As I said last week, Road Atlanta is one of the more difficult race tracks we go to during the season. It’s a super fast, super twisty, and very narrow course. Passing is pretty much impossible as there are really only 3 clean passing zones on the entire track. Patience truly is a virtue around here and the lack there of ended quite a few of the front runners races.
I seem to be having one of my best seasons on the road courses this year. I worked on my setup for a couple days prior to our race and was feeling confident I would have a decent showing going into practice. I was amazed when I ended our practice session with a 1:08.952 just under a second behind the leaders placing me in 7th place. This was quite the improvement considering last season my best lap was a 1:10.6. Heading into qualifying I was excited to get started. I knew it was going to be difficult to put down a clean lap with 31 cars on track and I thought if I could manage to get a fast lap posted I might be able to gain a few more positions on drivers who were slowed by other cars. The fastest I managed to go was a 1:09.096, not as fast as I had been but pretty respectable. I watched with anticipation as the qualifying timer ticked down. With less than two minutes left three drivers posted lap times better than mine. So, unfortunately, I was pushed back to 9th place. I would start just behind Highcroft Engineer Ben Bretzman and in front of Firestone Indy Lights driver Martin Plowman. IZOD IndyCar Series runner-up Will Power would start in 7th position.
Once again the pace lap was scary. This place is NARROW. While there’s no cork-screw to drive through like at Laguna Seca the esses are equally as challenging. Thankfully all 31 cars made it around to take the green. Yang Ou led the field to the green with Ryan Murray (P2), Andrew Kristensen (P3), Pat Dotson (P4), and Bryan Heitkotter (P5).
I settled in and started to focus on how I was going to pass Ben Bretzman who was just in front of me. Ben was faster through a few corners than I was but I gained on him coming off the last corner and going into the first corner. I can’t explain how difficult it is to remain patient in races like this. More than a few times I contemplated lunging underneath Ben and going for the pass. I managed to convince myself it was a better idea to hang back, put the pressure on and hope he makes a mistake.
On lap 4 Will Power, who was running just in front of Ben, spun giving both Ben and I a position. I figured I didn’t have to worry about Will too much as when I passed him he was off in the grass. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Within two laps Will was all over me. I was trying to focus on Ben to be sure I didn’t make a mistake and take him out but at the same time I was driving in my mirrors as Will closed on me substantially in every single braking zone. I tried to be sure I left the inside open when he started to get close, that way if he made a move he could either get by or if he missed the corner I would be able to avoid him. This went on for about 4 laps before Will spun again coming off the last corner.
I was able to relax again and focus on putting pressure on Ben. After about three laps Ben made a mistake and spun off allowing me to take his position. I now had a nice gap in front of me so I could work on putting down consistent quick laps. On lap 12 leader Yang Ou spun off at the exit of esses and collected second place driver Ryan Murray.
While Ryan managed to keep running he gave up the lead to Andrew Kristensen. I was running quite well and had moved up to 5th position by lap 16. Unfortunately, I started getting the low fuel warning. I had made a mistake and not filled my car up prior to the start so I was going to have to stop early. This worried me even more as I wasn’t sure a full tank would make it from there and I was concerned I was going to have to make a second stop while everyone else was on a one stop strategy. I had a nice gap so I only lost two positions coming out of the pits putting me in 7th place.
I pushed as hard as I could for the next 15 laps and by lap 32 I was up to 6th place. Disaster struck the next lap as leader Andrew Kristensen made contact with Tim Holgate going through the chicane, effectively knocking Andrew out of the race.
This accident enabled me to slip into 5th place with 8 laps to go. I was becoming increasingly worried about my fuel. I had a nice gap on the next car behind me so I went into fuel conservation mode. I started lifting early going into corners, coasting in as late as I could, and short shifting through the gears on exit. It seemed to be working although it was going to be close. To make matters worse on lap 37 I spun off and brushed the wall just slightly bending my front suspension. Miraculously the car still handled decently and since I was conserving fuel I didn’t have to press the issue too much. I managed to limp the car home and finish in 5th place. It’s not a win but with how competitive the road courses are in our league it’s very satisfying. Last season I was crashed out of this race two laps in so finishing was quite rewarding.
Bryan Heitkotter took home the win with Tim Holgate (P2), Pat Dotson (P3), Ryan Murray (P4), and myself rounding out the top 5. Firestone Indy Lights driver Martin Plowman finished in 7th place while Will Power finished in 18th.
This week we head to New Hampshire. A new track for the IZOD IndyCar Series this coming 2011 season but this will be the second time the 16th Street Racing League has run here. New Hampshire is a ton of fun. Short track racing in IndyCars is incredible. New Hampshire is particularly challenging as you can’t run at the bottom at all. If you venture down there you have about a 98% chance of spinning. We should have another full field so it should be a carnage filled event!