After a season full of highs and lows, we finally arrived at the season finale; a successful end to our 2010 season and my first year in Grand AM racing.
I was feeling confident about the weekend’s racing, especially after my experience here at Miller Motorsports Park last year. On that occasion I had been both pace setter and race winner in the Star Mazda class. But this year, things were very different. With no aerodynamic downforce, greater power and more weight, it was going to be a challenge to get my head around how to tackle the high speed corners sitting in this new car – a Grand AM Mazda RX8.
During the start of the weekend I was quite surprised at how cold it was during the mornings. I’m sure it was warmer in England before I left (a rare experience!), and I ended up wearing a coat on both mornings whilst watching John in practice. During these sessions the other manufacturers seemed to be able to achieve better performances at the lower temperatures, but as the day warmed up, the Mazda’s got into their groove and steadily showed progress.
Qualifying was on Friday night, and I was at the wheel. We were feeling a little unsure on what our performance was going to be like as we hadn’t been able to simulate a lap on new tyres beforehand. I was one of the first out of the pit lane, and quickly brought the tyres up to temperature so I could get started on my fast lap. Unfortunately, everyone had to pit almost immediately due to a car getting stuck in a dangerous position on one of the corners. The track soon went green again though, and I made sure I left a big enough gap for myself to have clear laps all throughout qualifying.
With just seven minutes left, we were only going to get three more laps in, perhaps four if we were lucky. My 3rd lap felt good. The car seemed to have transformed since the test sessions, and it felt hooked up. I was able to brake later than in any of my earlier sessions, could turn the car faster and get on power earlier. I went over the line and that got us into P2.
We had time for one more, and it became obvious this lap was going to be even quicker when I noticed the predicted times. I had half a lap to go when I found myself behind two other racers, and unfortunately I caught them up a lot faster than I had expected. With four corners to go I was being slowed down so I aborted the lap to see if I could get in for one final spin, but the chequered flag was already out.
No one else had managed to go any faster than me on that last lap, so my time remained fast enough to give me second place on the grid. I also had generated the fastest time of all the racing Mazdas. As happy as I was with this and our race position, I was still a little annoyed that traffic had interfered with what might have been the ultimate grid position. But, a front row spot is still a great place to be, and last time we started on second (at Limerock) we won, and that really fuelled my optimism.
Sunday arrived, and it was an even colder still, now blowing quite a breeze. I hoped the weather would improve as I knew our car would be perform at it’s best in the warmth.
The lights went green, and I went into the first corner on the outside. I was boxed out, so opted to go all the way around the outside, which put the car into 3rd position. I slid out mid-corner, nearly colliding into the car next to me and had to take evasive action which made me lose further positions. I was now in 5th, but I managed to battle my way into 3rd and stayed there until our first pitstop, 45 minutes into the race.
The #68 SpeedSource guys completed a faultless stop, getting on new tyres and filling up with a full tank of fuel. I got back out on track and the new tyres gripped straight away. As I shot down the start/finish straight, the leading #57 Camero came out the pits ahead of me. I tried to get past him into turns 2 and 3 but he defended his position well. I tried again at the hairpin, but one of the Prototype cars caught up and went for a move on me which put a halt on my overtaking manoeuvre. Our car was noticeably quicker around the corners, but the Camero’s engine was just too fast on the straights.
The #57 Camero pulled away further once the track was clear, but at this halfway stage of the race, our lap times were well matched and it still looked positive. With an hour and twenty to go, the safety car was deployed for debris on the track, and cars started to pit. We stayed out on track for one more lap during this time, were given the drive by, and took the advantage.
I was flat out all the way around the next lap and came into the pits. We went for a driver change, and John took the car off me with a set of new tyres and more fuel. Another faultless driver change had meant we had jumped ahead of the #57 Camero and moved up to 4th as other cars pitted.
#57 squeezed past just as one of the Prototype cars overtook us on a difficult part of the track, but a further two cars pitted and we’d moved back up into 3rd. Now looking strong, we knew our car would be fast in the final stages of the race. Our only concern was fuel; would there be enough to last until the chequered flag? Each car runs on roughly an hours-worth, and most other people had pitted with just over sixty minutes remaining.
Everything was running smoothly until car #31 span on one of the blind sections of the track – the two leading cars had already cleared that part of the track, but John hadn’t past it when suddenly the #31 car moved right into his line. Everyone on the pit cart shouted out with fear and it was a close escape. John had just been able to shift around the car, closely avoiding contact and what almost certainly would have been a huge crash.
Another safety car was deployed whilst debris on the track was cleared, but by the time we got the green flag again, there were just under 20 minutes remaining. It was nail-bitingly close at the end and everyone was battling for position. With the two Cameros ahead of John defending their position, it was hard for him to get alongside especially with their straightline speed. As the final lap came up, John tried everything he could and went for an overtake on the very last corner, but the #57 was prepared and defended well. We crossed the finish line in 3rd, just fractions of a second behind the Cameros.
Miller was a great place to end the season. We’d finished with a podium and as the top finishing Mazda on the day. I still can’t quite believe that we’ve already had our final race for this season. It’s been an emotional year of racing, and a fantastic experience for both myself and John in our rookie year racing in sports cars.
We’ve has a huge amount of support from Mazda and all of the SpeedSource team over the past few months, and it goes without saying that we would not have been able to achieve half of what we have done with any other manufacturer and without their unfaltering enthusiasm. Despite missing the season opener at Daytona, we still managed to finish 5th overall in the championship – a positive start, and I look forward to next year to be in contention for the 2011 Championship win.