to maintain the lead, but we were still within striking distance. With another yellow or a pit-stop rotation we’d be back near the front!

image

Unfortunately during the next pit stop for fuel and tires, we had a slight delay with a wheel nut. That put us back in the 4th or 5th position. We were still in it though, and we still had an advantage on pit stop rotations.  Rite after we came in for our final fuel stop of the race… IMSA dropped a bomb on us. We would have to serve a stop & hold + 20 second penalty because the wrong person changed a driver water bottle during one of the earlier stops. Needless to say, that put us at the end of the lead lap… and with only 1 lap under green after the final caution we finished in 5th place.

Jan drove a hell of a race and the team worked really hard all week. But, as they say… that’s racing!

Now we have a few weeks off before the ALMS returns to action at Lime Rock.

-mike

Possible running costs for 2014…

Rolex GT                                                               ALMS GT

Current cost: $1.5M (season)                                 Current cost: $2.5M (season)

13 races                                                                10 races

Daytona = 4x $$ normal weekend.                         Sebring = 2x $$ normal weekend.

Watkins = 2x $$ normal weekend.                         Petit = 2x $$ normal weekend. 

Fudged race count for cost: 17                              Fudged race count for cost: 12

Cost per fudged race: $88,235                              Cost per fudged race: $208,333

2014, assuming 2012 Rolex Schedule + Sebring 12 Hour and Petit 10 Hour:

15 races, Daytona (24 Hours), Watkins (6 Hours), Sebring (12 Hours), Petit (10 Hours)

Fudged race count for cost: 21

Fudged GTE season cost based on previous years weekend cost: $4,374,993 (+$1,874,993) [75% increase]

Fudged Rolex GT season cost based on previous years weekend cost: $1,852,935 (+$352,935) [24% increase]

Spa Francorchamps Supercup Test

In preparation for the Spa Supercup race coming up, the team I’m driving with (Team Bleekemolen) was able to get entries into a test day on Monday Aug 6th at the track. It was basically a club type test day with 2 groups of cars, race cars and non race cars. Each session was about 45-60 minutes and we alternated all day.

Since my phone didn’t work when I landed in Brussels, it took some extra time finding my way to the track. I ended up booking a room at the closest hotel to the track (Hotel de la Source) since I was only driving one day and staying 2 nights. The area is really cool. The track is basically situated inside of a couple villages, so (one of) the entrances was about 100 yards from the hotel.

Sunday at 2PM when I arrived at the hotel it was about 85 degrees and Sunny. I thought, wow.. this is like California.. only I’m in a village in the forest. How cool! Why does this place have such a bum rap about weather?

At 3:30PM I was having a beer at the hotel bar to kill time and happened to look outside. It was almost black and raining an angry rain, big ass drops and standing water. Hmm.. so that’s where the reputation comes.

Monday morning I woke up at 7AM and made it to the track at the planned 8:30AM to try and find the team (I hadn’t met anyone before and had no idea what their equipment/gear/rig/cars would look like.. except they were definitely Porsche Cup’s). It took me about 45 minutes to find my way to the track entrance as the gate by the hotel was closed (apparently only open on “big weekends”). After a quick introduction to all the team members and the other driver on the team (Jeroen Mul, he kicked my ass like I’ve never been kicked since I started racing). Jeroen was very cool and spent a lot of time helping me get up to speed.

First session was green at around 10AM and we went out w/ about 12-15 other race cars (including a couple prototypes and open-wheelers). The track was AWESOME. It felt much differently than it looks on TV. Much more elevation change (everywhere!) and most of the corners have blind exits, which makes it hard to carry speed into and through the middle when you can’t see the exit. The track is also so long and has so many corners, it’s hard to remember exactly how it was the lap before to improve the next time through.

Before we went out, Jeroen and the data engineer walked me through what a typical fast lap is on the track. Basically a gear map and kind of a brake point/pressure area for each corner on the track. Eau Rouge is entered flat out in 5th gear (on the rev limiter), all 4 wheels over the first left curbing (while still on the rev limiter), lift up the hill and get the car pointed to the right, then back to full throttle over the top left hander (while avoiding the right curb at all costs coming up the hill). Sounds easy enough, rite?

