I arrived in Danville, home of the Virginia International Raceway, on the Thursday right before the start of the first race of Volkswagens Jetta TDI Cup. This event would mark the start of my professional racing career. Boy was I was anxious to get going! With huge elevation changes, high-speed esses and long straights, VIR would prove not only to be an awesome track, but it would also prove to be quite challenging. Did I mention long straights? Imagine, for a moment, the combination of long straights and relatively large Touring Cars punching large holes in the air Can someone say D-R-A-F-T?
So far, Ive mentioned two key topics: double yellow flags and the draft. Need I say more?
Upon my arrival at the circuit, I reported to registration to receive my first professional license, the SCCA Pro license. I also received credentials for my unofficial crew chief for the weekend, Bill Winchester. Now looking quite official, we ventured to the absolutely amazing Volkswagen hospitality tent. I was issued my Volkswagen street gear. What a cool look! Not to mention the fact that it was all made from environmentally sound bamboo. What a cool idea! I also finally got to visit my Gunther Volkswagen/Easykart TDI Cup car for the first time. The car looked awesome, especially with the Oakley logo on both sides. I had a feeling the weekend would be a good one, and I couldnt wait to get on the track the following day.
Friday morning was the first official day for the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup. First order of business was the drivers meeting, where all 30 drivers reunited for the first time since Firebird Raceway in Phoenix. The rules for the first practice session were discussed. Our on-track activities would begin three laps of lead/follow. We would then be turned loose to our on devices (so to speak), although passing could only be initiated if a blue passing flag was displayed to the slower car. After the meeting, interviews with the press and photo shoots were next. It was easy to see why Volkswagen had placed so much emphasis on this back in Phoenix! Then, it finally came: track time. Our first official practice session began.
I pulled out onto the track with one car separating me from our driver/coach who was conducting the lead/follow. The lead/follow was conducted at a rather sedate pace to allow us to learn the track and to also pick up reference points. Despite this slow pace, the first incident happened right in front of me. The car directly behind the driver/coach (and right in front of me) spun off the track! I sure hoped this wasnt a sign of things to come. I reacted quickly and avoided contact. Whew!! That would not have been good.
Once the driver/coach pulled into the pits, I was on my way. The clean diesel-powered TDI Cup cars were awesome. The severe understeer I had experienced in Phoenix was gone, probably due the extra rubber that was on track at VIR. The car could now be rotated with the brakes! What an absolute blast to drive. The grip of the slicks was ridiculous! Just when I was beginning to really have fun, the first session came to an end. I pulled into the pits feeling like I had done a fairly decent lap. Once the results of the first session were announced, my feelings were confirmed. I had posted the third best time. Not a bad way to start the weekend for sure.
For the second session, there were no lead/follows and no restrictions on passing. This session felt much more crowded. Finding a clear track was a challenge in and of itself. The traffic was good for practicing race craft and strategy but bad for qualifying. Four laps into our session, I pulled through Turn four and saw the corner workers frantically waving the yellow flag. ( .And with that incident, there enters the first key term for the weekend: the yellow flag.) As I slowed down, I saw it. Noah Arundel had a BIG off into the barriers at the beginning of the esses. This resulted in a total track blockage. Since the whole weekend had to remain on schedule, our practice session ended prematurely.
Due to the lack of clear track time, I wasnt nearly as confident about my lap times for the session. The results were posted. Second! Apparently everyone else had trouble finding a clear track. This really boosted my confidence for the qualifying session on Saturday. I felt fairly confident that I would put the Gunther Volkswagen/Easykart TDI Cup car close to the front.
As qualifying approached, and despite ominous rain clouds above, I elected to put a fresh set of Michelin slicks up front on my TDI Cup car. We rolled out onto the false grid in preparation for the all-important session to begin. I thought to myself, A drafting partner sure would be nice. ( ..And with that thought, there enters the other key term for the weekend: the draft.) As I looked around, I saw that Timmy Megenbier was only four cars in front of me. We decided to work together because a really good grid position would make things much easier in the race.
Once on track, I immediately made my way past a few cars and up to Timmys bumper. On the first lap, we both took rather cautious lines as the rear tires on our front-wheel drive TDI Cup cars were difficult to heat up. Both cars were extremely loose on the opening laps. The next time by, Timmy and I took off, flying around the track faster than we had all weekend. The first lap time came up on the dash 2:15.194, nearly a second faster than I had gone all weekend. Maybe the draft was helping, I thought to myself. We did yet another flying lap. This time the dash read 2:14.600 waaaay faster than anyone had gone all weekend. During that lap though, I noticed something. While the draft was helping a bit down the strait, I felt as though I was faster in the corners. So, with that in mind, I decided to try a lap solo.
