It’s been four days after my first endurance race ever, and to be honest I’m having a really hard time putting into words what on earth happened to me this past week. Never in my career would I have thought that I would be happy to just finish a race, but last weekend my team and I collectively smiled as our #37 Morgan-Judd P2 car with Jan Heylan at the wheel crossed the finish line of the 12 hours of Sebring.
The preceding 12 hours of racing had been nothing short of a baptism by fire for my new team as we took on our first – and one of the world’s toughest – endurance races. I was most proud of how well the whole team managed each and every setback in the race and believe me – we had a lot of setbacks to deal with!
At 10:30 pm the night before the race, we were informed that Francesco Dracone, our third driver, would be unable to race the next day. Both David and I took a look at each other and said, “Well, time to get to bed. It’s gonna be a long day.” Luckily for us Jan Heylen, a good friend of our team owner Eric Bachelart, lived only two hours from Sebring. He was drafted in to replace Francesco at the last minute, and drove his first laps in the car during the 20-minute morning warm-up. That was enough to get acquainted with the new car, as he was already very familiar with the track.
Because of the driver change, we had to start from the back of the grid. I’m not talking just at the back of the prototype cars, I mean WAY back behind all of the GT and GTC cars – all 30 of them! We were so far from the front that it felt like I started the race in Orlando!
Thirty minutes into the race, my radio plug came unplugged from the car, leaving me eerily all alone with no way of communicating with my engineer and no way of knowing when to pit for fuel. A few old-school hand gestures and pit-board signs did the job, and I came in for fuel about an hour into the race. With a bit of trusty duct tape, my radio plug was back in and I was reconnected to the world. During my second stint in the car, I felt like I was really starting to get into the flow of the race and was slicing through the slower GT traffic as efficiently as I could without taking any stupid risks. After pitting on lap 50 for fuel, tyres and to pass over driving duties to David, I found out that we had taken the lead in our class!
A 12-hour race is mentally demanding, so the team encouraged us to get out of pit lane and go back to the truck to cool down and get rehydrated after our driving duties. I came back after 40 minutes or so to discover that we had gone 5 laps down! Our next stroke of bad luck had occurred while I was away, as a faulty fuel sensor had caused a miscalculation of fuel load in the car and we had run short, leaving the car stranded on the track. David drove a faultless stint thereafter and got us back into 8th in class and was running comparable times to the leading cars.
With David passing over driving duties to Jan, Jan continued to build up speed and was getting faster with each lap. He encountered a scare half-way through his first stint when he picked up a right-front puncture after contact with a GT car. Luckily we didn’t lose too much time with that incident. Back out on track Jan had just posted his fastest time of his stint when 3rd gear exploded into what seemed like a thousand pieces, leaving our car stranded on track. Track officials brought the car back to the pits for repairs. At that point I was sure that our race was over, but not only did the team not give up, they got to the source of the problem, replaced the parts, and got the car back onto pit lane in under 30 minutes! Unfortunately, by that point we had lost about an hour of track time, leaving us a very distant 37 laps behind our class leader.
Once again back in the race, our focus had shifted from winning the race to finishing the race, gaining as much experience as possible, and collecting valuable points for the championship. A non-finish would have meant absolutely NO points and a massive blow for our championship aspirations.
Looking back at an entire week of completely new experiences in endurance racing, I’m not sure what I found to be most exciting part. I’m torn between the constant action of passing GT cars every lap or the utter-madness of what happens during a driver change. Below is a rough idea for you of what goes down during a driver change at Sebring, all occuring within the span of 9 seconds:
– Come around Turn 17 at racing speed, bear right and head for pit-lane, brake hard and downshift to 1st gear.
– Engage pit-lane speed limit, and bring the car back up to pit-lane limiter.
– With your right hand, reach over and snatch the radio plug out of its socket and place it on the Velcro patch on your helmet.
– Again with your right hand, pull back the seat belt harness lever and jerk your left shoulder as far forward as you can to loosen the seat belt. Repeat with your left hand and do the same for the right side.
– Reach for your drink bottle, take it out of its holder and leave it lying on chassis-floor.
– Look out for your pit-crew signal guy waving the pit board.
– Hold down the engine kill switch 3 seconds before you reach your pit-box.
– Maneuver into your pit-box and stop on your marks with one hand on the wheel and your other hand on the seat-belt quick release buckle.
– Twist the quick release buckle and get out of the car as fast as humanly possible.
Next on the ALMS schedule is Long Beach, one of my favorite tracks on the racing calendar. It is a challenging street track with lots of character. After the character-building experience of Sebring I know that David, my team, and I will be ready to fight!