IMSA sports car drivers expect smooth sailing at COTA


Track’s bumps could make races more fun, some drivers say.

COTA chairman says problems ‘will be fixed’ down the road.

Weekend racing has several Texas — and Austin — angles.

When the world’s best motorcycle riders pulled out of Circuit of the Americas two weeks ago, they said event organizers needed to smooth bumps in the track or racing would be nearly impossible next year.

This week many of the premier sports car drivers in the business have wheeled into Austin, and they say it will be smooth sailing, more or less, for the IMSA Advance Auto Parts Shootout on Friday and Saturday.

“We noticed the bumps have gotten a little bit worse, but you’re only talking about maybe three spots,” said Holland’s Jeroen Bleekemolen, co-driver with Tomball’s Ben Keating of the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 for Riley Motorsports. “We go to places like Sebring (that are) way bumpier than here.

“This is no big deal. It actually makes it more fun and challenging in a way. You play a little bit more with suspension and set-up.”

Joey Hand, co-driver of the No. 66 Chip Ganassi Ford that leads the upper-tier GTLM series, said it’s not something fans would notice.

“The bumps are bigger, but nowhere near something we would complain about,” he said, “and nothing that should cause any problems.”

Bobby Epstein, chairman of COTA, told the American-Statesman he is aware of the issue and that it will be resolved.

“It took the bikes to really notice that,” Epstein said. “They are clearly much more sensitive to it, but it’s still something we want to address.”

Epstein wouldn’t go into detail about possible repairs or a timeline for making them, but said, “The plan is simple. We will fix them.”

The IMSA event will be the last racing at COTA until Labor Day weekend. The U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race is scheduled for Oct. 22.

MotoGP is the second-biggest racing draw at COTA behind F1, and Epstein has said it will “definitely” be back in 2018. The top riders in the series said they want the track’s surface to improve in advance of their return.

“From 2016 to ‘17, the bumps got bigger. If it gets worse in another year, it will be very difficult to ride,” said Marc Marquez, who’s won all five MotoGP events at COTA.

Second-place finisher Valentino Rossi, the all-time leading winner in the sport, said repairs were made several years ago and the job “was not good.”

“They have to do it in a serious way and fix the points where the bumps are so deep,” he said.

After practices on Thursday, the sports car racers identified bumps going into the turn 1 braking zone, turn 6 and coming out of turns 17 and 18.

“On two wheels, it must feel very different. For us, totally fine,” said Bleekemolen, who co-drove with Keating to GTD wins at COTA in 2014 and ‘15. “I doubt it would be an issue for the F1 guys, either.”

COTA, roughly five years old, has shaved bumps a few times before. It’s not unusual for circuits to work on their racing surface. Texas Motor Speedway repaved its entire track this year.

Drivers were unanimous in their eagerness to test their skills this weekend at COTA.

“This is a fun track with variety and passing zones,” said Mike Skeen, co-driver with Pilot Point’s Dan Knox of the No. 80 Lone Star Racing Mercedes-AMG in the GT3 series. “It’s also a modern, safe track with run-off areas that allow you to be aggressive with a forgiveness factor.”

Knox said “the COTA layout is one of the best in the country. And for me, it’s like a home track. I’ll have friends and family here.”

There are Central Texas angles, too. Former Texas Rangers starting pitcher C.J. Wilson owns a race team in Austin and will drive at COTA for the first time. He’ll be in the No. 33 Porsche 911 in the GT3 Cup races Friday and Saturday.

Moorespeed, another Porsche GT3 Cup team, is based in Austin and fields cars for Austinite Will Hardeman and Corey Fergus.

Jeff Mosing, another Austinite, drives the No. 56 Porsche Cayman Murillo Racing team car with Fort Worth’s Eric Foss in the Continental Tire ST class. They have two top-three finishes to start the season.

Racing weekend

What: Advance Auto Parts Showdown for IMSA WeatherTech sports car series and other support races

When: Friday-Saturday

Where: Circuit of the Americas

Friday schedule: Lamborghini qualifying, 8-8:35 a.m.; IMSA practice, 8:55-9:55 a.m.; Porsche GT3 Cup qualifying, 10:15-10:35 a.m.; Continental Tire Challenge practice and qualifying, 10:45-11:45 a.m.; IMSA qualifying, all five classes, 11:30 a.m.-1:35 p.m.; Continental Tire Challenge race, 2:45-4:45 p.m.; Lamborghini Trofeo race, 5:20-6:10 p.m.; Porsche GT3 Cup race, 6:30-7:15 p.m.

Saturday schedule: Lamborghini Trofeo race, 9:45-10:30 a.m.; Porsche GT3 Cup race, 11-11:45 a.m.; IMSA Sportscar Showdown race, 1:35-4:15 p.m.

Tickets: Two-day passes, $79. Single-day passes from $49.

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