The 2017 Pirelli World Challenge road racing season is about to begin and it starts with the battle for the streets of St. Petersburg.
It is always a wild affair and, this year, it’s the season opener with two 50-minute sprint races as part of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. We open our season there as does the Verizon IndyCar Series.
The St. Pete event is a fun because everyone enjoys the Florida weather in March and people that have been in the cold are now ready for springtime. Even I can see how the weather matters sometimes. You can walk around the circuit and feel the great atmosphere.
I live in Bend, Ore., with my family. It’s a great place to raise a family but it can get cold there. In fact, we had a lot of snow this year in the Pacific Northwest. I did my share of digging out with the heavy snow pack. It was great for my upper body workout program but it can get old throughout the winter.
Just this week I was training with Alpine touring, a form of snow walking and hiking. Then you can ski down the hills. It’s great for an aerobic workout and good for training for the racing season as well in the thin air at about 7,000 feet.
Our GAINSCO team made some changes from last year’s No. 99 Red Dragon, with the biggest being a switch from the McLaren 650S to the Porsche 911 GT3 R for this year’s Pirelli World Challenge season.
It was a learning curve last year with the McLaren as we hadn’t had any real experience with the 650S. Bob (Stallings) wanted to make the change to Porsche and I wasn’t complaining as I have driven the Porsche previously.
It took me a little time to develop a driving style with the McLaren. It had different characteristics from what I had driven before. Towards the end of the season our qualifying efforts were better and I felt more familiar with the car.
With the new GAINSCO Porsche 911 GT3 R, I was anxious to see how the latest version of the Porsche GT3 car would perform. I was pleasantly surprised at how the car drove right out of the box. The Porsche has similar characteristics to an open-wheel car and a prototype. That’s where a lot of my experience comes from.
While tire wear is similar to the McLaren, the Porsche felt pretty good at our first test runs at the Thermal Club track in Southern California. We continued to work with the setups as our engineer, John Ward, was familiar with the Porsche chassis from his days at Walker Racing.
We later tested at NOLA Motorsports Park in Louisiana and finished up with 500 miles at the short circuit at Sebring, Fla. The crew seems happy with the Porsche as well. It might be a bit easier to work on for the mechanics.
In testing, we worked through a lot of chassis settings, both for street courses and permanent tracks. The fuel load in the McLaren was set in the middle of the car, different from the Porsche. As I mentioned, I had driven the Porsche previously and I was used to the car’s tendencies as the fuel load wore down.
The tricky racing surface at St. Pete always poses some trouble for a driver with regular rough, street pavement and then the slick painted surfaces of the air strip. Nothing ever seems to be consistent like a permanent road circuit. But that makes the racing interesting while it’s a bit of a compromise with your chassis setups.
Overall, I’m anxious to get to St. Petersburg for the season opener. I feel we have a machine that can contend this year, but I also know that the competition in the GT division at the Pirelli World Challenge is strong.
Alvaro Parente won the championship last year and he hadn’t been to very many North American circuits. Now he knows the tracks. He’ll be fast and tough to beat. Plus you have a Porsche factory driver in Patrick Long, one of the world’s best GT drivers, and the Cadillacs with Johnny O’Connell and Michael Cooper. Plus the new Acura NSX cars with Ryan Eversley and Peter Kox and Pierre Kaffer in the Audi. Then Bryan Sellers is in a McLaren and James Davison in the Aston Martin at St. Pete.
It won’t be easy there.
I hope to see a lot of you in St. Petersburg for the season opener. It’s great experience. If not, you can watch our races live on www.motortrendondemand.com and the PWC website, www.world-challenge.com.