St. Petersburg, oh my, was it fun.

St. Petersburg, oh my, was it fun.

Boca Raton, FL – From my viewpoint, it really doesn’t seem like more than a month or two since I was racing in the final round of the 2010 World Challenge Championship in my K-PAX Volvo S60 at Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake UT. On that day I just lost out for the win, after having a great battle with Kuno Wittmer in his Dodge Motorsports Viper.
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It might seem like a month or two since that race in Utah, but it was actually almost half a year. Time seems to have no respect for those of us who would like to slow down and smell a little more coffee along the way.

It’s now 2011. That was more a reminder to self, as I still keep writing 2010 on checks. Anyway, the Pirelli World Challenge just had the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida and I was competing, driving the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe race car for none other than Team Cadillac.

Not only am I writing 2010 on checks, I am back to writing about Cadillac in the Pirelli World Challenge, which kind of puts me back to 2008. In 2008, I was actually running with Mike McCann in his Remington Cadillac team and had a great year after the official GM sponsored program ended in 2007.

So, seeing as the 2011 Cadillac team is officially a factory-backed program again, I am actually now back in 2007. Oh good, less grey hair and probably more of it, I can’t wait.

I’m really not meandering out of melancholy here, or the potential onset of age related issues. It’s the St. Pete World Challenge race weekend that’s the problem. I’m not sure that my command of English is quite up to the task of describing 49 cars in three classes on that concrete lined, and in places, impossibly tight race track.

It was during the driver briefing when it first struck me. Our glorious leader and Chief Steward (that would be Pat di Natale) started off the briefing confidently telling us that there were 31 cars racing last year at St. Pete.

I remember thinking, no way, there were at least 60, I never had a clean lap, I know I passed at least 25 Touring and GTS cars every lap. That moment of obviously incorrect recollection passed. Then Pat continued on with, “and this year we have 49 cars, so things are going to be a little busy out there”.

Really? Excuse me? Are you freakin’ kidding me? A little busy? Last year there were 31 cars and I thought there were 60 and this year we have 49! A little busy? Like maybe, a little problem with the airplane as the motor just fell off busy, or whoops silly me, I jumped and forget the parachute, that kind of little busy?

You are my new hero of the understatement Pat, lol. Racing at St. Pete this year, was L.A. freeway, weekday, 8:30am, everyone on crack/Starbucks/late for their wedding (substitute as applicable). But oh my, was it fun. Well it was if you made it relatively unscathed through both races. Unfortunately a lot of cars were severely damaged during the weekend.

I’m not going to talk about the wisdom of putting that many cars out there because SCCA and circuit managers have their formulas and we were not at a car maximum per mile, but we were damn close boys and girls.

The St. Pete track just happens to be the kind of track that demands patience when two cars are close together and we had two cars close together at all points on the track, at all times we were running.

St. Pete also has funneling down points all over; especially into turn 1/2, where just one impatient/deluded driver can turn into a on-car wrecking crew. The IRL cars could not get their race going in three attempts going into turn 1; we looked a bit like geniuses
compared to that performance.

The SCCA corner workers do a brilliant job and they certainly had their hands full in St. Pete with World Challenge out there. Thank you all and hats off to you.

I want to make one point for future consideration to our SCCA officials and it might apply to all tracks, but certainly it applies to street courses. I’ll provide an example before I make my point. If you have a Honda/VW/smaller car following a Mustang/Camaro/bigger vehicle into a corner or braking situation while racing or maybe after a passing situation, the driver of the smaller car cannot see around, over or through the much bigger GT/GTS car and can easily be blind to a single flagging station. Also, with five or six cars in a lump, as our races had all over the circuit during the St. Pete races, visibility becomes a challenge.

My point is, to consider putting flag stations/flaggers on both sides of the track going into high risk, common passing areas. This way, the smaller or following car drivers have a much better chance of seeing one of the flag stations immediately when the flags are being brought out. This might avoid drivers missing a single flag in the heat of very close situations involving multiple, different sized cars, potentially helping to avoid add on collisions.

