Mustang Challenge – Watkins Glen 2010
By: Jim Daniels
(This is the return of the race recaps I use to do some years ago. I feel that the stories from the tracks are what racing is all about and if not documented they seem to fade away which is sad. Enjoy!)
RP Motorsports (RaceWithRP.com) had another bitter sweet weekend at the Glen for round 4 of the series. Going into the event we had a set plan for tuning the cars and drivers. Ben Crossland driving our #25 InterbankFX Ford Mustang could not run the event due to an age restriction imposed by the facility. This opened the door for an opportunity for me to drive the #25 car on the test day. The team and I felt like the seat time would add to my vocabulary regarding the car’s handling and setup.
As it goes in racing, plans change. Ours was altered Wednesday night when Pratt Cole missed his inbound flight. Having not been to The Glen in fifteen years our concerns turned from gaining knowledge about the #25 car and setup in general to helping Pratt reduce the time it would take to tune the #88 Western Metals Ford Mustang once he did arrive. So we entered his car in the test day and I spent an hour and a half tuning the car for qualifying and race conditions. The crew made many changes and we ended up with a totally different setup than we ran at any of the previous events. Having my hands on the wheel to decipher what the drivers were referring to in previous events led to the discovery of a to stiff shock package. Aided with fresh shock data provided by Tri-Point Engineering (tripointmotorsports.com/news.html) and engineered by Laivins Race Cars we was able to eliminate the front tire chatter, increase our baseline tire pressures and greatly enhance our long run segment times. By the end of test day the rolling were in the mid 2:07s and I could run them, when the beacon was turned off, at will anytime during a 30 min session and on old tires. That effort led to a smile on my face when Pratt turned the fastest lap of the race on the last lap, right at the bench mark we saw in the test day. A small victory for this team for sure because the previous seasons have been plagued with fading car handling late in the events.
Test days are not always the smooth happenings we hope they would be. Driving the ‘Who-Dat” Deep Water Drilling #75 Ford Mustang, Brad Adams, had a horrible crash exiting the chicane. Another competitor exited the track to Brad’s right and was attempting to re-enter. Brad reacted to this maneuver resulting in heavy contact with the left side tire wall. The crash hurled the Mustang several feet in the air while flattening the left side of the car and damaging the left front suspension. This was a set back for the RaceWithRP.com crew but Brad was ok and that was all we cared about. Not only was he ok but he went right over to his #19 Grand-AM GS Mustang for the practice session and set some of his fastest times of the weekend. Brad and co-driver Steve Phillips are pulling double duty this year driving in the Mustang Challenge and Grand-AM GS Series, both in Ford Mustangs. The crew of RP Motorsports worked through the night and got the #75 car ready for the official practice the next day. Kudos to the series itself for the spare parts they carry event to event. This not only greatly reduces the cost to race in the series but ensures the drivers can make the race in spite of bad luck. The remainder of the test day was spent viewing data acquisition charts and WebLaps.com video trying to fine tune the driver’s rhythm, focus and car placement while developing an overview for our missing driver Pratt Cole.
“Official Practice Day”
Friday began official practice which started with great weather and a driver’s meeting. I’m not sure why its called a drivers meeting because its much more like an orientation for the drivers. My comments on that is for another blog post. The normal driver’s meeting notes such at where to park your car should you become disabled, where the fire stations are, pit in and out etc was discussed. The one notable item covered was the rule regarding using the asphalt runoff outside turn one. If you follow road racing you might be aware of the Sprint Cup series and their race at The Glen. At turn one those guys exit at the track out and drive up and over the white curbs. This is not the case in Grand-AM officiated events such as the Mustang Challenge. I know what you are thinking, NASCAR is GRAND-AM so why is the rule different, that too is for another blog post. I will say that in the meeting it was explained that violations during practice would be handled with warnings but in qualifying you would lose your fast lap. Somehow that was not exactly how it went. The actual rule was three warnings followed by a drive through and talk on pit lane, in practice. I take blame for Pratt’s drive through and not so nice words on the series radio regarding Pratt. With the understanding being that practice was, well, to practice I had Pratt drive over the curb intentionally so we could see how the calls came from the officials. I then planned to review the video to establish a clear go and no go with my drivers by overlaying the laps they got called on with the video. Had we known it was 3 and out in the practice session, we could have adjusted our “over the curb” practice accordingly avoiding the radio banter. After the driver’s meeting we did some last minute coaching in the series tent and made way to our cars. Our guys were a bit nervous. Pratt in the #88 had zero track time returning to the facility after fifteen years and Brad Adams in the #75 was taking to the track after a crash the day prior. Tension was high in the paddock but the guys shrugged it off and hit the track for practice.
