Chad McCumbee’s sports car career taking flight

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Major League Baseball’s spring training is ramping up ahead of the start of the 2013 season, but for Los Angeles Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson, another season has already kicked into high gear.

Wilson’s Austin-based racing team, C.J. Wilson Racing, has two races under its belt in the GRAND-AM Continental Sports Car Challenge ST class with its Mazda MX-5, and begins its championship defense in the Mazda MX-5 Cup series at Sebring International Raceway this weekend with a fleet of five cars.

At Austin’s Circuit of the Americas a little more than a week ago, CJWR opened its 2013 account in grand style with the team’s first pole and race win in GRAND-AM competition.

While three of its four drivers (Jason Saini, Marc Miller and Stevan McAleer) have embarked on a more conventional route to sports car racing, its fourth, Chad McCumbee, is beginning to come into his own after making a more surprising switch. The former stock car driver, who’s spent more than five seasons in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series, stunned the establishment at COTA by scoring the pole position in qualifying.

McCumbee channeled the style of road course qualifying experts by waiting until the final seconds ticked off to secure the top spot on the grid. It ended a several-year long pole drought, as McCumbee came close but never won a pole in the trucks.

“It was one of those moments that you probably can’t repeat,” he said. “It was just chance that I hit everything right that particular lap. The car was just getting better the whole time, but we couldn’t put a whole lap together. I finally got a really good one going, crossed the line, and the way it worked out I barely got the pole.”

While his competitors have, in McCumbee’s words, “hundreds of thousands of combined laps,” all circuits are new to him since NASCAR rarely runs on road courses. Austin, as a new circuit, provided a more level playing field.

Pole is the first significant milestone in McCumbee’s burgeoning sports car career. The obvious factors in shifting from stock cars to sports cars are adjusting to the handling, shifting and braking of the car.

“In general, my shifting is getting better, and I’m adapting better to the car. But I think I have just gotten more comfortable,” he explained. “Between the shifting and the braking, those are the two things that were the toughest to overcome. Just the whole anti-lock aspect of it has been a huge hurdle for me. And now you know you can use and abuse them. Some of the other cars don’t have that.”

The Continental series runs alongside the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, and its level of competition is very stout with more than 60 cars usually racing at once, split between the GS and ST classes. Both team and driver are in a good spot once 2014’s merger between GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series combine forces to create a unified sports car championship.

“If you take care of the present, the future will take care of itself,” McCumbee surmised. “I’m just fully concentrated on doing the best job we can now. And I’m fully blessed to have this opportunity with this C.J. Wilson Racing team and ModSpace Motorsports. They all care and want you to succeed. You can’t say that about everyone.”

See also: Angels’ C.J. Wilson gets first win as race team owner