One globe-trotting driver chasing a points title in Austin


Highlights

Patrick Long carries slim advantage into COTA races.

Johnny O’Connell hopes to have good vibes from 2016 win.

Activities begin Friday with practice and a night race.

Patrick Long started go-karting when he was 8 years old, racing at a track in Oxnard, Calif.

More than 25 years later, racing has taken him all over the world, and the 36-year-old Long, who speaks four languages, has won at tracks from Daytona to Le Mans.

This weekend, Long, a four-time sports car points champion from Manhattan Beach, Calif., returns not only to one of his top tracks, but to one of his favorite cities, trying to pin down a Pirelli World Challenge title at the Grand Prix of Texas.

“I love the city so much that I had my bachelor party in Austin and a bunch of 20-somethings from California flew in for it,” the Porsche factory driver said.

Practice and qualifying start Friday, with a SprintX race in the evening at Circuit of the Americas.

“We won the opening round of the Pirelli here last year,” Long said. “My favorite part is the first half, which is high speed, flowing, long radius and lots of direction change after turn one. It’s really technically challenging. The second half is a little tighter and has that street-course hustle. It’s a tricky one, for sure.”

Long leads an extremely tight overall GT championship scrum that has three drivers separated by just eight points. Michael Cooper of Syosset, N.Y., and Alvaro Parente of Portugal are putting the heat on Long. Five GT races (Sprint and SprintX) remain on the 2017 calendar, and three of them are here this Labor Day weekend.

“The season has been more turbulent than we hoped for,” Long said. “We’ve slowly improved our qualifying, making the job a little less frantic in the races. Our Porsche 911 is battling Cadillac and McLaren, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses on various tracks. We’ve been able to fight for wins on higher-speed tracks, and we’re going to need that at COTA.”

Johnny O’Connell, a four-time PWC drivers champion and a former Indy car racer, is another top name on hand, though he’s lagging a bit in overall GT points in fifth place.

“The operative word is frustrating,” said O’Connell, a 55-year-old from Flowery Branch, Ga. “A lot of things haven’t gone right, but I won here last year, and that always raises the confidence level.

“Austin is probably my favorite stop, and I’m not just saying that because you’re an Austin reporter.”

O’Connell described what he likes about the 3.4-mile, 20-turn road circuit.

“COTA has great areas to overtake,” he said. “The asphalt is smooth; it’s a very safe racetrack. It presents so many different looks, so you have to get your car working in a bunch of areas. They built a lot of nuance into the circuit.

“It’s pretty to drive. I love that red, white and blue all over the place.”

O’Connell looks back to 2001 for perhaps his favorite memory.

“My very first race for GM was the 24 Hours of Daytona,” he said. “I was in a Corvette, and we won the race. In the car just behind us was Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr.

“This sport afforded me the opportunity to travel the world. Each championship for Cadillac has been special. I’ve got eight now in 16 years for GM.”

Long, who has done plenty of globe-trotting and holds victories in France, Germany, Italy, Bahrain and China, among other places, was asked to recall his most terrifying moment in a race car.

“Driving in the Baja 1000 in Mexico,” he said. “I underestimated what an insanely wild race that is. I never felt so mortal in my life, traveling across the desert, just the desolation of it all, and then having to dodge big-rig trucks that have nothing to do with the race. It was crazy.”

Yet he won his class. Now he aims for a smooth ride in Austin.



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