MONTEREY, CA – Gavin Ernstone, Jon Morley and the entire Road Shagger Racing team are now IMSA winners. No ifs, ands or buts. Winners. Full stop.
The road to the team’s first professional victory was a wild one; full of close calls, what-ifs and a fair share of adversity. But together they did what needed to be done and got their car race-ready for Laguna Seca.
As covered in this previous story, the most recent adversity came on the final straightaway of the race at VIR. As Morley was battling for second place, he got spun onto the grass and into a wall at over 100 MPH. The damage to the car was significant and to make matters worse, there were only 21 days until the next race.
Led by Ernstone, the team quickly sprung into action and pulled off a minor miracle. They rebuilt the entire left side of the car, transported it all the way across the country and prepped it for a race weekend in just 18 days.
Incredibly, as soon as it hit the track the car drove straight and true. That superb preparation allowed Morley and Ernstone ample track time to work on car setup with engineer Erik Petersen. The team focused on long-run pace, as the low-grip nature of the track meant tire degradation would play a major role in the race.
Ernstone qualified the car in 12th place and felt like he had gotten most of what he could out of the car. While not an ideal starting spot, the team knew their race pace was good and that their pit crew was outstanding.
When the green flag flew, Ernstone held his position and settled into a nice rhythm. It wasn’t long before his stellar race pace started to show its teeth.
As the laps ticked by Ernstone gained position after position, working his way up to 7th and quickly closing the gap to the 4-car battle for 3rd place.
Unfortunately, as Ernstone was about to reach the pack in front, he made one small mistake in turn 11 and ran wide at the exit. In a series as competitive as the Michelin Pilot Challenge, that was all his competitors needed. He got beaten up on for the next lap and a half and was shuffled back to 10th, where he would remain until a full course yellow came out.
The yellow came out at the perfect time to satisfy the 40 minute minimum drive time for Ernstone, so the team prepared for a pitstop for fuel, tires and a driver change. However, before the pit stop could happen Ernstone had to drive one of his best laps of the weekend to catch the back of the field.
That’s because right before the yellow had come out, he had been lapped by the overall leader, meaning he was stuck behind the pace car as the rest of the field bunched up. When he was finally given the wave-around, he had precious little time to catch the field before all the TCR cars would head to pit lane.
Ernstone drove his ass off and caught the TCR field the moment they were entering pit-lane, hammering his brakes at the last second and coming into the pits 2 inches off the car in front of him.
His excellent pit-in was soon outdone by a perfect driver change and pit stop, elevating the RSR machine from 10th to 3rd! That left only the two Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundais ahead of Morley and an hour and 10 minutes for him to get by them.
He passed them both in three laps and promptly pulled out to a comfortable four second lead.
For the next hour, Morley managed both the gap and his tires, only running as fast as he needed to maintain the lead he had established.
As the end of the race closed in, the GS leaders began coming through the front of the TCR field, causing Morley’s gap to ebb and flow. It never dipped below three seconds however, until there were three laps to go. That’s when the first fuel pressure alarm appeared on his dashboard on the front straight.
Morley kept that one to himself, hoping it was just an anomaly, but a lap later he got three fuel bobbles on the front straight. Morley radioed the team, warning that he might not make it to the checkered flag if he stayed out, to which they responded “checkers or wreckers baby!”.
The fuel bobbles had allowed the #98 Hyundai of Mark Wilkins to close in to within a second of Morley by the start of the final lap. To make matters worse, there were some GS cars battling in front of Morley that threatened to interfere with his race.
As he headed to the final turn with Wilkins all over him, Morley thought one of the GS cars was letting him by on the inside. Turned out he was wrong and he suddenly found himself with a terrible run into the corner.
Morley parked his car at the apex and focused on getting a good run out of the corner. As they left the final turn, Morley knew that if the engine ran true his run was good enough to win the race to the line.
He held his breath as he shifted through the gears, willing every last drop of fuel into the fuel pump. One bobble and he would finish second.
There was no bobble.
You can watch the full 2 hour race broadcast on NBCSN September 18th at 1PM EDT!
The final race of the season will be held at Road Atlanta on October 11th. The Road Shagger duo currently sits 3rd in points and can guarantee themselves 2nd in the Championship with another win. They sit 14 points back from the #98 Hyundai at the moment, meaning they’ll need a win and a lot of luck to take home the Championship.
But if the RSR team has learned anything this year, it’s to never give up!