My first lap through, I surprisingly did the T1 hairpin well and had a good run, coming up to Eau Rouge I was in 5th gear and rite before the red shift lights came on I was like.. “oh, fuck this man!” and got onto the brakes to get the car slowed down a little after slightly soiling myself. I still got in there at a pretty good speed and managed to make the corner without to much drama. It definitely can carry more speed through there, but even at my sedate pace the g-load was pretty awesome and the car was light over the top.

For the famous Blanchimont corner, the fast guys on a good lap in a Cup basically give it a little lift, get back to full throttle near the apex, and use all of the track (and typicallythe asphalt run off 1 or 2 car widths beyond the curb (?!@&#*!@)). For those unfamiliar with Blanchimont (Turn 17 I think), it’s the second corner of a double apex (sort of) left hander. It’s entered in 6th gear (first apex is easy flat), and according to my data at around 157MPH (WTF?!@@#!). My first lap through I slowed down enough I had to downshift to 5th. For the rest of the laps (when it was clear) I stayed in 6th, but my minimum speed was still around 7-8MPH less than Jeroen.. even on my best laps.

All season I’ve been learning new tracks, and without failure, I always turn my fastest lap on the first day within the first 7-10 laps. However, here I knew after the first session it was going to be VERY different (and humbling). :-)

I only ran a 2:40.2 in the first 45 minute session (Jeroen did a 2:30.x). There was a lot of traffic as most of the race cars out there were extremely slow compared to a Porsche Cup. Our best hope was simply to get lucky lap where we were able to pass people without being held up to much in the fast corners.

In the second session I did a 2:37.x (in traffic) and Jeroen did a 2:28.x (!&@*#). For the third session I was still trying to get comfortable with the brakes, and the tires on the car (were used from the previous race weekend before the test day) were basically flat spotted (by me) and corded so they tossed on another set of scuffs. I ran a little better w/ a 2:35.x but still a lot of traffic (and some rain drops in a few corners).

For the 4th session, it looked like it might rain and I really wanted to get some laps on good tires before the race weekend. I had them throw on the stickers and gridded up at the front of the line to get out and try to get at least 1 clear lap. I managed to get a reasonably clear lap (had to pass a couple cars who were coming up to speed but they didn’t cost me much, if any time). I did a 2:32.6 and thought hmm… that kinda sucks. The rest of the session I drove laps in traffic and didn’t improve time-wise, but was feeling much more comfortable with the track and the car.

For the 5th and final session of the day, Jeroen put on new brakes and tires to try and get in a mock qualifying session. He ran a 2:26.x (at the last test there he had a faster lap than previous years Supercup pole position). I ran every lap of the session just try to get more comfortable with the brakes and the track. I managed some high 2:32’s and low 2:33’s but due to the miles on the tires, couldn’t go faster than when they were fresh. I normally don’t put much stock into the Motec eclectic lap times as I’m pretty consistent, but with so much traffic on the track I was keeping an eye on it as I think it was a better representation of my pace. It was a 2:30.2 for the last session (on old tires), which isn’t horrible but not that great compared to Supercup guys.

The brakes on the Supercup car are ceramic and use a different rear master cyl than the normal Cups. They require much less pedal effort to reach the threshold point and as such, require a much more sensitive and consistent pressure which was taking me time to get used to. I’m still not completely comfortable with them, so the team is sending me a set to put onto my Cup for more practice before the race.

The drivers in that series are so good, there is simply no way to compete without being completely comfortable in the car (let alone the track).

Anyway, the track is simply amazing. If anyone ever gets the chance to get there and do some laps… run, don’t walk at the opportunity! Even if it’s in a rental car or whatever. It’s the most challenging and rewarding circuit I’ve ever been on.

