How would I describe the first race of the 2017 American Endurance Racing season? If I were to use a few words to describe the entire weekend I would use the following:
Before I even made it to Atlanta, Michael, Nate, and Joey suffered a tire blow out on the trailer somewhere in Pennsylvania and later the turbo in our truck failed somewhere in Virginia. From that point forward we had use Rob Gagliardo’s truck to tow the car the rest of the way. Those two incidents were just previews of what was going to come during my part of the journey which started early Thursday morning. We were flying out of Bradley at 8:00 AM with a massive winter storm coming in. Alan was on this flight with me along with my friend from the 6th grade, Steve. Steve had been helping us build the C300 and had stayed many late nights and came down weekends with me to work on the car. It didn’t require much work on my end to convince him to come and build a race car. Since he had spent wrench time helping to make sure this car was going to make it in time for Road Atlanta he took it upon himself to make it to Road Atlanta on his dime. All of us were extremely anxious, and luckily we made it out of Bradley before the storm rolled in. After a short flight to Charlotte and a shorter flight to Atlanta we picked up our rental and made the hour drive north from the airport to Road Atlanta.
Steve, Alan, and I made it to Road Atlanta around 3:00 PM on Thursday and this is the first time I saw our car on the track. I can’t emphasize “our car” enough because this is FCP Euro’s car. It’s all of our’s, and we’ve all had a part in making this happen. I can’t begin to tell you what it feels like to see something you’ve sunk countless hours into on a race track for the first time. I guess it’s a sense of pride, joy, and relief all rolled into one. It looked great headed down the straight in front of pit row, and that’s when I found out that the car was having issues with limp mode and it also had a very aggressive cut when traction control engaged. At this point, I wasn’t sure how the weekend was going to go since the car hadn’t been tested before this race and we only had Thursday and Friday to get the car into the best possible shape we could to perform.
Throughout the afternoon on Thursday, we all took time unplugging modules and sensors to see if we could make ESP go away and yet somehow retain ABS. All of our efforts failed, and the decision was to do away with both ABS and ESP. You want ABS in a race car, but since ESP can’t just be turned off, we had to do the race without it. First, we unplugged the ABS module which cut our rev limit to 5000 RPM’s. This would simply not do. After that, we unplugged the rear right wheel speed sensor, and the car seemed to be happy. both ESP and ABS were completely off for good and there didn’t appear to be any rev cut. By the time we got this solution worked-out the track was closed for practice. We would have to wait until Friday to verify that this solution would work. Thursday night would be the only night where we would all have a chance to relax. We had the car inspected for tech and it passed with flying colors. Our C300 was now officially ready to race in the 2017 AER season.
Friday morning rolled in, and we were up early and off to the track to fine tune the car more for qualifying in the afternoon. Most cars in AER are campaigned for multiple seasons and get lots of development over the course of thousands of laps. Officially, our C300 had zero laps on the clock. However, this didn’t stop other drivers and visitors from stopping to check out the car. I can’t begin to tell you how much hype was around thing. This build truly had a fan base around it and everyone including race officials. To be part of something like this is one heck of an experience. We got the car out on the track and running some laps to test where we were at. A few adjustments needed to be made on the suspension, but for the most part, the car was running well. At around 2:00 PM, our extra set of wheels arrived from Milford (thank you Jose) along with a spare pedal assembly. We sent the wheels and tires to get mounted and balanced and swapped the pedal assembly. The new pedal assembly went in, and it appeared our limp mode issues had been resolved. Long story short, the original pedal assembly was sending an incorrect signal to the DME for throttle control. At WOT (wide open throttle) the computer was only seeing 48% from the pedal position sensor which is part of the accelerator pedal assembly. This just happens to be a potential issue with drive by wire cars. During qualifying, the car ran consistently, but it was slightly slow. It put us at the top of class 2 which is exactly where our E30 was the year before. After qualifying, we began to prep the car for Saturday, and we had more people coming by to look at the car. I think we wrapped up somewhere around 8:30 PM and went back to the hotel to rest.
Race day is always a serious time. With that said, Steve, Alan, and I left the hotel at 5:45 AM to get to the track, unload the car from the trailer, and bring out the equipment we would need for the day at our pits and in our paddock space. Michael, Nate, and Rob had a drivers meeting at 6:30 AM. We had everything ready to go by 7:15 AM with plenty of time to get the car down to pit lane to the grid. The race was to start promptly at 8:00 AM and last until 5:00 PM. In a 9-hour race under AER rules, your car must make five mandatory stops each lasting a minimum of three minutes. If all goes well, your car will be racing for a total of 525 minutes. Road Atlanta is a major race track. The phrase used to describe it all weekend was “this is a big boy track”. To be honest, I was nervous as to how this car was going to perform. Not because we cut corners in the build, but it was the unknowns regarding electronics and what was going to be the first weak spot to expose itself. In my head, I have compiled a list of things I thought could be weak points and what would be needed to fix a failure and get the car back out on the track.
