Chicago was the venue airport city for last weekend’s race schedule. The city we raced in was Joliet, Illinois. Joliet is about a non-rush hour 40 minute drive from Chicago’s O’Hare airport.
I was instantly reminded of the Blues Brothers movie when thinking about this weekend. I’m sure most of you remember Joliet prison being featured large in that classic comedy. I love the car chase scene when they were in the mall - brilliant stuff. I have no comment as far as being able to relate to ex-girlfriends using rocket launchers.
It’s not often we get to run at a new race track and it’s always a blast when we do. This was the first weekend for Autobahn racers country club to hold a professional car race. Autobahn Country Club has been around for several years now. There are several race track/country clubs in the US now. For those of you who have not heard about race track/country clubs, think golf.
In the race track/country club there is a race track instead of a golf course. There is a club house with restaurant just like a golf club. There are rows of garages instead of the caddy shack, golf cart garage and golf bag storage place. Most importantly you have members and they pay membership fees and maintenance fees to support the club just like a golf country club.
So you join the club and get to use the track whenever you like and you can keep your race car there. It’s perfect, if I had one near me in south Florida I would join for sure. Of course I would have to keep my bicycle there as I don’t own a race car, but it’s a start.
So, what about this Autobahn race track? Several of the drivers in our series are members at this club and have had a lot of experience there. I had been there for a couple of events but had never run the full track.
Autobahn was cleverly designed so that people could run on two different sides at the same time and not meet in the middle. Splitting the track into two halves enables two events to run at the same time and makes sure members can always run on one half even if there is an event on the other side, which makes perfect sense.
For this first pro race weekend, we had the opportunity to run the full track. The full track at Autobahn is quite long at 3.7 miles. Our World Challenge cars were getting around there in about 2m 27secs which was an average speed of 86mph. That would be a mid-speed track as far as average speed and will make Autobahn the longest lap time at any track we go to all year.
Autobahn has a bunch of turns, I counted 19 or so but there was a bit of debate when talking to other drivers and bringing into account apexes. Yes, you can call this track very technical. As long as this track is, it’s very difficult to pass and difficult to learn. When I say difficult to learn it means that several corners at this track have to be compromised in order to connect efficiently with the next one for fastest lap times. In one place on the track, you have to compromise two turns to enable you to exit the third one correctly. This type of speed compromising to enable optimum car positioning takes time to learn, and I spoke to several competitors who were having a hard time getting things sorted. It took me a while to get up to speed myself.
The organizers did a great job creating this event and there were a bunch of different pro racing series during the weekend. Harrah’s Casino was the main sponsor - very cool. There was World Challenge, Formula Atlantic, Porsche GT3 Cup, Mazda MX5 series, Ford Mustang Challenge, Formula Mazda and VW TDI Cup all represented. A great schedule for the fans.
I spoke to the promoter during the weekend. He told me he was focusing on the pro racers this year and going for more fans next year. As far as I was concerned, he did us proud and I hope we get to come back next year. Also, on Sunday there were a lot of fans there and I’m sure that must have made him happy.
So what about this race then? How was it? I should tell you right now that my teammate, Randy Pobst, won the race in a superb drive in his K-Pax/3R Volvo S60 AWD.
I started 4th and finished 4th. There you go, finished, have a nice day.
Ok, not finished really. I know not all of you play golf but a golf analogy works here. If you take four shots to finish a golf hole, you write a 4 on your score card, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
For instance, if I hit my first golf shot down the middle of the fairway, next shot on the green and take two putts to put the ball in the hole, I write down a 4.
Next hole, I hit the first shot out of the golf course, it bounces off a car, hits a house and comes back into the golf course (this can happen, trust me).
I then hit the second shot and pull it left. It hits a tree, drops onto a rock sitting in water and bounces into a sand trap next to the green. I try to hit the ball out of the sand trap and the ball does not get out and rolls back in the sand trap. I then try the sand shot again and the ball comes out and rolls directly into the hole. I write 4 on my score card again. It looks just the same as the last hole on my score card but as you can tell, two 4’s sitting there don’t tell the whole story.
Well, the race this weekend was a lot like that second golf hole; Follow me here:
We had 21 cars entered for this round 6 of World Challenge GT; a great field of cars. After qualifying, James Sofronas was on pole followed by my teammate, Randy Pobst, then Tony Rivera, then myself in 4th.
The normal, very fast suspects were right behind me - Dino Crescentini, Brandon Davis and Eric Curran. We had some local track experts like Brian Kubinski and Tony Gaples in the mix , too.
