The morning's marine layer from San Francisco Bay is beginning to burn off when K-PAX Racing hit the paddock at Sonoma Raceway. Their garage consists of two trailers with a tarp hanging between them, from which fluorescent tubes shine down on a pair of McLaren MP4-12C GT3 machines painted in dark blue with bright yellow accents. On the side of the trailers are the team's accolades: 2007 World Challenge GT Champion, 2008 Word Challenge GT Champion, 2010 World Challenge GT Champion, 2010 Manufacturers' Champions.
K-PAX are here for the next meeting of the Pirelli World Challenge series, their penultimate race weekend for this season. A crew of 14 buzzes with activity, mechanics working on the cars, technicians consulting with two McLaren GT representatives from England. The driver's engineers are sitting in one of the trailers—"the geek room"—preparing for the first practice session.
Celebrating its 25th season, the Pirelli World Challenge is one of the United States' premiere sports car racing championships. The 2014 calendar is 12 weekends running one to two 50-minute races per class, nine involving GT/GT-A/GTS, completing 16 races. TC, TCA, TCB series run in seven race weekends for a total of 14 races.
Team and driver championships are named in every class. A manufacturer's championship is also awarded in GT, GTS and TC. Points are won for race finish positions, to drivers who have led the most laps, led at least one lap, fastest lap, and pole position. Total points can exceed 1,000 by season's end.
K-PAX participate in the GT class, a field so competitive that Bob Raub (team co-founder and crew chief) reckons the drivers have to put in qualifying laps every lap. The recent inclusion of FIA GT3 cars has created a flood of exotic European marques. Accompanying the two McLarens are Bentley Continentals, Audi R8 LMS Ultras, Ferrari 458s, Lamborghini Gallardo FL2s, Porsche GT3Rs and an Aston Martin.
Joining a domestic Dodge Viper SRT-GT3 are two dying-breed, non-GT3 Cadillac CTS-V Rs. They're still competitive, though, leading the championship into the final weekend. Veteran North American sports car drivers like Johnny O'Connell, Butch Leitzinger, Andy Pilgrim and (up until this year) Randy Pobst can also be found in GT.
At 10:40, 35 minutes before the start of practice, the #9 car fires up, filling the garage with ethanol exhaust. Ten minutes later, veteran sports car driver Alex Figge, in his white Alpinestars uniform, approaches and watches the mechanics as they fit the hood back into place. Sporting a thick beard more suited to a winter climate than the anticipated 80 degrees, Figge is restless as he paces alongside his car. He has every right to be.
This championship-winning team is currently enduring its first winless season. After five years of successful racing with factory supported Volvo S60s (accounting for most of its 29 race wins), the company's decision to back out of the sport last year left the team searching for a new manufacturer.
"After the introduction of FIA GT3 cars, we started looking at what was available," says Jim Haughey, co-founder and team owner. With many options, the team sourced information on every car, compiled spreadsheets and watched YouTube videos of performances domestically and overseas. "In the end, [the team] voted and it was unanimous when McLaren won. It was the name, the look, the heritage. Nobody else was running the car in the United States."
The return of McLaren via K-PAX is the marque's first appearance in North American racing in more than 40 years, since the legendary factory-based Can-Am racers of the 1970s. In its various 2013 European championships, the car won 23 races, claimed 27 pole positions and scored three championship titles.
K-PAX are currently sitting sixth in the manufacturers' championship, an unfamiliar position. Coming into this race weekend, the drivers are eighth and eleventh in the standings. The season began on the back foot. Cars were not delivered until January and February, giving the team limited testing time regarding some of the major differences between North American and European racing before the March kickoff.
One major difference is the standing-start performance. Rolling starts are employed overseas, so launch control had to be developed. Unfortunately, it has become common to lose multiple positions at the start. "If you don't launch, you're dead screwed," Raub says. Street circuits are also proving to be a challenge, especially given the car's pitch-sensitive character and difficult rear-wheel traction accelerating out of low-speed corners.
While Figge settles his nerves, Robert Thorne, the driver who's eighth in the championship, steps out of the trailer. Thorne appears more relaxed and chats with his race engineer. He's 24, eight years Figge's junior. But he's a rising star, having won the 2012 U.S. Touring Car Championship. He has a boyish face, but behind his narrow frameless glasses is a look of determination.
The crew finishes final preparations and leaves the garage, hauling the bare pit-stop essentials to a makeshift lane at Turn Four. Once the session begins, both drivers are back in the pits after only a couple of laps. The team is trying new Penske shocks and the initial results are not encouraging. According to the drivers, the cars are feeling "pushy" through almost every turn. Powering out of the corners is creating oversteer. And the car bottoms out in several places, including the steep climb at Turn One. After many tweaks throughout this session and the next, not much improves.
