This guest contribution is by Nick McMillen, 2013 United States GT Academy Champion. This is the account of his journey as one of the newest Nismo Athletes. Stay tuned for future articles from our racing driver contributor coming soon as he experiences and progresses through his professional career.
Spa-Francorchamps was one of those tracks I had always dreamed about driving since I was little. The best I could ever do was look at photos, videos, and run numerous laps on Gran-Turismo but to finally experience Spa in person was an absolute treat. Then to say that I was racing the 24 Hours of Spa; now that’s something I would’ve never dreamed of.
When I showed up to Spa, I realized this was not another GT3 race but the GT3 race of the year. It was like taking a normal Blancpain race and tripling the size of everything. Numerous teams lined the pits proving how serious of an effort everyone was putting into this race.
Starting off the week was the parade into the city. Over almost 60+ GT3 cars taking over the roads of Belgium at speed is one of the coolest things I’ve witnessed. The parade really makes a great experience for all the fans, and even myself, to get up close with the cars and drivers you usually only can see from a distance.
Once Thursday came around it was time to crack down and get up to speed with practice, qualifying, and night qualifying as well. Unfortunately I was unable to get any practice in the first session due to a red flag that ended the session early.
I got a nice handful of clean laps in qualifying though where I found a very good pace quickly and the Nissan GT-R was handling great. I was limited to a couple laps in night qualifying but it didn’t disappoint. Spa at night is a different animal. Everything comes faster than you expect it to but that’s all part of the fun while your trying to find your line and braking points. I felt ready for the biggest race of the year and was looking forward to getting into 24 hours of the best GT3 racing of the year.
I got as much rest as I could on Friday and Saturday before the race but before I knew it, 24 hours of beautiful chaos was ready to begin. We were starting 13th on grid which would put us in a good spot to move up the field in the first couple of hours and settle into a good pace for the rest of the race.
What we didn’t account for was the unknown literal chaos that would ensue right from the get go. One horrible incident after another plagued the first 4 or 5 hours of the race and a couple close calls with our #80 GT-R would throw off our (and many other’s) strategy. Coming in to fuel, swap tires, driver’s, and more was all at random trying to make a better guess than the next team to gain an advantage.
I was originally supposed to be fourth in the car around 9:00pm which would be perfect to drive the sunset-dark stint so I wouldn’t have to find myself in my second stint. Unfortunately, with incidents and strategy switch ups, my first stint was scheduled for about 11:00pm in the dark. I was not worried at all as I love to drive at night, but it would take me a few laps to get up to speed.
I was all geared up and so excited to get in the car when a last minute strategy change was decided to have Wolfgang Reip and Alex Buncombe put in stints right before the 6 hour mark to try and gain spots which also meant more points for our championship hopes. We got a few much needed points but I would be delayed my stint again. I didn’t mind though because I wanted those points!
Due to not driving in the first six hours of the race our chief engineer and I decided it would be a good idea for myself to get a few hours of sleep then put in a strong stint come sunrise. When I went to bed we were still climbing the grid nicely. While I was asleep we would suffer multiple punctures and a brake line rupturing that would set us back.
I knew I needed to put in a strong stint in the morning and did just that! The car was doing just what I told it to do and I had a great first stint during the sunrise (my favorite stint). We would continue to creep up the grid from there.
My second stint didn’t go as well as I would’ve liked but I held on to it and tried my best. Going into my third stint I had a few things to change and needed to push as we were just outside the top ten in class. My first few laps were better than any I’d done in my second stint but I would suffer a drive through penalty on behalf of one of our other driver’s mistakes in the stint prior to mine. From then on it was damage control and trying to save brakes to get them to the end of the race.
It looked like we may still have a chance at a top ten finish in class with Alex Buncombe putting in the last stint to finish the race. Luck would not be on our side as we would again suffer two punctures within an hour to finish the race but finish outside of the top ten in 13th.
I have to say the Total 24 Hours of Spa was an incredible experience even though it didn’t turn out the way we had hoped. I want to thank Nissan, RJN Motorsport, and everyone else behind the scenes for helping make this opportunity possible. Hopefully I get the chance in the future to participate in this event again as I have some unfinished business at Spa-Francorchamps.
My best wishes go out to Marcus Mahy to get well soon after his nasty collision with another car in the field and thankfully after all the other incidents no more driver’s harmed. It was a battlefield out there.
2014 has been a great season so far but I can’t believe there’s only one round left at Nurburgring in September. I will definitely be digging deep and trying to put the Nissan GT-R on the podium again.
Photos courtesy of GT Academy’s official Flickr page and Nick McMillen.