The best day in the history of Road Shagger Racing came to a fast, violent and disappointing end at Virginia International Raceway last weekend; just four corners short of the checkered flag.
After incredible pit work by the team and stellar performances by both drivers, the team headed home with a crashed race car and an 8th place finish. Incredibly, they managed to retain 4th in the championship, but fell another 5 points further behind the Championship-leading #98 Hyundai. They now trail by 17 points with two rounds to go.
The morning of the race was wet, but the track had dried by the time the green flag fell. The field was set based on Championship points after qualifying was canceled due to lightning in the area. That meant Ernstone started in 4th place; his highest grid position of the season.
Ernstone had a chaotic first lap – as is typical in this series – and he crossed the stripe in 7th at the conclusion of lap one. He made a great pass on the #23 Audi to get back into 6th and soon closed the gap to the five cars ahead of him. As he closed in, the weather began to turn and rain pelted down onto the track. All the cars were on slick tires and it didn’t take long for someone to make a mistake and get out on the grass.
At VIR, there are lots of fast corners that have major consequences if you leave the racing surface. This is because they’re flanked by grass slopes that lead downhill to tire walls. To make matters worse, when those slopes are wet, the car barely slows down at all before hitting the wall. A McLaren in the GS class found this out in turn 16. To make matters worse, after hitting the wall, he was hit by the next car who got it wrong. This brought out a long caution period as the rain continued to fall.
The series decided to open the pits during the caution to allow teams to come in and put on wet weather tires. Every car in TCR took advantage of this, other than the #23 Audi, who decided to roll the dice and stay out on slicks, hoping the track would dry.
When Ernstone came into the pits, he was in 6th. When he left with four new wets, he was in 2nd! The only car he was behind was the #23, who of course had stayed out. The team was rightfully fired up and little did they know it was about to get even better.
The race went green and the TCR cars on wets quickly worked their way past the #23 as he struggled for grip. Ernstone lost one spot in the process and thus found himself behind the two Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundais, who are currently 1-2 in the Championship. What happened next shocked everyone…
With rain continuing to fall, Ernstone not only caught the two Hyundais, but he also passed them both in one epic move in turn one! In doing so, he led a professional race for the first time and fully confirmed the progress he had made during at the last round at Road America.
Ernstone proceeded to dice it up with the two Hyundais for the rest of his stint as the track slowly started drying. It looked to the team as if the track might have a dry line established by the time Morley’s fuel window opened, but the timing of that stop and its execution needed to be perfect.
Morley exited the pits on slicks and pushed hard to get temperature in them, knowing that he needed to get up to speed quickly if he wanted to be in the lead after the pit stop cycle. The pushing paid off as he cycled past the #21 Hyundai after his first lap and the #98 Hyundai on his second. Morley kept pushing and soon built a comfortable 8-second lead.
Morley held the 8-second lead for 40 minutes, pushing only as hard as was needed to maintain the gap and looked to be cruising to the team’s first professional victory. But if the team has learned anything this year, it’s that there’s always going to be another yellow and it will probably bring some inclement weather with it. They got both.
With about 20 minutes to go, the full course came out and erased Morley’s lead. He nailed the restart and was comfortable he had all the pace needed to maintain the lead to the end. Then another yellow came out.
Morley once again got a good jump and maintained his lead, only to be met with a third full course yellow.
During this final yellow, rain started to fall in some parts of the track, making it extremely slick and unpredictable. Morley attempted to search for the available grip under the full course yellow so he would be ready to go as soon as the green flag flew.
Morley got a decent restart but was heavily pressured into turn one. He shouldered the pressure and held the lead until turn 12 when the #23 car made an aggressive pass attempt to the inside. Morley decided to let him have it, as the championship points for a second-place would still be a huge win for the team on the day.
However, in the position swap, Morley got a poor run out of turn 12 and this let the #21 Hyundai and the #54 Audi draft up on either side of him on the long back straight. The cars were 3 wide for the second half of the straight as they approached 145 MPH, their max speed at the track.
The #21 car was on Morley’s left and as they approached the brake zone he began to drift to the right, pinching Morley and Simpson over to the grass. Simpson went as far right as he could to avoid contact, but eventually ran out of pavement and had to try to back out of it. Unfortunately, it was too late and when Morley got forced even further right by the #21, he was turned quickly to the right by Simpson’s front bumper.
As soon as Morley hit the wet grass, there was only one way the slide was going to stop. The car was going to hit something… hard. Thankfully for both Morley and the car, VIR had made a wall out of stacks of tires bound together, without any sort of barrier behind them. When Morley slammed into the tire wall it destroyed the wall but dissipated an enormous amount of energy in the process. This saved Morley from serious injury and appears to have saved the car from any chassis damage, which would have rendered it unrepairable.
The team was extremely disappointed and upset with the end result, but knows there were also a lot of positives to be taken away from what was otherwise a perfectly run race. The car will be fixed and the entire team will head to Laguna Seca for round 9 on September 14th full of confidence and hungry for that first win!
You won’t want to miss the NBCSN broadcast this Friday as we are sure to get some airtime!