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Nathan Byrd was behind the wheel of TLM Racing's Porsche 911 GT3 Cup 4.0 Improved car. (Byrd Racing photo)

BYRD: Rewarding Weekend At The Glen

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Considering it was the first time competing at the fabled Watkins Glen Int’l, my goals were high, but my expectations were uncertain.

The weekend exceeded all expectations with three wins, a second-place and a fifth-place finish.

Not too shabby for a first timer at The Glen.

I got to race TLM Racing’s Porsche 911 GT3 (991.2) Cup 4.0 Improved car and Arrive Drive Motorsports’ Pro Mazda as a part of the Sports Vintage Racing Ass’n weekend.

It started last Wednesday, when I ran two practice sessions in the wet with the Porsche. I love driving a race car in the wet because it is a great opportunity to familiarize myself with the track while also learning the rain-line. I had the fastest lap between both sessions.

The next day, I shared driving duties with car owner David Tuaty and that was the plan for the rest of the weekend.

I ran the Porsche in the first qualifying session and Tuaty drove it in the second. Unfortunately, as I wasn’t the owner registered under the car, series rules dictated that only the qualifying effort of the car owner counts toward starting position for race one and the enduro.

I went out during the mixed conditions qualifying and went second quick. I was only down by a couple tenths to Mark Mathys, who I was competing against in class.

Later that day, I went out in the Pro Mazda for the first time of the weekend in what was essentially mixed conditions. The tricky conditions combined with the car’s seeming lack of grip did not make me a happy camper. That was complicated by the fact the car lost power on the fifth lap.

I provided some critical feedback to the Arrive Drive team of Dustin Hodges and Liam Huffman that enabled them to make some setup changes that drastically improved the car. On Friday in Pro Mazda, I had my first dry session and turned a lap at 1:57.211 — 10th quick overall for Group 9 cars, but fifth quick overall for Group 9’s “F3” classified cars.

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Byrd also got a chance to drive the Arrive Drive Motorsports’ Pro Mazda. (Byrd Racing photo)

I climbed into the TLM Porsche for the first race of the weekend.

The night before, I had talked to my old driving coach from the Lucas Oil Formula Car Race Series days. He told me with my skillset, I should be able to get competitive lap times in about four to five laps. I was also nervous because I didn’t want to hold up one of my faster TLM teammates who was going to be starting the race next to me.

At the start, I went for an inside move to cover off any attempts at an inside pass, but a slow car a couple rows ahead caused a backup. That dropped me to ninth place by the time I crossed the start-finish line.

However, I recovered by committing to the inside pass on the car in front of me which when it was all said and done enabled me to come out of turn one in fifth place. The words of my old instructor, Gerardo Bonilla, came to my mind because he was exactly right in his assessment of when I would get up to speed.

Later in the race, I made my move for both the in-class and overall lead exiting the esses where Mark Mathys was held up by traffic.

I cruised past him on the inside on the straight heading into the Bus Stop. There were a couple close calls with some other slower-class Porsches, but I survived for those two laps and take the checkered flag with the overall and class victory.

It felt awesome to get my first sports car victory and I was grateful that I was able to get the job done for the TLM team. 

Afterward, it was my final session of the day, Pro Mazda qualifying.

The combination of scuffed new tries and front wing changes created much more grip. I was able to go six seconds faster than my practice time, with a lap at 1:51.230. That was eighth-quick in the run group and fourth-quick in-class — a massive improvement.

The fourth day of racing on Saturday came with its ups and downs.

I wasn’t able to go any faster during the second Pro Mazda qualifying session.

My next session was in the Porsche where I would be tackling the one-hour enduro all by myself, as Tuaty had already left for the weekend for another commitment. I started sixth and by the time I excited the esses, I was fourth. I moved up to third on the very next lap.

I started to chase down Mathys in first place. As we started to hit traffic, I navigated through it better than Mathys and closed the gap.

At the 20-minute mark, he made his mandatory five-minute pit stop to turn the car over to Mike Skeen, who is a very fast sports car and prototype driver who essentially sets track records for fun.

I was up to first before I had to pit for the mandatory five minutes. Once that cycle was completed, I was fourth overall and second in class to Mark Mathys/Mike Skeen. In the end, I finished a respectable second in-class to a car that had some competitive advantages over mine, despite being in the same class.

This was still a very satisfying result and I proved to myself once again that I belong out there with the big boys.

My final session of the day was race one for the Pro Mazda and it was a difficult race.

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Byrd took the top step of the podium in Group 9’s second race, as well as the one-hour enduro. (Byrd Racing photo)

I started the race in 10th overall and was able to make a couple passes exiting turn one. However, the cars I had passed were faster cars, Swift 016s, which are faster than me on the straights, in the corners and under the brakes.

I ended up finishing 10th overall and fifth in class. The hardest part about the race was driving the car. I managed to get my fastest lap of the weekend on lap, a 1:50.767, but at a huge physical cost.

Maximizing the grip in the Pro Mazda was the most physically demanding thing I’ve done in a race car on a road course. The aero and downforce improvements combined with the grip in the tires and the nature of Watkins Glen as a high-grip, low-rest track made it so that getting all I could out of the car, strained my strength and energy in just eight laps.

I was honestly astounded at the reality of the Pro Mazda and afterward came to the wry conclusion that if I were to run a lap in the low 1:49s, or high 1:48s, which I definitely think is possible with the car in the right conditions, that I would probably use up 25 percent of my physical capacity to do so. Just for one lap.

The combination of Pro Mazda and Watkins Glen I think is a great physical training ground or litmus test for any developing race car driver. It definitely exposed one of my weaknesses as a racer.

The final day of competition proved to be a great day. Primarily because it was supposed to rain all day long and that meant both race two and the enduro in the Pro Mazda would be in the wet.

This was fantastic news for me for two reasons. I wouldn’t have to worry about the physical capacity issue that I dealt with in race. Also, because my skill set in the rain would enable me to have a semblance of a chance of winning in Group 9.

Oddly enough, Group 9 doesn’t have separate podiums for each of the classes, so I would have to beat a substantial number of cars that were significantly faster than me.

In the dry, this is practically impossible assuming my competition isn’t helplessly slow. However, in the wet things become a bit more equal and the skill-gap between drivers becomes more revealed because power and downforce become less of a factor whereas comfortability in the wet becomes substantially more important.

Almost all of the cars from every Group 9 race on Saturday, pulled out of the race on Sunday morning when they saw it was going to rain all day. That meant less competition, but it also meant that I was basically handed the win in Group 9’s second race as well as the enduro.

That’s because only the cars that would have a chance of competing against me in the wet in a multi-car enduro are other formula cars with downforce like me.

Nothing I could do about guys leaving early, so I took advantage of the opportunity to run and get experience in the wet.

I won race two after lapping the entire field in just six or seven laps.

The one-hour enduro unfortunately was an even sadder tale as only three cars showed up, leading to the race being shortened. As a result, another car pulled out and only two of us took the green flag.

I focused on putting on as good of a show as I could for the spectators still watching. I went as hard as possible for 14 laps, hoping to improve my best race two lap time in the wet.

I was able to slowly improve my fastest lap all the way through the final lap of the race where even despite a mistake in turn one, I still improved on the lap before, achieving my fastest lap in the wet on the weekend, a 2:03.813.

That felt pretty good.

Getting back in the Porsche after having not driven the car since February and seeing success in all conditions was a big confidence booster and testament to my development as a driver. But so was being able to develop the Pro Mazda to a point where I started to really enjoy it.

This was definitely one of the best weekends of racing the entire year so far, and it makes me even more excited for the future and what it holds.

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