How do you make a race weekend even more exciting than it is usually? You go into it after having just upgraded your gearboxes from DSGs to sequentials, have absolutely no practice since doing so, and then have that gearbox almost tear your car apart the day before you have to qualify—that's how.
The start of the 2019 TC America season in Austin, Texas at Circuit of the Americas didn't quite play out how we might have imagined beforehand, but we couldn't be much happier with the outcome. Temperatures hovering around forty degrees with the constant threat of rain coupled with numerous mechanical problems threw challenges our team had yet to contend with during the entirety of the 2018 season, previous.
As mentioned in last week's post, following our first practice day of the 2019 season, Thursday (and the entire weekend for that matter) was packed full of firsts for our team. The first time Nate Vincent (#72 - yellow mirrors & winglets) and Michael Hurczyn (#71 - red mirrors & winglets) have ever driven the VW GTI TCRs in wet conditions. The first time our cars have run with sequential gearboxes—literally having been installed just a week prior to arriving at COTA. And the first time they've stood atop the podium in not only one race, but both of this first round.
Thursday: Arrival, Setup, & Testing
Thursday is typically a crazy day for us. Our cars are arriving at the track, members of the team are just starting to show up, and everyone is immediately all hands on deck unpacking and setting up. The awning, tools, and our brand new hospitality booth all have to be set up, all while the cars are prepped to go out on track.
Having finished assembling the cars with their new sequential gearboxes no more than a week prior, there was enough anxiety and anticipation to go around. Would the sequentials even work? How would they perform? What changes driving wise would Nate and Michael need to make to adapt to these new gearboxes? How would our VW GTI TCRs handle in the rain? The list of unknowns could easily fill a page.
The team (especially the drivers) quickly learned how savage the new sequential gearboxes were in practice. Nate commented, "These new sequentials are violent, yet make you feel in complete control." Michael, driver of the #71 car, added, "The way in which they fire off shifts, they feel like a purpose-built bolt-action rifle." Those aggressive shifts that made our cars considerably faster did though add extra unforeseen stress on other components, the first casualty being our alternator decoupler pulley. Thankfully, we had a solid alternator decoupler pulley that was supplied with our sequential swap kit back at FCP Euro which was promptly added to one of our carry-ons and arrived next day.
Friday: Repair, More Setup, & More Testing
First thing Friday morning we had the new decoupler pulleys, and the tool needed to install them, in hand. After everything was installed, Nate and Michael were able to hit the track for the first of two thirty minute practice sessions. The morning's session went well, giving each driver much needed problem-free seat time. While the times weren't blisteringly fast, just getting both cars around the track and without a single issue was a big step forward.
The afternoon practice session is when things took a turn for the worse. Midway through the thirty-minute session, Nate Vincent in the #72 car chime in on the coms complaining of a dragging noise. What we hoped was just something simple ended up being catastrophic. Once looking deeper, the issue became very apparent—all four bolts that fasten the transmission to the mounts sheared clean in two. With that, the right side engine mount partially removed itself from the car as well as numerous electrical issues causing the dash to go blank.
The team rallied through the night to get the #72 back together and made the necessary preventative changes to the #71 car, so it didn't suffer the same fate. To our amazement, although all the nuts and bolts had Loctite and were torqued to spec, they were still backing themselves out. With help from the crack team of mechanics at Heinlein Racing Development, remarkably by the end of the night, both of the cars were back together and had done a few laps around the paddock parking lot.
Saturday: Qualification & Race #1
After the night that we just had, waking up knowing the car was going to be rolling down pit lane and onto the track for qualification was almost unbelievable. Like the days prior, we awoke to gloomy skies and a wet track. Qual was declared a wet session, and both cars went out on their wet tires for the first time. We had P1, and P2 locked up until Mason Filippi in the Hyundai Veloster N inched us out with an incredibly quick last flying lap to take pole position.
With the return of the cars to our paddock, we were able to give them a follow-up inspection. To everyone's dismay, we found new problems with the engine mounts and even more bolts that were backing themselves out. Before race one, we had yet another mad dash; engine mount reinforcement plates had to be fabricated and welded in place to prevent this from happening again. Considering the circumstances of Friday night, and the fact that our car was basically held together with bubblegum and a prayer, we were pretty happy knowing we'd be starting P2 and P3 on the grid.
If you thought things were looking up at this point, you'd be right and wrong. Pre-grid came around, and both of our cars were on track. Filippi was issued a technical infraction during qual and was forced to start at the back of the grid. As our cars rolled out for the start of the formation lap, Nate in the #72 got on the coms and reported that his entire dash went blank once again, just as it did on Friday. After trying to diagnose the issue on the fly, the option was to power cycle electronics and what do you know—turning it on and off again temporarily fixed the issue. During this time, Nate fell all the way to the back of the pack and had to start the race even behind the TC/TCA field.
Once the racing got underway, the battles that ensued made for some amazing spectating. Michael Hurczyn in the #71 VW GTI TCR had his work cut out for him holding off Mason Filippi in the Veloster N who had been running incredibly quick all weekend. While they were battling for P1, Nate was skillfully slaloming through the pack, carving his way toward the front of the field. If you didn't watch the stream, you really should check it out to see just how hard he was pushing the #72 (Who knew we should enter the TCR in Formula D?). Filippi made an aggressive pass taking P1 from Hurczyn, and it would remain that way until the conclusion of the race. By then Nate was hot on Hurczyn's tail, finishing only one second behind him in P3. While the process wasn't ideal, the outcome was more than we could have hoped for!
Sunday: Race #2
Thankfully not much preparation was needed before the start of the second race. Both cars were functioning without any glaring issues. The grid for race two is determined by best lap times of race one, so the field was P1: Filippi, P2: Vincent, P3: Walker, P4: Hurczyn.
This race went off without a hitch. Up at the front, the racing remained clean throughout the race. In the back of the pack, there were numerous spins, resulting in a yellow flag early on. After that first yellow, the race ran under green flag until the checker. This race played out quite a bit different than race one on Saturday. Nate had his work cut out for him keeping up with the Veloster N which seemingly was better suited for COTA. Hurczyn didn't have a stress-free race himself, having to hold off Walker in the Alfa Romeo Giulietta as he found pace later in the race, actually setting the overall fast lap in his last lap.
With the clean racing, we were really able to see where each car and driver shined. Mason in the Veloster N was clearly faster on the straights than either Nate or Michael in the GTIs. Meanwhile, James in the Giulietta was finding more speed lap after lap.
Like Saturday, Nate and Michael found their way atop the podium, this time swapping positions—Nate taking home second while Michael took third right behind him.
Although the weekend didn't go as we hoped it would, in the end, our team was able to come together and get it done when everything was going wrong. Even with the problems that should have ended our race weekend, we were able to pull through and take a double podium.
Next weekend we take on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida for the third and fourth race of the season. We're already on location and prepping what's looking to be an amazing race weekend.
If you want to see what goes into building and running our motorsports program, check out the first episode of season two of our series The Paddock on YouTube, even before it goes live on Amazon. Be sure to subscribe to get updates before everyone else!
Writer/Editor at FCP Euro and owner of a daily R53 MINI Cooper, a track-built R53 MINI, and a 1997 Dakar Yellow E36 M3 Sedan. ••• Instagram: @evan.madore