2016 Michelin GT Challenge at VIR
My First SportsCar Racing Experience
As the Fan’s Reporter I am mostly known associated with and around NASCAR which is the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing. I love NASCAR and it’s racing, people and fans and have worked in the sport with Sponsors, Teams, Tracks and in the media for over 8 years and almost 50 races. But something changed when I was at Bristol Motor Speedway a couple weeks ago when I got a call from my friend Andy. Andy Stenson is the VP of Marketing with BUBBA Burger a great company I’ve enjoyed helping to promote as much as eating their great Burgers. Andy asked if I could make it the following weekend to a SportsCar Race here in Virginia. Always looking for new adventures and knowing anything Andy gets me into will be fun I said sure!
Andy and the good folks at BUBBA Burger [www.bubbafoods.com] hooked myself and my beautiful wife Michele up with VIP/Hot Passes for the International Motor Sports Association [IMSA.com] 2016 Michelin GT Challenge at the Virginia International Raceway. And wow what an amazing new experience of racing and race fans and environment. To start there were the fastest Mazdas, Porsche, Ferrari, BMW and Lamborghini in the world and that was just in the Parking Lot!
When telling me all about the trip and what to expect Andy kept saying “this is a very different crowd than NASCAR” and he used the term “upscale” a whole lot too. This translated to me “tuck in yer redneck boy” and “bring yer A Game”. Not really sure what my “A Game” needed to be I called out to my buddy and mentor Drew Bedard, Senior Director of Brand Management at Bristol Motor Speedway. As always he gave me some great advice that came down to Dress all in Black like Johnny Cash. I can do that!
The International Motor Sports Association [IMSA] is actually a company of NASCAR based out of Daytona Florida. But in some really great ways they are very different then NASCAR in the experience, exposure and the whole feel of a race Day. To me the Fans and the Sport were very Manufacturer and Brand oriented other than Driver based like fans in NASCAR. Also because of larger Road Course Tracks the Fans mostly are Inside the Track wherever they want and not in Stands on the outside of the Track. With people all over the rolling green grassy little hills and knolls it gave it a Kentucky Derby feel [not that I have ever been to the Kentucky Derby] but you know what I mean. Casual and Classy.
All Tickets the SportsCar fans have get them access to the Paddock Area which would be the Garages in NASCAR. That would equate to Cold Passes for every ticket holder in NASCAR. Wow. Fans had direct access to Team Members and Cars and even some of the Drivers. The whole track facility at Virginia International Raceway [VIRnow.com] looks like beautiful horse country right on the Virginia/ North Carolina border. VIR is made up of Three smaller courses but they use the outside of them all for a total distance of 3.27 miles of curves and elevation changes. The Track Announcer was a British or Australian gentleman that reminded me of the late great Jackie Stewart in NASCAR from years back. When the racing got excited so did he and he did a great job keeping us up with everything which, was a lot. In the time we were there we saw 7 Races and 2 Rounds of Qualifying.
The racing was fast, super loud and you could feel those 700hp motors in your chest when they went by. Down on Pit Road I was all about looking at equipment, tools and things of the trade these teams were using. In some Classes it was the same as Stock Cars in that they filled fuel from cans and had regular wheels with 4–6 lug nuts. But on the main event GT Cars they had elaborate fueling machines and single lug wheels.
Just when I didn’t think it could get more fun up walks a IMSA young man named Reid Atherton. Catching up with us in the IMSA Paddock Club area and seeing we were with BUBBA Burger he introduced himself. There was a Driver’s Meeting going on and he was kind enough to take the time to explain all that was going on and lots about the sport and IMSA. Then he gave us some FAST LAP passes so we could take a very fast lap ride on the track with a professional driver. Thank You Lord! This was a dream come true and the coolest thing I could think of.
So at Noon on Sunday we went down to the Paddock area to the IMSA Registration Tent and signed our lives away on waivers and release forms. After that they took us down to the track to stand in a few short lines for our turn in the cars. I rode side by side with the professional driver and when he assured me every thing would be safe I think I taunted him a little by saying “You probibly can’t drive it fast enough to get us killed”. That was all that guy needed to hear and he mashed the gas and off we went! I was ready for the fast acceleration but had no idea how hard and violent the braking and cornering was going to be. Don’t get me wrong I was smiling and enjoyed every second of it but it was rough. We went from the Start/Finish line down a long straightaway to a U-Turn and he was banging 100 mph when he mashed the brakes and tore us around the corner. I must had sparked his juices because the next turns were hard lefts and we almost wreck! I actually was hoping we would spin out in the grass but dang if that boy didn’t get up on the wheel and get us around. The whole time he is wheeling like a mad man he is calming giving us a talking tour of the track and turns. His calm words and the violence I was feeling was a little surreal but GLORIOUS.
We hit top speeds of over 140mph and had the wheels up of the ground going through the Bump Stops and the next thing I knew it was over and we were coming back down Pit Road. It was so fast it was almost a blur and in fact it was. After our long day of IMSA racing and as Michele and I were driving from the track we had to cross over a Bridge that goes over the Track. I turned and said to her “ I never even saw this bridge on that Fast Lap!”. She laughed and admitted she didn’t either. Wow!
So, thanks to Andy and Drew and Reid and all the great folks at IMSA, Michelin and BUBBA Burger that gave me some help, support and this opportunity. I give IMSA and SportsCar Racing Two Thumbs Up Andy Style! I had a FANtastic time, worked hard, met some great fans and got myself invited to the 2017 Rolex 24 Hours in Daytona. YES!
Thanks BUBBA Burger! “You’ll Never bite a burger better than a BUBBA!”