Behind the Scenes: The NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series powered by iRacing.com – Making the Best of Very Little
August 16th, 2016 by Matt Holden
It’s been a long time since we had one of these articles. It’s no secret that, while Gale Force Racing has flourished in the Class B and Class C series this year, our NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series efforts have been less than stellar. In the 2014 season, the #05 car wasn’t off by much, but when compared with the 2013 season it could have been called a disaster. The 2015 season wasn’t bad either, but the entire field got eclipsed by a single car that was essentially racing itself until late in the season when build changes reunited the field and brought its own controversies.
Almost every season of the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series has seen a rule change of some kind in terms of the cars themselves. The 2010 season started on the original “Generation 1” COT, 2011 swapped the wing for the spoiler, 2012 replaced the nose, 2013 went to the “Gen6″ car, 2014 went to mega-downforce and high engine power, 2015 cut the power and downforce, and 2016 cut the downforce even further. With changes coming so frequently, and multiple builds peppered throughout a relatively short season, whoever hits the rule changes the best is going to run away with the season. Those who get caught out will get run over, it’s that simple. While Nick was extremely comfortable with the 2013 rules, the removal of minimum ride heights in 2014 put our whole team behind because of the challenges that introduced. Ironically, the car that walked away from everyone last year ran something that was very similar to what we used in 2013, which never crossed our minds to even consider.
This rules package has been very difficult for us, to say the least. You would think that we could take what is helping us win the Class B races and incorporate it into the Class A vehicles, but it’s far from simply swapping setups over. Springs behave differently, weight isn’t distributed the same (15” ballast gives a different nose weight for both cars, for instance), and most importantly: downforce isn’t balanced the same on the two cars. Finding a package that suits each simracer is something we’ve left in their own hands, and Nick’s quest for a car that is simply “comfortable” has been an uphill battle in so many ways. He’s tried older setups, new setups, even the wacky stuff that other cars are running, and nothing is really ringing true.
When the car itself is not capable of winning, we’ve had to resort to other means to steal positions away from the cars that are capable of winning. While we’ve been able to do that very well at a few races (Phoenix and California, for example) it’s largely gone un-noticed. Well…it went un-noticed until last week’s race at Watkins Glen.
The road course races are always fun and always seem to have a storyline when it comes to pit strategy. While we had a very easy race last year, this year’s race was not so easy, and I can honestly say that I have very few fingernails left after that finish. Two distinct strategies showed up during the race and while I expected the alternate 2-stop strategy, I didn’t expect a single car to attempt it.
If we roll the clock back a week, we’re still situated up at Watkins Glen International, however in a different car. The Class B series ran Watkins Glen a week earlier than the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series, and the race was 41 laps long. In those races, I saw everyone pit only once, usually around lap 20 to split the race in two. The NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series race was only 9 laps longer, so the idea that this would add a third pit stop seemed silly and we hadn’t even considered it at all leading up to the race.
To plan out the strategy, I asked Nick for 30 laps consecutively at race pace to see where the tires gave up. He had worked through all kinds of setup options for the race, but after finding nothing of value went back to the 2015 car and settled for that. After only 25 laps, he said, “This is all it has, it won’t go to 30.” So the car could go 25 laps, and with a 50-lap race that pretty much cemented the strategy with no wiggle room at all. Other cars were probably going to be able to go longer, past lap 25 while maintaining pace, and leaving us in the dust. Since everyone made the race on one stop in 2015, it was a pretty depressing thought to have leading up to the race.
Before the race started, Ben Welvaert, crew chief for the #39, asked me if we were going to make one or two stops. “One, for sure, lap 25”, I said. He told me others were going to make two stops, splitting the race into three segments of about 17 laps. Some quick math said that the 2-stoppers would need to average a few seconds faster every lap to catch the cars that made only one stop, and I again brushed it off as something that wasn’t going to happen. In California, I managed to work one stop out of Nick’s race, vaulting him up to a much higher finishing position than he would have gotten by staying on-schedule with the other cars, so if cars actually did make an extra stop at The Glen, this would not be impossible.
Like I said in an article last year, race strategy is simply taking the total time spent on track plus the time spent on pit road, and making that as short as possible. Pit road is pretty much constant, and this year the time lost on pit road could be anywhere from 35 to about 42 seconds for an exceptionally bad detour. We can’t change this time, so adding pit stops adds this much time to the race every single time. We knew everyone would have to make at least one stop, and making a second stop would add this much time, meaning whoever made the second stop would really need to be up and after it to make up the time. One person did, and just barely!