Thursday's times are not recorded officially, but the team knows it's not where it wants to be. The overall mood is one of concern. There are lots of hands on hips and crossed arms. "The car seems to be a little out of its element," Haughey says.
A representative from Penske Racing Shocks, a musclebound guy who seems more like a club bouncer than a race tech expert, pays close attention to the drivers' conversations with their engineers regarding their performance. When asked about his silence in the car, Thorne says, "I get quiet when I'm disappointed." There are just two more practice sessions before Saturday's qualifying and race, and the team appears lost.
There's a lot of downtime between sessions, which is when Holly Raub, Bob's wife, is usually at her busiest. As a sort of mother to the team, she wears a perpetual smile and makes sure the guys have plenty of food and drink, topping up Famous Amos cookies, Snickers bars, potato chips and two large drinks coolers. Lunch and dinner are often provided, sometimes even cooked by Mrs. Raub herself, and allows for more positive interactions to take place. There's more laughter during meals, more smiles, and it appears everyone sits with one another at a different moment during the weekend. It's a true family connection, as they all travel together from their Denver base to races across the continent. Once the meal is over, the smiles fade and business is resumed.
Friday's practice sessions are much the same as Thursday's. Both drivers are dissatisfied with their cars, but Thorne has more of a hold on the balance with his setup. Even so, he still gives off a downcast vibe talking to his engineer after the first session, fumbling with the radio cables connected to his helmet. "The worst thing is the unpredictability. [The car] scared the shit outta me." The drivers finish final practice with Thorne in 11th position and Figge in 14th, more than a second and a half slower than the leading GT car.
Saturday morning: qualifying for the first race. Figge's left leg is rocking back and forth nervously as he sits in the cockpit. His Penske shocks have been changed back to the originals. He tells his mechanic crouched nearby, "I just wish I had some sense of what to expect." Thorne seems focused, after spending most of the pre-grid in conversation with Butch Leitzinger and deciding to keep his Penske shocks.
Qualifying goes better. Thorne appears to have the third slot until Guy Smith (Bentley) and Anthony Lazarro (Ferrari) go faster on the last lap, displacing him to fifth with a car he describes as "pushy, but planted." Figge makes the best of a noticeably twitchy car by placing eighth.
Before the race, the mechanics are hard at work in the garage. There are no parc fermeregulations, so teams are still allowed to fine-tune. With IndyCars making their first appearance on the track, there is more fan presence than in prior days. And there are more people walking into the garage to snap pictures of the exotic-looking McLarens and ask questions of the engineers and mechanics. The drivers stay in their trailers.
At 2 p.m., the teams head for the "real" pits, the front straight pit lane currently occupied by the IndyCars. K-PAX will be stationed right in front of Juan Pablo Montoya's Penske pits to the left of the main grandstand.
In 81-degree heat, the cars line up on the starting grid. The lights come on, the drivers initiate launch control, engines roar. Then they're away.
Both McLarens get off the grid remarkably well, one of their best starts of the season. Thorne is held up, though, behind the slow-starting Bentley of Guy Smith, dropping him to sixth. Figge is able to move up to seventh.
Thorne reclaims fifth position through a remarkable overtaking move on O'Connell's Cadillac. The car is loose, but Thorne continues to push the car hard, ruining the rear tires. Moments later, Thorne goes off, damaging the front and rear of the car. He's 10th at the checkered flag. The one positive is that he sets the third fastest time. Tomorrow's starting grid is ranked by this race's lap times.
Figge struggles continuously with the setup and even pulls into the pit when he thinks the issue is a flat tire. But there's no obvious damage and he has to settle for 19th.
The team seem stoically accustomed to such disappointment when they return to the garage. They've been in this position before, when starting development with Volvo. They went through multiple transmissions every race weekend. Then hard work and determination turned things around and they won championships.
Raub sits alone at one of the dining tables, utters an audible "Goddammit" and shakes his head. But he soon becomes upbeat. "We're starting third tomorrow and we now have the pace. That's the important thing."
Figge has another trying time on Sunday, finishing 18th. Thorne has learned from his mistake the day before and drives a superb race, maintaining his third-place starting position, despite restarts and late challenges from Mike Hedlund's Ferrari and Leitzinger's Bentley, allowing the team and driver to record their second podium of the year.
"It was a good race for us, a good race for Robert," Haughey says. "In no way was the car a first-place or second-place car, but it was a third-place car. Even though it was a third-place finish, it felt like a first because of the smart driving. I'm happy to see him run that smart race and develop some maturity. It's good to see him learn and advance."
With greater driver maturity and newfound pace, K-PAX may yet be regaining its winning formula as one season ends and a new one awaits.