As a human being, at my core there are only a few things more important to me than automobile racing. Among those ranked at the top are family and friends, of course, but shortly following beneath them is probably my admiration for racecars. And surprisingly, I’ve never once attended a timed professional automobile circuit race, other than NASCAR at Pocono. So you can guess, I was excited when I was offered the opportunity to attend the IMSA race with Akrapovič at the Long Beach Grand Prix in BMW Motorsport’s pit lane hospitality suite.
The weekend started with a Friday just like any other Friday, really. I awoke at 7:40 a.m. to my hotel room’s window reverberating all of the IMSA competitors’ screaming exhaust sounds circulating the streets of Long Beach, California just seven floors below me. The sportscar series’ practice sessions had already begun, and I hadn’t even left my bed. It was my worst fear. As it turns out, I had been looking at the IMSA website for the event schedule, and because the IMSA headquarters is located in Daytona Beach, Florida, the times were listed in Eastern Standard Time, rather than Pacific Standard Time where the event was being held. So my predetermined wake up time was about three hours later than it needed to be. Oops.
I still needed to traverse a mile or so away to another hotel to pick up my credentials for the weekend, which was out of the question in the timeframe before practice would be over. Since my hotel was directly across the street from Turn 8 (the beauty of a street circuit), I decided to pickup the credentials later, and took a walk to find a good viewing point at street level without my ticket. Quick tip: If you want to look at the section of track between Turn 7 and 8, it is possible to watch the entire race from Ocean Boulevard without a ticket.
By the time the morning IMSA practice session had ended, it was time to visit the hotel down the street to pick up the weekend’s credentials. Making my way back through the racetrack to the suite, I entered the grounds through the convention center, where numerous vendors had booths set up, and the accompanying series housed their paddock areas.
After navigating the labyrinth of professional race teams’ trailers outside, I was greeted by the low rumble of the vehicles in the vintage racing series passing by. Their qualifying session was about to begin, and the cars were entering onto pit lane before starting their out lap.
I had my credentials scanned and entered the VIP area just outside pit lane. As I took my seat, the morning’s schedule had progressed through, and I had missed the IndyCar practice, and the tail end of the vintage racing qualifying. Up next was something I had certainly never experienced before…
Stadium Super Trucks. These identically built 600 hp, 2,900 pound, tube frame chaotic race trucks jump through the air and race on almost any surface. The surface this time was the tarmac of the Long Beach Grand Prix course, however since the circuit was fairly smooth in comparison to their norm, the series needed to spice things up a little bit (something they enjoy doing more than most). So the streets were fitted with metal ramps, which sent trucks hurdling through the air covering over 350 feet of distance before touching down again. If watching trucks battle for position in mid-air wasn’t enough additional excitement, they throw out mandatory cautions every ten laps to bunch the participants back up, increasing the on-track action. My final takeaway about this amazing racing is that the weekend’s organizers scheduled the trucks to race last, because they destroyed the track’s picturesque garden and fountain during last year’s race before the weekend was over.
With the trucks’ practice session now over, our group of VIP guests, including Milan from Akrapovič, was invited down into the paddock area where the BMW Motorsport team was located. We were brought behind the ropes at the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) paddock, for a special examination of the new No. 24 and No. 25 BMW Motorsport M8 GTE cars.
When we arrived, both cars were pulled apart while the team sorted out the corner balancing and alignment on each. My eyes opened wide, and I was told my overwhelming interest was visibly noticeable. Having the unique opportunity to pore over the minute details of an elite-level circuit racecar is not an everyday occurrence, so I made it count.
I was completely absorbed following all of the ductwork on the front bumper, and trying to route where its final destination was.
The quickly accessible brake and clutch fluid reservoirs located in the door make checking or adjusting fluid levels a breeze during the race’s required driver change pit stop.
One particular piece I was obsessing over was the carbon fiber roof duct, which transfers through the chassis into two outlets exiting through the trunk of the car. These channels should force air overtop of the rear diffuser and underneath the rear wing to eliminate a common stale spot of air between the two, which causes drag. I loved it.
I definitely got in the way while the crew was trying to reassemble the car, but it was hard to pull myself away. It was interesting to watch how precise the bumper mounting was, and how exactly aligned the nose was fitted in order to latch properly.
Then it was time for the hood, notice the massive ducts running off the heat exchangers, and up into the atmosphere. With a little wiggle, and realigning of pieces underneath, the hood latched down to a perfect panel gap.
