Road America Race Report by Shane Lewis

I came to Road America with a real self-confidence and overwhelming desire to do well in the Trans Am 100-mile race. I mean of course, I ALWAYS want to do well, but this is the track where I clinched and won the Trans Am Triple Shot Challenge Championship last year. If you watched my on-board video from a few weeks ago in the super fast vintage Nova GT car, you also know that I love the speed and technical aspects of this track. Did I mention the speed? Unbelievably fast! There was also one more thing that put the drive in me more than usual this week; that’s being taken out of second place at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago when I had a great car, at a track I am really quick at.
I still haven’t written or posted about that Mid-Ohio experience, because I am still a little in-shock and amazed (that’s my polite way of saying still pissed) that a driver I thought could be trusted on track, someone that I thought you could run hard with, would just punt me out of the way… like I said, just one more motivation for Road America.
The week started here with two long 40-minute test sessions. We would normally have 3 or 4 shorter sessions throughout the day. I prefer multiple shorter ones in Trans Am because that gives us time to debrief and make larger changes between sessions. We then have the time to see if those changes work and our hard work is more verifiable. With only two times on track, that meant my teammate, Gar Robinson, and I would try different set-ups and get together after each session, compare notes, look at data and see what direction we wanted to go from there.
While we both had good Camaros all day, and we worked together well in trying to make them better, we both thought there was just something not quite right with each car. Some kind of balance under braking, something about the corner turn-in of both the cars that just wasn’t right, even with different set-ups on two different cars.
After much head scratching, strange looks from the mechanics and engineers… nothing. Not a clue. Nothing had been changed in the brakes and to have both cars with the same issue on different set-ups just didn’t add up.
For those of you that are racers yourselves, mechanics, drivers, or just people that love what they do in any sport or activity, here is a lesson that we all need to remember. Nothing just changes or goes bad for no reason. Keep looking, keep asking questions, keep digging and keep looking for answers.
Here is why. I personally called and had a conversation with our brake pad supplier, which are great people and work very hard to give us a great product. During that conversation they guaranteed me nothing had been changed to the compound or manufacturing of our pads. They had been made to the exact same specifications right here in the USA for several years now. It had to be something else. They asked me to send along the serial number on the pads just for reference. Instead of typing in the long part number I took a photo of the backing plate with the number on it. Before I sent it along, I expanded the photo to read the number easier myself and what do I see in very small print? Made in Germany. Remember earlier they said all the pads were exactly the same from where? The USA. That’s right. These new pads were from a different country and batch all together! Had to be it. Couldn’t be a coincidence.
So we were pretty convinced we had found the issue. But now the problem got even more complicated. We had no way of getting more of the original pads that we wanted in time for qualifying or the race. We didn’t even know if they existed anymore. The solution came as a surprise to me, and one I really wasn’t comfortable with when first proposed to me. The rear pads were the same original compound and were from the original USA-made batch that we were looking for. While they would fit the front calipers, they were about 20 percent smaller in size than the ones we should run up front. Will that even work I thought? Will it stop consistently after more than a few laps? Forget a few laps, what happens in 100 miles with 20 percent less pad surface?
You think I got a whole lot of sleep that night? Good thing for having a killer shower in my room at the American Club/Kohler and Netflix on my iPad.
So now it’s Friday. Qualifying day. Small rear brake pads on the front big calipers. We also made a few other small changes to the cars’ mechanical settings and aero setting to go along with it. Ok, who am I trying to kid here, you or me? They weren’t small changes; they were significant changes that maybe made sense on paper but not tested earlier or knew what would happen, along with the unknown brake pads! And…. Oh my god man, just put your big boy pants on and go qualify!
Qualifying is important for the obvious reasons of starting the race up front. But we also have to start the race on the same set of tires we qualify on. So getting a fast lap in quickly and saving that same set of tires for the race is very important. You need to get the good lap in early. Combine that with all the things listed up above that we had changed, and having super confidence in the car the first timed lap wasn’t going to be easy.
My out lap in qualifying is always an easy tire warm-up lap and then the first flying lap is 99.9% up on the wheel, go get ’em! I might get a second fast timed lap on a shorter track that takes the tires a little longer to get temperature and grip, but not here at Road America. This place is long and fast! I knew my first timed lap had to be it. With all the bellyaching and mental crap and brake pads and well just too much stuff, I stopped and mentally turned the qualifying driver switch on in my brain and you know what, an amazing thing happened. The car was awesome! I mean really awesome. Good enough to qualify P3! I wanted another lap and knew I could go even faster – and knew it was worth it for the possible pole position even if it meant putting more laps on my race tires. As I was doing my second lap, my predictive lap timer said I was going even quicker. This was going to be the lap!
