07/21/2009 - Round 8 of the Rolex Sports Car Series brought the SpeedSource Castrol Syntec Mazda RX-8 to Barber Motorsports Park. Located in sunny Birmingham, Alabama, beautiful landscaping surrounds the twisting and flowing 2.3 mile road course. Being able to manage traffic effectively at this track, which is already difficult to pass at, is critical to success. After a race that demanded near perfect performances from both drivers and pit crew, the SpeedSource Castrol Syntec Mazda RX-8 claimed a 2nd place finish in the GT Class.
During the weekend's early practice sessions both SpeedSource Mazda RX-8s exhibited a competitive pace, however a concern for tire wear was noticed. The SpeedSource team quickly addressed the issue and decided to set the car up in favor of conserving the front tires for the long haul of the race rather than go for all-out speed. The weekend's qualifying session was the tightest in recent GT history. The top five cars were separated by a spread of only 0.091 seconds; roughly a ¼ of the time it takes to blink a human eye.
Feeling confident with the setup on the Mazda RX-8, Nick Ham started the race from the 3rd spot and maintained a competitive pace while assessing the performance of the Pirelli P-Zero tires.
"We were concerned about tire wear at this track especially the left front, so I took a more conservative attitude with sway bar set up and driving style for the first stint until we knew what we had. Once we saw they were ok, Sylvain was able to set the car to his liking and really put the hammer down during his stint," Ham recalled.
The crew in pitlane quickly revised their race strategy in order to match the performance of the other teams and decided to keep Ham in the car a little longer than planned. Nick was able to bring the car to the front of the GT field by running a steady pace before the driver change pit stop. Co-driver Sylvain Tremblay got into the #70 SpeedSource Castrol Syntec Mazda RX-8 on lap 41 with a fresh set of tires and full fuel.
"When I got into the car I was able to use the information from Nick's stint to help me manage the car," Tremblay stated. "I put my head down and focused on driving and maintaining a good pace to the first place GT car. I was able to keep up for a while, but we eventually wore through the tires and needed to pit for another set with about an hour remaining."
The team once again changed their plan and decided to put Nick Ham back in the car while changing tires; Ham was fresh after having rested from his first stint. The SpeedSource Castrol Syntec Mazda RX-8 had a good car over the long stints of the race and was hoping for a long run at the end to catch the leading #57 Pontiac. However, a late yellow flag stalled the momentum and the #70 SpeedSource team took the checkered flag in 2nd place, earning a second straight podium visit for the team and drivers.
"At the end we really needed a long run to try and catch the 57 car as his tires went away quicker than ours, but unfortunately a full course yellow gave him the breathing room he needed. All in all, 2nd place was a great result for SpeedSource, Mazda and Castrol and we'll look forward to trying to move up a spot on the podium at the Glen," said Nick Ham.
Always running competitively with the #70 SpeedSource car was the other team car of Emil Assentato and Jeff Segal in the #69 SpeedSource FXDD Mazda RX-8. Having qualified 0.015 seconds behind the #70, Jeff Segal started his SpeedSource FXDD Mazda RX-8 from the fourth position on the grid. Running a similar race strategy, the #69 crew wanted to conserve the tires during the first stint before handing over driver duties to Emil Assentato during the middle stint of the race. Emil drove the car competitively through the GT field, keeping the car at the front of the GT Class before having Segal take over for the final hour. Segal drove to stay ahead of the #86 Porsche, eventually earning a 6th place finish in class.
The SpeedSource Castrol Syntec Mazda RX-8 now moves to 4th in the GT Class championship sitting 36 points away from 1st with 4 races remaining on the schedule. The team heads back to Watkins Glen International to race under the lights on the short course. Be sure the follow the action on SPEED beginning at 8 PM on August 7.