Nick Ottinger and Michael Johnson both crashed our Class B Series party the week before by running Watkins Glen with our normal Class B crew. They pretty much spanked us, but Allen Boes left us all with our heads spinning. That race was 41 laps long, meaning most everyone stopped on or around lap 20 and split the race in two. I was not so fortunate, and despite holding pace with these guys early, I was having an issue with the engine oil overheating in the early laps. I eventually figured out a shift pattern to keep the temps down, but I decided to pit on lap 12, leaving me at a huge disadvantage later in the race because I now had to make tires go 30 laps instead of 20 and maintain the pace at the end of the race to keep from getting steamrolled.
My personal experience from doing this directly fed into the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series race a week later with Nick in a similar situation: he and Michael Conti were going to have to make a set of tires last ten laps longer than the 2-stoppers. Similar to how my Xfinity car was slightly off-pace from the leaders, Nick’s car was just barely off of what the frontrunners could do. Obviously the first run is simply a “Get to the pit stop” run, but the second run was the strategy run. When he left pit road on lap 26, I reminded him a few times to not be hard on the car early because the pressures needed to rise evenly. An over-inflated tire on lap 30 would spell disaster by lap 40 and there’d be no recovery for that. I only added one more statement, “Smooth and steady, hold back until lap 36”.
Lap 36 wasn’t a number I just came up with randomly, it’s when I knew at least two cars (PJ and Jake Stergios) would be pushing hard on new tires. If they split the race into three stages, each run would be 16-17 laps each, putting them on pit road on laps 33 and 34. A lap or two would be all that was needed to get the tires up to temperature and for them to start charging for the lead, so lap 36 was when Nick needed to have the tires saved to where he could drop his own pace to match what they were doing and (hopefully) keep the gap closing as slow as possible. If he didn’t have anything left in the car at lap 40 to match pace with those two, that would be the point where our race was no longer something we could control.
Go out and steal a win, maybe even steal a 2nd place finish like we did, and I guarantee you it’ll be the best feeling you’ve had in racing.
From lap 36 to the finish, I simply gave Nick laptimes and gaps. I watched Jake’s march through the field on new tires with PJ not far behind, while Nick was reeling in Conti for the lead. I was hoping for two things: 1) One of the Stergios children had an issue, and 2) Nick didn’t pass Conti for the lead when he got there. The first one is simply to make the race easier to win, because if both Jake and PJ made it to the lead, they’d easily be able to dispatch both Nick and Michael and then have the lead for themselves to fight over. A single car faces a tougher challenge when passing, which leads into the second one. If Nick passed Michael for the lead, he could have used up his tires in doing so, which couldn’t happen.
Jake got tangled up with some cars with a few laps to go, allowing PJ a clear field up to third place. He caught and drove around Nick without a challenge, as I had expected, but his approach to the lead was…not quite as elegant. I, like most everyone, have my opinion on whether the finish was acceptable or not, but it’s not my position to say anything about it. I will say that he and Jake made a phenomenal run in the final 10 laps, and turned it into the most exciting finish I’ve ever seen.
My point here is not to explain strategy, it’s not to describe my point of view for the most talked-about race in NPAS history, it’s to explain that it is possible to take a car that is not necessarily capable of winning (or finishing in the top 5, even) and manipulate what you have at your disposal to steal a good finish. Since I started running the Class B series this year, I’ve noticed many drivers just following whatever the leader is doing and they never gain any ground on him. If the leader pits every 25 laps, the majority of the field does the same. Cars will pit under caution after 6 laps of green simply because the leaders did. Drivers that stay out usually get fussed at in chat when they have every right to do so, and they should. I’ve done it many times, and I almost universally disable chat afterwards because if their car is good, they should be able to get around me.
When you’re next in a race where you may not have a perfect car, or you thought you did but someone’s slightly more perfect, don’t resign yourself to a 5th or 10th place finish because of that. Look at the big picture, see what you can do to gain some positions, and act on it. You’re never going to pass a car if you do exactly what the other car is doing, so you have to shake things up every now and then. Go out and steal a win, maybe even steal a 2nd place finish like we did, and I guarantee you it’ll be the best feeling you’ve had in racing.