Wouldn’t you know it a competitor put his car into the gravel trap and brought the qualifying session to a halt right at the end of my fast lap, which brought out the red flag. I was still P3 and everyone including myself was ecstatic! It’s another great reason to get your fast lap in early, in case the session is ended all-together. It can happen and does happen on occasion so waiting is not what we do here in Trans Am.
The track safety workers got the track cleaned up and there was still a few minutes left to go in the session. All the fast guys lined up to go back out, and I knew I wouldn’t stay third for long if I didn’t do the same. I came over the radio and asked the crew if I could give it one more try. I knew there was just a little more left in the car. I went back out and put together a good solid lap that was indeed faster than the last! Good thing as the field stepped it up as well, but my faster lap still placed me in third. Felt like a pole position to me after the last race and all the issues we faced in practice the day earlier here. I was so excited for the race day!
The night before the race I had a great time at the Road America kart track thanks to the Bernloehr family and ProKART. We had a blast rubbing and racing with some of my fellow Trans Am competitors and crew members, battling it out for bragging rights and just all-around good fun. Then, I had an outdoor dinner with my team at the owner’s coach, just to unwind and give me a chance to thank them for all their hard work the past two days, as well as the weeks leading up to this race. A good night’s sleep is all I need before competing in what had become a really great race car!
RACE DAY! Good morning, race fans; it’s time to get up and get to the track for Round 7 of the 2016 Trans Am Championship, the ETE Reman Transmissions Muscle Car 100 presented by Pura Vida Tequila at Road America!
I am excited about this race! Can’t wait to get back in the same great car I had for qualifying. I am about to walk out the door of my hotel and I hear something a little off. Oh come on, it can’t be. Seriously? I would know that sound anywhere living in South Florida now for all these years. Rain… Not just any rain but pouring rain.
Didn’t really need another curve ball thrown my way. Now I don’t mind the rain. It’s great for a day indoors or movie watching or what have you. But racing in the rain, not so much. I love racing in front of a packed crowd where you can feel the enthusiasm in the air. A race in the rain where everyone is holed up and can’t see a thing, makes for a very solitude experience. I also had a super race car and wanted to show off what we could do today. But you have to work with what’s dealt to you, so I walked out of the hotel room with the same smile I left qualifying with.
Now I would like to make one more point about the rain before we move on. I don’t mind it, but I don’t prefer it. Many drivers, crew members and commentators tell the tale of how rain is the great equalizer. How somehow it shows the real talent of a driver. I personally think if they use that quote, what it really means is they actually suck in the dry…
In Trans Am, we are all on Hoosier tires. I like them a lot. I will admit I wasn’t too sure about racing on Bias Ply tires after all my years in GT cars and Prototypes. But I have come to love them. The close competition and exciting racing the fans get to see is in part due to this tire. The Hoosier rain tire is really new to me though. This is my second year in Trans Am and only my second time running on the rain tire. I ran it the first and only time at VIR last year, but my race was cut short by some knuckleheads crashing and spinning in front of me. I had been told it was good, but still wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Fortunately, the officials made the good call and decision to run the pace car under yellow for the first few laps of the race so the drivers could see where the big water was and allow us to try to make sense of what little grip there may be at full speeds. Good thing too as there were huge rooster tails of water pouring from the back of the cars and very slippery conditions even before we started the race.
I get the call from my crew that the pace car will be pulling off in one more lap to go green but that the race will be started single file. Another smart move from the officials as this testosterone-filled group side by side in the rain could be disastrous.
“GREEN GREEN GREEN,” I hear over the radio as I can’t see a thing out my windshield. But I follow a slight color and hint of the race car in front of me flat out up the front straightaway. While I am third and thankfully not in the very back of what could be a very messy start, the water spray off the two front cars is still massively strong.
We have a single windshield wiper on the cars but it doesn’t do much at triple digit speeds. I pull to the right to try and see where I am and make it to where I think I should brake in the rain for turn one, all the while just hoping the guys behind me do the same. As I pull right, I see I have this open lane and a clear path to the apex of turn one. The #5 Camaro of Lawrence Loshak qualified second and was the car I was looking underneath into turn one. I wouldn’t ever do anything to jeopardize his race or mine, especially this early into a rain race. My car just wanted to be there and it stuck better than expected. LL raced me hard all the way through turn one and even pinched me down at the apex trying to slow my exit into turn three. I respect that. But it didn’t quite work for him. I wanted it just as bad as he did and kept the pressure on him and beside him all the way up to and through turn three. I came out of turn three in second place and the only thing I can think about is getting the power down quickly with no wheel spin in the rain and onto the long back straight so I can keep him and the rest of the field behind me.
