From the sustained high speeds of Daytona International Speedway to the bumps of Sebring to the concrete canyons of Long Beach, each of the first three circuits on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule presents very different challenges. And it is not only the tracks, but the length of the races that radically change the dynamic. Long Beach is one of two street circuits on the schedule, and also one of the shortest races at 1h40m.
It’s time for the sprint races — two drivers and no long runs to sort things out. While it’s possible for the race to go green for the duration, that’s unusual. That means Friday afternoon’s qualifying for the Saturday afternoon race on the narrow street circuit is critical. But the whole event is a challenge the drivers relish.
“Long Beach is a great track to drive,” says Pipo Derani, driver of the No. 31 Action Express Racing Cadillac with Tristan Nunez. “I think it’s a fantastic event together with with IndyCar. You have a lot of fans around and it’s a nice place as a driver. And a street track is always challenging, to be so close to the walls. So yeah, it’s gonna be a very challenging and — as we’ve seen since the beginning of the year — a very tight field and difficult race to win as usual in IMSA, but one that I’m looking forward to. Our Cadillac DPI runs really well at that track.”
That last sentence may be a bit of an understatement; Cadillac has won every race at Long Beach since the inception of the DPi category, and Acura drivers downplay their chances at the track, despite their brand carrying the title sponsorship of the race. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still relish the event.
“Long Beach has to be one of the highlights of the season,” says Filipe Albuquerque, who shares the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura with Ricky Taylor. “I like to call it like the Monaco of America because it’s a nice event. It’s awesome to go there — a lot of things happening. I love street courses. I won twice in a row there from the beginning — obviously was with a different car. And with it the home race of Acura, there is a lot of attention to us.”
Drivers cite either end of the circuit as favorites — the Turns 9-10-11 combination, with Turn 11 being the infamous hairpin, or the Turns 2-3 complex, the roundabout around the fountain in front of the Aquarium of the Pacific. But the city streets they face in Friday morning practice will not be the same track they race on some 29 hours later, after Indy cars and drift cars have laid down lots of rubber, and very different than what’s laid down by their Michelin tires.
“We turn up, we go for first practice at 9:00 in the morning on Friday, and it’s kind of a meaningless session because you’re just cleaning the circuit,” says Richard Westbrook, who last competed at Long Beach in a Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT in the GTLM category but will race this weekend in the No. 5 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac. “Then the track evolves, evolves, evolves, and it’s a completely different circuit come come race day. I remember in the Ford GT, race days even quicker than qualifying, because the track just continues to evolve. So you’ve got to be ready for that. You have to sort of adapt yourself …you can’t just go into each session with the mindset like, ‘I need to improve in that corner.’ The track is completely different, so you have to be very open minded on how you go to work.”
Westbrook is expecting to finish the race, and thus it will be teammate Tristan Vautier doing his best to put the car on pole, but Westbrook certainly understands the importance of qualifying in a 100-minute race on a street course.
“Qualifying is nuts. You have to sort of go to places that you don’t really want to go to in practice. You need to step out for sure and take the car sort of past its limit in some ways,” he says.
The DPi drivers have the added challenge of negotiation around the GTD cars, For the first time this season, there will be no LMP2s or LMP3s to contend with, just GTD Pro and GTD. And the traffic can be just as frustrating for the GTD drivers if they DPi cars catch them in the wrong spot.
“Some of them don’t leave a lot of space,” explains Jordan Taylor, driver of the No. 3 GTD Pro Corvette with Antonio Garcia. “Turn 1 has a little bit of room on the outside to get away with it. You can at least see them coming. There are a few spots where guys will stick their nose in that you’re not going to have time to react — the 3-4-5 section. Once you get to the end of the lap where the drift cars go, that’s a bad spot to get stuck off-line. You can be put in a bad position around the track. Understanding where you want to place the car and telling a prototype where not to go and put yourself in a bad situation is a big part of it. You try to control your fate most of the time.”
A difficulty for drivers in both types of cars may be that, unlike the long endurance races where GTD Pro and GTD separated themselves to a degree, that may not happen in a short race. The DPi drivers will have to be cognizant of which category they’re lapping, especially in the early stages.
Practice for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship begins at 9:15 a.m. local time on Friday, with qualifying taking place at 5:15 p.m. The race, which will air live on USA Network, starts at 5:05 p.m. ET on Saturday.