Super quick flagging is essential on a street course such as St. Pete, where numerous cars can be in a train through blind sections of track. As good as the flaggers certainly are, if a driver misses the flag, through no fault other than being blind to it, an extra flag station might help. There is no doubt we certainly have big trains of cars right now in World Challenge. Turn 4, 10 and 11 might be candidates at St. Pete for double flag stations, just off the top of my head.

Also, SCCA officials have to react very quickly to calls about no brake lights. I had this problem with a car in front of me in the second race. Running as close as we are, the brake lights are essential and critical, especially when something happens unexpectedly in front of that car with no brake lights. Cars behind have virtually no chance of stopping or avoiding without brake lights alerting them.

The weather in St. Pete was perfect. I think both days were in the 80’s with Sunday being hotter as there was never any cloud cover early. As usual when running with IRL, we had a great crowd all weekend and the fans were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. It was really great to see so many fans in the stands when we raced on Sunday, even though it was late and an hour after the IRL race had finished.

I’ve written this before but I’m going to write it again because it should make us all proud. After Sunday’s race there were more than 20 or 30 people hanging around the Cadillac area and my team mate Johnny O’Connell and I were chatting and signing stuff. When a couple of those people said that the Pirelli World Challenge race was the best race of the weekend, about half the people standing there chimed in and agreed in very enthusiastic terms. This was great to hear and those that didn’t say it out loud, were nodding their heads in approval.

I saw Patrick Long mention in his post race interview on Saturday, that he promised a better show on Sunday. He was only saying this because of the long yellow on Saturday giving the fans very little green track racing.

Patrick was spot on, we are a show and the Pirelli World Challenge is a great show. We certainly proved that on Sunday and from what I heard, the fans really appreciated it and great job Patrick, for two excellent GT wins over the weekend in your Truspeed/Privacy Star/Entrust Porsche GT3.

Check out all of the race stories and complete race results on www.world-challenge.com, click the events menu pulldown for specifc race stories.

As far as my own view of the racing during the weekend, I’ll write a little about some of the raw sights that I encountered and narrowly missed at the start of Race 2 of the St. Pete WC on Sunday. I think this might give fans a small view inside the WC race driver’s office.

One of the automatic highlights of any World Challenge race is the standing start and ensuing drag race to turn 1. St. Pete has a great/difficult turn one, as it all funnels down. We go from a sometimes five-wide airplane runway going into turn 1, to a two-car wide chute at best, for the turn 1 exit and immediate entry into turn 2.

At the start of Race 2, I was gridded in 6th place and my Cadillac team mate Johnny O’Connell in 5th. We both had good starts and held position initially. I was on a similar line as Johnny and right behind him as we accelerated down the front straight. As I gained speed into 4th gear I was trying to slowly merge right towards mid track to close any big gaps to my right for the coming right hander. Nobody wants to leave even a small hole inside going into turn 1, as somebody will try to squeeze into it, even if the gap is a quarter the width of their car.

The St Pete turn 1 is notorious for tempting drivers into low-percentage-physics-defying lunges, to gain a position or six.

About half way towards turn 1 we were all jammed up, side by side across the track. I had Nissans and Porsches to my right and ahead of me, Johnny had a Nissan GTR, a Porsche and a Viper to his right and a Porsche to his left, we’re talking five wide here.

I said to myself, just hang right here a second or two, this is going to get silly. As I followed Johnny’s Cadillac, accelerating into the pending abyss, I suddenly remembered our Team Cadillac driver briefing. Cadillac’s don’t hit each other or else! Great, if someone piles into me about now, I’m going straight into Johnny, oh joy!

The braking area was now very close to us and the Porsche on the outside of Johnny’s #3 Cadillac was Dino Crescentini in his Centric Parts/Stoptech/GMG Porsche GT3.