At some point on Friday night after the practice day the phrase “some is good but more is better” emerged related to the vacant car sitting in our paddock area. Pleased with how well the testing and practice went it was decided to enter the #25 InterBankFX Mustang in the race with the coach driving. The goal was simple, help in any way I could to gain points and positions, generate more data, don’t damage the car. Presto, the InterbankFX, Mothers Car Wax, SafeRacer Ford Mustang was in the field.
Saturday was an off day for the Mustang Challenge series while the Grand-AM ST-GS and GT-DP classes competed in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen. However, that did not make it an off day for our team. The cars needed the qualifying setups placed on them, that we developed during the test day, and the new entry needed a full going through as it had not been touched in any detail since the previous event at Lime Rock park. While I was spotting for the #40 Hyper Sport Mazda RX8 GT (teamhypersport.com) in the big show the team was hard at work preparing three cars for our event the next day. Professional drivers are suppose to be able to jump in anything and go and that is certainly what I’m known for. However, I have to admit I was a bit concerned about this ride. A tight field, mid way through their points battle, no spare car should I damage the #25 beyond repair and on track with two of my bosses at the same time. Add in there the expectation that I do well, only one practice session prior to qualifying and the forecast of rain for race day. Saturday night was a bit restless but the energy created was welcomed.
Race morning started off with a bang, literally. Thunder filled up the South Glenora Tree Farm
Bed and Breakfast (fingerlakes.net/treefarm) just after 4:30 am with a heavy down pour. Already sleeping lightly I eased into the main living area to catch some weather updates and get the coffee going. It did not look good, heavy rain and thunder storms from Cleveland to Syracuse moving north by north east. The emotions stirring in me at that moment felt like I was back at my first drivers school. Racing vehicles that other folks own has its on set of mental challenges and those thoughts filled my mind on this particular morning. I focused on my job and the drivers who have no experience at the track, to mention, much less rain experience. Our setup work would be out the window if this event turned wet. This place can be treacherous in the dry due to the extremely high speeds and is only worse and more difficult to control in the wet. An off track excursion can easily destroy a car and harm the driver. I needed a plan for car positioning and a quick down and dirty set of instructions for the practice, qualifier and race.
We got to the track early to find the crew in some distress over the weather and rightfully so. We had a quick meeting in the trailer and made the decision to go with a full wet setup. The radar looked unfavorable for the short term if not the day. At this moment I pondered pulling the entry I was to drive so the crew could focus on the other two cars. But, I was quickly talked out of that and we headed off to the second driver’s meeting of the weekend. Nothing unusual was discussed other than the procedure for qualifying in Grand-AM. It’s real easy, they don’t qualify in the rain and the starting positions would be decided by points should it be declared a rain out. That did not settle well with me. No kind of team help could occur with me starting out back and to much risk. I decided that if the qualifying session was rained out I would withdraw the entry. Unfortunately for the crew they still had to have all of the the cars ready. I still needed to drive in the rain to not only practice but memorize the rain line perfectly for coaching purposes. The weather was so unpredictable that we could get qualifying in and then have a rain race. I would have raced under that scenario, the qualifying session was the go or no go for my effort. The scramble to get the rain setup in place and do some fast coaching on the rain line was hectic. We got the cars ready, suited up and on the grid with a whole one minute to spare. Well, almost!
The car I was driving had a strange noise and I shut it off quickly. Ron Baker, co-owner of RP Motorsports, and crew went to work. They removed the serpentine belt and we briefly started the car. I’m not sure what they found but later learned it was the Alternator. They pushed me back and I was on my way. The bad news was that I missed half of the rain soaked session. My anxiety was very high now, no dry time in the car, limited rain session to practice and only a twenty minute qualifier remaining to get in the field and tune the setup. I managed to run one lap high in the turns, one lap crossing the dry line and one lap on the dry line, that’s it. I was radioing the other drivers where the grip was and we managed to put two cars in the top 5 on the time sheets.
Shortly after the practice session the sun emerged and the track started to dry very quickly. The scramble began to put the dry setups back on the cars. The synchronized effort of the team was perfect. The cars were ready and on the false grid on time. Did I already say unpredictable weather? The rain again started to come down but the radar showed it to be a small pocket with overcast skies all around. We began qualifying on a partly wet track that was drying out each lap. Our #88 Mustang driven by Pratt Cole set a fast lap early to secure second position for the race. Brad Adams in the #75 Mustang would struggle a bit finding grip and coming to grips with a repaired race car from his test day crash. My strategy was to get on the clock late in the session using the first part of qualifying to shake the car down and bark out notes to the car chief regarding race setup. It did not take much shaking down, the first time through turn one the car had significant understeer compared to the #88 I tested a few days prior. Rather than riding around to wait on a dry track I had to go to school learning where to place the car for the least penalty resulting from the understeer condition. I wanted so badly to duck into the pits and make a correction but that is not allowed in qualifying. I turned my fastest lap time on the last lap with an overwhelming feeling of having so much more time left in the car. That put us 5th on the grid in the #25.
