With the IndyCar season ending in September, the offseason can prove to be an extended period. This offseason so far has been no different.
Filling a long off season
Real race fans have had to be content to follow glimpses of aero screen testing at various locations, or to do what I did this past weekend, seek out other racing series. There was a tie-in to IndyCar and the Road to Indy series as last year’s race was won by Kyle Kirkwood. (Plus I was looking for an excuse to see some racing while others in the country were posting about how cold it was or how it was snowing.)
IMSA Michelin Encore at Sebring
The IMSA Michelin Encore took to the historic Sebring International Raceway on November 9th and 10th.
Sebring is about a 2 hours drive from Clearwater, FL, so I decided to make the trip on Friday evening so that I could be at the track when the cars hit the racetrack on Saturday morning for their first open practice.
Three classes of cars were slated to compete. LMP3, GT3, and GT4.
The Michelin Encore would be my first experience with attending an IMSA event, and I was not disappointed in any way, shape, or form.
I was excited about attending for the opportunity to meet in person a local racer & coach, Jonatan Jorge, that has been very generous with his time as I have launched 33 Dreams of Indy. Jonatan was behind the wheel of the Forty 7 Motorsports LMP3 entry with Tristan Nunez and Joel Janco. All three drivers hail from Florida, so it is also a bonus as I have been keeping an eye out for my home state drivers. More on Jonathan and Forty 7 Motorsports in a bit.
Saturday Morning – Racing in the Rain
A cold front moved into central Florida on Saturday morning during the overnight hours, bring with it a line of showers and some colder temps. Colder temperatures are all relative as the forecasted high was still expected to be in the mid-70s. The forecast called for clearing throughout the day with no chance of rain on Sunday for qualifying and the race.
Eighteen cars total in the three different classes entered the weekend, and only eight cars were taking to the track in the rainy conditions. The quickest lap turned was by the LMP3 Ansa Motorsports entry with Jon Brownson, Tim George, and Neil Alberico behind the wheel at 2:14.693.
To my delight, and frankly, the surprise of others at the track and social media, one of the drivers that took to the track in the wet conditions was 2019 Indy Lights Champion and newly named Arrow McLaren SP driver, Oliver Askew driving the #33 Sean Creech Motorsport LMP3. More on Oliver Askew in a bit.
Saturday afternoon brought along with it clearing skies, a Florida breeze, and faster times on the track. I positioned myself in the Forty 7 Motorsports pit box and watched Coach Jonatan Jorge go to work with Tristan Nunez taking to the track. Nunez is fresh off a race-winning season behind the wheel of the #77 Joest Racing Mazda competing in the IMSA DPi division. Yet, he needed to become accustomed to the LMP3 Norman M30 that lacks the traction control featured on the DPi car that he had been racing all season. Jorge has coached Nunez in the past. It was great to see the interactions between the two of them in the pits and on the radio.
“That’s what this weekend was for from the beginning, just to go out there and have fun,” said Nunez, a full-time Mazda driver in the WeatherTech Championship Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class. “(Jonatan’s) The guy who made me into the driver I am today, so to be able to come back and rekindle that six years of not working together and to come here and win a race, it’s pretty special. It’s come full circle.”Tristan Nunez
Nunez turned an overall fast lap in practice two with a 1:59.221 on the 3.74 miles Sebring long course. Jonatan provided feedback to Tristan in a calm manner while consulting with Joel Janco, who was awaiting his turn behind the wheel of the Norman.
I have been around racing for years. I have also coached business owners myself, and I was struck by the calming and professional approach that Jonatan took with the other drivers and the team. You don’t always see this from coaches.
Jonatan also went back and forth with the crew as they looked for ways to improve the car over the long run on the infamous Sebring bumps.
Before Joel took his run behind the wheel, Jonatan provided some last words of advice and encouragement.
As soon as the driver change was executed, the debriefing began between Tristan and Jonatan. Like any good driver, Tristan could not talk about the car without making hand gestures and movements to convey his point.
The increase in the Florida temperature was apparent when Tristan got out of the car. I continue to marvel at the athletic ability of the drivers of these cars and other forms of racing for that matter. Temperatures in the closed cockpit cars have been known to exceed 130 to 140 degrees, and Tristan’s suit showed that he had given it his all during the run.
Joel piloted the car for the rest of the practice. He accurately found the car handling that Tristan had described during his debrief. Although the car was fast, it was going to be a handful over an entire 4-hour stint. The feedback from all three drivers and the vehicle itself, as indicated in the tire wear, to the team was that the car needed some changes.
