November 9-11 marked my first international sports car race. Although it was on U.S. soil, the field was made up of over twenty nationalities with teams and drivers from countries ranging from Germany to Iran. The team I was driving for was Sorg Rennsport, a highly successful German team with high fame at the Nurburgring. The car we would be racing was a BMW M235I Racing Cup car which competes in the all BMW “Cup 1” class.
On Thursday, we opted to run a test day which allowed us to learn the track and the car. I had never been to the Circuit of the Americas before (COTA it’s commonly called) so it was valuable time to turn some laps to see the track. I had also not driven one of these BMWs before so once again it was a good time to learn the car before I shared the track with close to fifty other cars ranging from the fastest class Lamborghini and Mercedes to the much slower class with Honda Civics.
As Friday came around we would start off the day at lunch with open practice. This gave us the first opportunity to turn laps with the rest of the field out there. After studying my notes Thursday night from testing, I managed to find some time compared to Thursday so was happy with that.
Qualifying rolled around and towards the end of the session the team had a change of plans towards the end of qualifying and asked me to quickly gear up because they wanted me to turn a few laps to see if we could go faster. I got in the car and was able to get a couple of good clean laps which put us second in class. Good enough!
After qualifying we had night practice. Night practice gives each driver a few laps in the dark to prepare for the night stage of the race. The Circuit of the Americas has a strict noise ordinance, so for this year’s race the race ran from 9am – 11pm on Saturday and then from 8am – the finish on Sunday. This made for two-night sectors of the race, an odd, yet unique twist for a twenty-four-hour race. With that said, we needed to be sure everything was setup properly for racing in the dark.
The session went well without any issues and we spent a little bit debriefing for the race which would start the following morning. It was decided I would start the car since I got the fastest lap in the car in qualifying. I didn’t argue there as I love race starts and it was an honor to be able to do it.
On Saturday morning I arrived well rested to the track and ready for a very long day of racing. I was very excited to be starting and was asked to climb in to do a recon lap and drive the car to the grid. As an American, we don’t usually have this type of pre-race grid type stuff. Here in the States it’s not usually on the front straight, I see it on TV, I see it at the big professional races I spectated at growing up, so getting to do it was something special. I’d lie if I said I didn’t have a genuine excited smile as I pulled into our grid spot.
I got out of the car on the grid to soak it all in and talk to the team a little. We discussed a few things and I gave the car a few good luck pats before getting back in. Once I got into the car it was business as usual. I got strapped in, everything tightened down, and sat for a few moments visualizing the track, thinking of where I wanted to be at the start. Everyone said their goodbyes and we were off on one of two warmup laps.
The green flag flew and we were underway for an exciting twenty-four hours of racing. I was able to make the pass for the lead in turn one and held it the first lap but lost it on the second lap. Knowing we had a day worth of racing ahead of us I didn’t see a need to really fight the matter so settled down into a rhythm protecting second place. After a few laps the faster cars already started to make their way through the slower classes, so it became hectic in the first hour to make room for the overall leaders while holding onto our own second place in class.
I drove for around an hour and a half before we needed to stop for fuel. The series has a maximum drive time rule for each stint so we did driver changes at every stop. When I came in I was pleased to have ran a solid stint and even more excited to hear I crushed my qualifying time which is funny since the car had a full fuel load for the race. In qualifying I ran a 2:29 and in my first stint of the race I ran a 2:27!
After getting out of the car I quickly spoke with the team manager about how the car felt and went into the garage to check our position. I felt good to have the first stint done and was excited with how the car was performing. It would be a while before I got back into the car so I took the time to hydrate, relax, and eventually get some food.
Our smooth start came to an end though as the car developed a bad vibration. The team called the driver in and as he entered pit lane, the wheel and hub assembly ripped off the car entirely. He could drive the car down pit lane on three wheels and pull it into the garage where the team jumped onto it like a pack of wild wolves fighting over dinner and within what seemed like minutes, the car was back on track. While the repair was fast, we did lose a lot of valuable time. We were racing in the Cup 1 class which is essentially a super competitive spec class meaning every BMW is the same. Any seconds lost is hard to get back, especially when racing against very fast drivers. We fell to forth in class and lost some laps but knew we had time to keep trying. As the day went on, we slowly started clawing our way back up and eventually entered the top three again. Some competitors ran into small issues as is often seen in endurance racing so that helped us catch up some. We were also running very consistent and clean laps.
At eleven in the evening the cars were parked on the front straight and not allowed to be touched by teams. This was to ensure cars would continue just as they were left to make it a true twenty-four-hours of racing. As we left the track, we were back in third place. We were all exhausted and had another day of racing starting Sunday morning at eight in the morning.
Sunday morning came quicker than we thought with very little sleep. We all arrived around seven in the morning to get things ready for the long day ahead. As always, the team was ready for the challenge at hand and stood by proudly as we got the cars warmed up on the front straight where they spent the night. The cars were dirty, some had battle scars, and some drivers looked equally as rough but it was another day and time to continue racing. One of my teammates would be starting the second portion of the race and I would be jumping in second. This gave me a little extra time to relax and have a cup of tea, of course in my Creature Cups mug!
My first stint of Sunday was smooth sailing for the most part. The car was getting tired as the brakes were starting to have some fade and the track was very dirty. We continued racing hard and were handed a little more luck when the second-place car ran into an issue and we caught our way back up, eventually moving to second. We weren’t in the clear yet though as they still held a fast pace.
My last stint would be a difficult one. I had been asked to really manage wear on the car, easy on the brakes, watch the revs, no curbs, etc. You need to change your driving habits to maintain a decent pace while saving the car. We managed to find a good lap time to aim for and consistently run there.
My last pit stop came and I handed over the car to my teammate. My job was done for the race, all I could do now was sit back and cheer on my teammates. We all watched the timing screens and TV feed intently to see how our pace was. The last hour seemed longer than the first twenty-three hours. I was exhausted but had a new sense of energy as my adrenaline took over and I stared at the clock.
Finally, the checkered flag came out. We finished second in class! It was an amazing atmosphere as teams all celebrated, the drinks popped open, and the pit lane was open with fans, friends, family, and team members. Finishing a race this length is a success, placing second in class and being able to stand on the podium at a track like this is truly special.