LONG BEACH, California – After the two longest races of the season, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series switches gears for its shortest event on the calendar.
It’s Saturday’s 100-minute BUBBA Burger Long Beach Grand Prix, the headline act of Saturday’s full day of racing at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
It tests the versatility range of the drivers on the DPi and GTLM teams. Instead of the long endurance events, such as the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring in March, there is no margin for error in Saturday’s 100-minute sprint to the finish.
Everything takes on added pressure, from shorter practice sessions, to qualifications, to race strategy. Even the mandatory driver change has more pressure because the slightest mistake can be the difference in track position on a race course that is so narrow, it’s probably the hardest circuit on the schedule to pass.
The Long Beach street course is just 1.968-mile with 11 turns.
“It’s a tight, short course,” Tommy Milner, one of the drivers for Chevrolet in the Corvette C7.R with Oliver Gavin in the GTLM Class, told NBCSports.com. “There are some corners that are more important for lap times. The hairpin in the last corner is a pretty important corner for as unique as it is. It’s something we don’t see normally on our calendar. It leads onto the long straightaway. Getting that hairpin turn down and into the corner is not only important for lap time, but also for race craft and protecting from a passing opportunity for the car behind or putting yourself in position to pass the car ahead of you.
“While it is the slowest and not the most fun corner on the track, it is very unique. To get that hairpin turn down and figured out is a pretty important corner not only for lap time, but also for racing.”
Milner and Gavin are currently eighth in the GTLM standings after finishing eighth in class at both Daytona and Sebring. But they’ve won each of the past two years at Long Beach and won the 2016 GTLM championship.
Joao Barbosa competes in IMSA’s top Daytona Prototype International class. He co-drives the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R with Filipe Albuquerque. They are currently fourth in the DPi championship standings with a third-place result at Sebring and a seventh-place outing at Daytona.
Barbosa admits after the two long endurance races of the season, everything speeds up in the 100 minutes of competition at Long Beach.
“Actually, it’s a very challenging race not only for the drivers, but also for the team,” Barbosa told NBCSports.com. “Just to get the right strategy for that race is the key point. Coming after the two longest races of the season, and now, it’s a sprint.
“Last year, the team did a great job and ended up winning the race with great strategy and great race. It’s a great challenge because with a short race, track position and fuel consumption, everything is super critical in a short race like that, especially on a street course where overtaking is difficult.”
If the Rolex 24 at Daytona is like simmering all day in a Crock Pot, the BUBBA Burger Long Beach Grand Prix is like preparing a meal in a pressure cooker.
“Everything has to be spot on,” Barbosa explained. “There is no room for mistakes. Every mistake you make, the other team might not make that mistake and they end up in front. Track position is very important so the least time you spend in the pits – fueling, tire change, driver change – everything has to be done perfectly.
“If there is any mistake, there is no room to recover, there is no physical time to make up for that mistake. Everything from driver change, to the crew to the strategy has to be perfectly executed to get the best results possible.”
Barbosa believes fuel consumption will be a key point in this race as it has been in the past. It’s important to focus and have the best race as possible and save as much fuel as possible.
It’s not easy.
Qualifying takes on added significance because there is so little room on the actual race course to make a clean pass.
“Qualifying for Daytona and Sebring are for bragging rights and ultimately aren’t a key part of your finishing position,” Milner said. “At Long Beach, it’s a street race, the track is narrow and it’s hard to pass qualifying becomes a crucial part of how you finish the race. With one pit stop in the race and it’s hard to pass. It’s always possible, but it’s difficult. Qualifying as high up as possible at Long Beach becomes the most important round because of how you do in the race.
“Qualifying at Long Beach becomes incredibly important. Any spots as far forward as you can qualify helps you in the race. The classes are so competitive now, the cars are so close, and the drivers are so close, if you have a fast car by a couple of tenths, that may not be enough to make the pass happen at Long Beach.
“To have a car fast right out of the box is important.
“The pressure is on at Long Beach, from the moment you show up, the first laps you turn, you squeeze every ounce of information and data that you can out of the teams and the drivers to really give yourself the best chance at the win on Saturday.”
To achieve success in the short race, the preparation before arriving at Long Beach is vitally important. There is very little practice time for this race and even shorter qualification sessions.
That is why a team has to be fast by the time it rolls off the truck.
“It’s a big adjustment for us to go from our two longest races – 24 Hours and 12 Hours – and then go into our shortest one,” Milner said. “Certainly, strategy changes quite a bit for Long Beach, how you go throughout the weekend, what you do to prepare for the weekend at Long Beach. Even our practice and qualifying schedule is compressed.
