By Bruce Troxell
The MINI JCW Team’s first year in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a year that saw many long hours of hard work and a little frustration, came to a glorious conclusion at Road Atlanta with MINI #73 driven by Derek Jones and Matt Pombo garnering a well-deserved second place finish. Even more impressively, during a race day that saw constant rain and temperatures in the sixties, Derek and Matt sloshed their way through the field from 26th starting position to finish only twelve seconds behind the class winner—a remarkable tribute to the MINI JCW, Derek and Matt, and the entire MINI JCW Team!
Good Testing Days—Poor Starting Positions
With three cars to work with, the MINI JCW Team spent Wednesday and Thursday practice days before Friday’s race experimenting with brake system changes, tire choices and a few suspension tweeks to come up with a combination that would give the MINIs their best handling. The weather alternated between dry and rain giving the team a bigger challenge, but they persevered, as they have all season, and were happy with the car set-ups prior to qualifying.
The Team’s hopes for good starting positions were washed out, literally, when the increasing rain caused the cancellation of qualifying. Instead, the starting positions were determined by the points accumulated during the season, which put the MINIs at the back of the starting grid. In a class of 28 entries, MINIs 37, 52 and 73 started from 19th, 22nd, and 26th positions. Not a good omen.
Race Day Rain Gives MINIs the Edge
Race day dawned to light drizzle complicating everyone’s tire selection. During the pre-race track activities, a ‘dry’ line was starting to appear in certain turns, which raised the question about the starting tires—wet tires or dry tires? MINI JCW Team hedged their bets, starting MINIs #37 and #73 on ‘dry’ slick tires, and MINI #52 on treaded rain tires.
When the green flag waved, the intensity of the drizzle increased and it became pretty obvious to those who had access to a weather map that the drizzle/rain was not going to stop any time soon. The front wheel drive MINI JCWs took advantage of the weather and proceeded to show the higher powered rear wheel drive cars who were the rain masters.
MINIs March to the Front
On lap 10, Stephen Simpson in the Antistatic Design #37 MINI pitted to put on rain tires after moving up seven places to 12th in class. Derek Jones in #73 had moved up to 11th position while still on ‘dry’ tires before pitting on lap 15 for wet tires and fuel.
Ramin Abdolvahabi in the Mayor Electric and Eaton sponsored MINI #52, already on rain tires, splashed his way into the top ten getting as high as 5th place before making a scheduled pit stop on lap 39 and handing the MINI over to Tyler Stone. By lap 41 Zack Meyer in #37, Matt Pombo in #73 and Tyler Stone in #52 were driving and all three MINIs were in the top 14 in their class.
Everything was looking rosy until the racing gods decided that three MINIs in the top 14 was too many.
Mother Nature Strikes Back
Mother Nature caught out the #52 MINI when it aquaplaned across some standing water causing Tyler Stone to go off course and into a nearby tire wall, putting #52 out of commission. The poor visibility caused Zack Meyer to have his own adventure when a competitor nudged him off the track in the fast and furious turn one. Fortunately, there is a large run-off area and Zack did a masterful job in keeping the MINI under control and driving it back on the track. No serious harm done to the car, but Zack lost several places.
MINI Number 73 Brings Home the Bacon
Matt Pombo kept his cool and his concentration, and keep moving forward. Some heads-up pit stop strategy by the MINI JCW crew kept him on the same lap as the leader and by lap 70 Matt had moved up to second place. All of the MINIacs at the track and watching IMSA’s live streaming held their collective breath as the clock wound down. It all paid off for the entire MINI JCW team when Matt brought #73 MINI home in second place. Zack Meyer kept the go pedal down and finished in 13th position.
It was a fitting conclusion to a superb effort by the entire MINI JCW Team. After a season of incredible effort, they finally got a well-deserved chance to celebrate.
Photo credit Halston Pitman