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Taunting the Jaws of Defeat – APR Motorsport Wins at Watkins Glen

By Mike Sweeney

There is nothing more pitiful than a motor suddenly and unexpectedly going silent. There is usually no drama, no violence, and no warning to its departure. It just suddenly gets quiet and slow inside the car, and there is usually nothing you can do about it. You come to a stop, and accept that you’ve lost. I’ve had this happen a couple of times, but never before had it caused me so much stress, because it had never happened while I was leading a professional race.

I drive a Volkswagen GTI for APR Motorsport in the Grand Am KONI Sports Car Challenge. We are a young team in our second year of competition, but we have quickly risen to a level of prominence in the paddock. After spending a tough 2008 season developing the cars, we came out of the box in 2009 with a competitive package, and the crew continued working tirelessly to find more speed. We opened the year with some strong showings and were getting closer and closer to the front. At Lime rock, Josh Hurley put our sister car on the pole for the first time of the year, and finished 2nd. I had a fuel pump issue and finished 20th with my co-driver Dion von Moltke.

Two weeks later, we went to Watkins Glen International and again, the #171 was on pole, this time with Ian Baas driving. I qualified right next to him in 2nd, giving APR Motorsport it’s first front row sweep. When we started the race the weather was doing its level best to make things interesting, as it was sprinkling off and on and never over the entire track. At the start, grip levels were low, and varied widely from corner to corner, and you kind of had to just drive it in and hope it stuck. Everyone was struggling with this, and it had those of us at the front of the ST class right among the tail end of the faster GS class cars.

This made my life difficult. Ian managed to get around the two GS cars, but I got held up, and a couple of my competitors passed me. Now I had to not only get those positions back, but I had to race the GS cars too. They were tiptoeing through the corners, but had massive straight-line speed. After an interesting tussle, I got around one of them on the outside of turn one and got a run on the other going towards the esses. The esses were wet, but still well over 100 mph and are lined with walls. Going two-wide through there is a good way to crash, and there are no small crashes into a wall. I drove it in, flat on the gas, and went around the outside as he lifted. While the rest of the ST field got bottlenecked behind those two, I managed to get tucked in behind Ian. We went to work at getting some ground between our Volkswagens and the competition.

The next half-hour was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a racecar. Watkins Glen is an amazing place, fast and flowing, yet still very technical. The esses and the chicane are all about high-speed machismo, while The Boot section is about being inch-perfect between the big blue guardrails. There is little room for error, but it punishes a timid driver. Ian and I were flying at the front, with nothing between us, and it was immensely satisfying. We were pushing each other, and breaking the field while we clicked off a string of near qualifying-pace laps.

We ran hard, nose-to-tail until we had a lead of several seconds over third place. I got around Ian when he had a problem, then he got around me when we drove into a rainstorm on slick tires and I “overestimated” the level of grip. Almost immediately after that, Ian suddenly slowed with a fuel pump problem. It had been fun racing each other, but I was alone at the front now. I kept my head down and kept pushing, so that when we did our first and only scheduled pit stop I could hand the car to Dion with a big lead, and he could cruise to our first win while taking it easy on the car.

I had a lead of nearly 10 seconds when our team owner came over the radio and told me we would be pitting on the next lap. I acknowledged the transmission as I drove down the front straight, and then drove the car down into turn one. As I hit the gas at the apex, the car hiccupped.

It was only for an instant, but my heart sank. The fuel pump had sucked up some air, causing the bobble. The problem is, our car doesn’t bobble until there is basically nothing in the tank, and I was over three miles from home. I drove through the esses at half-throttle, shifting well below redline, and cruised down the back straight in sixth gear, waiting for the inevitable. Coming off the last corner before the pit lane, I hit the gas – and the car went quiet.

As I said, it’s a demoralizing thing not to hear. All the noise and fury just slips out of the car, and you are suddenly left in a $100,000 Radio Flyer. I coasted into pit lane, but since a caution flag had just flown, we were only allowed to put a splash of Sunoco in. This whole thing was rapidly coming unraveled. I re-entered the race in 6th or 7th behind the pace car, but then had to come in again when the pits opened. I couldn’t believe it. Dion left the pits in 14th place, and all our work had been for nothing.

We still had one of the fastest cars in the field, and when we went green, Dion went to work. With the help of a couple of caution periods (and subsequent awesome restarts), he put the 181 past one car after another, marching his way towards the front. He put down a great pace and made smart decisions at the right times, and macho decisions when he had to, including a great door-banging pass through the esses at 120mph. Soon, it was coming down to a dogfight between Dion and Randy Pobst, who is fast everywhere, but is known as the Mayor of Watkins Glen. Randy was all over the back of the 181 (which he drove last year – the irony is not lost on us) lap after lap, and to make things even more stressful, it was starting to rain!

On the last lap, the track was streaming with water over the last half of the lap. Dion recognized it and made the decision to run the rain line, which basically means driving around the very outside of every corner. There is a lot of grip out there, but it also means you can’t protect the inside of the corner to keep a car from passing. This is a real concern with Randy Pobst in the Compass 360 Honda right on your bumper.

It turned out to be an inspired decision. In the first corner where Dion ran the outside, Randy hit the slick concrete on the normal racing line, slid wide, and lost several car lengths. This really put him in a tough spot for the next corner, where he had to try a dive-bomb move, which didn’t quite get him alongside our car; he again lost ground on the exit. I watched on the monitors as they went into the last corner, and realized that Randy wasn’t going to get by. As I watched them come down the front straight under the checkered flag, a huge wave of relief came over me. We had won! Appropriately, I then lost my mind and started screaming and jumping up and down.

I was in good company for this, as it turns out. So much hard work had gone into our first win at Watkins Glen International. We have the best crew in the series. They sacrificed so much for so long and every time we had come close, luck would snatch the win from us. We had suffered through crashes, failures, and everything in between, and finally it had all come together. It was all smiles, cheers, and hugs in the APR pit.

As I left for Victory Lane, I realized what we had done. The first win for APR Motorsport. My first professional win. Dion’s first professional win. The first professional victory for Volkswagen in America in over 25 years. Everything was different now; it wasn’t just promises, and conviction that we could do it. It wasn’t about telling sponsors about our potential, or convincing ourselves that it would happen. No, it was different.

We were winners now.

The APR Motorsport racing team of mechanics had the Golf GTI set up exceptionally well for our race at Watkins Glen. Whether we were careening around turns or blasting down the straights, Dion and I could pass our foes at will, what a thrill!

In this photo our team photographer, Sideline Sports Photography, LLC, caught me just finishing dousing my teammate, Dion von Moltke with celebratory champagne.

Doesn’t the APR Motorsport Golf GTI look at home in the Watkins Glen International Winner’s Circle? You bet it does!

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