In an effort to create a clear track, I backed off a bit, which was actually a plus because the tires were able to cool down a bit. Finally, I found what I was looking for: a huge stretch of clear track. Flying by the start/finish line into Turn 1, I braked deeper than I ever had. The rear of the car wiggled under the stress of braking. I kept the car in check and trail-braked to the apex. Later, as I approached the double apex corner right into the esses, I bounced the car off both the curbs. Through the esses, I went absolutely flat out, despite the car getting light over the crests. Up next was Turn 10, a blind left hander due to the fact that the road falls completely away. I turned in, then braked slightly in order to rotate the car. It started to come around! I jumped on the throttle, added some opposite lock, and I was through Turn 10 faster than I had ever been before. Next, I was up the hill and into Turn 11a. This turn requires late braking, down-shifting two gears, and squeezing back onto the gas to set up for Oak Tree. Next came the long back straight followed by the Roller Coaster section up through Hogpen.
Going down the front straight, I waited for the dash to show the lap time. 2:14.046! Thats got to put me close to the front row, I thought. To be quite frank, I really dont think I could have squeezed much more out of the car. I slowed down for my cool down lap and entered pit lane. As I sat in the car, wondering how I measured up against some really quick drivers, Pepe Pombo came up to my car. He was the first to say it. He was the first to utter those words that I wont soon forget. Youre on pole and theres only one minute left in the session!!! he said. Fortunately, no one was able to better my time in the final minute. Bill came over to reinforce the message. I was on pole! I started celebrating right there in the car. YES!! What a way to start the season!
For race day, I arrived at the track much earlier than I needed to. After a great breakfast at the VW hospitality tent (Have you seen the Volkswaffles?), I wandered around the paddock area hoping to meet with various team owners in the Rolex series. I also had the opportunity to say hello to a few old friends. Then it off to the pre-race drivers meeting for final instructions for starting procedures and launch control.
Butterflies! Oh, the butterflies! They were in full effect as I drove up to the pre grid to take my pole position. After a quick interview while seated in the car (I felt just like Randy Pobst), it was time to go. I rolled out onto the track behind Max the pace car and took my grid spot for the first time. What a view it was to have no one in front of me and 28 other TDI cup cars behind me. As the formation lap began, my thoughts were directed toward ensuring a good, clean start. I made it a point to scrub the tires clean of all the pickup and marbles. For you F1 fans out there, did I mention that we would be doing standing starts?
Bahbumb Bahbump ..Bahbumb! As I again assumed the pole position on the grid, my heart was tried to escape through my ribcage right then and there! The five-seconds-to-go board was displayed then the lights came on. The lights went out. I released the brakes. The car launched forward with a noticeable amount of wheel spin. I short shifted to second gear and assumed a somewhat defensive line to hold first position through Turn 1. Lap 1 was relatively uneventful. Although, I did notice that the other cars were really able to capitalize on the draft (Did I mention the DRAFT?). So basically, my car was working really hard to clear the way (and air) for the other cars to catch up fast! This meant that I would not be able to run a normal line, otherwise the freight train of cars would pass me by and I wouldve run the risk of losing several positions. Trying to achieve really fast lap times was out the window.
By Lap 2, I was still in the lead and was still defending the inside of the track. The second place car of Caleb Kenney got a big run on me. He was able to get fully alongside me before the corner and tried to go around me on the outside. Seeing how it was early in the race, I did not force the issue. He initially stayed on the outside for a while. Unfortunately, the outside then became the inside for the next few corners. I pinched him down low, but he stayed in it. I had no choice but to give up the spot. I turned in right behind Caleb and slammed the door before Timmy could get to my inside.
Next time by on the front strait, I got a huge run on Caleb. He used the same strategy I had just used and covered the inside line. Timmy, who was now behind me, had an advantage of the draft. He came up behind me and, well lets just say our cars became a bit faster! Going down into Turn 1 Caleb opened the door (figuratively, of course) thinking I was going to go around the outside. This was my chance. I slid the car to the inside of Caleb and balanced the car with the steering and brakes. The top spot was mine again! On the back straight, I looked in my mirrors and saw that Caleb and Timmy had fallen back since they were battling each other. This was my time. I had to stretch out my lead as much as possible. I put my head down and went to work. Be smooth, fast, and consistent. And dont make any errors, I kept saying to myself. As I approached the esses, I took another look in the mirrors. Timmy and Caleb were gone. Mark Pombo was now in second but further back. I was finally free of the draft! (Yes, I said it again: the draft!)
