Last month, I raced in the KONI Sports Car Challenge race at Homestead. It's a road course oval with some pretty technical challenges, especially through Turn 1 and the following few corners. It resembles Daytona in its general layout, but in actuality, it's quite different to drive. The infield has sharper and lower-speed turns, and the oval is tighter as well.
I was there just once before, back in 2007. Being prepared to drive the course before showing up this year was a concern of mine. So, I spent a lot of time on the course in the iRacing.com simulator. This helped a great deal. When I got out on the real course, there was no time needed to relearn it -- I already had a good handle on all of the subtle angles of the turns.
As you may know, Homestead was the debut race for our brand new No. 61 ROUSH/Valvoline Mustang. We bought the car in December, which made getting it ready for the KONI Challenge pretty much impossible before the two events in Daytona (the test session and the three-hour race). The stock FR500Cs are great race cars to begin with, but there are a number of modifications that need to be made in order to make them compliant with the rules and to bring them to the high level of competitiveness of the series.
So, on the first practice day, we rolled the car out of the truck and took it out for its first drive. The car handled great, but was a bit pushy. It's funny how unique each race car really is, even if they're made to be the same. Each one has its own personality and requires its own unique set-up to make it happy. I think that by the Sunday race-time we got the car pretty close to what it wanted, but there's still some margin left to tweak going forward through the rest of the season.
One thing that was very cool for me personally was having my father attend the Homestead race. He's normally so busy with his NASCAR teams that it's pretty rare that he can make it to my KONI events. However, he did make this one, and he even flew in my wife and children. At just over two months old, it was little Jack's first race. Having my son there for the first time was like looking back through time and seeing me where he was when my father was early in his racing career. Cool stuff... Having my father there to go over set-ups, working together with Brad Francis, Quinn Conda, Hugh Plumb, and myself, made for a great forum to come up with ideas and refine what we had.
Now there's a story within a story here. Some of you may already know this, but my father and Brad Francis didn't used to like one another very much. I'm not talking about mere rivals. They were mortal enemies. They headed up top race teams that ran against each other under different manufacturer flags for over 30 years; my father with Ford, and Brad with GM. They went at each other in drag racing, road racing, and NASCAR. Since then, they have become great friends, and they now work on the same side, with Brad heading up the skunk works division at Roush Fenway. They have each dedicated their working lives to racing, and watching these guys who were once great enemies work on a single car together is pretty amazing. More than anything in watching this, I was just trying to soak up as much knowledge as I could.
Qualifying went OK. We got eighth on the grid, with my fast lap being early on. Even though I felt like I was driving better as the session went on, the car simply wasn't going as fast. This is unusual for me (though I think that it's normal for most drivers). I typically get my fast lap in at the end of the qualifying session, and I also tend to get faster through the course of each given race as well. This same thing happened for me during this race -- the car slowed down a bit. I think that this is the result of some things in the set-up that we need to work out with this car that will make it happier. It's all very subtle, though, at this point.
We started seventh on the grid because of a changed engine in one of the cars further up (sending them to the back). This put us on the inside line of Turn 1. It's not impossible to deal with being on the outside line here at the beginning of the race, but it is much more difficult. This is because the cars on the inside will try to railroad on past you, leaving you in a slow and precarious line. Being on the inside myself, that's exactly what I did, without doing anything dirty, of course. I just tucked in behind the car in front of me and tackled the first few turns as quickly as possible, and it worked. Within just a few laps, I was in third, and I was closing in on the cars in front of me. Then the car started to push, and I slowly fell back from the cars ahead. It wasn't anything dramatic. The three of us were still quite a bit ahead of the group behind. I eventually was able to figure out what the car needed (as far as when, where, and how much to turn) in its current state and I began to close very gradually on the car in second.
Just as I was getting in this new groove, a yellow flag dropped, and I was called in for a pit stop and driver change. Our stop went very well, thanks to our crew. This placed Hugh in a great position to jump to the top, and that's exactly what he did. Working through traffic and cars that hadn't yet pitted, he quickly moved his way up to third himself. Before being there long, however, the car developed a catastrophic brake problem. His brake pedal went from being long to being complete gone.
Quinn, our crew chief, brought him in to check it out. All of the brake fluid had leaked out somehow. The guys refilled it and sent Hugh back on his way, but the brakes never really came back. So, for over 45 minutes, Hugh had to drive with no brakes. Determined not to let it stop us, he slid sideways into the turns to get it slowed down. It must have been one hell of a drive, and I don't envy him for having that stint. He did an awesome job in staying out there, keeping the speed up as much as possible, and bringing the car back without crashing. Being the intense competitor that he is, Hugh felt bad about the problem, but not only was it not his fault, he also did an amazing job dealing with it.
We finished in sixteenth. Given that we had a catastrophic problem, it could have easily been much worse, and we're still sitting third in points. We have a great team and a great car. I'm looking forward to getting the No. 61 ROUSH/Valvoline Mustang back on the track at New Jersey in a few weeks.
Now this has nothing to do with racing, but I have to tell you about what happened on our flight back from the race. About an hour into our flight, we were notified that we had to divert our path because we were too close to the impending space shuttle launch. We had to be at least 30 miles away from the launch pad, so we were redirected onto a path that was just that, and we were at 39,000 feet up. It couldn't have been planned better. Just as we were becoming about perpendicular to the launch site, a big plume of fire formed at the ground. Very quickly, the shuttle reached our altitude and beyond, as it arced away from us and over the horizon. On the ground, the shuttle took off after dusk and it shot back up into sunlight, making for a very wild looking smoke trail. As it flew off, we saw the booster separation very clearly. Eventually, the shuttle appeared to go lower again as it began to circle the earth before our eyes. It was a once in a lifetime experience that was truly awesome.