The O’Neil PC Systems Grand Touring Championship (GTC) holds two endurance events every season.  The first of this season saw the ISRA field descend upon the ever popular Watkins Glen.  As one of iRacing’s most visited tracks all competitors have many laps in the books here and everyone was feeling quietly confident in the run-up to the race.  At almost one hour and thirty minutes the online race would be a demanding test of the sim racers’ concentration and mental focus.

Pit strategy is one of the elements that makes the GTC unique among hosted iRacing leagues and certainly adds to the mental gymnastics required during the event.  With such a long race on offer the drivers had a plethora of strategies open to them.  The GT cars were definitely on for two pit stops while tire management could stretch only one stop.  The ST pilots would have to drive incredibly smoothly to make their tires last the whole session and the GS Mustangs would have no option but to take tires.  Pit strategy has often been the difference between winning and losing this season, as it should be in an endurance series!  The extra challenge of a fast pit entry and exit lap very much adds to the drama of the races.  Although both the GS Mustangs and ST MX-5s can run an entire race on one tank of gas, the GTC requires a mandatory pit-stop.  The strategy comes into play when deciding whether to take fuel and tires, just tires, just fuel or neither.  The fueling is very quick in iRacing but the tires can take up to 15 seconds to change.  So for a tire change to be worthwhile the racers have to pick up those 15 seconds and more over the course of the race.  When you consider the traffic and the difficulty of passing other highly competitive cars in your class it adds to the difficulty of making the right choice.

Running very light at the start of the race and pushing the tires hard is one strategy often adopted by some drivers.  The idea is to build up enough of a gap to put on new tires and fuel and come out ahead, or worst case, very close to, their competition.  They can then push as hard as they can to regain or retain the lead.

This strategy was used to great effect by Eric Foss at Phillip Island.  The most common alternate strategy, as employed by Colin MacLean at Phillip Island, is the “stop and go.”  This is bringing the car into the pit box, coming to a complete stop and then immediately rejoining the race.  Making this strategy successful requires careful tire management and the ability to keep close enough to the leader of the race to leapfrog them during their (longer) stop even though the car is both heavier and on tires that need to last longer.  The biggest challenge following the pit stops is keeping a faster car on lower fuel behind for the remainder of the race – not always an easy task with the caliber of drivers in the GTC!  Of course there are as many pit strategy variants as there are competitors and we are sure to see all of the strategies employed at least once during the season.

In the ST class Colin MacLean put his MX-5 on pole with a personal best 2:13.0 ahead of Daniel Graulty at 2:13.85 and Alex Ulleri right behind with a 2:13.88.  Mike Young qualified his Mustang on pole in the GS class with a 2:04.9 closely followed by Jaymz Mynes at 2:05.0.  Chuck Chambliss rounded out the top three with a 2:05.7.  David Sirois continued his dominance of the GT class with pole in his V8 Supercar at 1:48.9.  Chris Damron Jr. was hot on his heels with a 1:49.1 and Andre Michaud grabbed third with a 1:49.2.

The race itself, as they always seem to do in this league, started with nary a hitch.  All 32 cars slotted into place through Turn One and settled into what turned out to be another exciting and fun race.  The GS Mustangs of Randy Wolfgram, Lance Snyder and Karl Mumbower engaged in an epic race-long battle in the heart of the pack.  The starting order was Wolfgram, Snyder and Mumbower.  Snyder latched onto Wolfgram’s bumper and hounded him hard as the race progressed.  Barely half a second separated the drivers for the vast majority of the race.  Wolfgram was able to hold Snyder behind with slightly quicker pace but Snyder would make it difficult in the Carousel and coming out of the Boot as he had superior speed there.

Being slightly faster is one thing, getting past is something else entirely, so the three drivers held station till the pit stops.  Sensing he was being held up, Mumbower dived into the pits early to gain a clear track and work at running some fast, clean laps before Snyder and Wolfgram came in.  A few laps later Wolfgram and Snyder pulled lock-step into the pits.  Coming out only a few car lengths apart, they found themselves split by Mumbower.  Mumbower’s strategy move had paid off.  He had leap-frogged Snyder in the pits and was on the tail of Wolfgram pushing hard.  It would all end badly two laps later though when Mumbower would took too much of a bite out of Turn Six and ended up hard in the tire wall, ending his race.

“I must say I was excited to hear Lance say he was pitting, as then I could find out for sure if my strategy was a good one,” said Mumbower.   “Surprisingly this time it was, and I got past Lance and was about a second or so off Randy. I made the most common error of all, however, and ran out of talent overdriving the car into T6 when I saw Randy on cold tires having to make his way through some MX-5 guys.”

Following Mumbower's demise, Snyder and Wolfgram went at it hammer and tongs.

Mumbower’s misfortune was Snyder’s gain and he was again able to steadily work up to the back of Wolfgram’s Mustang.  Wolfgram pushed his Mustang for all it was worth, sliding the back end all over the track valiantly keeping Snyder behind.  Finally Snyder got a big run heading into the Heel of the Boot and then disaster.  Braking just a fraction too late, Snyder slid through the apex and slammed into Wolfgram sending them both into the kitty litter.  Luckily both crippled cars were able to hobble round the remaining two laps to the finish.  Wolfgram, though battered and bruised was happy with both his finish and the race.

“That was a ton of fun. It was just a racing deal and we were both able to finish.”

At the head of the Mustang pack the top three qualifiers held fast and finished in the same order they started.  Strong, mistake free performances from all three drivers saw Young with the win, Mynes in second and Chambliss in third.

MacLean and Sirois were cruising to easy victories in their respective classes when they both fell victim to the fickle hand of the racing gods.  Lap 40, only four from the end, MacLean and Sirois were tangled up in a multi-car pileup exiting the Toe of the Boot.  Jim McInnis in his Mustang was passing MacLean when he inadvertently put his right-rear wheel on the grass at the exit.  His hot, worn tires gave him no warning and his car swapped ends instantly.  Only inches behind him MacLean had nowhere to go and ploughed headlong into McInnis.  Sirois, in the leading GT car saw the carnage ahead, tried his best to avoid it but fell victim also.  McInnis was forced to retire while MacLean and Sirois tip-toed their damaged race cars around to salvage some valuable points.  Sirois was able to hold onto third in class, a great result considering the damage.  MacLean was just able to retain forth ahead of a rapidly approaching Dean Ayer.

Lap 40 spelled d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r for MacLean, McInnis and Sirois.

In the ST class Graulty was delighted to take the victory, his first of the season.  Mitchell Weirich grabbed second place in his best finish this season and Gerry Moersdorf claimed third which would also be his best finish so far this season.

Taking full advantage of the leader’s misfortune Damron Jr. brought home the victory in the GT class well ahead of Martin Dube in second.  These victories were essential for both drivers to keep them in the hunt for the overall championship.

Full Race Results:

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