Mark Paterson joined Dyson Racing at Virginia International Raceway and again at the season-ending Petit Le Mans Powered by Mazda where he shared driving duties in the #20 Dyson Racing P1 entry with Tony Burgess and Chris McMurry. A quick and seasoned driver, Mark also writes a running commentary during race weekends. Here is his inside look, impressions, opinions and irreverent observations on the Petit race week:
It was Wednesday, the first formal practice day, and the peach-like sun shone brightly all day with little wind. As race day nears, the paddock is filling up and a full count will be available tomorrow. Right now it looks like we`ll have at least 3 LMP1s, 7 or more LMP2 shining in black and gold Lotus grandeur or retro orange and light blue badges, French teams, English teams, American teams and drivers from all over the world.
Several notables include Indy champion Ryan Hunter-Reay (lovely Beccy is well along with their first baby due in January 2013), Dario Franchitti and his folically challenged younger brother, Marino, and of course in the car department, the slender-nosed Nissan Delta Wing car is here to compete.
Thursday showed up with showers at night and such heavy clouds through the morning that the track didn`t dry out until right before lunch. Two of us used the session to just peddle around getting used to the very heavy traffic, practicing anger management techniques that could save our race. The afternoon session let Chris McMurry do lots of push-ups until he was up to speed and comfortable pushing the car. By this stage all drivers thought they had a pretty good grip on the car, the buttons, switches, steering controls…until they switched the lights out in Gieeorgah for the mandatory all-driver night practice. Holy cow, I felt like Ray Charles just getting out of pit lane with the pit speed limiter still on. Ridiculous how you can go from full-testosterone to all-petticoat mode in a nanosecond in these violently fast cars. With hot tires and chilly blood running through your veins, nothing shows your ineptitude more quickly that the blind black turn-in point into the downhill esses. It`s tough to get the rhythm right in full daylight and at night it`s a complete stab in the dark. This is a driver`s track in any car, but at night, it requires the eyes of night owl, reflexes of a bat and the lunatic fringe courage of a Kamikaze pilot.
Friday brought back the impeccable 45 degree morning`s heavy with dew and a chill to the air, unfolding into 70-75 degree late summer skies and winds not difficult to drive in. Again our engineer Vince Wood pushed Chris McMurry into the car for more than half the session. I went out on Chris` tires and found the car very good to drive but still a little pushy through the fast corners. Adjustment, new tires and out for 4 or 5 more fast laps. Traffic was in heart attack mode, so I could only feel the car in places, with no really great lap time at all. But the car felt a lot better and I`d had a chance to feel the car with a light fuel load and fresh tires, just perfect as the last memories before jumping in to Qualify. Tony Burgess has to stand down for this session, but will get tomorrow morning`s 20 minute warm-up stint to himself with full tank, readying himself for the start of the race. Rather him than me.
Vince threw some Tennessee twayanggg at me about: “We be breaking into an 11 t`day, son” which in English means I will cut your head off if you qualify at 1 minute 12 seconds or higher. Our 3 drivers hadn`t reached lower than a 1:12.7 yet. The front of the LMP1 grid had put in amazing laps like 1:10 flat or 1:10.4, which is more than cause for pulling out the respect-o-meter again. It was tense, but Vince had added a little rake to remove the last hints of understeer and it worked like a charm. I tucked James Weaver and Steven Kane hints into the inner folds of my brain, made tiny adjustments to the turn-in points at 3 corners and used 4th gear in 2 corners instead of 3rd and before too long we`d broken down below the magic 1 minute 12 second layer and put 3 of the final 4 fast laps at 11.8, 11.9 and 11.8. This felt so good, though we had to settle for 4th on the grid behind the Dyson #16 car driven by pro driver Guy Smith with their first ever lap down at almost a 10-flat, the previous best of the week for any car. P1 and P2 poles went to drivers with 1:09 flat and 1:09.4, truly insane lap times. The LMP2 cars qualified right up our tail pipes within a hair of each other, so the race will be a glorious thing to behold tomorrow. Final tally is 4 LMP1s, 7 LMP2s and maybe 7 LMP9s, not to mention the army of GT cars in the field, all spelling traffic with a capital “T.”
Quick 20 minute warm up session with heavy fuel loads and fresh tires for our starting drivers and then an hour-plus on the grid where every undecided Georgia voter and the entire hoard of ALMS fans camped out all over this 2.5 mile track, and swarmed all over, shooting shots of the slender lines, sculpted curves and gorgeous smiles of our flag girls. They also took pictures of our race cars.
Outrageously strong start by Tony Burgess for the first 4 laps hanging onto Chris Dyson`s 16 car like glue. Unfortunately he lost power and had to restart the engine, losing 10 seconds on that lap alone and getting passed by 3 or 4 LMP2 cars, causing another 1.5 to 2 second slippage per lap until he made it back past all these drivers. Chris had a challenging set of tires so couldn`t hold the pace of the P1 Rebellion LMP1 nor the # 6 Muscle Milk driven by Lucas Luhr. Just before the hour, in for fuel, both drivers stayed in, but our 20 car was awarded a stop and go penalty for exceeding the pit speed limit of 60 kph. Ouch.