Shortly after 8:15 AM the green flag dropped, and the race was on. Our first stops went very well, and the car was holding up with no issues to speak of. The car was picking up time, and we were bumped up to class 3 which is a faster class. The bump put us into P3 and somewhere around P15 overall.
As the day went on it became very obvious that our front left tire was not doing well. Road Atlanta is a track with some very high speed, and high load right-hand turns. If you don’t run enough front camber, you will wear out your front left tire on this track. Our camber settings are maxed out in the current setup. We had to make one last stop to meet the mandatory five stop minimum. The decision was made to change the front left tire. At this point, we worked our way up to P2 in class with one car in P1 and another in P3 that still had to do stops. We also had several laps leads on the other cars in our class. To ensure the car would finish we had to change this tire. This pit stop was by far the most stressful stop we would make. I had to slam in as much fuel as possible so we could make it to the end without a splash and go and do the fueling fast enough to get the car off pit lane and into the paddock so we could get the tire changed and the car out on the track in as little time as possible. We developed a strategy to save close to 30 seconds on fueling. All in all, we got the car in and out in just over 4 minutes which is insanely fast.
Rob Gagliardo finished the race for us. Having the car cross the finish line after a 9-hour race with zero mechanical troubles on its maiden debut is amazing. We finished unofficially in P2 but would end up taking P1 when the car that finished in front of us in our class had failed to make their 5th pit stop. It was a somewhat undesired way to win our first race, but those are the rules. When we did the math, it appeared we would have won narrowly if the other team did make their pit stop. Regardless of this fact, we built a race car and won on it’s maiden race. That in itself is insane and still as I write this is still hard to believe. You couldn’t script it this way if you tried. It’s also worth noting that we came in 8th place out of 49 cars entered.
After the race, we had to do the usual checks and maintenance to prepare for Sunday. In AER the work never stops. We swapped pads on all four corners and changed the front rotors because they were starting to crack. We checked and topped off all operating fluids, bled the brakes out, put new tires on I would say we finished up and left the track around 9:00 PM or so. We got some food, made it back to the hotel, and went to sleep. Sunday is a whole other day!
Every race starts with the pre-race prep of the car. Again, Alan, Steve, and I were up and at the track unloading the car and setting up shop. Sunday’s race had a slightly different format because of local laws. Apparently, you cannot race at Road Atlanta between 10:00 AM and 12:00 PM. So the race would start at 8:00 AM and come to a halt at 10:00 AM and then go green from 12:00 PM go to 5:00 PM. During the 2-hour break, the car could be worked on. This would benefit us since we could put on new left-side tires which could get us to the end of the race.
Sunday is an interesting day because it’s when you physically start to get tired and some of the cars also start to get tired. Generally speaking, a fair amount of cars don’t make it to Sunday afternoon due to mechanical failure. Our team, after all the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears, was going to finish this race.
We started the day at pole position in Class 3 and got off to a great start. However, both the Krabby Kraut Jetta and SandCrawler Motorsports E30 were directly behind us and would prove to be our fiercest competition all day. We made our mandatory pit stop and finished the first 2-hour part of the race P2 in class. After this stop, we went back out onto the track in a good position and started to push. We made sure our stops were planned out, and by doing so, we were able to move up in position and distance ourselves from the rest of the class and field. By 3:00 PM on Sunday, we moved our way up into P2 with both of our competitors still needing to make their final stops. Our car ran on average 3-4 seconds faster per lap, and over the course of one stint, we closed a 1 minute 45-second disadvantage into a non-factor. We chose to make our final stop before they could and be able to stay out on track while they were pitting to get an advantage moving into the rest of the race. The final stint we planned for Rob to finish and to get the car in and out in as close to 3 minutes as possible. Again, we used the same strategy from Saturday for this final stop to fuel and went as quick as possible. We ended up getting Rob out of the pits at an official time of 3:06.
As the race started coming to a close, we moved up into P1 and started pulling away from the rest of the competition. At 5:00 PM we crossed the finish line P1 in class with close to a one lap lead. We also came in 5th place overall which again is simply unbelievable. After the race, I think the emotions of what we accomplished sank in for me. I have no shame in admitting that everything that had coalesced over the weekend brought me to tears. What we accomplished in under three months most people will never accomplish in an entire career of racing. We built a car that could win, in a borrowed space, on our backs on a concrete floor, at weird hours where we should have been sleeping, and we did it with a platform that most would never take a second look at for an endurance race car, and won at a track we had never been to before. Incredible!
BMW Catalog Manager at FCP Euro