With the addition of the wheels gunned on at every corner, the No. 25 Team RLL BMW M8 GTE was lowered onto the ground and pushed away. I’m guessing it was taken to be checked over and weighed by the IMSA staff.
We left the Team RLL paddock area and proceeded onward to the Michelin area, BMW Motorsport’s tire supplier in the IMSA series. It was here we were awarded the chance to see one of their skilled tire technicians mount the all-important rubber tires surrounding the wheels. Having previously worked at a service station some many moons ago, I was intrigued to see that their process is the exact same as I used to perform on a standard road car wheel and tire.
The next phase of the day involved meeting John Edwards, Nicky Catsburg, Alexander Sims, and Connor DePhillippi, the drivers of the No. 24 and No. 25 Team RLL BMWs before their afternoon qualifying. All the while, the Pirelli World Challenge cars had begun their own qualifying session out on track.
As the afternoon wound down, the IMSA cars started their qualifying session. Milan from Akrapovič and I decided to vacate our seats in the suite, and went for a walk looking for good places to watch elsewhere around the track’s perimeter.
Towards the end of the session around the corner from my hotel, we stumbled onto the “Walk of Fame” implanted in the sidewalk. The most recent plaque being Juan Pablo Montoya, who, among tons of prior accomplishments, also nabbed that session’s pole position, qualifying first with a super quick 1:12.922 lap in the No. 6 Acura Team Penske DPi.
The next morning was officially race day. Just as I had done the day before, I arrived as the vintage racing cars made their way out onto the track, only this time the cars lined up on the starting grid for their race.
We treated ourselves to lunch while the IMSA cars were lined up on the track for pictures before their race started. The green flag waved, and we watched about half of the race from our seats in the suite.
That is, until we were asked to follow the BMW Motorsport representative on another excursion. We walked down along the suites, through a restricted area normal attendees were not allowed to access, and out amongst the pit lane setups.
It was along this path that we had to squeeze our way beside distinguished drivers, like Tommy Milner of the Corvette Racing team, minutes before they hurriedly climbed into the cockpit of their vehicle, before blasting out into the race for their stint as pilot. It was a surreal atmosphere, just knowing the concentration, focus, and adrenaline surging through their body. I could almost feel the energy as I passed them.
Finally, we arrived at the BMW Team RLL pit box, where the team was readying up swiftly yet composed for a forced pit stop.
The No. 25 car suddenly appeared in the pit box, but once the pit crew laid eyes on the car, their whole demeanor changed. The haste was lost, the anticipation was gone, and hope became diminished. The No. 25 car, while in the braking zone of Turn 9, was collided into by another car, sending the BMW into the barriers that surround the Long Beach course. Unfortunately, because the damage was so extensive, and the race was so short, the team retired the car.
Poor Akrapovič exhaust.
Within seconds of the car entering the pit box, two Michelin officials grabbed the damaged wheel and tire, wrapped it in a plastic bag, and carried it away. I can only assume this is invaluable data for them to test stresses on their product in race scenarios, or possibly it was to shield the possibility that a weakness of the tire was to blame.
Alexander Sims, who previously won the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with BMW in 2016, leapt from the car furiously and walked away, knowing his stint and race day were ended short through no fault of his own.
The remainder of the race was transformed into damage control for the sole lingering No. 24 BMW M8 GTE, who would ultimately finish in fifth place in class. The impressive qualifying performance of the Penske Acura couldn’t hold onto the lead in the race, eventually sliding back in the pack. When the checkered flag waved after an hour and forty-one minutes of racing, it was the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi of Joao Barbosa and Filipe Albuquerque that took the win.
Once the IMSA race had finished, I stayed for the remainder of the afternoon and watched the IndyCar qualifying, and eventually the first race of the weekend for the Stadium Super Trucks. This, of course, ended chaotically when one of the trucks lost control before going off the side of one of the ramps, catapulting it into the wall and catch fencing. With a lengthy cleanup time, this ended racing for the day, as noise curfew was approaching, and the public roads needed to be opened back up on schedule.
The overall experience I had that weekend was one I will never forget. The VIP Experience with BMW is such a delight for a true race fan. By getting their guests closer to the action than ever before, they reward and motivate the performance enthusiast inside all of us. I have to thank Akrapovič for this opportunity, as without their generous offer, I would have never been able to experience my first professional circuit race in such style, and at one of my favorite courses to boot!