The first of my columns for one of Australia's premier motorsport publications, 321 Ignition Magazine. To read article easily I've provided a transcript.
Life in the States Part One:
Well it’s just over three months since I touched down in the USA, and what a few months it has been.
The IMSA Lites Championship couldn’t have started better. Two wins from two starts at Sebring, with all its history and tradition.
It seems like a life time ago though, and I guess 8 weeks is a long break in any racing calendar, but as I write this I’m heading back to Sebring to instruct at a Dodge Viper driver training school and I have just completed a two day test at Road Atlanta, so I’m keeping pretty busy.
I thought in my first report from over here I would touch on what life is like for me over here in the States, and the differences in the racing scene between the two countries and series I’m racing in, IMSA Lites.
The racing industry over here is full on. Everything is on a bigger scale. There are at least four circuit racing governing bodies and lots of strong categories. A big Winnebago or goose neck trailer is the minimum, even for people racing club level Formula Vee. An SCCA paddock looks more like a V8 Supercar paddock than a club meeting, with all the transporters, scooters and golf buggies.
Yet I think the standard of race preparation, competition, and level of expertise in Australia is just as high. So don’t ever think that Australia is behind the rest of the world when it comes to racing! We’re not. It’s just there is so much more of it over here at a high standard.
Racing in IMSA Lites as part of the American Le Mans series is awesome. The crowd at Sebring was amazing. The place was absolutely packed. The entire infield was a sea of RV’s, flags and race fans who would give any Bathurst tragic a run for his money as being the rowdiest, drunk and most passionate.
The Series is run extremely professionally. IMSA is the sanctioning body for the ALMS and we are treated in much the same manner. We have our own Chief Steward, Press officer, as well as Series Manager. Like the big boys, very much the onus is put on the teams and drivers to abide by the rules and safety regulations. There is no room for interpretation of the rules and this makes the Championship the best spec series I’ve ever raced in.
If it’s not in the rules. You can’t do it. You can’t try anything on. Two of the drivers in L1 nearly got rubbed out at Sebring because the car manufacturer Elan had changed the location of the front splitter support cables and they were found to not comply. In no way was this a performance gain but the cars didn’t meet homologation.
As far as the status of the Series goes, there is no doubt IMSA Lites is becoming more recognized and more competitive. The series is a great stepping stone to Star Mazda, Indy or ALMS. Gerado Bonilla, the 2007 L1 Champion did the same IndyPro test as James Davison with the Sam Schmidt Motorsport team and this year he’s driving the BP Mazda factory prototype sportscar in the American Le Mans Series.
The category is divided into three classes; L1, L2 and L3. The L1 cars are an Elan DP02 based on the Star Mazda tub with a 2.3L Mazda 4 cylinder engine producing 230hp. The L2s use the much lighter West semi-tubbed chassis with the fast revving Kawasaki ZX10R motor and gearbox providing 175hp. Both are now using tunnel floors, although the West tunnels extend the entire length of the floor like Indy and Champ Cars.
Essentially the West is faster around corners, but the Elan has more torque and is much more forgiving out of the corners. Both L1 and L2 are turning lap times that are as fast as, or faster than GT2 in the ALMS. Then there’s L3 which is based on the Formula SCCA Enterprise space frame chassis and uses a de-spec. Mazda producing 170hp.
In terms of the competition, we are racing for outright bragging honours, but our overall position doesn’t affect the class race or championship points.
The different car characteristics makes life pretty interesting in the races. You can really use the L1’s to your advantage, by putting them between yourself and the next L2. However, obviously they can also make life difficult when you’re trying to extend your lead by holding you up.
It really makes for very tactical racing, and prepares you for the multi-class racing in American Le Mans.
So what’s life like in the States? What’s it like going from having a day job and racing on the weekends to racing full time? Well, in some ways it’s much the same. In other ways it’s a world apart.
I thought I would have plenty of time on my hands in America given that all I’m doing is racing (my VISA doesn’t allow me to work).
However, I feel I’m just as busy if not more so. Having to personally organise much more of my racing, I have really come to appreciate the amount of time and effort my father, Mike, spent outside of preparing my cars.
I generally head to the PVM Racing factory once or twice a week. There I help prepare my car, check on where the guys are up to and plan for the next outing. I have complete faith in my mechanic Chas and engineer Jake, but I really take the Allan Moffat gave me before I left for the USA - ‘Double check everything yourself, then you’ve only got yourself to blame if something goes wrong on the track.’
The rest of my days are spent doing publicity, such as writing this article or press releases, working on sponsorship proposals, analyzing the next circuit I’ll be at, and getting fit.
I’ve found I really need to work on my arm and neck muscles. The circuits over here, such as Road Atlanta, are so much more demanding with many more high down force flat out corners than we have in Australia. I go to the gym and run every day. I am constantly trying to improve my fitness/strength while decreasing my weight.
The biggest challenge for me is to turn up to a completely new circuit every time I go to a race meeting. Yes, in many regards it’s just another circuit, but I think it’s fair to say the circuits over here are generally far more demanding and challenging.
Up until the last couple of weeks I’ve been completely focused on racing. Most of my time has been spent just making sure the car and I are prepared for the next outing.
Obviously when you move to a different country you leave all your friends behind. What you also quickly realize is you leave all your contacts behind as well. So one of my other main focuses is to create a network of friends in and outside the motor racing fraternity.
I’ve just begun to make friends within the ex-pat community here in Atlanta. Would you believe there’s even an Aussie rules footy team here, the Atlanta Kookaburras?
Next week I’m catching up with Leigh Diffy (ex Channel 10 commentator). He’s living in Atlanta and working on Speed Channel over here as one of its lead commentators. I’m also going to a reception with the New Zealand Ambassador. Then it’s nearly time to go to Utah for rounds three and four!
So for now I’ll leave you with a little off-the-record gossip I heard at Road Atlanta the other day. Everyone over here is generally ecstatic with the Indy/Champcar merger, but I’ve heard a few people have quit their jobs in Champcar teams because they are not Tony George fans.
A bit of an over reaction I would have thought, given how positive everything looks.
Anyway, now I’m starting to hear a few people mumble about the potential of another merger. Apparently Grand-Am isn’t what it used to be financially, and a few think it may fall to the way-side next year to give the American Le Mans Series even bigger fields. So as they say, watch this space!