”Look Ma! I’m a Pro Driver!”

Grand-Am Koni Challenge Series: Part 1

The first professional race of my career took place at Virginia International Raceway in the fall off 2007. VIR was a track I was familiar with from my time racing in the Skip Barber Race Series. The Koni Challenge Series is run using production based sedans and sports cars. Very limited performance enhancements are permitted. Race tires are used, as are at least two drivers and refueling is necessary. The races are closely fought and exceedingly competitive. The drivers and crews range from the ambitious amateurs to seasoned professionals. Needless to say, most of the drivers had a lot more experience on a race track than I had. In addition to joining a new race team, this would be the first time I had raced a sedan, raced on slick race compounds, and made a pitstop with refueling and tire changes under green. Although I loved racing single seaters, I knew my future as a driver lay in sports car racing. Racing sport cars was a realistic and achievable ambition for someone like myself… a bit too old to scale the open wheel ladder but wanting to play on a larger stage. I could progress up and into the faster cars and hope to eventually enter races like the Rolex Daytona 24 Hours. The Grand-Am races at VIR included Twin 6 Hr Koni events. I contacted a few teams and discovered that the budget required might not be much more than a Skip Barber National event. Hmm…

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SDS Performance racing,a small team from central Massachusetts,run two Dodge SRT-4s in the (ST) Sport Tuning class of the Koni challenge. I would qualify the car and take the starting flag in the first stint. The other drivers would be Derrick Reade (owner), Jerome Jacalone and John Bosch. Steve Sliwa would be the crew chief. The race would start on Saturday afternoon and run into the early evening. Early Thursday morning I wedged my body into the driver’s seat and acclimated myself to a closed racing cockpit, adjusted my mirror as best I could and tried out the H-pattern shifter. It all felt a bit claustrophobic surrounded in sheet metal and glass. A few laps around to warm up the driver and car and all seemed ok. I noticed a black flag at the start/finish stand as I sped by. My radio earpiece crackled as I approached the pits, “Didn’t you see the black flag at turn 10?” a voice barked. “Is your Delphi light working?” it barked again. I looked to left of the dash and saw the blinking yellow light and I assumed that was what he meant. “Yes it is,” I answered as I stopped at my pit stall. Steve leaned into my window, “Grand-Am is pissed off and said you blew off the black flag!” he informed me. Great start!

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After a few practice sessions, my lap times were considerably off the needed race pace. The officials had notified my team that I would have to step up my speed if I wanted to race. I huddled with Derrick to ask how they were driving the circuit, where they were braking, and what gears they were using. “Look Eric,” said began. ”The Dodge SRT-4 has a turbo charged engine with a very wide power band,” he explained. I was used to keeping the engine working in the upper rev limits, and shifting a lot to keep the power up. Derrick recommended I throw out my old habits and only use the lower gears at two points on the track: let the torque from the Dodge do the work. Brilliant! Because of my penalty from the black flag, I had to sit out the first portion of qualifying and only had a chance to post a couple of flying laps. Fortuitously, I had lowered my lap times sufficiently to calm the Grand-Am officials’ anxiety and restore some confidence in my capabilities. We would race the next day! Part 2–>

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