Updated: Dec 7, 2020
A phone call while stuffing my face with Vietnamese steamed buns is not one I would typically answer, but since it was a race team owner, I decided to oblige. It had been a few months since I drove for defending team champion TechSport Racing in my first-ever experience in SRO World Challenge TC America. The details were quickly confirmed and I instantly began making arrangements to be at Watkins Glen in two weeks. I’d be driving the recently rebuilt #24 Subaru BRZ for the first time since its wreck at Portland.
The Glen holds a nostalgic place in my heart. Born less than 100 miles away, I devoted dozens of childhood weekends to idolizing my father as he skirted around “The Esses” and “The Boot.” It’s also the site of my first SCCA Majors victory and arguably the most naturally scenic, historic racetrack in the United States. Chomping at the bit to tackle this circuit in familiar machinery at another SRO World Challenge event, I turned countless laps on my simulator, watched hours of on-board footage, and felt cautiously confident upon arriving in New York.
Unfortunately, a fairytale homecoming would not be in the cards. Despite leading the team, manufacturer, and driver points championships, TechSport was not immune to the cruel fate occasionally dictated by the racing gods, and we would be repeatedly tested throughout a challenging weekend.
With the intention of safely and smartly getting up to speed in Friday’s first practice session, I set off to build tire heat when I was confronted with my first sign of trouble. The car suddenly refused to exceed 4500 RPM and would buck wildly when approaching that limit. I hobbled back to pit road where the team ran diagnostics, cleared the codes, and sent me back on track. The glitch returned within a lap and after a few rounds of this sequence, we parked the car with the intention of investigating more deeply after the session.
The TechSport crew studied the data, spotted an issue, and swapped a handful of components right on cue for the second practice. Gripping tightly to the apexes, our car was unearthing more potential through each sector. I was beginning to press the friendly limits of the Subaru when a red flag fluttered in front of my windshield; a TCR Audi went nose-first into a tire wall. The engines roared back onto the track after the carnage was cleared up, but limp mode returned like a pesky rat in our attic. Back in the pits, the crew performed the code-clearing song and dance again. This time the mechanics received a standing ovation! With only three laps remaining, I sliced chunks of time off of my splits and was poised to gain more speed in qualifying the next morning.
With dew still dampening the asphalt, drivers had merely fifteen minutes to earn their starting position. My teammates and I were flying nose to tail through The Bus Stop for the first time when the unwelcome “brap-brap-brap” sound of engine cutoff reared its ugly head. I waved my right hand at the other drivers and bitterly pulled off-line. Waiting for me in pit stall sixteen, my crew lead had the laptop ready to remedy the problem when my teammate in the #95 Subaru BRZ slammed into the tire wall at The Laces. The session ended abruptly, and most drivers would be slotted based on their only complete lap. Meanwhile, we were left to investigate a case we thought we’d cracked.
(Tourist Sidebar #1: Watkins Glen State Park is a tranquil respite for an anxious driver on a Saturday afternoon)
Our smashed #95 race car retired for the weekend and the rest of us were scattered throughout the field. Without an honest qualifying lap, I would be starting from the back of the grid so the team exchanged more parts and contrived a plan to prioritize getting answers over outright race pace.
The car’s inopportune retort came before its tires ever laid down rubber. Like blowing air into a Nintendo game cartridge, I tried a few different varieties of the classic electronic “hard reset”, but could barely keep up on the formation lap. After ducking into the pits, the crew toiled with the computer as the radio crackled out the news that TechSport teammate and current championship leader, #91 Nick Wittmer, had crumpled his Subaru BRZ against the guardrail of the inner loop while leading the race. I lost a lap under the full-course yellow but chased down the back of the pack before the race started up again. Ready to see if I could synchronize with the rest of the drivers, I lined up just like I would have for the initial start. As “GREEN GREEN GREEN” echoed in my ear, I slammed the go pedal down, and … the field left me. I crossed the finish line down on power, but limp mode free. #44 P.J. Groenke finished sixth while #22 Damon Surzyshyn brought his racecar home in eleventh. With #91’s wreckage piled up under the tent next to the remnants from #95’s earlier impact, TechSport was left with three usable Subaru BRZs: one in competition form, one with a blown engine suffered at the end of the race, and mine with bewildering technical complications. The crew hustled overnight to concoct three podium-suitable race cars while other teammates shook hands over an arrangement to allow Wittmer to compete in a different car for a chance to keep the points lead for the season.
(Tourist Sidebar #2: Seneca Lodge is the go-to place to eat, drink, and/or stay. It’s affordable, you’ll rub elbows with a bunch of racers, and you’ll probably keep your change from the bar. If you’re too good for the Lodge, then indulge yourself in a full order of garlic knots at Jerlando’s. You’ve never had so much butter in your life.)
Mustering up confidence for Sunday’s race was an arduous task without laps at race pace nor assurance that the #24 race car would be ready for action. The freedom of nothing to lose nevertheless allowed me to instantly start laying down laps two seconds faster than I had earlier in the weekend. Admittedly, I wasn’t battling for a position but came to blows with a fading transmission after a shift refused to land in gear. Suddenly, upshifts were forced to become very gentle while downshifts turned into prayers that were answered about half the time. An eighth-place finish ensured the gearbox made it back to the paddock with room for improvement for the next race weekend at Road America.
The TechSport crew loaded up the sister Subarus for the haul back to the team shop at VIR, knowing that rotten luck had overcome winning pace. The team did a great job tackling all manner of obstacles and I’m thankful for their tireless work. I had high hopes for the weekend, but a lot has to break right to step on the podium. There is plenty to learn when things don’t go your way, and I look forward to facing The Glen on better terms in the future!