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Laguna Seca Debrief: Lessons Learned

After a strong finish at Daytona and Sebring, the Doran racing team and I were looking good coming into Laguna Seca. We sat 4th in points and had confidence knowing the Nissan 370Z NISMO has proven to be quick here in the past. This round, fellow GT Academy graduate, Steve Doherty, would take place of Bryan Heitkotter as he takes on the World Challenge series in the Nissan GT-R for the rest of the year.

Laguna Seca has always been one of my favorite tracks on the simulators and I had dreamt of the day to finally run my first laps and drive the elusive corkscrew corner. I was excited to run here as this would be my “home” race of the series even though it’s near some 700 miles away from where I call home. Laguna Seca would also be the first time my family would be attending one of my races, making this race truly special for me.

I felt right at home on some of my first laps by running fourth fastest in the first morning practice session on Friday. I was actually somewhat surprised by my pace given my lack of laps around the track but it gave me an instant confidence boost for the rest of the weekend. Steve would get on well in the session proving we could have the potential to be a threat for a podium spot.

Our second practice session in the afternoon wasn’t to go fastest, but to set up the car to be stable and consistent during the race. Laguna Seca is known for being one of the slickest tracks on the calendar, so the more we can find traction and have a consistent car, the better off we’ll be in the race. Running on older tires proved how slick and dirty Laguna Seca can be, but we were able to tone down our Nissan 370Z to a comfortable and quick race setup.

Later that evening qualifying would take place. It was decided I would be the qualifying driver (and starting driver) given my strong past qualifying results and experience starting in the last two races. We had the pace for pole, and that’s exactly what we were going for.

I went out on the first flying lap and put in a clean baseline lap. Coming around for the second flying lap, my tires and brakes were up to temperature and it was go time. I managed to hit all my marks and came around for a P3 qualifying position at the time. I was pleased with my time but knew there was a little more in the car. I decided to do a slower lap to let the rear tires cool as they seemed to get a bit slick from what felt like a little too much heat the previous lap. I pushed on my fourth and final flying lap to try and squeeze out the extra time, but with some minor mistakes I would fall short in besting my second lap. In the end, we would end up P5 at the end of the session.

I was still proud of my qualifying efforts even though it wasn’t the pole position I knew I could accomplish. The qualifying field was amazingly tight with positions two through six only a mere .151 second apart. I couldn’t complain too much knowing we would be in a strong starting position for Saturday’s race.

As we got onto racing Saturday, I would start the car and run the longer stint of both drivers knowing we had a strong overall pace to push towards the front before handing it over to Steve. As the race began, I ran the first few corners side by side with Maxwell in the #15 Mustang. Neither of us were willing to give up a position and gave each other a clean battle until the fourth corner.

Maxwell had the inside line and got a nose on me mid corner. As we exited the corner, I thought he would leave me room as in the previous three corners, but he started to push wide leaving me no room. I backed off not to try and make contact and let him fade in front of me. We started to reach the exit curb and thought we would be alright. My positioning on the outside wasn’t ideal, but whether a mistake by the Mustang or intentional, we inevitably made contact and both ran into the dirt. He had come across the right front of my car causing a flat tire.

I hurried back to the pits to stay on the lead lap. I had lost a lot of time but we weren’t out of the race yet. The Doran crew threw on new wheels and tires on the right of the car and I was out again. Fortunately, there would be the first full course caution a few laps after my stop causing the field to bunch up again. We were back in contention.

The green flag waved again and I was pushing like a mad man. We may have been last at this point but I wasn’t going to let my first lap issue leave us behind. I got right to work picking off at least one car per lap and moving back up to 9th before the next full course caution. This is just what I needed. The field was bunched up again allowing me to gear up for another attack and make my way to the front.

I was called into the pits with teammate Brad Jaeger not too far ahead during the caution period. We threw on new tires and fuel in order to push near the hour and a half mark. As they dropped the car and I took off…well, I didn’t take off.

I had been getting a low voltage warning not too long after we replaced my tire from the first lap incident. We seemed to maintain a good voltage reading given the warning, but when I came in for the pit stop the voltage immediately dropped. The car died and wouldn’t restart. With much disappointment, our chances of a strong finish were over.

We pushed the car back to the pits to sort out the issue. The alternator was replaced and we were back on track but some 20 laps behind now. From here we ran clean, consistent laps and fulfilled the minimum driver time (45 minutes) to qualify for points.

Nissan and the whole Doran Racing team, in my mind, gave us a winning car at Laguna Seca. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to capitalize on it this round but I guess that’s racing. I feel I made a poor decision (combined with some bad luck) and want to apologize to the whole team for my first lap incident as I believe it’s what ultimately caused an end to our chance for another strong finish. Also, I want to apologize to my teammate Steve Doherty for not being able to hand him a good car to let him run to the finish.

Our teammates in the #14 Nissan 370Z had an exciting race to the end battling for top spot. In the end they managed a strong 3rd place with barely a half a second splitting the top three finishing cars, so a big congratulations to Brad Jeager and BJ Zacharias this past weekend.

Also, a big thank you though to all of the Nissan and Doran Racing crew for working so hard this season. I’ve genuinely enjoyed the first three rounds of the Continental Tire Sportscar Championship and can’t wait to be back in the car already. We’ve got some strong results ahead of us this season if we can put it all together. Lessons have been learned and I’m ready for redemption.

– Nick

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