This was my chance to check out and disappear. Flying down the back straightway, my heart sank. I saw the double yellow flag. (Yes, I said that too: the double yellow flag. Uuuurgh!!) I screamed bloody murder into my helmet. So much for that big lead I had just worked so hard to achieve. The pace car came out and bunched up the entire field once again. I now had everyone sitting on my rear bumper waiting anxiously for the green flag.
During the caution laps, I screamed into my helmet yet again. This time, it was in prayer form. Let it pour. Please rain. Please, let the race be over. Please! I pleaded for the heavens to open up to no avail. After three long and arduous caution laps, we were given the one lap until green signal from the flagman. We would be going racing again, but there would only be about 4 laps remaining.
In single-file order, I timed the start well and was able to maintain the lead through the first corner. Man, were these guys were all over me now. They had no intention of letting me get away again. I defended my line all the way down the back strait and then on the front strait. Liam Kenney, Caleb, and Mark Pombo were all in the mix now. I became a victim of both the double yellow flag and the draft just like that. I was shuffled back a few spots. With two laps to go, Liam and Mark fought for second directly in front of me. Mark made a mistake, and I was able to capitalize on it! Up to third, I could now see the leader. Time to push. Going up to the Oak Tree, the leader went off! Liam was able to get to the inside of him. As they ran side by side, I was able to take advantage of a huge draft. Who should I follow? I asked myself over and over. I picked Liam. As soon as I got behind Liam, he got onto the brakes for the Roller Coaster! Unfortunately, this caught me completely by surprise. My brake points had been consistently further down and later than his. As a result, I got into the back of Liam. (Sorry Liam. By no means was that incident intentional.)
I immediately pulled the car to the left so that I would not push him off. Then I saw Liam come flying by me literally. His rear end was four feet off the ground. I still have no idea how that happened. I hit my brakes to avoid hitting him. Then, another car came spinning through! This was crazy! There were cars everywhere. I had just about finished my braking when all of a sudden SLAM. Someone slammed into my right side. HARD! The car climbed over my car and continued off the course. Im still not sure which driver was involved with that incident or how it happened. I cant wait to see the video to see how it all unfolded. Or, can I?
As the craziness cleared and the dust settled, I turned into the corner. Two cars went by, but I was still in a podium spot. The next corner was a left hander, and it was at that point that I heard a horrendous screeching noise. The tire was flat! My heart sank! But my race was still not over. I roared into pit lane and the Volkswagen Group of America crew leapt into action. They changed the tire and I was back out onto the track to finish the last lap. I crossed the finish line in 24th position.
As I entered the pits, all I wanted to do was find out what the heck happened back in the Roller Coaster section. I still dont know if I caused the incident. Despite my uncertainty, I apologized to Liam. I certainly did not mean to hit him and wanted to make that abundantly clear. Liam was a true gentleman about the whole thing. (Thank you, Liam, for being such a good sport.) The winner was Mark Pombo followed by second-place finisher Derek Jones and third-place finisher Jimmy Underhill. Congratulations to those guys. They are all great drivers and a great bunch of guys.
Eventually the time came to survey the damage. I was not the only one to get caught up in an incident. Nearly every one of the 29 cars that started on the track had damage some form of damage. Dented hoods and fenders. Bumpers ripped off. Cracked wheels. Doors caved in. The carnage was horrendous. What a shame. We had all worked so hard to find sponsorship to race. Speaking only for myself, I now would have to scramble to find extra money to pay for crash damage in order to keep going. No rest for the weary. So much for me taking it easy before the next race. As I wrote this piece, I still had no idea how much the damage was going to cost. Im sure it wont be pretty and it will surely hurt more than the poor finishing result. However, its simply time to hustle once again to ensure my funding is set for the next race. Im a firm believer of thinking positive. Somehow, I will persevere. I will find a way to keep going.
While I did not achieve the results I wanted, the weekend still turned out good. I was able to start on pole, which was a great accomplishment. I set the fastest lap of the weekend. I led the most laps. I was able to stay up front for the entire race and battled for the win. I have a whole lot to look forward to this year. This incident is nothing more than a bump in the road a reminder to take care, to be cautious and to be aware, to not take anything for granted. I am truly thankful for the continued support of Gunther Volkswagen of Coconut Creek and Easykart. Look for Number 11 to be up front again when we go green at Mosport in two weeks!
Good Clean Fun Part 1
Good Clean Fun Part 2
Virginia International Raceway
VW TDI Cup