April 1-2, 2005
Last year Fontana was the last race of the season. In 2005 it was the second event of our ten-race Grand Am Cup schedule. Our old car did quite well there, finishing ninth, and we were hopeful that our two new cars would do even better. So we returned to this NASCAR track on the outskirts of Los Angeles ready to race!
My co-driver for Fontana was young gun Jeff Wallace, who's been very successful in go karting and open wheel racing in southern California. We've had great success running up-and-comers, evidenced by Tim Hauraney's great run at Daytona a month earlier. Jeff and I would drive our 06 car, while Becky Swafford joined Terry Mueller in 36. Both of these drivers are regional racers with excellent experience: Terry competed in the fiercely-competitive Sentra series in Ontario, while Becky is a regional instructor.
In practice I got up to speed quite quickly; after all it hadn't been that long since I'd driven the track, and Jeff wasn't far behind. It took Terry and Becky a little while longer to get comfortable with the tight, twisty infield and the really high-speed banking. Becky, unfortunately, never really did feel completely at ease with it. Riding on the banking really is an skill that takes time to develop, and you really appreciate the talent that NASCAR drivers have to haul around those really fast corners lap after lap, just inches apart. It's at once frightening and exhilarating to feel the car moving around as you bring it down to the apron and then let it move back up to the wall.
We all improved our times through practice, and we decided that I'd quality 06 and Terry would be the lead driver on 36. I really enjoy starting these races, with 20 to 30 cars that are pretty equal taking the green flag and heading down into the tight left-hand turn at the end of the banking. At the end of the session the car was 11th fastest. Unfortunately, Terry drove over some very tall rumble strips (we also call them "turtles"; they're the striped red-and-yellow concrete that is sometimes put at the apex and exit of corners to mark them and allow drivers a little more track room). This pushed the radiator into the pulleys, shearing the hoses and dumping all of the coolant out of the engine. By the time Terry realized what had happened, the engine was ruined.
We do, of course, always carry a spare engine. However, the time it takes to do an engine swap was less than the time between qualifying and the race. So we decided to fit a new radiator to the engine (which miraculously still ran) and send Terry out to get some all-important points.
At the start I managed a good start, and avoided the first-corner collision involving one of the Cobalts tearing into the side of the polesitting Acura RS-X. I had some really great battles as I moved through the field; one that lasted about a half hour with one of the Mazda RX-8s. There was a little side-by-side that resulted in some body work on the right side of 06, but it was all good fun, especially when I managed to get by! We had a few caution periods, and managed to get one just at the end of our fuel window, which allowed me to pit from sixth place and put Jeff in, the team giving us yet another flawless fuel and driver stop.
Terry, meanwhile, had stopped on the circuit, having managed to get past the start/finish line, but unable to get back to the pits. Still, he ended up in 20th place, which helps for points at the end of the year.
Jeff put in clean, consistent laps that were virtually the same as mine (in fact he set the fastest race lap, just 0.1 second faster than my best), meaning that we made a really good team. This consistency resulted in a solid seventh-place finish at the checkered flag. A great job by the team and a portent, we hope, of things to come.
Although the team returns to Canada, the cars will stay in California in anticipation of our next event at the end of April, when we'll compete at the famous Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey county. We'll have to head down a few days early to fit a new engine to 36 and to bank out the dents on 06. It promises to be a great event.
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