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Needle Threads – Sportscar365

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Photo: Jake Galstad/IMSA

Belle Island, Detroit Grand Prix brings me back waves of memories. Memories of podiums, victories (almost twice), memories of a victory stripped of fuel spilled into the car at about 0.5 seconds during the race, which would not have changed any situation or outcome on the track, but rules are rules.

Belle Isle reminisces about grappling with walls in bumpy streets and accidents up close – real and inescapable moments of street racing because we are all human.

No matter who you are, none of us can do it exactly the same way on every lap.

I couldn’t figure out how, nor did I see either of my classmates achieve perfect consistency. The trail itself consists of park roads on an island located between downtown Detroit and Windsor, Canada. With water on both sides, and a road that sees harsh winters every year, the surface is anything but pristine.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite, with cracks and seams expanding every year, new sealing patches to stop road deterioration and new concrete patches to fill holes in the asphalt.

With all those welds, pavement stains and sealants come the infamous bumps that make Belle Isle such a tough place to race. One of the most famous bumps is in Turn 2, over a bridge at 95 mph in our GT3 race cars, which recently restructured the body panels of a Corvette that drives the IndyCar field under caution.

I arrived in Detroit anticipating the need for faster reaction times, as my eyes would scan the road for debris, and I would rely on my peripherals to scan for proximity to walls.

Over the years, through many sports from childhood until now, I have learned that what you look at or focus on, you are attracted to. Hence the edges of the walls, because staring at them does not enhance speed.

In the first session, it always takes a few laps to get my directions in terms of car width, changed bumps on the circuit, line flow, and where the rubber will eventually build up in sessions.

On lap five I’m able to start leaning against the car hard, which means “bending” the sidewall into the tire becomes a goal for me in all three phases of the corner: entry, center and exit. This happens when the cadence begins to grow, the speed increases, the braking is subsequently pushed, the car begins to skid, and the risk begins.

I am evaluating the car’s handling and informing our engineer Steve Dinan, over the radio, of some of my needs in the car and the way it moves, slips, rolls and spins around a 2.35-mile circuit.

I dive into the pits, the crew makes two hull changes, and it puts me back on my way. Leaving the pit lane, I turn off the pit selector, the car wobbles and skids, my shift lights come on in first gear, I grab second gear and shoot over the bridge to get back to speed and cadence.

A few more on the inside and outside, I handed the car to my teammates for him to get acquainted with the street circuit.

Robert completes his practice and assessment of the track and car relationship and prepares to qualify.

It’s tough, pushing every inch of the track and squeezing it to make it happen, close to the perfect lap. Closer to the wall is where dust and dirt collect, which reduces your grip and makes the slip/slide angle faster in the final foot and half up of concrete.

This is what we mean when we say “needle stitching”. Everything is most insidious in the moments when the danger is greatest.

Robert pushed hard and turned on his best lap of the weekend, 1.29.7 which was 0.6secs off pole position this year and 0.8secs better than our number one position last year in 2021 with the Audi R8.

This brings me to the race and the relative comparison to last year. Robert and I did really well, made no mistakes and kept good averages for our best lap – which meant we were constantly running at the limit of the final car’s potential.

I was 1sec faster in the race this year than last year when we had the speed to win. However, somehow, we still missed a steady 0.8sec for the front four cars.

All of the manufacturer’s cars have received a positive performance balance from the series since the 2021 Detroit, and the Audi/Lambo pair has remained the same ever since.

It’s a part of the sport that I don’t like to comment on publicly, however, when I was fighting with the #51 Acura for sixth place, sliding the car in and out of the corner and scraping the vinyl off my mirror to make it lap time, at which point my pace was still not even close to the speed of the racers. Up front, something is not right.

To look at another comparison, we usually miss 1-4 straight car lengths for all other brands as they are being crafted. Alone, the loss is greater.

The only hope is that there is some solace to the performance gap between the brands, so we have a machine to fight with in the race.

We’re headed to the next Watkins Glen for 6 hours, a track that usually favors cars with big torque and horsepower that can pull the race from corner to corner, but we’ll press 100 percent no matter what hand we’re on and keep using that needle!



Jeff Westphal (Tweet embed) is the 2019 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge GS Champion, driving the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with CarBahn with Peregrine Racing.


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