April 29-30, 2005
Our crew headed out early to the second California race of the season to repair damage to the cars from Fontana a month earlier, which included the fitment of a new engine to the 36 car. Crew Chief Ian McQuillan and Aron Cristan spent the week prior to the Laguna Seca race getting the cars back to tip to shape, and as ever they came off the trailer ready to race.
The driver line-up for this race was our most promising yet, with two young Skip Barber scholarship winners -- 18-year-old Billy Johnson and 19-year-old Chris Wehrheim -- taking the helm of the revitalized 36, while sports car legend J.C. France joined me in the 06 car. France is no stranger to Grand Am competition, as he's raced a Daytona Prototype in the series' top class for the past three years. His co-driver in that car is Hurley Haywood, so I felt like I had some pretty big shoes to fill!
The drive from San Jose (just south of San Francisco) down the coast to Monterey, CA is truly lovely. Wonderfully lush, pastoral landscapes dotted with Spanish villas and great vistas of the Pacific over tall, undulating dunes took us to the track, which must surely be one of the best driver's tracks in the world. We managed time for a track walk after unloading the rig on Thursday, and you'd not believe the elevation change from the front straight up to the top of the "Corkscrew". Perhaps the most famous corner in motor racing, it's usually what one thinks about when considering Laguna. However, it's just one of eleven corners that make up this very technical circuit. I looked forward to learning it!
Grand Am Cup was just one of a bunch of series running at Laguna, and so we didn't get a lot of practice time before qualifying. J.C. had time in both our car and the Prototype, and got up to speed more quickly, so he qualified for 06. Billy and Chris both did well in 36, but Johnson's extensive experience at Laguna helped him be the faster of the two in practice. He qualified for them.
One item of some amusement: during practice on Friday I tried to brake successively later and later into the Corkscrew. Well, I learned where the last possible braking point is because I overshot the corner and proceeded through the dirt Alex Zanardi-style, narrowly missing the tire barrier and returning to the circuit losing very little time. Remarkably, there was no damage to the car and I kept on going. Even more remarkably, someone caught the incident on videotape, which you can view by clicking here. Thanks to the guys at Anchor Racing for the footage!
Saturday was a busy day. Our second practice session started early at 8:45, qualifying at 11:20, and the race at 2:40. Which meant all of the drivers were told "no mistakes!" Qualifying proved to be the usual melee, the fifteen minute session resulting in an 11th-place position for the Johnson/Wehrheim car, and France putting our car in 15th. The competition in GA Cup is really coming on strong as the season progresses, with less than two seconds separating the top 20. Over a two-and-a-half hour race, complete with various cautions and pit stops, this really isn't very much when laps tend to take 1-minute 45-seconds.
The cars took to the grid, with Billy and J.C. getting good starts. Johnson managed to break free of the tough battle for 10th through 14th, while France was right in the middle. There was a lot of jockeying for position every lap in that fight, which unfortunately resulted in a rather lengthy agricultural excursion for the 06 car. Somewhere during the grassy run the power steering pump was knocked off, trashing the serpentine belt. J.C. demonstrated some good heads-up driving by shutting the car down as soon as the water temp rose, and coasted the car into the paddock where our crew recovered it and took it back to our trailer. Ian started his usual magic while Aron and Ryan took over in the pit, assisted by my father Phil and our friend Kevin York (who drove with us last year at Fontana), who ably handled timing and scoring.
In the meanwhile, we'd called Billy in for a quick splash of fuel under the first caution period of the day, which extended our pit window for the second stop. While Ian and Darryl worked to get 06 back on track, we waited in the pit for a perfectly-timed yellow. It came on lap 43, Johnson having brought the 36 car up to sixth position! And on lap 52, I took the miraculously-running 06 car out for a run to the end. For me, I was out to try and make up laps from other cars that had fallen out of the race, and consequently took great pains to move out of the way and not ruin the other battles for position in the closing stages of the race. That said, I still managed to learn the track and improve my times, equalling those of J.C. and a little better than Chris. Billy, however, was the fastest of our drivers on the weekend, consistently turning laps equal to the front-running teams.
When the checkered flag fell, car 36 continued our top-ten run, finishing ninth. A really fine drive by two up-and-coming young drivers who you'll no doubt be hearing a lot more about in the future. Car 06 made up three places by returning to the circuit, crossing the line in 20th. In the last hour of a Grand Am Cup race there's a lot of attrition, and going back out resulted in additional points that will be really meaningful in the championship points. I'll will say that I'm somewhat disappointed with that result, as the 06 car performed really well and could also very easily have been in the top-ten. However that, as they say, is racing.
So a fine result for one car, and the Herculean effort we've come to expect from Ian and the Compass360/Racing crew to get the other one out again. I'm hopeful that our young guns from Skip Barber will be able to join us again later in the season, as I see real potential in both lads. I'm glad they were able to come and race with us.
In the meanwhile, the cars will return to Hockley Autosport in Toronto for a freshening (including a rather substantial amount of bodywork and undercarriage repair on 06) to be prepared for the team's next event, which is our first regional race at Mosport in mid-May. The next Grand Am Cup race is likewise close to home: Watkins Glen is just four hours from Toronto, and it runs June 9th to 12th. It's another fabulous, world-class track which our team knows quite well. Our Grand Am race at Mosport is a week after that (June 17th-19th), and I expect we'll see a lot of our friends there.
We're looking forward to some really good racing at both venues.
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