Chris McMurry took the wheel under yellow flag conditions when the # 6 car was trucked back to the pits after contact with a slower car, and was holding P3 in class and P9 overall when he came in for fuel at the 2 hour mark.
After my stint, all 3 drivers shared the dummy award for having a speed limiter incident in pit lane. One driver making that mistake is normally a no-no, but all 3, now that takes some practice, lots of coordination and IQs well below room temperature. These are tiny incidents with ugly consequences – drive-through time at 60 kph plus the 20 second hold in the penalty box cumulatively put us 4 laps down at this short and speedy track. Other than the IQ problem, the car was running great and all 3 drivers enjoyed double stints of about 90 to 100 minutes, given the limits of the fuel tanks.
During my stint we moved up from about P12 to P5 or P4, maintaining our P2 position in the LMP1 class. Vince kept up a chorus of input about the next position and the seconds to close the gap – great short term goal setting and we had the car to reach each of the goals he kept setting. In my drive in an LMP2 car last year, the traffic was irritating but manageable. In the LMP1, the speeds are so high we can`t get a single clean lap ever. Really a challenge not to blow your stack or get involved in an incident after being robbed, lap after lap, of a good lap time. It`s actually not the same for everyone, as all other classes are slower and therefore have a closing speed differential way lower than we do and hence deal with lower number of GT and LMPC passes than we do.
Tony Burgess finished his 2nd stint in our car and right now Chris McMurry is clocking the latter half of his 2nd stint. We`re on Lap 274 versus the Rebellion Lotus leading from the 280th lap. Overall P2 and P3 are LMP2 cars, so there`s work to do with some of them 3 to 4 laps ahead of us….see IQ reference above.
Frustratingly long yellow flag situation with both drivers reporting no track work, but this ain`t racing as we crawl toward the last 3 hours of the race. Just heard from race control as the green flag dropped to restart the real race we all came to compete in: the delay was a software/data glitch where the accuracy of everyone`s laps and who was leading which class was subject to question. Can`t keep compounding that problem with hot laps, but now it`s all sorted out and lunacy is legal again. In fact, one LMP2 car only made it into Turn 1`s wall, dropping 3 laps before getting under way. And once again a yellow parade was called to rearrange everyone`s drink bottle, restarting on lap 297. Everyone`s lights are on, the sun is down and the last wispy clouds reflect pink and purple in the distance while the drivers enjoy the remaining visible laps of this epic race. It`s 7:30 PM and in half an hour or less the curtain comes down and it`s pitch back racing till 9:30.
Chris McMurry hustled around like a man committed to making history with only 2 hours to go, while Vince gave me the “10 laps to go sign”, so I jogged up without going to the port-a-john this time and waited nervously behind the spread of mechanics ready to leap across the wall with air guns, tires, driver water bottles, tire gauges and as much optimism and commitment as the drivers themselves. Chris brought the rubber-splattered nose into the pit box after more than 7 hours of racing, leapt out for what turned out to be our last driver change and I blasted out of the pits on new tires, focused only on keeping out of trouble and getting us that P2 trophy. Keeping out of trouble to a race car driver is not the same concept off the race track. You can`t help trying to brake later, getting on the gas earlier in Turn 5, pushing harder out of Turn 10b, but you take fewer chances passing slower traffic and fool yourself you`re protecting the team`s podium chances, while in truth you`re trying to beat Baumgarten`s free fall speed record.
The tires came in surprisingly quickly and I got to hustling around like in the mid-afternoon stint in no time at all, enjoying every moment. Ripping out of the slow 2nd gear Turn 7 and trying to haul in the Muscle Milk car, we suddenly had bright red lights filling the top of the steering wheel.
I recall as the crew wheeled the car behind the wall remembering the gracious comment made to my wife Elena and me by Greg Pickett, the owner of the Muscle Milk car after their early accident: “That`s racing” – no complaints, no bitterness, just head down and plow on to the end. This was our turn to have fortune`s switchblade stick one in our ribs and all we needed were another 18 laps on the track to make the P2 podium finish out of range for both the Dyson # 16 and the Muscle Milk # 6 cars. Under the tent the diagnosis was permanent electrical issues and there would be no more racing today. So Elena and I thanked the team for their effort and wandered up to Vanessa`s wonderful tented dining hall to watch the remaining laps tick by on TV, still registering the 20 car as OUT but holding vainly onto P2, losing that precious safety margin one lap at a time until, like the ocean`s unmovable tides, our castle was washed away forever with a few laps left to run. The impressive black and gold Lotus Rebellion team took overall victory, the Dyson #16 took our P2 trophies (I know they`ll forward them to Tony, Chris and me in due course) and Muscle Milk claimed P3. (The #20 car took home third place ALMS P1 points).
Win or lose, it`s hard to beat these amazing endurance racing experiences, especially with a team as friendly and welcoming as the Dyson family operation. We all had a ball preparing the car, defining the setup, practicing, qualifying, racing, and of course visiting with friends from far and wide: Ryan Hunter-Raey, Luis Dias, Marc Goosens, Chip Ganassi, the Franchitti brothers, Bill Riley, Michael Shank, Max Angelleli, Wayne Taylor, Dave Donohue, Antonio Garcia and all the fans who have followed us around the Grand Am and ALMS paddocks for almost a decade.