Ross, my car chief, comes on the radio to give me the heads up to back it down as there is now a full-course caution just after the start of the race. The front of the field is not even into turn 5, and we have cars crashed in the rain. He is a little more subdued on the radio giving me that info. I kind of thought the team would have been a little more excited about my move into second. Then, as I come down the front straight I see why. There is a very large, big screen monitor that Road America has placed at the entry of turn one so the fans can see more of the event from other locations around the track. From our slower safety car speed, the drivers can also see the screen, and there it was, my teammate with a heavily damaged car stuffed into the gravel trap.
It took several laps to clean up, and all the while, the rain still coming down. My instructions were simple from pit lane. Do not put my car in harm’s way. Do not destroy another team car in the rain. Just finish the race.
Safety car lights are out and we are going green this time. The field is set and coming up the front straight to the flag stand. We can’t pull out or even accelerate until a certain point and not a move out of line before the flag falls. GREEN GREEN GREEN! This time, the front-runner gets a good pull on me and does a good job braking into turn one. I try and stay on his tail, knowing the guys behind me are doing the same. He gets a good run coming into turn three and all I can think of between my hands whaling from lack of grip and the car sliding sideways on power out of the exits is what the crew had just told me. DO NOT HURT THIS CAR. Exiting turn three, I put the power down smoothly but firmly close behind him. Just at the exit, his car gets a massive power slide and he can’t get the power down as quickly as I do. I move to the inside hoping I can hold it. Brake zone for turn 5. Hard on the brakes. Can’t really see where he is in all the water spray but I get a good exit anyway. Up the hill, no grip under the bridge, a big slide through turn 7 and I am thinking he is right there behind me.
Out of turn 8 and I look into the mirror to see where he may be and… nothing. Hmmm, I had cleared him by several car lengths. Ok, just put your head down and focus. I was very cautious through the long carousel corner and even more so through the very famous – fast and dangerous in the dry or the wet – “Kink”. I thought for sure the field would be right on my ass going into the brake zone for Canada corner, but as I looked I still had the few car lengths on them. Well, more than a few car lengths really.
Lap after lap, it just kept going my way. The team would tell me on the radio not to hurt the car and take care of the tires. Every lap I would radio back, “Don’t worry, I am taking good care if it.” It just flowed. Now, it was hard work, let me tell you and there wasn’t a calm bone or muscle in my body. But my car and I just worked together in the rain like no other car I have driven. Lap after lap, the gap got bigger. One second ahead became two, then three, then four. At one point, I had over a 10 second lead! Seriously, in this field that’s a milestone. But this weekend wouldn’t come easy no matter what we tried.
“Full course Caution, Full course Caution!” comes over the radio. Dang it! There goes my huge lead and all the while the track was drying out. I liked my rain car and didn’t want it to end. The full course took longer than I would have liked which gave the track even more time to dry out. As we went back green, I held the lead for a few corners but now had the new points leader right on my tail. I tried my best to hold him off without blocking or doing something stupid but I just couldn’t keep my car underneath me like before. The more the track dried, the faster they went and a bigger target I became.
I just couldn’t hold onto the car through the carousel, and the Kink became a whole other problem all together. I hadn’t used up my tires, I assure you that wasn’t the case. It was something more. One by one they started to catch me. My job now was to bring the car home like I was asked to. Ok, told to.
I finished the race in fifth after leading by such a huge margin. I am still not sure whether to be super happy to finish without a scratch or to mourn my big lead.
After the race and analyzing what had taken place, I am pretty certain I know what happened to my car at the end. Ah, sorry can’t tell you that right now. There may be another rain race this year, and I am sure my competitors are reading this.
Unfortunately, I am too far out of the points championship after a few mechanical failures this year, and also some not needed help off track by fellow competitors, to be a contender. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be going for wins and pushing hard every race.
Was Road America fun in the end? Oh yes! Many thanks to the crowds, fans and fellow competitors for calling me the Rainmeister. But I still think if you prefer racing in the rain, that you must really suck in the dry.
To see photos from Road America, click here:

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