The S60 Volvo AWD I drive is a 2.5 litre turbo. In World Challenge we have standing starts. It is so important that we do not lose boost in our Volvo when we drop the clutch to launch the car; we have to spin the tires at the launch. Unfortunately, we have had only had two good starts this year - at Long Beach and New Jersey.
Randy and I were gridded second and fourth, lined up perfectly nose to tail and hoping for our better-than-normal 4-wheel drive launch to take us to the front before turn one. We hoped.
As the red light went out, I saw Randy bog down in front of me and my car was doing the same thing. We had not spun the tires and consequently the cars had dropped revs way down.
Randy got going pretty quickly and ended up leaving turn one side-by-side with Tony Rivera in 2nd place, then proceeded to pass James Sofronas in turn two when James slid wide. Randy never relinquished the lead from that point and drove a superb race.
Meanwhile back in position four, my car also bogged down at the start, but much worse than Randy’s. This is problem we have been working on, but obviously have not fixed yet. My car almost died completely; my engineer told me the revs had actually dropped to less than 1500. The poor little 2.5 litre motor only has 50 ft lbs of torque at these revs in first gear with no turbo boost. This was not good.
It seemed to take forever for the car to move and start to accelerate. I ended up dropping from fourth to 12th place going into turn one, side by side with a bunch of cars, everyone pushing and shoving the get through. I came through turn one ok and got set to try and work my way up from there.
By lap five or six I had worked my way up to 6th place and was on the back of Eric Curran’s Whelen Corvette. We had made some untested changes to my car right before the race to help the car turn into the corners and not slide the front tires so easily. This change was making the car very nervous on corner turn-in and I had already experienced several nasty rear end slides on corner entry.
I was trying to set-up Eric and get as close as I could to him prior to the tight right turn onto the front straight as my car was very good there.
Well, I was too aggressive going into the tight left hander and I lost the back end again, but this time I hit the limit of my steering lock and the car spun out. My mistake; it happens sometimes when pushing to the maximum. There I was, sitting off the side of the track losing positions by the second, trying to find a safe spot to pull out as I was right on the exit of the corner.
When I finally pulled out I was all the way back in 16th. Yes, I was not a happy camper. Ok, off we go again. I’m telling myself, “Pick them off one at a time, don’t get greedy and make another mistake.”
I passed a couple of cars and then a yellow flag came out for poor Tony Gaples who had a stuck throttle and crashed his Corvette in turn two. He was unhurt. I was now in 14th under the yellow. I was thinking this is great, the field is close together now. That should help me when we get going.
After three laps under yellow, as we were coming round for the restart, my crew chief told me it would be a double file restart. This double file restart has been a bit controversial this year. Many drivers think it’s too dangerous. I was having another little chat with myself -- double file restart puts me side-by-side and much closer to the front if I can get through. Big “if.” I went with the other voice: it said hang back, there will definitely be a big mess. I just felt it, new track, decreasing radius tight entry to turn one, no way is this not going to be a mess.
I did not want to be as right as I was because a lot of cars got bent. On the restart, I hung back as we entered the early braking zone in case I was hit from behind. I was passed deep in the brake zone by at least three cars flying down both sides of me. It started immediately, people going in too deep and not being able to stop, bouncing off each other, it was ugly, bits of cars and spinning cars all over the place.
Bottom line, I went into turn one in 17th place, having been passed by cars at least three more cars on the way in. After that, all hell broke loose. I came out of turn two in 7th position. Seconds after we got going of course, the yellow flags came out again and we were under yellow for another 12 to 15 minutes.
Thank goodness, the SCCA this time called for a single file restart. In the remaining three laps I managed to work my way back to finish 4th - can you believe?!
As I said initially, started 4th finished 4th. Boring right?
Brandon Davis finished second and still leads the championship and Brian Kubinski finished third in his Corvette.
I must mention something about our World Challenge grid at Autobahn. We had an amazing group of cars for this race. I would bet you nobody in the world has seen a grid like this one in pro racing this year.
We had our usual Corvettes, Vipers, Volvos, Porsche GT3s and Ford Mustang Cobras. But in this race we also had a beautiful Mercedes-Benz SLR GT driven by Spencer Pumpelly, and a stunning Aston Martin DB9 driven by Nick Mancuso. What a grid, brilliant stuff, I hope those guys keep coming back.
We have round 7 at Mid-Ohio in two weeks, tagging along with the Indy Cars, then straight to Elkhart Lake’s Road America with them a week later.