Roller Coaster Ride at Long Beach

Holy moly, I almost forgot what a race weekend was like! It's a non-stop series of duties, one after the next, from meetings, to radio fixes, seat fitting and refitting, driver change practice, scale pad time, and of course, practice, qualifying, and the race. I had forgotten how much I miss it all. It's intense, its cool, its a world of its own. And it's completely different from coaching.

I had never driven the LMPC car until Friday morning's practice session. The opening laps were like installing new software on a freshly installed blank computer hard drive. All the lights were blinking away, but somehow, I just knew everything would turn out okay. The car was not at all as heavy as I had predicted. It was even nimble! It had enough power to be exciting, enough grip to keep your attention throughout the cornering process, and enough zoomy features to be a LMP car. The new softer compound Michelin tires did a remarkable job with the Oreca/Courage chassis.

The paddle shift system is still in version 1.0, completing shifts slowly enough to knock my head forward and back as if it was my first time driving a stick shift in a street car on perhaps about 15% of the upshifts. Can you believe the less time I held the upshift paddle, the less time it delayed power? I don't understand why the programming of this car seems so unsorted. "Hey Eric (my engineer)... can we modify the shift timing, throttle modulation in duration and amount?" "No." Huh? The software is locked, no touching allowed. It's a spec category. Hopefully the next software update improves this.

With thirty-six cars on the short Long Beach street circuit, the sessions were always full of action. It was a rare lap to be alone and put in a clean time. My teammate Kyle Marcelli was a quick study of Long Beach having driven the LMPC at the ALMS test in February and the Sebring 12-hours. It's his season, so he qualified us. He was up to P2 in qualifying when during the red-flag period we discovered a piece of Dodge Viper from the World Challenge series stuck deep in our left-rear tire. Qualifying was done for us, so we would start 4th.

I had the pleasure of starting the race. In typical Long Beach fashion, by the time I exited the hairpin Turn 11, the field was already at 100% throttle, so it was just like another race lap. Things were fine until in the traffic jam, a car from behind drilled us in Turn 11. Then on another restart, another car jumped the green and hit the car ahead of me in Turn 11, causing us all to nearly park. Several GT cars slipped up the inside. The GT's have more power than us, so it would take a large portion of the stint to get by some of them. Nevertheless, we were running 3rd in LMPC and around 7th overall.

I finally had a chance to get settled in the car and enjoy a long run. It's interesting how much more of the track you can explore, how many more inches closer to the walls you can allow yourself to drive, how much later you can brake with some repetition. The LMPC car is so much more fun to drive than I had imagined. I made a pass on a Flying Lizard Porsche, then later on a factory Corvette. In 2008, the Lola Mazda could easily get by these guys. But, the LMPC, as I mentioned, has less power than the GT cars, so you have to be driving a perfect lap to be faster.

Just after passing the Corvette, it was full-course yellow, and time to pit. We wanted to get a lap back, so we waited behind the pace car for the wave-bys. Once the pace car passenger started his hand gesture, I drove past and drove into Turn 1. In an instant, I had radio chatter in my ear, cold tires... and why did I look in my mirrors? For some reason I was still mentally considering if that pace car had actually given me a wave-by. As a coach, I often remind my drivers to focus forward and think about what's next. I failed at my own advice, and promptly stuffed the car into the tires at Turn 1. Embarrassing, heart-wrenching, disappointing. The first thing I could think of was how many points I just cost my teammate Kyle Marcelli. The kid had worked so hard to get here, I just wanted to give him a car on the lead lap in good position. We were in 3rd, and the wave-by might have put us up higher. Easily, this day was a podium and a chance at a win. Instead, we finished a few laps down in 5th place.

There were lots of great moments to remember, of course. Being stuffed in the tires was a real test of patience and trust. The safety guys were motivated to get us back in the race once it was clear I was not hurt (not a scratch on me). The fans cheered when I crawled out of the car. Then, once Kyle was in the car, watching him drive even quicker was really special, even with a mirror torn off the car. The team was supportive and consoling. Sure, they were as disappointed as I, but they had big hearts and told me I had done a better job than I gave myself credit for. It's not easy to arrive at a street race with zero testing in a car you've never driven before. I trusted my experience that it was doable, but it is definitely difficult to do well.

Thanks to Brent, Frankie, and all the Performance Tech / Primetime Race Group guys for working so hard all weekend. Thanks to Kyle Marcelli and his support team for being so supportive. Thanks to Anthony Nicolosi for being such a key player in this team.

Thanks to all of you for your support! You were riding along with me the whole way.

© Gerardo Bonilla 2015