Ok, to tell the truth I have never played chess and I don’t know my Rook from a Pawn. I have a good idea what it means when the King jumps the Queen but that’s another story. Having won more endurance races than any other team in the U.S., what I do know is how to win endurance races. Many spectators and even racers really don’t have a true understanding of how complex winning an endurance race is let alone an endurance race series. What is there to it? Build a good car, use all the best equipment, have the best drivers and go win, that’s all there is to it. Riiiight.
Winning major endurance races begins with an understanding of what it takes to win. I have also learned not to be intimidated when teams from all over the world show up with their unlimited budgets. All it takes is one bad decision, one missed apex, one mechanical failure or the planets not aligning at the right time. That said, the car must without a doubt be well engineered and prepped and have all the necessary back up parts and a team who knows how to change them should they need it quicker than anyone else. This means lots of thought must be given not only to the “what if” but how each item can be improved so it can be a “quick-change” instead of a repair. For example, our entire rear end assemblies are made into quick change so in the event we should need to change one it would include housing, gears, wheel bearings, brakes, quick disconnect brake lines, and all. Then we rehearse changing it so that everyone knows EXACTLY what tools need to be ready and who does what, etc. We can change an entire rear end and be pulling back onto the track in less than 2 minutes. Then there is transmissions, clutch, and even quick change engines with radiators attached already filled with coolant. Engine change will take us 12 minutes from start to finish. It’s all about preparation.
Then there must be excellent drivers. But equally as important is they must be TEAM drivers with the vision of doing what is expected of them at any given time for the team. These drivers and team members rehearse for hours getting driver changes down to seconds instead of minutes and each one of them not only knows what his responsibilities are but in fact he must know everyone else’s as well.
Teams that win endurance races must know everything they can about other teams and their weaknesses as well. How long can they go on a tank of gas? How long are their pit stops? How are their lap times and more specifically how are each drivers lap times and who is good at night and who is weak when it rains? Are they having any problems with their car today? When a boxer finds his opponent has a cut over an eye he goes to work on it.
There is so much more than these few tid-bits and the one thing that is a constant during an endurance race is, “NOTHING”. I have seen cars with a major lead and only a few laps to go before the checkered flag and just as they came around the corner heading into the home stretch their wheel fell off leaving them 200 feet from the finish line. One year, after almost 25 hours of racing, my car was a minute and 40 seconds in the lead with only 8 laps to go when all of a sudden my driver came on the headset and said, “We don’t have enough fuel to make it.” Talk about indigestion. We knew that the second and third place cars were less than 2 minutes behind us and it only takes 2 minutes to do a lap. We knew that if we pulled into the pits at pit speed to get a splash and go would take us 60 seconds, IF we were fast. Do we risk it or do we take the fuel? If we made even the smallest screw up like killing the engine, get caught speeding in the pits, penalty for spilling fuel, it would all be for naught. We readied ourselves as a lot of spectators and other teams made their way to our pit thinking “It was in the bag” not knowing the current situation. Each one of us reminded each other it was nothing different than any other pit stop we had rehearsed time and time again. At the same time, we knew this one was for all the marbles. The entire procedure was flawless as my driver pulled in and found his mark, took on the gas and got back on the track 20 seconds ahead of the second place car. You have to keep in mind, now the other teams see a glimmer of hope with my car now in their sites and therefore willing to take more risk. Somehow that 20 second lead doesn’t seem so big any more which could put a terrible pressure on the current driver. Stay on the radio and keep him calm and tell him to just hit his marks and be smooth. Just 2 laps to go….. Damn that was a long 2 laps! After 25 hours of the most grueling race in the Western Hemisphere, it seemed almost impossible that these three cars were within 20 seconds of each other on the same lap.
I can’t begin to tell you how my heart is pumping and the adrenaline is pumping just typing this article. So now it’s your move. The next time you can find time, search out a well known team and ask to volunteer your time during the race and become part of the team. I bet you will be surprised how many teams would LOVE to have some help whether it be logging laps on paper (even though there are computers, it’s smart racing) or you can help taking food to drivers and workers, holding lights, tools or running to the tower for important messages and more. By getting involved with a team, you too will understand the adrenaline rush that takes over and forever changes your life. You too can be part of a winning team and understand what it feels like to overcome all adversity and truly know the thrill of victory.