It was a short turn around for the SpeedSource crew this week. After a dream start to the week at Lime Rock on Monday – we took the win – it was soon time for our next challenge, the 6 hours of Watkins Glen. This was going to be the longest endurance race I had ever participated in.
It was the first time I had driven the 3.4 mile track. Last year there had been an opportunity, but only to help another driver with some coaching, and I only managed to cycle around it on a bike. But at speed it is very different, especially through the uphill esses onto the straight. It’s a lot narrower and tighter, and by the end of the straight you can reach speeds of up to 160mph. The narrow track layout reminded me of a street course, but even so, it remains a very fast circuit.
We had two morning sessions before qualifying and then an evening session on Friday. One of the other changes for this weekend was the addition of an extra driver, Tom Long, who would be around to help with the extended distance.
I qualified the car on the Friday afternoon, completing the twelve-cornered-track in 1:50.917 seconds, averaging 110.35mph, and that got us a qualifying place of 5th. I also was lined up to be first team driver for the race.
On the grid, I discovered that I had been moved up into 4th position. One of my competitors had crashed during warm-up and was starting last. The nature of the Watkins Glen track means there isn’t such a thing as a small crash, and with all the high speed corners, if you do run off, it means damage. There were already a handful of cars retired from incidents incurred during testing.
My start wasn’t the best, I was stuck on the outside for the first corner which allowed one or two cars to slip past, and then another overtook on the main straight. Even though I was a little annoyed with myself for not keeping my position, I knew a six hour race wasn’t going to be won on the first lap. During this first stint, some of the cars in front were pushing hard to overtake and there was a lot of small-contact. The race was going to be a survival game, and things became interesting when it started raining on parts of the track. I ran wide at turn one, but made it back to the track without loosing position or much too much time. It was unbelievably greasy. I was on a set of slick tyres like everyone else, and they didn’t like the wet one bit. By the end of my stint we were in fifth position, and I handed the car over to my co-driver, John Edwards.
John’s stint was marked with rain as well. It was a tricky situation because we could have made a pitstop and changed to wet tyres. This would have made us been quicker in the slippy conditions, would have risked having to pit again once the track started to dry out. We opted to stay out on track, as did everyone else.
It all went smoothly after the rain subsided, and we were in a strong position. John handed the car over to Tom Long, and we were about 2 hours in now. 4 hours to go.
Tom’s stint encountered a safety car, and some cars pitted. Tom led the race for a few laps, but a handful of drivers squeezed past. With the limited amount of time Tom had in the car, he had tough stint, but he drove well and kept the car in one piece. Going into the corner at the end of the straight, two cars immediately in front of him crashed, and Tom narrowly avoided them as they blocked the track.
John got back in to drive the fourth stint, and were were at the halfway point of the race. The track remained dry and the weather didn’t change during this period. We were getting close to making a pit stop when suddenly the safety car reappeared, posing a problem for us as we were extremely low on fuel. Had come in during the safety car we would have had to have taken a drive through penalty, so we were forced to try and make another lap, running the risk of stopping dead. The car started to stutter as the engine neared empty, so it was a great relief when John appeared at the end of the pitlane.
It was now my final stint in the car. I had just exited the pits as the safety car indicated it was coming in. I went flat out to try and catch up the other cars, and just as I came around the last corner the safety car pulled in. Perfect timing, I caught up just as everyone went into the first corner, and while managing to overtake a few lapped cars, ended up in 4th position.
For the whole of this leg I was hunting down the 3rd place 70 Mazda RX-8, trying to get close enough to make a pass. Our cars were evenly matched and it was tough to make the move. Again the safety car came out with 10 minutes to go until the next driver change, and everyone came into the pits with an hour to go. We had another perfect pitstop from the SpeedSource crew, and changed driver, tyres while adding enough fuel to get us to the end of the race.
John was in the car for the last hour. We had such a good pitstop we had jumped from 4th to 3rd position, with a 9 second gap to 4th place. Everything was looking good. It was 7pm and the sun going down. The track had cooled down and all the cars had their headlights on. Not much changed for 30 minutes until one of the prototype cars encountered a problem in the engine bay and went up in flames. Luckily it was only three corners from the end of the lap, and managed to make it to the entrance of the pitlane, where the driver stopped the car and escaped from the drivers seat whilst the fire crew took care of the situation.
This brought out the safety car once more, bunching up all the cars. We lost our nine second advantage. John battled hard to defend his position, but after a few laps the 4th place car made a move into the bus stop corner which nudged John off-line and allowed another car to squeeze past too. It knocked us down to 5th place. John now found himself on the end of another nudge from behind, and that moved us down to 6th place. With just a few minutes to spare, one of the cars in front suffered a puncture, and we moved back into fifth place; the position which we held until the chequered flag.
It was a tough race. We were quick, but struggled as the track cooled down towards the end of the day. I need to say well done to all the crew. Our pitstops, refueling, driver changes and tyre changes were faultless; they even managed to make some setup changes during the race without loosing any time. We came away with a 5th place finish from 19 cars in our class, and had completed our first 6 hour event.
The next race is in two weeks time, June 19th at Mid Ohio Raceway.