Dino knew that he was in a bad place being so far left on track and he tried to work his way to the right, as we all were. But there was a small or actually quite large problem. Johnny O’s Cadillac was right there and they just banged together, side by side, all the way into the brake zone.

What Dino I’m sure didn’t know, was that Johnny had nowhere to go and was hard up against the Nissan, Porsche and Viper on his other side. I had a heck of a view at this point, I think I almost forgot to brake, it felt like I was watching video game.

Dino was maybe half a car ahead of Johnny O as they were at and past the turn-in point for turn 1. As Dino desperately tried to turn in, he was still up against Johnny and Johnny could not turn right as he was hard up against three other cars, it was just nuts!

Dino did turn in, but because his Porsche was pinned hard up against four cars effectively and he was half a car up on Johnny, he rotated around the front of the Cadillac in a slow spin. Johnny was now also sliding sideways as Dino was across his nose. I was now trying to figure out which way this block of spinning and sliding cars was heading, I didn’t want to hit either of them!

It was decision time and I chose left. Luckily I missed both Dino and Johnny, coming out the other side clean. I was reckoning the checker should come out at this point, as I thought we’d all probably had enough excitement for one day, but of course we were just 10 seconds into race 2.

I have no doubt whatsoever that 30 other drivers have similar crazy stories. There really is nothing else in pro racing like the World Challenge standing starts for excitement and action.

A little story about the first race that stood out was obviously the long yellow. The reason for the yellow was to clear up a big crash involving Brett Sandberg’s Monticello Motor Club Honda Civic Si. I felt really bad for Brett. He was in the wall on the exit of a blind corner having just clipped the inside concrete apex.

Brett’s car was damaged and sitting up against the wall on corner exit for a while and several cars had made it past, but about 80% of the field had yet to arrive at that point of the track. Brett made a slight mistake at this point by thinking he was ok to get out of the car and bolt for a hole in the fencing along the track to safety behind the wall. Time does drag horribly when you’re sitting in a bad position, but the only safe time to unhook the belts and get out is when every car is safely behind the pace car, unless of course we’re talking fire issues.

As Brett was trying to get unhooked and out the car, his Honda was slammed into by Shea Holbrook in her Lucas Oil/MyPuggz.com Honda Civic Si and she was then slammed into by Eric Meyer in his XOWii/Samaritan’s Feet/Delvira Mazda RX-8.

This might well be an example of the situation I mentioned earlier, about drivers being blind to single flag stations; unfortunately Brett’s Honda was stuck in the worst blind corner exit on the whole race track.

Thanks goodness that Brett, Shea and Eric were all relatively unharmed, but sadly all three cars took enormous damage. It looked to me like two of the three cars might well be total losses unfortunately.

As for that inside apex clip Brett, we’ve all been there, well I know I have anyway; it’s a tough part of racing on street circuit’s sometimes. I hope we see all three of these Touring car drivers back at Long Beach for Round 3.

A big congratulations to Jason von Kluge in his Varsity Ford Ann Arbor/Steeda Ford Mustang Boss 302S for his win in Race 1 and also to Eric Foss in his Traxxas/St Jude Hospital/SPX Ford Mustang FR500S for his win in race 2. I am sure P.D. Cunningham in his HPD Acura TSX is looking forward to some great racing this year against the Ford’s, Porsches and other GTS competitors.

Also, congratulations to my old team mate Lawson Aschenbach for a great win in the Touring Car class for race 1 in his Compass360 Racing Honda Civic Si and also to Tristan Herbert for a great Touring Car class win in race 2 in his Brimtek Motorsports Volkswagen GTI.

The next race is on the streets of Long Beach. I love racing at Long Beach. It will be another IRL combined weekend and we race in our normal time slot after the IRL race on Sunday, April 17th.

Oh yes, before I forget, the first turn at Long beach comes after a longer front straight than St Pete and funnels down into a narrower turn 1 exit! Where do I sign? I’m really not well! See you all there!

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1 Comment

  1. EL DEE says:

    Big thumbs up for a great story–ID’ing the author is the only improvement needed!

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