The 2014 IMSA Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge season is almost over and that is both surprising and upsetting to me. I have just returned from Austin, Texas, one of the coolest cities with the most impressive and well-conceived racetracks in North America. The Circuit of the Americas (COTA) is 10 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from the loud, proud and very fun downtown of the capital city. I consider it a treat to have a brand new, top dollar, Formula 1 facility on our schedule, but coming to COTA means two things this year: The season is almost over and our Compass360 Racing Honda Civic Si is going to suck.

I wish there was a nicer way to say it because our team comes as prepared as anyone else in the paddock and more prepared than most. The truth is deflating. When we look at the facts going into the weekend, this track has lots of long-duration, high-load corners, which is bad for front tire wear on our cars. It also has a few long straightaways that lead into slow, tight corners which end up in a bad spot for our Honda gear ratios. If we run 2nd gear, we have to over-slow the corner on the way in and then stress the tires and the transmission on the way out. If we decide to roll 3rd gear, the corner entry has to be picture perfect and we have to commit to full throttle as soon as possible, which is never soon enough when you’re that low in the RPM range.

Knowing this about the Honda and our chances, I jumped at an opportunity that presented itself last minute. My friends at Irish Mike’s Racing asked me to fill in for another driver in their #95 Hyundai Genesis, which meant I would be driving two cars in the same race, a first for me. I was thankful for the opportunity, especially at a point in the season when everyone is trying to secure contracts for next year. More track time and the opportunity to work with another team is always a good thing. I was able to do some coaching and car development work for the team. The last time I drove for Irish Mike's Racing was at the Daytona test in January, so it was eye-opening to see how far the Hyundai platform had advanced since then. Hats off to their drivers and crew, because what they have accomplished in the first year with a new platform is impressive.

When the first practice session arrived, so did the rain. A wet racetrack is the great equalizer and in the case of the Honda, it was the only thing that would give us a fighting chance at a result on race-day. Suddenly, tire wear and gearing weren’t an issue and our disadvantage in the dry had become a grip advantage because of our front-wheel drive. After 30 minutes of slipping and sliding around a damp track in the Civic, I got the radio call that I had been waiting for: 

“You’re P1 by half a second. Pit for driver change.”

That felt pretty good, but they don’t give out prize money for winning practice. As the practice session went on, the track formed a dry line and we ended up finishing somewhere just inside the top 10 on the timesheet, which is about what we expected. But we knew that if it was a wet race, it was ours to lose.

During second practice, the sun was shining on a dry track. The team sent Ryan Eversley in the sister car #75 and me in the #74 out, both on sticker tires to see what kind of time we had in the car on a dry track, which only confirmed our fears. We turned laps within a few tenths of each other on our first flier, good enough to put us 5th and 6th on the timesheet, but on our second and subsequent laps, the times dropped off a half a second, then another half a second, then more. In the Texas heat, on a long, abrasive track like COTA, we just didn’t have the raw pace of the Caymans or the MX5s. Even the 1-series BMWs were able to go just as quick, but without the performance fall off. We were capital “S” screwed.

I managed to get a few productive laps in the Hyundai, which was an interesting experience. The difference between the two cars was fun to adapt to, with the Hyundai being heavy and softly sprung, with a turbo engine and a longer ratio transmission compared to the Honda. The plan was to have me qualify and start the Hyundai and then hop out about 30 minutes into the race and rush down to the other end of pit lane to be ready to hop in the Honda any time after 45 minutes. No pressure! 

Unfortunately, qualifying brought a fuel pressure problem in the Hyundai and I couldn’t get the most out of the car, but I managed to qualify 12th. My Honda co-driver James Vance, did a great job to qualify our #74 car in 9th! I just needed to make sure that I didn’t get caught up in any mayhem at the start and take him out. On the pace lap I was thinking “Don’t be that guy... don’t be that guy...” 

The morning of the race was cool, but dry. As the green flag came out, I saw that James got a great start - but so had I, and I tucked right underneath him approaching turn 1. There was a Porsche going further inside, showing his nose to me. I eased off the brake pedal and pulled alongside the Honda that I had to drive later. In the moment, I wasn't thinking about how strange it was to be racing hard against "myself" but in hindsight, it was a bit of an existential conundrum. I was thinking that I might be able to make a late move on James, but I checked the mirror and saw that the Porsche had backed off. I decided that this wasn’t the time to push the boundaries of our friendly co-driver rivalry.

“Don’t be that guy...”

Half a lap later, Tim Bell had his massive crash at the end of the back straightaway. I’m happy that he walked away from the 100mph+ hit when his brakes failed. Unfortunately it required a long cleanup and my green-flag time in the Hyundai was limited to that first half of a lap. I turned it over inside the top 10 and made my way down to the Compass360 pit box and watched as the sky got darker.

The rain started about 45 minutes into the race and James called it in as soon as he started to lose grip. We needed to be ready to switch to rain tires at the pit-stop, which was fast approaching. The rain was only falling on the back half of the track, so the call was to stay on dry Continental tires, which is what most of the ST field also decided to do. I got behind the wheel and my entire 90 minute stint was in wet and variable conditions and I was loving it. Picking off car after car, I made my way from 16th at the pit stop, to battling in the top 5, while Ryan in the #75 was battling for the lead. Track position was everything in this race, because other than the first caution, the race never went yellow again. We were the two fastest cars on track for most of the race and it was the most fun I’ve had all year. It was a great day for the team, taking the win for the #75 and a solid 7th for James and myself on a track where we didn’t think we’d even be in contention for a top 10.

A solid weekend in Austin is an encouraging way to approach the final race at Road Atlanta, a track that should be good for our Civics, wet or dry. But it’s also bittersweet to know that this season of ups and downs is coming to an end. I hope to have another upbeat race report and more news about my 2015 ride after Road Atlanta. Make sure to set your DVRs and tune in to Fox Sports 1 on Sunday September 28that noon to watch the race for yourself! Thanks as always to Loudbasstard, Titan Motorsports and Compass360 for the great support and a shout-out to BeTheMatch.org, a great cause that we support on the #74 car.

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