With a lunch break before the third and final practice of the day, the Forty 7 Motorsports team went to work on the car. Changes were made to accomplish two things. First, provide a level of adjustability into the car in anticipation of the four-hour race on Sunday. Second, to make the vehicle suitable for the driving style of all three drivers that were going to be behind the wheel on Sunday.
Practice Three – Validation and Confidence
Jonatan Jorge took to the track in Practice 3 and set to work on validating the changes that the crew made. On lap 8, he turned a 1:59.517 lap within tenths of the previous practice two speed set by Tristan in Practice two. More importantly, the car was much better to drive on a lap by lap basis. The team took the opportunity to practice driver changes and pit stops and to scrub a set of tires for Sundays qualification period and race. Joel Janco closed out the practice behind the wheel, and he beamed from ear to ear as he climbed from the car after his ten-plus lap fun and exclaimed that the car was 100% better.
Oliver Askew Fastest in Practice Three
Meanwhile, Oliver Askew donned a new generic black Bell helmet for practice three and got behind the wheel of the Sean Creech Motorsport #33 Ligier JS P3. It didn’t take him long to get up to speed in the car, turning the fastest lap of the session at 1:58.077 for an average speed of 114.026 mph. His pace was just over three-tenths of a second quicker than the next car in the running order.
Oliver had come by the Forty 7 Motorsports pit box during practice two to catch up with his former coach, Jonatan. Jonatan, Oliver, and Tristan exchanged notes and ideas and hand movements as they talked about their individual experiences.
Everywhere that Oliver went, he received congratulations and well wishes on his new role with Arrow McLaren SP. He was a pure pleasure to get to know, and his performance in practice three had the paddock anticipating his run during the race on Sunday. I appreciated him taking the time to talk with me about 33 Dreams of Indy.
Reflections on Saturday
As the sun went down on Saturday, I sat around a campfire that I had built and looked ahead. I was excited to cover my first IMSA sportscar race. The storylines in the LMP3 category were compelling with the different teams. The race was not for points, so I knew that there would be added action as the teams tried to make it to the front of the field. Add to this, the presence of Nunez and Askew in the race, and I knew that we were in store for a great race. I also reflected on the sound of the cars ringing in my ears. The throaty sounds of the V8s in the LMP3 cars contrasted with the Porshe, Lamborghini, BMW, and Ford sounds from the GT3 and GT4 classes. I have to say; the LMP3 cars were the closest that I had found to the stock cars that were used to race in Yakima, WA, so many years before.
Sunday Morning – Bright Sky and Practice Four
If you have not had an opportunity to visit Sebring International Raceway, I encourage you to do so. With the film Ford vs. Ferrari coming out, I couldn’t help to reflect on the history of the track and how parts of the story of that movie played out on the ground of the former Army Air Corp base, Hendricks Field.
Walking around pit lane on Sunday morning was like getting an opportunity to be at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park before the crowds arrived. The track has a historic charm to it, and as the self-proclaimed Birthplace of American Endurance Racing, its history is on display with its hall of fame banner and the banners of every Sebring 12 hour winning car. A special thanks to Ken Breslauer with Sebring International Raceway for allowing me to cover this event. I will be back.
Practice Four provided the closest atmosphere for qualifying and race conditions that the teams would face. Add to this the fact that the driver that qualified the car also had to start the race for the first stint, and it meant that the practice was critical.
Joel Janco turned in a 2:01.321 during his 6th of 9 timed laps during the session. This last bit of practice provided the needed confidence for Joel and the team to enter into qualification and the race.
Qualification happened with two twenty-minute sessions. First out was the GT3 and GT4 machines, followed by the LMP3 class. Cars would start based upon their best-timed lap of the session with the LMP3 cars starting at the front of the field.
The Performance Tech Motorsports teams took the top two positions with the #6 car of B. Mount, D. Goldburg, & B. Griffin, turning in a lap of 1:59.774. The Forty 7 Motorsports entry was piloted by Joel Janco to a time of 1:59.788 for a starting position of 3rd. The #33 Sean Creech Motorsports entry driven by Lance Willsey and Oliver Askew would start fifth with Willsey starting the race.
I have had the privilege to be on the grid for the formation of several IndyCar races in St. Petersburg because, as a fan, I paid extra for a Paddock and Pit pass. With IMSA, the grid walk is open to the public. Anyone with a ticket can get up close to the cars before the start of the race. This interaction is fantastic, and it was great to see the number of kids and families taking advantage of the opportunity.
