What You Learn After Racing With an IMSA All-Time Great

·8 min read
Photo credit: Chris Tedesco
Photo credit: Chris Tedesco

Bill Auberlen was not happy.

“That was awful,” he said as he entered the trailer after our race. “I’ve never had that happen in my career. Where did we even finish?”

We finished second, a good result by any metric, but it could’ve been one better if I hadn’t made a very dumb mistake. And this was an exhibition race, the Masters Endurance Legends race at Laguna Seca during the 2021 Monterey Motorsports Reunion. No points. No prize money. No nothing.

But pros aren’t out there to have fun. They’re out there to win. Here’s what you learn after co-driving with one for an entire weekend.

Eke Out Any Advantage

Photo credit: Chris Tedesco
Photo credit: Chris Tedesco

Auberlen, BMW’s longest tenured factory driver and one of the winningest drivers in sports car history, didn’t get to where he is by being complacent. He pushes the envelope at every opportunity. At our test at Mid Ohio in June, Auberlen was stressing the importance of fast in and out laps, that time lost entering or exiting pit lane could see us drop down the order quicker than any other mistake.

The big thing was out laps, cold tires in particular. The drivers who can exploit cold tires the best are the ones who will make the most gains at the beginning of a stint. And even though the E92 GT doesn’t have ABS, it does have traction control, which will save the car from an embarrassing spin. So aggressively warm the tires and brakes on the pace lap, then be daring on lap one, and you’ll be up to temp.

We also talked about gaining time on pit lane. We had a minimum stopped time of four minutes, an eternity for a driver change by most modern standards, but that didn’t mean we shouldn’t prep. Loosen the belts on pit in, disconnect the radio on exit, and then just jump out of the seat and get out of the way as the crew gets the next driver in the car.

Photo credit: Chris Tedesco
Photo credit: Chris Tedesco

Auberlen was also keen to help make me faster, spending time talking about racecraft, reviewing video, and working on minutiae. And he wanted to do it when we weren’t in earshot of the other drivers, to keep our plans and what we were working on secret from them.

Do Well, Get Praise

Photo credit: Chris Tedesco
Photo credit: Chris Tedesco

The BMW team decided that the two E92s, each driven by a pro/am pairing, would be qualified by the amateur drivers. That would give a realistic look at the pace and would also prevent the pro drivers from going out there and racing each other in a qualifying session.

I put our M3 third in class among some pretty hardcore GT race cars. The sister car was fourth. That one spot made Bill happy. We had a real shot at a win, so long as I kept in touch with the E46 M3 GTR (a slower car), driven by one of BMW’s pros, John Edwards (a faster driver). Bill was excited for the race and wanted me to take the start. We had a plan that might actually let us win.

If You Don’t, You’ll Hear About It

Photo credit: Chris Tedesco
Photo credit: Chris Tedesco

The morning of our race was foggy, and cars were delayed getting on track by at least an hour. We hung out, chatted, and waited for an updated schedule.

Yet, somehow, the schedule stayed the same. Cars from our race group started heading to the grid at the original time. We weren’t ready. A mad rush to get in the car ensued, with the quickest suit-up I’ve ever done. And even though I arrived at the grid mere seconds after our sister car, I was barred from pulling up to our grid slot. That third place I was so proud of in qualifying was gone. I started third to last. And it’s not like I could just get a killer start and go around everyone. As this race is more of an exhibition than a real race, the grid wasn’t all that tight heading to the green and we weren’t even allowed to start passing till turn four.

Whoops. We decided right then to be ready and on the grid as soon as it opened for our second race. Bill was less than happy. After the race, which ended up going well, he said that this was something he’d never done in nearly 35 years of pro-level racing, and that the mistake was “awful.” Whoops?

Active on Strategy

When that first race (above) started, I was nowhere. The slower cars at the back of the field held back so much on the pace laps that we were nearly half a lap behind at the start. Because the rules encouraged safety over aggression, I couldn’t pass until turn four; even then, I didn’t have confidence in the grip from the cold tires or the green track; you can see from my steering inputs and the chattering TC just how little grip there was. So I wasn’t aggressive.

That’s where Bill took over. The race had a minimum drive time before pit stops could begin. Although I was on pace and passing people, I was still a couple seconds per lap slower than Auberlen would be. Shocker, right? As soon as the pit window opened, I was called in, the first car on pit road. Yes, that means my stint was short and that I got less drive time, but it also gave us our best chance at getting a result out of the bungled start.

And it worked. Auberlen drove to second, finishing right on Edwards’s tail.

Things Can Go Wrong

I was adamant that race two would go better than race one. I promised myself I’d be more aggressive on the opening laps and get more temp in the tires. I’d experiment with the traction control and gearing, trying more aggressive settings on the TC and different gears in a few corners. And, most of all, I wanted to hold second for my stint and give Auberlen a real shot at the win.

It started off well enough. I maintained second, after Edwards, and didn’t lose as much time to him as I did in race one. I also pulled a substantial gap on the sister E92 M3. This did mean that much of my stint was spent driving around alone, which isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but it gave me an opportunity to sample different TC settings and work on carrying more speed through the fast turn six and turn nine, two of my weakest spots on the track.

What I was doing was working. I started minimizing the losses to Edwards instead of losing huge chunks each lap. And we had a sizable lead over the other E92 in third spot. It was looking great. The team left me on track longer in the session.

Photo credit: Chris Tedesco
Photo credit: Chris Tedesco

Then, with about two laps left in my stint, it happened. Coming up the hill from turn five, the car just shut down. I lost the dash, shifting, power steering, the radio, everything. It was dead-stick coasting up the hill. I managed to get it off the track, but not far enough for the spot I parked to be considered safe. A full-course yellow came out and I had to be towed back in.

In the pits, we discovered the issue, and boy was it a doozie. The external kill switch, located at the base of the windshield on the driver side, had failed. You can actually see it pop out of its shrouded area at 13:30 in the race video above. It’s one of those racing things, a $5 part costing us a shot at the win. We put it back in and the car fired right back up. But at that point it wasn’t worth going back out.

Auberlen took all this in stride. Human error is one thing, you can prevent that, but how do you account for a tiny part failure on something that isn’t normally considered a wear component? You don’t. Sometimes, shit just happens in racing. We joked that it was the drivers of the other M3 sabotaging us. He was also very complimentary of my driving in the stint and performance over the weekend, saying that he was going to go hard on me to push us to be better. Mission accomplished.

Photo credit: Chris Tedesco
Photo credit: Chris Tedesco

The kicker? That other E92 M3, the sister car I was pulling away from, ended up winning the class. The driver change saw Connor De Phillippi, another BMW pro, get in and knock out some righteous laps. If our car hadn’t shut down, it could’ve been Auberlen and me on the top step. But it wasn’t.

Those days in the car essentially encompassed an entire racing career. I’d only driven at Laguna Seca one other time, so I had to learn the track. Qualifying went well, even if the field wasn’t exactly chock full of IMSA drivers beyond our little team. I screwed up something beyond stupid. We got to use strategy to get through the field. And to cap it all off, the cheapest part on the car kept us from a possible win. All over the course of 72 hours.

Photo credit: Chris Tedesco
Photo credit: Chris Tedesco
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