I heard a quote several years ago from one of the two racers I idolize more than anyone else in the sport. “It’s not about who has the faster car, it’s who refuses to lose.” From the day I heard this quote to the last time I strapped in the car, and for every time in the future, this quote is going to stick with me. The late Dale Earnhardt, who I’m fortunate enough to even be associated with the same team he was on said this, and stuck by it every time he drove.
When I was racing a go kart I realized that all I had to do was perform these outrageous, never thought of, unlikely to work, curb-jumping passes, and I could psych the guy out enough that even if he was faster, I could get a jump on him by making sure I wanted to be ahead of him more than he wanted to be ahead of me. It’s taken a few years, but I’m finally ready to say I can do the same thing in a stock car.
If there’s another thing iRacing has helped me with over the years it’s adaptation. Learning to adapt new tracks, and new cars. And overcoming the difficulties in learning how to drive them by staying patient and — most of all — confident. As I rolled on to the track for the first time at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series UNOH Battle at the Beach in Daytona, I was beyond confident in my car, and more importantly, myself. We had just over an hour of practice on Monday afternoon to figure the track out and make our car the best we could. All started well. Jumping to fourth on the board right out of the gate, but being plagued with what I felt was the wrong gear ratio was holding us back. The car needed adjustments, and we went through the practice as we do every time, under the commanding eye of crew chief Steve Portenga, the Golden Gate Racing Team made adjustment after adjustment to get our car quick enough to move those few positions up to the top of the board, but it never happened. It almost seemed the opposite. Halfway through the session we were near the bottom of the time board, outside the top 15. And that’s where we ended up. After leading practice the last four races of my 2012 season, this was almost shocking.
Overnight we made plenty of changes. The crew worked past the closing time of the garage, changing the gear, the front end, everything we could think of to make a big swing for the next mornings practice. But as I rolled on to the track for the second practice on Tuesday morning (which was also race day) our fate remained the same. We were simply unable to put one flying lap down. We sat ninth on the board at the end of the session, barely picking up on our new tire run, and being nearly half a second off the leader.
“If there’s another thing iRacing has helped me with over the years it’s adaptation.”
Qualifying came quick, and we were confident that we could make an improvement with some clean air and open track, but as is one of the most frustrating feelings in racing, we didn’t move up. The Bay Bio Diesel #21 again sat outside the top 10 in the 12th position.
The night drew near and we readied ourselves for the 25 lap heat race that would determine where I would start the main event. With several cautions and wrecked cars coming out of the A group heat race it was time to approach this with the conservative mindset of keeping the car clean, and not putting anymore wear on the car than was necessary. I simply needed to feel things out as the sun was setting and see how the car was reacting. I moved up several positions, got a good feel for where we needed to be on re-starts, and sought-out some different lines. By the end of the race though, Steve was in a panic. I was the only car on track whose brakes were glowing cherry red by the end of the heat race. At that rate, there was no way they were going to last through the 150 lap main event.
At the start of the race we had to wing it. I re-adjusted the break bias, felt like I got the car in a more stable position, and now that the sun was long gone I began to feel what the changing track conditions were going to do to the handling of our car. I approached this race a little differently than I did last year at Phoenix. I had the fastest car all weekend at PIR and all I had to do was stay up front. Well with doubts about our 10th place consistency throughout this weekend I had to try and make some moves, and get a little more aggressive with the car than I’ve ever been. I bailed on the conservative mentality and started a run as soon as the green flag dropped. The car was good, the best it had been all weekend. I moved up to sixth quickly and had my sights set on the top five as Lap 25 rolled around, but it was short-lived. The seventh placed car overdrove Turn 3 and got in to the back of me, spinning me to the infield with no caution in sight. As the field went past I romped the car through the gears getting back on the front stretch just before the leader put me a lap down. So now I was running P26 with the leader on my bumper, and with a car that hadn’t been able to run with the front pack all weekend.
As this all happened something changed. Nothing with the car, but with the way I was driving. I had all the temper in the world built up inside me, and every bit of aggression and adrenaline that I’ve ever felt running through my body trying to hold the leader in my mirror. My spotter went from saying, “right on you,” to “2 back, you’re pulling the leader.” The cars in front of me almost seemed like stalled obstacles as my charge rolled on. On this particular track my go-kart and road course experience was paying off like never before: the trick wasn’t to make the pass coming off the corner, it was to make it going in. It was simple: even if they pulled me down the straight all I had to do was stay on the gas longer, dive to the inside, get door-to-door, then stomp on the brakes and the pass was complete. This maneuver literally took me from the 26th position to 15th, when we got a caution and I realized how far up we’d moved and got a chance to breathe. The best part was, as soon as we re-started, it was even easier because the cars were closer together. I passed three cars going in to Turn 1, without putting a scratch on my car simply because I wanted it that bad. I realized I had a car that could hang with the leaders and I was determined to get back to the front and prove it. Nothing was going to get in my way. In no time I was re-starting after a caution in third, and used the same move on second place which got me to the outside row for the next caution. The leader was taken out on the restart, and I was nearly in shock. I couldn’t believe I was the leader with 20 laps to go. After having the leader right in my mirror so early on in the race I had taken over that spot.
“I made a charge from 26th to the lead, and had the race won with two laps to go.”
I didn’t have the fastest car by any means. But I wanted to win that race more than anyone out there and found a way to put me in a position to make it happen . . . and it would have, until the final restart when I got shunted on the white flag lap from behind by a young guy in his first race, who, I have to admit had an exceptional run, but who got a little overzealous when the chance to win presented itself. I can’t say I haven’t been in that position before, and it may have even been karma from some point in time. The frustration of barely missing out on the biggest win of my career was present no doubt, but when I thought about for a minute, I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of. I rolled across the finish line in the 8th spot, but it still felt like I got the win. I made a charge from 26th to the lead, and had the race won with two laps to go, and without putting any significant damage on the car. In my head all that mattered was that I put in a winning performance and proved to myself what could be done when I realized how hard I had to drive the car so I didn’t go a lap down, and what I could do when I figured out a pass that I grew-up using in go karts.