“Getting there and doing your homework as far as engineering goes and having what they think will be the best setup for the weekend. Luckily, for us at Corvette, we have a long history book of competing with this car, the C7R at Long Beach and have had success with the car. I think we feel pretty confident, but our class is so competitive, going off our past results is not going to be good enough.
“Mindset-wise, we have come from two long races where you want to get your first stint done and out of the way and what the track is doing and what your car is doing and then try to work from there to improve the car.
“At Long Beach, you have an hour’s practice for each driver and then you have to be on your game from the drop of the green.
“I’ve been on Corvette Racing for nine years now and we have had this experience in the past and have been in this position. Going off that past experience is going to be crucial.”
The mandatory driver change also creates one more obstacle for the teams. Even the slightest mistake in changing drivers can cause a delay that will adversely affect track position.
“There is a little extra pressure because we know if we don’t do our job right, it might cost us,” Barbosa explained. “In the long races, you know you have a long race to recover and it’s no big deal unless it is the last hour of the race.
“Here, with the mandatory driver change in such a short race, it’s important to have it done right.
“It puts a lot of extra pressure to execute everything perfectly.”
Milner isn’t exaggerating when he stresses how important the driver change can be to determine the outcome of Saturday’s race.
“That one pit stop, the one driver change, of all the races is probably the most pressure and most important one we do all year long,” Milner said. “One slip-up, one problem, one slow driver change, all of those things are magnified because you don’t typically have the chance to make that back up again.
“All of the drivers practice that throughout the year, practicing and honing and getting the driver change done as quick as we possibly can. The way the races play out at Long Beach and with the way the strategy is and how long the cars can take fuel, we aren’t waiting for the fuel to be finished, which normally takes the longest. Sometimes, we will pit early in the race and get the driver change out of the way, so we don’t have to spend as much time in the pits later on.
“That one pit stop becomes reliant on how fast you can get out and how fast you can get your teammate in. We practice this all year long and the crew guys practice it relentlessly at the shop. Everyone knows it is an important pit stop, the intentions are high and flowing for that one pit stop and that is why we spend time at the shop practicing these things.
“It’s racing, anything can happen, and you just try to make sure you have everything covered and hope luck is on your side. Then, your on-track performance can help determine your outcome rather than something in the pits.”
The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach features two headline events in consecutive days. IMSA is the main show on Saturday and Sunday features the NTT IndyCar Series in a continuation of one of the greatest street races in the world.
“It’s great to have the opportunity to bring the races to the fans,” Barbosa said. “Being in Long Beach, it’s such a big race that has been around for a long time. We are relatively new in certain aspects to that race, but we are attracting more and newer fans each year. The fans love to see sports cars racing around Long Beach.
“For the drivers, it’s an extra plus because we don’t have many street courses in the year. Just the challenge to go to Long Beach and the challenge and go as fast as you can, top speed is pretty high, and the track is a very interesting setup. It’s very cool for the drivers and also the fans. I think the fan base is growing around Sports Cars.
“It’s also very cool to be with IndyCar. We can really show what sports cars are all about to IndyCar fans. It’s a very special opportunity we have to race there.”
Milner also loves the fact that the street of Long Beach actually allows the drivers and teams to get a little more physical on the race track.
Instead of finesse, there will be some “Beatin’ and Bangin’”
“Most guys are ready for the fun street race, the fun Long Beach Grand Prix, go door-handle to door-handle a little bit and rub the wall a little bit here and there,” Milner said. “That gives you the thrill and excitement of racing has to offer.
“Long Beach brings that in large quantities.”
IMSA DRIVER FACTS:
- Two-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype champion
- Four-time IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup champion
- Three overall victories in Rolex 24 At Daytona
- 2015 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring overall winner
- 23 career IMSA victories
- Took overall and Prototype class victory at Long Beach in 2018 with co-driver Filipe Albuquerque in No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R for Action Express Racing
- 2018 was Barbosa’s first Long Beach victory
- 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans (GTLM) champion
- 2012 American Le Mans Series GT champion
- Two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner (2011, 2015)
- 2016 Rolex 24 At Daytona GTLM winner
- Two-time Sebring class winner (2013, 2016)
- 16 career IMSA victories
- Three-time class winner at Long Beach in No. 4 Corvette
- Won GTLM class each of the past two years with co-driver Oliver Gavin