I can only imagine what it’d be like in the rain, at night…. maybe next year. :-)


Track Entrance:


My car for the day:


Our garage for the day:


Pit Lane:


I ate dinner outside about 500 yards from the track the last night (to bad you can’t see the rainbow in the picture, and i normally don’t take pictures of rainbows…. !):


I travel light when going to the track.. checking bags is for suckers:


2012 still chugging along!

It’s been awhile since my last post, but here’s the cliff notes of the last 2 months:

* Finished 4th at the Grand-Am Rolex 6 Hours of the Glen in June. Driving the Tequila Patron Ferrari 458 with Guy Cosmo and Johannes van Overbeek. It was my first time driving the 458 (or any car with paddle shifters!). With the strategy we wanted to do for the race, it was decided that I should qualify the car. I ran a 1:52.6 on my second to last lap of qualifying, which was my best time in the car so far but only good enough for P14. On the last lap of qualifying I was pushing really hard (had a 1:51.x predictive on the dash) and backed it into the gravel trap at the heal of the boot (my first time ever in a gravel trap!). Besides some good natured grief from the crew and JvO/Cosmo, there was no damage to the car.

Since I qualified the car, I had to start the race by Grand-Am rules. I lost 1 or 2 spots on the start being to cautious with traffic through the first 2 corners, but made them up before my stint was over. I think I ended my stint in P11 or P12. Cosmo then ran his first stint and got the car up to around P5, then Johannes jumped in and we were P3 or P4. By then most of the GT cars were on different pit stop strategies so we wouldn’t know exactly where we were in the field until the last 50 or 60 minutes of the race. A little beyond the half way mark I jumped in for my last stint. After my second stint was over, I came in and Cosmo jumped back in. The original plan was for Johannes to get a good rest then close out the race, but with the way cautions and track position worked out Cosmo stayed in for both final stints and did a rockin job!

I was a little slow in my second stint and lost us 2 positions on track and dropped us down to around P7. In his final double stint Cosmo got us back into the top 3. With about 40 minutes to go we decided to pit for a splash of fuel to make sure we could go the distance. We dropped a few spots, but Guy again managed to fight through the field and got up to P4 where we’d eventually finish. 

The team and other drivers did a fantastic job to get us up through the field, even with me being the boat anchor! I did learn a valuable lesson about being to cautious in traffic and around other cars though. We’d probably have had a podium if I was able to just save the 10 or so seconds I lost in my first 4-5 laps due to traffic and not being aggressive enough. Look out at Laguna because that won’t happen again!!!

6 Hours of the Glen

* Done a lot of testing in my 2011 Porsche GT3 Cup getting ready for the Spa Supercup race. I’m also flying out to Belgium to learn the track on August 6th w/ the team so that should be fun. Really looking forward to the race. It’s the first time I’m excited to get my ass royally kicked by some of the fastest drivers in the world. :D

* Did my first Ferrari Challenge race and learned a new track (Lime Rock) a few weekends ago. The 458 Challenge cars are really quick, even without big wings!! I had to start both races dead last after the first qualifying session was rained out (grid by points) and I was DQ’d in the second after I ran the car out of fuel and it was under minimum weight. Made for some good racing though! Out of the 24 cars entered in the race, I think we finished 7th in both. In the second race I was going for a podium and spun in T1 while attempting a pass from pretty far back. Here’s some high lights from the second race (warning: it looks like a Spec Miata race.. only the cars are $300k each):

Next events for me will be the Supercup testing at Spa next week. Then I’ll be home trying to get as much seat time in my Cup as possible. Near the end of August a long string of events happen: Ferrari Challenge testing at Homestead to learn the track, then fly from Miami to Belgium for the Porsche Supercup race at Spa, then I fly back home to SF for the Rolex race at Laguna Seca w/ the Extreme Speed guys in the Ferrari 458, then  the Ferrari Challenge race at Homestead.

With ALMS announcing the GTE-ProAm class for next year I’m trying to find a way into one of those cars for the 2013 Season. Aiming for Le Mans 2013… wish me luck!

-mike