TOOELE, Utah. — This past Sunday, the JD Scion Road Racing team put another mark in the history books, winning a second consecutive national championship in NASA’s Performance Touring series. Perhaps most impressive was the fact that the team started in dead last and managed to climb back through the field and win the race, making them one of the only teams (if not the only) to do so in any class at any NASA national championship event.
“This event truly tested what we’re made of,” said team manager and driver Dan Gardner. “We knew it was going to be a fight no matter what. But when you have to come from the back of the bus to win a national championship, that really puts your back up against the wall. It’s just so rare to pull off a win that way, but at the end of the day, that’s what happened. The whole team just stayed focused, came up with a game plan, and then executed.” With a crew consisting of Brad Allen, Tom Oathoudt, Jeff Lew, and Chris Gladu, the Scion tC road race car and Gardner were well taken care of. And plenty of care was needed as the team ended up overcoming obstacle after obstacle.
Before Thursday’s qualifying session, crewman Oathoudt noticed the supercharger pulley wasn’t quite running true. After some investigation the team found the issue and replaced the parts. It was the first freak issue to crop up, but unfortunately it wouldn’t be the team’s last. After morning repairs were made, Gardner managed to qualify the Scion in P2, and was in a good position for the first qualifying race. The green flag dropped, the spotter gave the word on the radio, and Gardner was off, taking over first place as the cars went into Turn 1. Through Turns 2, 3, and 4, Gardner was fending off a Grand-Am MINI and driver.
After exiting out of Turn 4, Gardner ran the Scion down the inside of the track to protect his position. With zero room on the inside, the MINI driver made a poor decision, stuffed it into the gravel on the inside, and crashed hard into the Scion, sending Gardner reeling across the track. Gardner held the position and drove toward the turn called “Right Hook,” but something was clearly wrong. The steering wheel was pointed hard right while the car was tracking straight, and the car was having a hard time staying on track. As the rest of the field passed him by, Gardner limped into the pits. The crew took a good look at the left side of the car in the hot pits, and found the left front fender rubbing on the tire, both left wheels damaged, and a host of mangled body panels. All of those could be dealt with, but a look under the car revealed that the inner tie rod had been bent severely into a harsh “V” shape. Despite Gardner’s desperation to go out and complete a few more laps, the crew advised him that it simply wouldn’t be possible.
It was discouraging, as the team was in the driver’s seat, leading the race. Unfortunately, NASA’s point system dictates that if you DNF you only earn half the points of last place, effectively making it mathematically impossible to start the championship race from anywhere other than dead last. Even a first place finish on Friday wouldn’t be enough unless another car DNF’d as well. “It’s just one of those things in racing,” said crew chief Brad Allen. “Even though the other competitor was disqualified, there’s no way to get that race or the points back. It certainly put a kink in our plans, but there was no was we were going to get discouraged.”
The team stayed up the better part of the night, replacing nearly the entire left front corner on the car and then realigning it. The Scion would be ready for action on Friday, and the team would test out the repairs in the morning practice session. Friday’s practice went well, and the car felt rock-solid again. Friday qualifying saw Gardner again take P2, less than two-tenths of a second behind the pole sitter in the Mazda RX-8. The race start went well, as Gardner and the torquey Scion got out to another early lead. By the last lap, the Scion had stretched the lead over second place to a whopping 5 seconds. Gardner’s fast lap time of 2:11.4 was almost a full second faster than the second fastest car in class.
On the last lap, Gardner was in some traffic, and he went to the inside of a PTF car in Right Hook. He went to the brakes, and the car just kept going, shooting off the track, as Gardner tried to prevent it from going in the dirt. The Scion came back on track, but Gardner didn’t know what kind of brake issue had occurred. He maintained his position, but the second place Mazda was on his tail. As the Scion came out of Witchcraft, Gardner went to brakes to slow the car down from 100 mph to set up for the Attitudes. The pedal went to the floor and the Scion shot off the track hard down the hillside, going sideways in the dirt. Gardner maintained control, jumped the car back on course, and still had the position. He got on the radio to tell the crew he had no brakes. Somehow Gardner managed to hold off the Mazda another couple of corners with zero brakes by using the gearbox along with long, deliberate lifts of the throttle.
