There are certain tracks that drivers put on their bucket list; tracks that are considered a rite of passage. Sebring International Raceway is one of those places. It separates the men from the boys, or in my case, the children from the adults? There isn’t a catchy equivalent phrase for women; but you get the point.
The IMSA GT3 USA series is a support series for the Tudor United SportsCar Championship. While the big boys got to warm up at Daytona, Sebring was our first round; the climactic point after a long winter waiting in anticipation. The first race of a season is always clouded with testosterone and impatient decision making. Couple that with the character of Sebring, a track that is rough, has varying surfaces, and blind apex points…this was sure to be one heck of a race.
My qualifying started off with a squealing start. Literally. Between promoter test day and practice day, track officials had changed the brake markers from orange cones to the wooden stands which read “500,” “400,” “300,” “200,” “100.” These brake markers are actually much better, but for the fact that they were placed in a different spot than the orange cones were located the day before. Overnight our braking points had all changed. Using my peripheral vision to trigger my braking, of course I didn’t realize the distance change until it was too late. I was now using Prototype brake markers and braking much, much deeper than I should have. I almost got away with it, but I had a major wipe out in Turn 10. I flat spotted my tires; the worst I have ever flat spotted in my entire career. The bad news wasn’t that I had just flat spotted my tires, but that the rules dictate that you must start the first race with the same set of tires that you used for qualifying. I literally could not do this since the flat spots were so sizable. Wright Motorsports and I decided that we had to put a new set of Yokohama tires on and took a penalty as a result. Per the rules, I now had to start Race 1 from dead last.
I’m no stranger to starting a race from the back. When you grow up racing on a shoe string budget, mechanical failures and lack of tires often put me in a less than desirable position for the start of a race. But this was different. This time I had a fantastic car and a championship winning team to back me up. This was going to be my chance to prove myself, to start from the back and see how far I could go in 45 minutes.
We have two classes in the IMSA GT3 USA series, Platinum (2014 cars) and Gold (2013 and older), my class. In the press releases for our race, they talk about how many Gold cars I passed. What they don’t tell you is how many Platinum cars I also passed. There were many new Platinum cars sprinkled about the field. At the half way point of the race I had made it to 7th in class. With 9 minutes left, I moved into 6th. 3 laps later I made a pass for 5th. On the very last lap, I made my last pass for 4th position. After a pending DQ was sorted out, I was moved up to 3rd position. Passing 10 Gold cars, plus 4 or 5 Platinum cars, was incredibly rewarding. To find out later that I was moved into 3rd in class was the cherry on top!
Race 2 was very short and definitely not sweet for me. A few laps into the race, a spinner behind me hit the back of my car and ripped my deck lid off its hinges. Unable to see out the back window due to my crunched deck lid, I decided to pit. Over radio, I told my crew chief I wanted to go back out. The crew removed the deck lid but could not put a new one back on because the hinges were so badly damaged. Race control, would not allow me back on track without a deck lid. Sadly, my race was done.
Sebring is a track that tests your determination and skill. Luckily, I made it through the first event of the season relatively unscathed! More importantly, I learned that as a newcomer to this series, I have what it takes to compete with this group. Many of these drivers are seasoned veterans in the GT3 USA series. I think I’ve shown them not only am I a rookie of the year hopeful, but a real contender for the Gold class championship.