8/1/2000 - Mike Fitzgerald will be competing in more premiere sports car races in North America this year than any other driver. Fitzgerald is making a bid at the Grand Am GTU Championship with G&W Motorsports, World Challenge Touring Championship with TC Kline, the Motorola Cup Super Grand Sports Championship with First Racing (Franz Blam Racing), and is competing in the American Le Mans Series with Alex Job Racing.
This past weekend the Grand American Road Racing Association joined the annual Toyota-Atlantic race at Trois Rivieres, Quebec. I got a little taste of this event last year with the Motorola Cup and was amazed by the crowds it drew. The Canadian race fans turn out in droves and are very enthusiastic, although they definitely prefer the Canadian drivers.
PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING
The schedule originally called for separate races for the Sports Racer and GT divisions. At the Friday morning driver’s meeting we learned that the schedule had been amended and that all the cars would run together in a single race on Sunday afternoon. This was significant because Trois Rivieres is a narrow 1.5-mile street circuit, so staying out of trouble in traffic would be even more difficult in a combined race.
We had two practice sessions on Friday and we were second quickest behind the #50 BMW of Andy Pilgrim and Rick Fairbanks in each session. We knew the BMW’s would be quick at this circuit. The BMW is an excellent handling car that works well on bumpy circuits and is equipped with ABS. Our only real advantage is on long straights, which were notably missing at Trois Rivieres.
In the Saturday morning practice we were again second quickest behind the BMW, but not without some drama. The left rear lower-controller arm snapped just as my co-driver Darren Law was exiting turn three. We watched the incident on the trackside big screen television. Darren did a great job of surviving a big tank slapper, just missing the wall on several occasions.
Qualifying was set for Saturday afternoon, and the G&W Motorsports crew did a great job of getting the car repaired in time. I qualified our car second behind the #66 Porsche GT3R. The #66 car was later disqualified for illegal fuel, handing us the pole. This was a lucky break for us because it was important for me to try to get a big lead on the #50 BMW before Andy Pilgrim got in.
The race started at 3:15pm on Sunday. The weather was great and a huge crowd was on hand to watch our race and the Toyota-Atlantic race that preceded it. I got a good jump on the start, but when I got to turn one the corner worker was furiously waving the yellow flag signaling some sort of incident. When I turned the corner I saw Sports Racers scattered everywhere, blocking the track. Unfortunately, I was gridded on the outside for the start and two of the spinning cars had slid to the outside and stopped. The outside lane was almost completely blocked. I managed to carefully squeeze through an open lane right next to the outside wall. Several of the GTU cars gridded on the inside were able to get through quickly and ended up in front of me entering turn two.
I got back to second place by the end of the first lap, but was still stuck behind a Porsche Super Cup car. The Cup car, like the BMW, is equipped with ABS. It is also allowed to run without a restrictor, enabling it to match us on the straights. This combination made it very difficult to pass. We were running one to two seconds a lap slower than a comfortable race pace, but I couldn’t seem to get past.
Finally, an opportunity presented itself when the Cup car got held up in turn three and I got a run on it down the back straight. When we got to the brake zone I moved inside and attempted a pass, but the braking capability of the Cup car was too much for my GT3R. I should have known better. When I got to the turn in, I was going too fast to make the turn. If I had tried to turn in I probably would have hit the tire wall. At the last minute I aborted the pass attempt and shot down the escape road.
Eventually, I worked my way back into the lead, but the damage was done. The big lead that I had hoped to give Darren was gone. After our pit stop, Darren re-entered right in front of Pilgrim. Darren did a great job to hold Andy off under difficult circumstances. During our pit stop the air vent cover got knocked off and fell on to the floor on the driver’s side of the car. During Darren’s battle with Andy the air vent cover alternated between wedging itself under the throttle, and wedging itself under the brake. Andy got by Darren with about eight laps to go, and we ended up finishing second.
While we weren’t thrilled with second place, if my math is correct, we clinched the GTU driver’s championship with one race to go. Our next event is the Six Hours of Watkins Glen, which should prove to be another interesting battle between the Porsches and BMWs. I am especially excited about this race because sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Price Cobb will be joining the G&W Motorsports team for the event, although not in our car (Darren and I will be doing the whole race ourselves). It should prove to be a great season finale.