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Race Recap: 2018 24H COTA USA

My final race of the year was at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin Texas. I was lucky to join Sorg Rennsport again in their BMW M235I Racing Cup car competing in the Cup 1 class within the Creventic 24H Series.

Our weekend started on Thursday where the team finished up some prep work and we decided to opt out of the optional test. However, with permission from the series, the team asked me to go out for the final twenty-minutes of the optional free test to shake the car down and ensure all systems were working correctly. We made a few small adjustments to have a good baseline for Friday.

Friday came and first practice meant all the cars would be on track for once and we could get a good idea on how our setup and driver lineup was. The other three drivers for the weekend were Ricardo Florez (Riflo) from Peru, Benito Tagle from Mexico, and William Hendrix from the U.S. In practice, I told the team to run the other three drivers first since I did the shakedown, that way they can give setup feedback. Endurance racing is a team sport and for a team to be competitive some compromises need to be made on setup so the car handles well for all the drivers.

Qualifying rolled around and the team opted to run me on new sticker tires to set a good time. It took a lap to scrub the tires in but even pushing I could only manage a 2:30 when our competitor was turning faster laps.

Night practice went well and all drivers did the minimum laps to be approved to race at night. The team did a full alignment between qualifying and night practice so the car was starting to feel better. I felt quite happy with the setup and my teammates agreed it felt good for the race.

Race day came and we were all set. The weather was beautiful albeit a little cool and breezy. Ricardo Florez would start the car and I would drive second. He got a great start but the leader in Cup 1 managed to just drive away as if the car was on rails. Ricardo did his job though and turned quick and consistent laps while avoiding trouble.

My first stint came and went well. The track was getting very dirty though. I found the grip levels difficult but managed a clean stint with good lap times to keep us in the chase. After around an hour and twenty minutes I came into the pit lane to hand the car over to Benito. Benito ran a great stint as well before handing the car to William at the end of his stint then we would recycle through the order.

My second stint would be a dark one. The sun was setting and we were going into the dark. It was an uneventful stint, just turning laps and staying out of trouble but I loved every second of it. Once again, driving in the dark is an experience that’s hard to describe. We also found luck. Our competitor had an issue with their wheel bearing which put them into the pits for over ten-minutes and handing us the lead. So the goal for the stint was to drive fast and try to maintain the lead. Luckily, we did, and as William took the last stint of the evening we were still in first place for the over night intervention.

When we left our hotel Sunday morning it was obvious that the next eleven hours of racing would be tough. It was cold and wet. The cars all sat lined on the front straight, filthy from the thirteen hours or so the day before that was ran. In parc ferme conditions such as this the cars cannot be touched. The teams were allowed to start the cars to warm them up and since the rain came we were allowed to switch to rain tires but we could not change the setup at all.

Once in the car and especially on the pace lap for the restart I tried to consider where the slippery bits would be. I knew the curbs would be a no go. The green flag flew and the start went well. There were a couple of spins early on for other cars but my goal was to just keep a decent pace and stay out of trouble. It sounds simple but it ended up being one of the hardest stints of my career so far.

The first part that made the stint so difficult was the continuously changing conditions. It would start to dry a tad then rain a little on one part of the track. So, every lap, conditions could be a little different. It didn’t take long to see a dry line slightly starting to form which means the rain tires needed to be cooled off. At COTA that's easier said than done and it seemed the only really good place to do it was on the back straight. I said early we should go to slicks as it would dry out but it was a slow drying track and the temperatures wouldn't help slicks either.

We got lucky and a Code 60 came out maybe half an hour in. I was called in immediately when the Code 60 came out and had to serve a time penalty for one of our drivers speeding in the pits on Saturday. I made it to our box and was informed they’d do brakes and fuel. I once again mentioned slicks and they agreed to go to slicks. It was definitely a tough choice considering it could end badly but I was confident in my car control and confident that it would pay off in the long run.

Leaving pit lane on slicks was a ride. Every gear felt like the tires wanted to spin freely. With the cool temperature and wet spots, the first ten laps or so were very tip toe style conditions. I knew my times were slow but I needed to keep at it and the track would come to me. Even more worrisome was the raindrops on the windshield. Luckily it wasn’t anything heavy but the conditions were extremely tough.

As the track dried, lap times started falling. My race engineer Nico requested I push harder as we still had the lead so I did just that dropping another two seconds. Eventually running consistently to around what I did in qualifying. After two hours, we still had the lead and it was time for me to get out. I was quite happy with my stint as it was trouble free and very challenging. Two hours is the max stint for a driver in this series before you need a break but I would have gladly went another hour.

Our race continued but we ended up losing the lead. Our penalty hurt us but we also didn’t have the raw pace of the Cup 1 leader. My final stint would be once again in the evening. I got into the car and noticed traction control was set on. We race with it off unless it’s wet. I tried to get it off but couldn’t. This led to brake trouble early on as the TCS system was putting load on the brakes when engaging. I informed the team my lap times would get slower as I felt no confidence with the brake pedal.

The team called me in and immediately checked all the brakes and got the TCS system off. One of the BMW engineers also came over to plug their laptop into the car to check for any problems with the traction control or even brakes. They did a reset and I was back on my way. There was a new problem now though despite the brakes feeling a little better. Now the problem was during our stop the light switch box that holds the switch to our racing lights in the front bumper was knocked off and was on the floorboard. Every lap it would get stuck under my foot, under the throttle, etc. The other issue with that is I couldn’t really see at all! The track is not lit as we’re the sole night race at the Circuit of the Americas and the stock BMW headlights, even on high beam, just weren’t cutting it. My lap times were slow due to a total lack of vision, I was having to fumble with the box under my feet and keep kicking it away, and then it even started sprinkling at one point!

After an hour I pitted and did a driver change. They got the box out of the floor but the lights were still not working. It was a very frustrating stint and my last of the race. It wasn’t the team’s fault but just one of those bad luck situations in racing. It is what it is and you have to just continue with what you have!

As the checkered flag flew on Sunday, we crossed the line in second place in Cup 1 and top ten in the TCE division. In a race like this finishing is half of the battle and we did just that. Second place and a top ten are good results for the team and ones to leave happy about. The team also finished second in the Cup 1 class in the Champion of the Continents points.

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