Eventually the RX-8 would get around Gardner, as he had no way at all to fight in the brake zones. Gardner kept pushing and managed to hold onto second place, with the third place MINI charging from behind. “I’m sure the team was discouraged going into the championship race,” said Gary Boler, TRD business operations manager. “But this is why we race. TRD parts give the team some of the firepower they need to get the job done, but freak accidents and the unforeseen are the norm in racing.”
It didn’t take long for the team to find the brake system issue. Brake fluid was all over the right front wheel and tire. Once the wheel was off the car, the team found the culprit…a brake line had given up the ghost and ruptured, possibly punctured by a rock on the race track. The team again got to work that evening, replacing the line, inspecting all the others, and performing a thorough brake bleed. With the pedal of the TRD brakes rock-hard again, it was time to think strategy for the national championship race on Sunday.
Gardner and the team came up with a start strategy that heavily relied on flawless spotting on the radio. When the grid was posted, Gardner would be in the last row of the PTC class behind all the PTC and the PTB cars. The team did feel, however, that the inside position would be a benefit. Add to that the fact that the team had a fast car whose great strength was the race start, and it seemed like there really was a chance to take the win, despite the poor starting position. Being at the back could mean that the green flag could possibly fly before Gardner was even on the front straight. In that scenario it would be extremely difficult for Gardner to see the starter stand, another reason the radio spotter would prove to be critical.
Indeed, not long after Gardner pulled around the last turn, his spotter yelled “green, green, green.” The Scion rocketed ahead, and with each car passed, a spotter would key the microphone, yelling “clear!” Gardner knew he could move his car over as each “clear” message was relayed. The Scion was picking off cars left and right, determined to get to the front of the pack. Even as Gardner approached the inside of Turn 1, Gardner was determined to get one or two more cars under braking…and he did just that. Gardner tucked in behind the two leaders in PTB, fending off an in-class Camaro Z28. Not only had Gardner gotten the Scion to the front of the class, he had sling-shotted in front of all the higher class PTB cars save two.
After three or four more turns, Gardner started to really pull away from the Camaro, but one of several MINIs was close behind. Gardner put his head down and concentrated on avoiding mistakes. Within a few laps, the Scion had opened up a comfortable two second lead. And Gardner was maintaining the cushion. Once he caught traffic, he used it to his advantage, extending the lead by another second. The third place Mazda RX-8 was even farther back by that time.
In Lap 9 of the race, a car oiled down the track, and several cars flew off course. Gardner got through the area not long after the incident, and kept control despite the slick. Not long after that point, the pace car would come out, as the carnage was dealt with and the track was cleaned up, during a full course yellow that would last three laps. Gardner’s lead cushion was gone, as the field readied for the single-file restart.
Unfortunately Gardner wouldn’t get the same great start as he did at the beginning of the race. This allowed the second-place MINI to glue itself to the Scion’s bumper. Gardner had a mild edge on the straight sections, but the MINI was getting through the turns faster, and the Scion’s front tires were going away. It was a serious fight as Gardner defended hard to keep the MINI behind. On the last lap, the RX-8 would be beating on the back bumper of the MINI. As they fought Gardner gained a bit of ground, but in Turn 6, the Mazda would get around the Cooper S on the inside. One of Gardner’s crew came of the radio to report that the Mazda was really pushing, giving it everything he had to hunt down the Scion and get in front.
Gardner looked back, determined that the Mazda still wasn’t within striking distance, and stayed determined to drive smart and avoid mistakes. In the final complex of turns the Mazda was close, but it was going to be hard to pass Gardner and the Scion with the time that was left. As the two cars pulled onto the straightaway, Gardner and the tC held onto the lead, crossing the finish line less than a second ahead of the second place car, securing a repeat national championship win.
“Two national road racing championships in two years! It doesn’t get much better than that,” said Steve Hatanaka, Scion auto shows and special events manager. “Overcoming that much adversity, and still pulling out the big win…that’s a great feeling. To go from last place to first on the start of the race, and to hold onto the lead with pressure coming at all times…what can I say? Scion is a brand that does things differently. I suppose winning this way just makes sense!”