Joel Miller's column: The differences between open-wheel and sports cars

Joel Miller's column: The differences between open-wheel and sports cars


Joel Miller's column: The differences between open-wheel and sports cars


The season has reached its halfway point for most of the racing series. In Grand-Am we are in the middle of the mid-season push which has six races in a 12-week period. The Mazda SpeedSource team which I drive for is currently on a win streak in our new Mazda6 SKYACTIV-D Clean Diesel GX car. The No. 00 car which I drive with Tristan Nunez claimed the first two victories at Road Atlanta and the street course in Detroit with the No. 70 claiming victory at Mid Ohio with Sylvain Tremblay and Tom Long. With it being the halfway mark in the season I thought I would share what I have learned thus far about driving sports cars vs. my open-wheel background.

My first experience driving a racecar with a roof over my head actually started with SpeedSource in the Mazda RX-8 at the November Daytona test days in 2008. Little did I know then I would be driving for the team full time a few years later. Between 2008 and now I have ran two 25 hours of Thunderhill events, a few Grand-Am Continental Challenge races in 2012, and even a time attack event along the way. What was I able to take with me from my open-wheel experience in Indy Lights (RIGHT), Pro Mazda, or F2000/Skip Barber? If you got what it takes then you can figure out how to drive a sports car, but now you have to do all that while also playing chess. I found the biggest part to making that transition is understanding the cars capabilities and the overall goal of the program. 

Let us start with the dynamics of the car itself. An open wheel car is nimble, lightweight (respectively speaking), usually an aero balanced platform, and the engine is in the back behind the driver to name a few things. A sports car, namely a GT spec car, is slower to react than an open-wheel, much heavier, has some aerodynamic tendencies but not to the effect of an open wheel car, and the engine in our Mazda6 SKYACTIV-D Clean Diesel is in the front. These differences require the driver to be patient.

A majority of the platforms of the open-wheel cars I have driven would multi-task quite well. They would brake well, rotate nicely on entry, and accelerate like the car was on rails when the setup was right. Driving a sports car we have to separate those three areas a bit. Our SKYACTIV-D Clean Diesel may have 400hp but to produce a lap time driving it like a low-horsepower momentum car is key. Focusing on the exits and getting the car pointed down the track is what we typically base our setups around. When driving the open-wheel cars the setup balance had a larger emphasis on entry stability, because a lot of time could be gained on maximizing corner entry. The car could do much more mid corner to get pointed down the track because of the dynamic differences I mentioned earlier. As an open wheel driver coming to sports cars we have to understand the cars weight which has a huge effect on the dynamic capabilities of the car.

I mentioned earlier that racing a sports car is similar to playing chess. My first experience with the game was in third grade when the teacher had us build our own board, create our own pieces (king, queen, rook, etc.), and then fully understand the strategy of the game. I will take a chess game challenge anytime and love the game! The game of chess requires you to think, plan, and be patient for the moments of opportunity. I can relate this to racing an endurance event.

The thinking part, is of course obvious, but pertains to dealing with traffic. The planning stage comes from the guys on the pit box in fuel strategy or to take tires vs double stinting them. I spoke about patients earlier pertaining to physically driving the car and it also applies to when you can push the car. In the open-wheel junior formulae we always pushed 110% of the time to maximize the lap time. In sports cars that is not the case from what I have learned so far. I will touch on the R&D aspect later but there are many times we will drive to a number (lap time). The reason being items from fuel mileage, tire conservation (remember we are endurance racing), or for consistency because the engineers need to see what a part will do for a lifecycle analysis. The team expects its drivers to push 110% when called upon but sometimes we have to drive at 90% which is almost harder to do. It is all part of the job and I am loving every minute of it especially when the team allows me to attack 110%!

The next item is the R&D aspect of sports car racing. One of the coolest areas right under driving the car in my opinion. As a recent engineering graduate we learned about material strength, aerodynamics, and dynamics. SpeedSource is a leader in developing Mazda’s SKYACTIV-D Clean Diesel engine in the new Mazda6. I can definitely say what we are learning on the track will go back to HQ with applications to the street car version.

This is not seen as much in the open wheel ranks especially the junior formulae. The junior open wheel formula car levels usually have a proven window where the cars work best and it is up to the driver to get the most out of it. A driver must be able to work extensively in a sports car development program with the engineers because that “proven window” I spoke about earlier does not exist. As the program develops new items are learned, change occurs, notes are taken, and performance is increased. Sometimes we have to learn by negative outcomes but those things happen and we come back stronger. Sports car racing has that development side to it which for a driver we have to be capable of doing more than just driving the car at its limit. We have to be able to communicate and understand the task at hand. This is something Sylvain (ABOVE, with Joel, at right)has taught me in these last six months and with that thought process the team has won the last three races in a row.

I could go on and on comparing open-wheel and sports cars. One similarity between the two is when we are allowed to push and give all we have as a driver. No matter what you drive the car has its limit, finding that limit, and driving on that line is the best feeling in the world. People have asked if I miss the open-wheel side of things. My response, it was part of the process getting to where I am now and I am looking forward to what the future stores. I love open-wheel racing but I have found a home in sports cars and very thankful for Mazda and SpeedSource for making that happen.

The next round in the Grand Am Championship is this weekend for the 6 hours of Watkins Glen which airs live on SPEED at 11am ET. Feel free to reach out via Twitter @joelmilleracing or on Facebook via my fan page Joel Miller Racing to ask further questions because there is so many aspects to compare. Make sure to look for the Mazda SKYACTIV-D Clean Diesel’s this weekend at Watkins Glen! Until next time.

– Joel