The race would be a total guess for setup on the #25 I was driving. We added some wedge, made a shock change and staggered the tire pressures. What I wished we would have done was to train the driver how important it was to turn off the reverse lock out. Having never driven these cars before I did not have that in my pre-session mental notes, 5 missed shifts later I finally figured it out. It did not help that the switch in the #25 car can not bee seen like the switch in the #88 can. Just another reason why it was helpful for me to drive the cars, we have a new checklist item. Pratt’s #88 was near perfect needing only a small tire pressure adjustment. Brad’s #75 looked great on the data and Brad was shaking off the crash memories nicely. For once, that day, we was able to wipe the cars down, double check our lists etc. The threat of rain was never gone but after a delay on the grid for a light mist we would start the race on a nearly dry track.
Just before we went out for the race we had a talk regarding points and not getting in the way. It was better for the team if our guys was in front of me and the others drivers in the championship was behind. We were held on the false grid allowing a small shower to pass and conditions looked very bad, dark skies etc… But, it actually was all looks because other than a light mist in one section the rain held off and the continuations were good for the race. On the start Pratt made a very nice momentum move using a well timed throttle lift and side block to out accelerate the pole sitter and take the lead heading into the eases. That pause had a chain effect on the inside line that I was in allowing two cars to get by me. That small event at turn one would set the pace for my race and bid for a win. With two slower cars to now pass and a race that would go green flag to flag, track positioning was key. Having not driven in the series and not wanting to effect any points via an aggressive move I tried to quickly size up the two guys in front of me. The problem I had was two fold, neither of those two guys thought they were the slow one of out threesome and the leaders were lined up and gaping us. Furthermore, they really was not slow making a pass and hold very difficult. Add in there some nice blocks and I quickly realized that a real fight was at hand.
Many of the drivers I call friends look at this series as a “Gentlemen s” pro series. That mainly refers to the experience level and aggressiveness and maybe past dominance by a hand full of younger drivers. Let me tell you, these guys are no gentlemen racers. I was blocked, pushed , moved on the straight and a host of other rather dirty tricks including getting the middle finger. I LOVED IT! I got around both Mustangs in this 5-6-7th place battle and started to catch the leaders. Any plan to save the tires was gone now due to the gap I needed to make up. I felt like I had a top three vehicle with the setup the car had and maybe a victory contender if I had one more session to tune. I went to work reducing the gap and was averaging one second a lap gain. As I got within 4 seconds of the lead pack of four the attrition began and one car went off which moved me to fourth. A lap or two later Part Cole in our #88 fell from the lead with a lazy exit and loss of momentum at the bus stop. This is where the story gets real interesting.
At this point I was inside of three seconds back from the lead pack having made up about 4 seconds total. I radioed to Pratt that I was taking the low line with a head of steam and large closing rate. I don’t think he hear that call and before I knew it I was heavy on the binders taking evasive action to avoid contact. Unfortunately this allowed the first car in the lad pack that fell back to make up most of the gap I placed on him, the battle was on. I’m not sure if Pratt flat spotted a tire, had a issue or just was losing the tires to cause his problem at the bus stop but I did know he was holding me up. It’s real easy, we were not gaining on the leaders but we were being caught from behind. I think racing me was as important at that moment as was catching the lead pack because we had a very aggressive battle, especially for teammates. It was awesome! I had a role to play and the only way I could hold off Pratt once I passed him for third was to embark on a defensive strategy that might have led to an unfavorable finish for him and his championship. Once I got around him I did plan to make the car wide but that all went away on the 5th missed shift with the reverse lockout still on. He passed me going into the bus stop and we quickly discussed a plan on the radio, I would ride the race out. Sticking to the master plan I went into protection mode for Pratt’s points. It appeared that we had third and forth locked up providing I made my car wide for 2 laps at the end. That was going along very nicely until the exit of turn eleven coming to the white flag. Pratt got a bit wide and I did not want to break my momentum so I turned for the apex. Pratt got the car rotated and heading for a later apex not seeing me beside him. I got out of the gas and brushed the brakes to avoid contact and in doing so said goodbye to forth place. We would ride the laps out with no one being able, and me not very willing, to pass. The setup work we did all weekend paid off for Pratt as he set the race’s fast time on the last lap, just when he needed it. I’m 100% certain, less his problem at the bus stop, this would have been his first win.
While that action was going on Brad was unknowingly suffering from a sour car. Post race dyno testing has proved that he was 15 horse power down to the other two cars on the team. We are not certain what happened but a new motor was ordered and I expect Brad to be battling it out again at Mid-Ohio. I’m also anxious to have Ben back in his #25 car and am excited overall about the rest of the season. A huge learning curve for me was broken through at The Glen that I know will carry us through for the rest of the year. Ben just needs to remember that when he sees the scratches on his front bumper where a few cars ran into me….. 🙂
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The pedal on the right,