Don’t mess with Texas…weather. The penultimate round of the 2014 IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge was held at the world-class Circuit of the Americas just outside of Austin, Texas on September 19th. The street-stock sports car series put on a great show for the fans during a race where Mother Nature was the biggest factor in both the race’s outcome and the championship points standings.
The 3.4-mile track, which hosts the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix, was constructed in 2012. The IMSA Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge visited the track for the first time in 2013. The track features super-smooth pavement and copious amounts of paved track runoff to allow drivers to get back on-track without getting stuck in gravel or sliding in grass—minimizing caution periods to retrieve cars.
The weekend followed a two-day format with two practice sessions and qualifying on Thursday, with the 2.5-hour race on Friday. Billy Johnson and Ian James were fastest in practice driving the No. 158 Mulitmatic Motorsports Mustang BOSS 302R, followed by Tim Bell and Dane Cameron in the No. 28 Tim Bell Racing Nissan 370Z. Eric Curran and Lawson Aschenbach lead the Camaro Z/28.R contingent with the No. 01 CKS Autosport Camaro recording the third-quickest time in practice.
During Thursday afternoon’s qualifying session, Johnson set the fastest time to earn pole position, followed by his veteran teammate Scott Maxwell in the No. 15 Multimatic Motorsports Mustang BOSS 302R. Setting the third quickest time was Hugh Plumb in the No. 13 Rum Bum Racing Porsche, and rounding out the two front rows was Eric Curran in the No. 01 CKS Autosport Camaro Z/28.R.
Rain periodically dampened the track throughout the weekend, and the forecast for Friday’s race called for much of the same. The 52 cars in the Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge field took the green flag as the skies darkened to the northwest.
On the race’s opening lap, Tim Bell lost the brakes heading into turn twelve, and his No. 28 Nissan 370Z shot into the barriers at over 130 miles per hour! The driver said over his radio, “I hit the brake and nothing happened at all.” Amazingly, Bell walked away from the crash. The incident resulted in a lengthy caution period to extract the Nissan and repair the barriers.
Consistent with the string of bad racing luck that is plaguing the No. 13 Rum Bum Racing Porsche, driver Hugh Plumb had to bring the rear-engined sports car down pit lane on the first lap so the team could replace the accessory drive belt, which was broken by a piece of debris on the race’s opening lap. Hugh Plumb returned to the race two laps down.
The cleanup and repairs to the track took nearly 30 minutes to complete. With the race back under green, racers started making their moves. Scott Maxwell in the No. 15 BOSS 302R was spun, and the No. 07 Aston Martin was called to the pits to serve a stop-and-go penalty for the contact. At lap twelve, the running order was Billy Johnson (No. 158 Mustang), Eric Curran (No. 01 Camaro) up to second, followed by Andrew Davis (No. 6 Camaro), and Andy Lally (No. 9 Camaro). Trent Hindman (No. 46 BMW) was on the move, as he gained five positions in four laps.
50 minutes into the race, the dark skies started spitting rain across the circuit. Race strategists studied weather radar images to formulate their plans. The time for first pit stops was approaching, but the track wasn’t wet enough for Continental’s soft, grooved rain tires to survive. First of the front-runners to pit were the Stevenson Camaros (numbers 6 and 9). Points leader Andrew Davis (No. 6 Camaro) handed the Z/28.R over to Robin Liddell. Davis reported that that team remained on “dry” tires despite having the track very wet in the Esses and the middle of the backstraight. But watching the clouds, he felt rain wouldn’t last long and it would be a bigger gamble going to ‘wet’ tires. Teammate Matt Bell brought his No. 9 Camaro for fresh tires, fuel, and to Andy Lally.
When the Camaros pitted, Scott Maxwell’s No. 15 Mustang leapfrogged the Z/28.Rs in the pits to slip behind teammate Johnson in the No. 158 Mustang. Hindman and the No. 46 BMW were up to third for a lap until Hindman brought the Fall-Line Motorspors BMW M3 down pit lane for routine service. He went back out on dry tires as well.
On lap 23, Johnson drove the No. 158 Multimatic Motorsports Mustang BOSS 302 to the pits for fuel, tires, and to hand over driving duties to Ian James. After emerging from the car, Johnson commented, “My stint was crazy. It was dry on the front stretch, dry on the back of the track, and wet in the middle. It wasn’t wet enough for rain tires, so I just had to deal with it.”
Scott Maxwell (No. 15 Mustang) led the next four laps until his BOSS 302R was running on fumes. Maxwell struggled to get to the pits, where Jade Buford got in to drive the car to the finish.
After the first round of pit stops, Lawson Aschenbach (No. 01 Camaro) led Ian James (No. 158 Mustang) until James overtook Aschenbach on lap 33. A few laps later, the cars were within their “fuel window”—meaning that a full load of fuel would get them to the finish. James and Aschenbach pitted, handing the lead to John Edwards (now driving the No. 46 Fall-Line Motorsports BMW) and second place to Tom Kimber-Smith (No. 97 Turner Motorsport BMW). By this point, the rainfall had tapered off, and the track was starting to dry, so those that pitted remained on dry tires.
Strategically, there’s an advantage to being the “first” to complete your last pit stop, as it allows you to pass your competitors in the pits as they pit after you. However, the weather altered the strategic landscape. Instead of coming into the pits at the edge of their fuel window, the Fall-Line Motorsports team waited. They noticed earlier in the weekend that it took the track about 45 minutes to dry out—in other words, if the track was wet, they could safely run rain tires for 45 minutes.
With 40 minutes remaining in the race, the team called Edwards from the lead to the pits for rain tires. Tom Kimber-Smith (No. 97 BMW), Robin Liddell (No. 6 Camaro), Ian James (No. 158 Mustang) all passed Edwards, who rejoined the race in fifth.
However, Edwards was able to drive considerably faster than those in front of him, who were all on slick tires. The differences at corner entry and exit were obvious: those on dry tires had to brake earlier and struggled to put the power down out of each corner. In a few laps, Edwards passed Liddell (No. 6 Camaro) for second. The two cars were not only battling for position, but also for the GS points lead!
With twenty minutes remaining, Tom Kimber-Smith (No. 97 BMW) led John Edwards (No. 46 BMW) by 14.254 seconds—a lifetime under normal conditions—but Edwards’s rain tires allowed him to lap four seconds faster—as Edwards was feverously reeling in Kimber-Smith. 2:36 p.m., Lap 48, Kimber-Smith lead now 4.368 seconds.
On lap 50, Edwards, driving through puddles to cool his soft rain tires, caught and passed Kimber-Smith for the lead with 11 minutes remaining! As Edwards crossed the finish line, John Edwards and Trent Hindman won their second race of the season in No. 46 Fall-Line Motorsports BMW M3, and Hindman retook the points lead from Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis, who finished fourth in No. 6 Stevenson Motorsports Camaro. It was the seventh career victory for Edwards in the series, and second for Hindman, coming on the eve of the young driver’s 19th birthday.
Michael Marsal and Tom Kimber-Smith finished second in the No. 97 Turner Motorsport BMW M3, while Ian James and Billy Johnson brought their No. 158 Multimatic Motorsports Mustang BOSS 302R home third.
Just five championship points separate Hindman and the Fall-Line Motorsports team from Andrew Davis and Robin Liddell heading into the 2014 IMSA Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge season finale at Road Atlanta on October 3rd. The race is run day before the ten-hour IMSA Petit Le Mans Powered by Mazda for the TUDOR Championship, so it’s a great weekend to see the season finales of the two premier sports car racing series in North America!