WATKINS GLEN, NY – In another dramatic finish to a mixed conditions race, the #61 Simply Vegas Audi found itself on the podium for the second race in a row. The strong finish jumps the team from 6th to 4th in the points as they continue to make up for the horrid start to the season and close the gap to the championship leaders. As with most endurance races, the story goes far beyond the headline.
Ernstone started the race in 10th and drove a great opening stint, running as high as 7th while having the time of his life dicing it up with the other great drivers in the TCR class. It was his first visit to Watkins Glen, so his lap times steadily improved as he continued to figure out the fast and flowing circuit.
Watkins Glen was the second and final 4-hour race of the year, so Ernstone was tasked with driving the first two hours of the race. After his first hour he came in for his scheduled fuel stop, but unfortunately the pit lane speed limiter failed to engage and he was busted for speeding in pit lane. The resulting drive through penalty put him half a lap behind the field, where he continued to put in ever quicker laps, even as he began to struggle with heat exhaustion.
After having been in the car for an hour and 45 minutes, Ernstone radioed in that he needed out. The heat inside the car had taken its toll on him and his focus was starting to slip. Ernstone pitted under green and put Morley in the car. The team did a great job on the pit stop, but due to the lost half lap from the drive-through penalty, Morley exited the pits a full lap down on the field.
From there things got a little crazy. Morley quickly found out the power steering wasn’t quite right on the car, a result of some wheel to wheel contact Ernstone had earlier in the race. It required a change in driving technique to manage, something Morley didn’t have much time to work on before he found himself in a key mid-race battle.
After a full-course yellow, Morley was positioned a few spots back from the race leader, but he was still one lap down. Therefore his mission was to get in front of the leader to get his lap back and then wait for the next full course caution to bunch the field back up. He raced hard and unlapped himself a few times during an intense battle; but with his power steering coming and going, he wasn’t able to hold them all off and failed to get his lap back.
After that the team decided to switch strategies and pit Morley early and go into fuel conservation mode. It was during these lonely laps that Morley finally figured out how to drive the car without upsetting the power steering as much and continued to lap at a decent clip, even while driving very conservatively to save fuel.
Then the rain came. It started with a few drops here and there, before turning into a certified downpour in turns 6, 7 and 8. With almost all the cars remaining on slicks, the race to the finish was sure to be an interesting one.
Once the rain shower had stopped, Morley soon found a level of comfort in the mixed conditions as most of the track outside of the downpour zone started to dry up. With 15 minutes to go, his spotter told him he was catching his teammate who was 10 seconds up the road. Incredibly, that would be a fight for third if he could get to him. Morley turned up the wick slightly and started to cut significantly into the gap, confident he would be able to catch and pass McDonough before the checkered flag.
Unfortunately, on the very next lap, the spotter informed Morley that O’Gorman was charging behind him and was catching both of them. Morley put his head down and was on a mission to get by McDonough before O’Gorman could get to them. Despite his best efforts, he wasn’t able to get the pass done and O’Gorman swept by both of them, dropping McDonough to 4th and Morley to 5th.
The order remained the same until the start of the final lap. Morley was able to time a run out of the final corner coming to the white flag and had a run on McDonough. It wasn’t a great run, but it was a run. McDonough defended and forced Morley to try the outside pass in turn 1. He did and they headed to the esses side by side before McDonough finally had to yield the position exiting turn 3.
No sooner had Morley gotten the pass for fourth done, did his spotter come back on the radio and report that the 5 car was having trouble up ahead and was holding up O’Gorman, who was now a few seconds up the road. Morley again put his head down and tried to put in the best 7 turns of his weekend to catch O’Gorman.
As they headed to the final turn, Morley had closed the gap significantly, but was still about a second behind. He threw everything he had at the final corner and as he smashed the gas he nearly ran into the back of O’Gorman, who had just come up one turn short on fuel. Morley swerved to the right, narrowly avoiding what would have been significant contact and raced to the line in an wonderfully unexpected 3rd place.
If you’d like to watch the race, it will be airing on NBCSN July 11th.
Next up is Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in just a few short days. Neither Ernstone or Morley have ever been there, so they have been doing all the preparation they can on Ernstone’s iRacing sim setup.
Make sure to go to IMSA.com this Saturday at 1:55 PM EST to watch the 2 hour race from Canada. If the last few races have been any indication, it’s sure to be a thriller!