By Joel Miller - April 20, 2017
The Grand Prix of Long Beach has always been a special event for me because it’s my home race. I grew up within an hour drive and still call Southern California home.
My first time racing at the circuit was in Indy Lights during the 2010 season. I experienced mixed results but the cool part was how the deal came together.
It was a late call-up from team owner Dan Andersen, who I drove for the year prior in Pro Mazda. Some funding was needed to do the event but after two days of calling everyone I knew within the Long Beach area, we had enough funds to do the race.
It really was a community effort that weekend. After many years of watching I finally got my first opportunity to race on the streets of Long Beach and get a feeling for the place! Racing there is similar to flying fighter jets through a canyon — only there’s 30 other fighter jets along with you!
Getting Round 3 Underway
The third round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at the Grand Prix of Long Beach was the shortest race of the season.
We went from our two longest races at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring to only 100 minutes at Long Beach. This is where the season really starts with the standard driver pairings in a sprint-race format, plus no margin of error due to the shorter race length.
Two-Hour Practice on Green Track
The weekend started out with the early morning practice session at 7:40 a.m. on Friday. This practice session was very dynamic because the track changes dramatically over the course of the morning.
Prior to the race, drift cars compete in the final complex of corners and lay down all kinds of rubber compounds at Turns 9–11. Our Mazda RT24-P is fitted with Continental Tire rubber, a different compound than the drift rubber laid on the ground. Each year, the feeling when driving in this section is different due to how the rubber compounds react with each other. Sometimes it could be slick and other times it offers extra grip.
The other side of the circuit hasn’t seen race cars since last year’s event, so early in the weekend, it’s very slick. With all of this in mind, the most important time to be on track is during the final 30 minutes of that morning session when the track becomes more consistent and relevant to how it’ll be for the remainder of the weekend.
Unfortunately for us in the No. 70 Mazda, we experienced a starter motor issue mid-session, causing us to lose practice time. Once the car was fixed, only five minutes remained in the session.
The good part of having a two-car team is being able to pull information from the sister car. Since we missed the most important time of the morning session, we basically copied what the No. 55 car learned from its track time and looked forward to the afternoon qualifying session.
Traffic Crowds Long Beach Streets During Qualifying
Tom Long is my full-season teammate and he’ll be starting the sprint races. (The rules state that the driver who qualifies the car must start the race.) Qualifying requires getting your best lap when the tires are optimal.
Unfortunately, Tom caught traffic on two fast laps and we had to settle for the seventh starting position. We were bummed for sure, but knew we could still have a good result in the race.
Race Day in SoCal
Saturday arrived with cool temperatures and sunny skies — a perfect day for a race at Long Beach! Tom got a good start and quickly moved into sixth, then into fifth. Before you knew it, we were running third, right behind our sister car in second!
Tom had an awesome start to the race and our car was looking good. The team managed the caution periods well — which is great because there were a lot of them!
Around the halfway mark, a GT car spun on the exit of Turn 11, nearly blocking the track. Both Mazdas had to come to a complete stop to get around the blocked hairpin corner. Soon, the rest of the Prototype field was on them and, in the confusion, the No. 70 lost a position before the full-course caution was displayed.
Now, it was time to make the only pit stop of the race to fill up with fuel, take four tires and make a driver change. I was really looking forward to getting in this race!
Trouble on Pit Lane
Both Mazdas pitted under the yellow. Once Tom climbed out, I climbed in and was getting buckled in. When my radio was connected, I heard my race engineer say, “problem with the air jack, leave the tires, do fuel only.”
The stop ran a bit long and I launched the car but something felt wrong straight away. The right rear tire was not tight. I stopped the car and the crew pulled it back to the box to reattach the tire.
Long story short, during the first stint of the race, Tom had been hit in the back, compromising the air jack system. This led to the breakdown during the pit stop which caused the No. 70 car to go a lap down. In a 100-minute race, going a lap down is extremely detrimental to your chances at a good result!
Takeaways, From Long Beach to Texas
We did end up finishing the race, positioned sixth in the Prototype class.
There were some positives to take away from the weekend. Our car had good race pace and, as a team, we earned our best finish with a third-place overall for the 55 car.
Personally, I was very disappointed because a good result was in our hands. We look forward as a team to the next round in Texas at Circuit of The Americas.
Developing Pro Mazda’s Future
Since the Long Beach weekend, I have been doing a fair bit of driving in the new Tatuus PM-18 chassis for the Mazda Road to Indy. I was the first to drive what will be the new car for the Pro Mazda category in 2018.
It shares a common chassis with the USF2000 car, but has an additional 100 horsepower and much ore downforce due to a full floor and larger wings. Another attribute is larger tires, making for increased mechanical grip.
We tested the car at Autobahn County Club in Joilet, Illinois before completing a two-day test at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Mansfield, Ohio. This has been a fun project to work on with the Andersen Promotions staff, project manager Scott Elkins, Steve Knapp from Elite Engines and the whole Tatuus factory in Italy.
The car will close the gap to Indy Lights as it is much faster in a straight line and has stronger cornering capability than the current Pro Mazda machine. Driving the car is fantastic and brings me back to my Pro Mazda open-wheel days.