I took up a position in the media center for the race itself, overlooking the finish line. Unlike some media centers that I had been in before, the Sebring set up allowed me to see a portion of the track.
I tuned into IMSA TV and tuned in the IMSA radio call on my laptop and pulled up the timing and scoring app on my smartphone and settled in for the four-hour encore.
Four Hours of Racing
With the Michelin Man positioned in the starter stand, the cars were off with the LMP3 cars leading the field. The start was uneventful and the race was smooth until lap two when the #33 car found the bar barrier and was damaged beyond repair. Oliver Askew was unable to turn any laps during the race. This was a disappointment for the fans and Oliver himself. I caught up with him after he spent some time on IMSA radio and could tell that he was bummed about not racing. I wished him well and told him I look forward to covering him during the upcoming IndyCar season.
By the end of the first hour, the field was jumbled with the #75 Performance Tech Motorsports LMP3 entry leading followed by the Paul Miller Racing #48 Lamborghini Huracan GT3. The Top four was made up of a Ligier, Lamborghini, Norman, and Porsche. This mix was due to green flag racing an pit stops that had occurred.
Joel Janco piloted the Forty 7 Motorsports entry with a solid run, charting as high as 3rd overall at one point for his 55 plus minutes of running. After the pit stop and driver change, the #47 entry was piloted by Coach Jonatan and slotted in 9th overall, 5th in class at the end of hour one.
By the end of hour two, with yellow flags that put the LMP3 cars to the front of the starting grid and with the driving of Jonatan, the #47 entry trailed only the #30 Sean Creech Motorsports Ligier.
The end of hour three saw Jonatan in the lead with all four of the FT3 entries on his tail. The #30 LMP3 car was 6th overall, trailing the #47 by 39.05 seconds with the remained of the field one lap down or greater.
That all changed with a yellow flag that occurred just after the 3-hour mark. Jonathan gave up the controls of the car to Tristan, and the field was bunched back up at the restart with the LMP3 cars again at the front, even though at one point, it was all 4 of the GT3 cars leading the entire race. A 2 tire pit stop for the #74 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG positioned Lawson Aschenbach in the lead to the GT3 class, and he held on for the class victory.
A final yellow flag with roughly 30 minutes left set up a three-car LMP3 shoot out between the #47, #30, and #43 cars. Tristan got a fantastic restart and held off the charging #30 Creech Motorsports team to take the victory.
The first three cars, after 4 hours, were separated by 1.572 seconds at the finish. I spoke with IMSA Race Director, Beaux Barfield, following the race, and he was understandably pleased with the action on the track and the way the race came down to such a close finish.
There were a total of 16 full course yellow laps sprinkled through the race, and I would be remiss if I did not touch upon one of the yellow flag periods.
Any on-track incidents did not cause the yellow flag. It was described at the time by IMSA Radio, and a yellow flag needed to allow emergency vehicles to tend to pit road. After the race, we later found out that this was much more severe than we first thought.
Dr. Tim George
Dr. Tim George, 59 years old, was piloting the #2 Ansa Motor Sports LMP3 entry when he suffered a medical emergency while behind the wheel of the car. He was able to guide the car back to pit land as was immediately attended to by track medical personnel. He was transported to a local Sebring hospital where he passed away. Dr. George was a Gentleman Racer from Austin, Texas. I wish to offer my deepest sympathy to his family and race team. RIP DOC.
The passing of Dr. George was unknown at the time that the top team made their way to Victory Lane. The Forty 7 Motorsports team and drivers got the celebrate the victory with each other and their families. Add to this some orange juice and the Michelin man handing out the hardware, and there were plenty of smiles to go around.
I was particularly touched by the way that Joel Janco was able to celebrate with his family and also with seeing Coach Jonatan Jorge celebrate with his with and young daughter.
As the car was wheeled back to the garage area by the team to be loaded up for the trip home, I overheard someone say, “let’s get some champagne to go along with this orange juice to celebrate.”
I said my goodbyes for the weekend to the drivers and the team. I thanked Jonatan for his generous time and assistance over the weekend. We are both looking forward to 2020, with Jonatan on the lookout for new drivers to work with Jonatan Jorge Racing Development in the Road to Indy series.
Young drivers that someday dream of being part of the field of 33 would be wise to work with JJRD, just like Oliver Askew and Tristan Nunez and others have done before them.