IMSA drivers are accustomed to having the briefest of offseasons. It’s 2.5 months, on average, between the October close of Petit Le Mans and the January start of the Roar Before The 24, which makes the highly unexpected five-month break between late January’s Rolex 24 At Daytona and this weekend’s early July return to the big roval such a strange experience for drivers to process.
Having completed a single pro race in a span of nine months, the field of 26 cars and 50-plus drivers who take the green flag Saturday night could be a bit rusty as they sail into Turn 1, but Wright Motorsports’ Patrick Long says it will be a welcome return to normalcy.
“Being down for so long is definitely unprecedented,” the Porsche factory driver told RACER. “I don’t know the last time I spent over 90 days in the same time zone. This whole COVID-19 experience has been a three-phase period for me. The first phase was just disconnecting from all things digital and getting out into a different head space, and then it ramped up pretty quickly into a period of Esports, with the Race of Champions series that iRacing did on Fox Sports.
“I also did a couple of IMSA iRaces with my partner, Hagerty. Then we jumped into a full karting program to prepare for the return. My head space was, ‘Man, what’s the body going to feel like the first time that I jump into a race car after all these months? I don’t have any experience in that.’ Luckily that was the game changer for me.”
On Wednesday, Long was able to shake down the No. 16 Porsche 911 GT3 R he shares with Ryan Hardwick, which helped reconnect the Californian with the world he’d been missing since the coronavirus shutdown took effect. Before the shakedown, Long returned to his youth by venturing out to a local kart track to keep his reflexes sharp.
“We’ve always talked about karting being part of a driver’s routine and where many of us — most of us — came from in our roots,” he said. “But I put a pretty rigorous program together and stuck to it, and that was another game changer for me. So jumping back into the Porsche, just to shake it down, I was physically at 100 percent. I probably feel better than I ever have done because of the work that I’ve been able to do. Being off the road, with the gym in my garage, and the kart track to hit with the social-distance karting, it was big for me to stay ready.”
In his preparation for racing at Daytona, Long found the one area of shutdown activities that required additional processing was the volume of sim racing he’d completed. Having spent months locked in virtual competition, the difference between real and simulation sensations behind the steering wheel took some time to compartmentalize.
“The sim was on my mind during the shakedown,” he said. “It’s one of these things where I think everybody got maybe a little fatigued hearing about it, but mentally, I think I have a little bit of a different approach to how I drive, and I think it has to do with the visual. Let’s just say you have fewer senses to rely on to extract speed sitting behind a screen. I felt better in the Porsche because now I had more senses and more feedback to produce lap time. And so I think doing the sim racing, where you have fewer senses feeding your body information, actually stretched or exercised the brain while out of the car. Getting back into the race car, it was like, man, this is a welcome return.
“The sim racing was so hard, but now getting back to what I actually do — which is definitely not sim racing — it was like a relief. For me, sim racing was that same challenge of learning a new race car or learning a new racetrack where it’s stressful, and it is that challenge that kind of keeps you sharp. I might have a sharper pencil here because I was in such a foreign world, and I had to find speed in that foreign world with fewer senses. And now I still have to find speed; I still have to apply everything to what I do, but now I have a few more exercises in my toolkit that I didn’t before because of the sim racing.”
Long says the extended break will be forgotten as soon as practice gets under way at Daytona. He also says to excuse any of the drivers who make a few mistakes while getting back into the groove during the 2h40m race.
“I think as a group, there may be a little bit of rust. Certainly it was on my mind at Sebring about nailing out laps and in laps, remembering what all the buttons on the steering wheel do, and that kind of stuff that familiarity breeds,” he said.
“Everyone did one race, then we went our separate ways for a good while, and yeah, we might have a messy start or restart, but once the body gets woken up, which will happen pretty quickly for us, I think we’ll be fine.”