Now that I have finally had some time to reflect after the most important win of my career, I thought I would attempt to put the memories gained into words. I often relate the Sebring 12 Hours to the Super Bowl of our sport, as the entire who's who of sports car racing is in attendance. With everyone working flat-out for a full week, it's very easy to be completely burned out both emotionally and physically before the race even starts. You go through testing, qualifying, media work – and then you still have to have plenty left in the tank for when the green flag flies Saturday morning.
A couple of weeks before this year's 12 Hours, I thought I would be on my couch watching the race on ESPN3.com, and merely daydreaming about what it must feel like to win this race. Then the phone rang.
To my delight, it was from a legend in the sport and someone who I have been trying to work with for years, Alex Job. Alex has won about everything there is in sports car racing, including seven Sebrings. Yet he wasn't calling for a history lesson; he called to offer me the opportunity to join Bill Sweedler, one of the nicest guys in the paddock, and Townsend Bell, an IndyCar star making his first foray into sports car racing (LEFT, photo by Margie Gerard). The added goal was that it would be the last race for the iconic No. 23 AJR Porsche. I thought about it for less than three-tenths of a second (which also just happened to be the amount of time that separated the top four cars in the GTC class in qualifying) before I enthusiastically accepted.
I live by one motto: Always stay ready, that way you never have to get ready! So even though I didn't know I would be driving until the last minute, I felt I was in top physical and mental shape to take on this challenge. I arrived at Sebring the Sunday a week before the race and it took less than five minutes before the team made me feel completely at home. I could tell right away that everyone was here for one thing: To win. No pressure, right?!?
Throughout the week, Bill, Townsend and I believed we had the most consistent and solid driver lineup in the field. We were always in the top five in practice, and we all knew we could throw down a fast lap and that meant we were all pushing each other to get the most out of the car. The goals of the week long test was getting our car comfortable and, in Alex Job's words, “Don't hit S**t.” We didn't, but that didn't mean it didn't find us.
I'd get to qualify, and while qualifying doesn't really matter for a 12-hour race, it's still an ego battle between drivers! With a 15-minute session, we basically had five laps. The goal had to be getting all 17 corners perfect because with the competition level in GTC, a single mph off in one corner could cost you spot on the grid.
I'd planned my second lap as the “golden” lap, but the great lap got destroyed when I encountered a slower car in the worst part of the track. That led to a few expletives and a need to pit to change my tire pressures, but my own pressure was ratcheted up as I only had one more lap to make sure we didn't start at the back! This final lap, a 2:07.0, was good for fourth and barely off pole position. With a good car and good starting position, I could sleep comfortably the night before the race.
Sebring is legendary for both its competition and its partying – and the two paths crossed for one of my colleagues! Tom Gubbins, who represents my primary sponsor PR Newswire, found out how big a party it is when a fan with a microphone yelled out to him, “Hey businessman, put down the phone and grab a beer!” What better way to be welcomed?
Race day began with good AJR team meetings and the car lined up on pit road, with us ready to get started. I knew I had a lot of driving ahead as I'd start for a double stint, in warm and humid conditions. A sign of the battle to come became evident before the green flag even flew as almost half of us wiped out going into Turn 17 on the formation lap as the Flying Lizard Porsche and a Ferrari came together in a nasty collision!