Colin Braun drives, the No. 54 CORE autosport ORECA FLM09 Prototype Challenge (PC) car, in the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. Having won multiple championships and countless races and poles, Colin is the youngest driver to podium at Le Mans and is considered the crème of the crop among sports car drivers. He will be writing a series of blogs for us this year to highlight the driver’s perspective on a variety of topics.
Let’s talk about something that is a little unique to the sports car racing industry. We race at three distinctly different types of race tracks;
Road Course infield tracks with the oval banking – we call them “Rovals” (think Daytona really only now – but we used to race Indy, Kansas, Homestead, Fontana, etc…)
Standard natural road course tracks (think Road America, Watkins Glen, COTA, Mosport etc…)
Street courses (think Long Beach and Detroit)
I am going to give you a bit of information and perspective into what it takes to drive, setup, and plan for those different venues. Starting with the ROVALS;
Take a place like Daytona, for example. I think one of the neatest things about a track like Daytona is the history and how much of an iconic track it is. That aside, the track itself is challenging. It has a typical road course style infield with tight hairpins that are 1st or 2nd gear mostly, but then you head out onto the very fast, and banked, oval section of the track!
This means you are going to be spending a lot of time at full throttle on the oval section and your car is going to be making a lot of “down force” (cars produce more down force the faster the air flows over the car) in the oval banking, but not much in the tight hairpins in in the infield. The down force pushes down on the car and makes it stick to the race track really well. This is great on tracks with fast corners that are not easily taken at full throttle – but at Daytona the oval section is easily taken flat out even in the rain! So the down force that pushes down on the car will really put a big load through the suspension and tires trying to push the car into the ground.
To combat that, we have to run these special “bump rubbers” in the suspension that keep the car from dragging the ground too much in the oval section. But when the car is going slower and there is less down force, the car still has a soft suspension to make grip in the lower speed, tight infield corners. Then you throw into the mix the famed “bus stop” at Daytona which is a much faster corner (4th gear) where you need the car to transition well and make good grip, but not be too soft and mushy on the suspension, so that the car transitions from the left quickly back to the right. It’s a lot of different characteristics in one track!
We as drivers have to learn to compromise with all these different demands of the car and find that balance of what is the best overall for lap time. I can tell you from experience, you get going so fast on the oval/banking section at Daytona that barreling down into Turn 1 at almost 200 MPH, and having to brake down to 1st or 2nd gear for Turn 1, is quite the rush! You feel like you are just destroying the brakes lap after lap. And man it’s a neck work out too! All of these rovals are fairly similar due to the space constraints of having to fit inside the actual oval – so you will find fast oval sections mixed with fairly tight infield sections.
NATURAL ROAD COURSE
Now moving onto the permanent/natural road courses. These are really exciting because there is so much variety. You have no size constraints like you do with the roval. You find tracks that are HUGE like Road America and Watkins Glen (3 or 4 miles long – about 2 minute lap times) but also tracks that are TINY like Lime Rock (1.5 miles long – under 1 minute lap times). This variety keeps it fun and interesting. Mixed in at all these different tracks is many different corner types, you will find tight hair pins like we have at Daytona but also some really fast and flowing corners like the ones at Mosport, where each corner is 4th or 5th gear and you are right on the edge of being flat out on the throttle with no brake at all!
From a setup stand point on the car you have to work closely with your engineer to decide what corners are going to be important for lap time and then focus on them to get the car driving like you want it to. The next big factor is that each track has a lot of different kinds of asphalt surface which you have to understand how it will it affect the grip of the tires etc. This is more of the bread and butter so to speak of sports car racing – it makes for some great exciting racing!
Whew – now possibly the most obscure type of track is the street course for us in sports car racing. These are the tracks that are built on public roads with really un-known type of surfaces! Also we cannot test on these tracks at all since they are public roads during the rest of the year! Some tracks like Long Beach, for instance, seem to stay very consistent each time we visit them. Other tracks like Detroit seem to change each year (most likely due to the harsh winters on the pavement and concrete surface). And to compound the fact we cannot test on these tracks, we usually do not have much practice time during a weekend since they don’t want to shut the city streets down for too long. Which means you better show up with a great setup and get right to work.
If you haven’t been to a specific street course before it sure can be hard to learn as a driver. These tracks are typically lined with concrete walls with little to no run off. Any little mistake can mean a big accident and cause a lot of damage. Trying to get the most speed you can out of your car, and not exceed that limit too far, is a fun challenge. The bumps are what makes these places really interesting and different as well – the surface changes give it “character”. From a driver’s standpoint, these are the most mentally fatiguing circuits, you really have to keep your eyes up and look ahead!
Now take a moment and think about being a tire constructor like Continental Tire – whew – trying to make different tires that can make grip and work on all the different types of not only surfaces, but also styles of tracks and race cars! Think about the loads that go through the tires at a place like Daytona in the banking between the speed and the down force, and then think about the bumpy and un-even surfaces of city streets like we have in Detroit! Impressive stuff!