By: Tommy Milner on May 22, 2012
It took me six years of racing in the American Le Mans Series to get my first win. There were lots of podium finishes and great races—races where I thought, “This is the one.” I even won at Le Mans before I got my first win in the ALMS. Finally, I got that first win at this year’s Long Beach Grand Prix. I think I was more relieved than excited, but it was a phenomenal feeling!
Three weeks later, with a grueling six hours at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca ahead of me, I felt like I might be able to get win No. 2. Everything was going well; Oliver Gavin and myself in the No. 4 Corvette C6.R were first or second quickest in every session. My first qualifying effort of the year put us in second place on the grid for race day.
At the start of the race, Oliver set off to chase down the leading Aston Martin, and after the first pit stop, we were in the lead once again. There was a lot of racing to go, but it looked like we could contend for another win.
But first, back to Long Beach for a minute. Like Sebring, where that first win slipped away in the final two hours of the race, the race was shaping up nicely for Oliver and me. I started the race, and during my stint brought the car up from fourth to first place before fading just a bit back to second at the end of the stint. I had worked so hard early to get through some of the traffic, so I used up every bit of the Michelin tires. Oliver took over past halfway and made his way from second to first; he would keep our Corvette there for the race’s duration.
Every possible scenario ran through my head in the last 30 minutes: A caution flag to eliminate the lead Oliver had built? Trouble in traffic? A puncture? Anything? I’d been so close before and watched it slip away, but not this time, not this year. Finally, I was able to stand on the podium’s top step and enjoy that moment and reflect on the past six years I worked to achieve this. It was worth the fight.
Now, back to Laguna: Knowing how competitive the GT class is today, nothing is assured. If you don’t have a nearly perfect race, you are putting yourself at a large disadvantage. The first three hours went very well as Oliver led for a half of his first stint and I led for the first half of my stint. Then, a routine pit stop went awry. A slow fuel fill cost us the lead in GT and put us all the way back to seventh. With the strong competition in the GT class today, passing is no easy task, especially at Laguna Seca. The drivers hardly make mistakes, and it takes some creative driving to make a pass happen.
I radioed to our crew and just tried to pump them back up a bit, reaffirming we had a fast car. I’m not sure they really needed it because if there’s one team that lives by the “Never Give Up” philosophy, it’s Corvette Racing. I knew we had a strong car, and any forceful passes and moves would only jeopardize our race. I had to be super careful with my moves and try my best to work our way back toward the front.
Easier said than done. We’re all drivers, and we’re all competitive. No one will make anything easy. After some great battles with great drivers and great friends throughout the GT field, our Corvette was back up to fourth place and within striking distance of the lead. There were a few moments and situations that made me a bit nervous, but in the end, I brought the car back to the pits for Oliver to finish off the final hour and half.
I came into the pits in fifth and, after an amazing pit stop from the crew, Oliver left in third and very nearly had second place. An unlucky penalty for the No. 45 Flying Lizard Porsche put Oliver up to second and just behind the No. 17 Porsche ahead. But we also had two very fast BMW’s just behind us, as well as Jan Magnussen in our sister car right within striking distance before the race would go green again for the final 90 minutes. The No. 3 Corvette was unlucky at Long Beach, and Jan is one of the most competitive people I’ve met: He wants to win, period. This would be no easy task for Oliver.
With Wolf Henzler just ahead, one of the toughest guys to get by, Oliver took an opportunity early while they were still getting the tires up to pressures and temperatures. Our Michelins were ready to go and he passed Wolf for the lead. Now, with about 45 minutes left, it was about staying out of trouble and hoping for no yellows.
A late-race caution and a stack up of two angry BMWs, and Jan, just behind Oliver, couldn’t stop him: My teammate did a mega job at the end to bring it home for back-to-back wins for us. Not to be left out, Jan’s amazing pass for second with 15 minutes to go completed the Corvette Racing 1-2. It took me six years and a few months to get my first ALMS win and only three weeks to get my second. I can get used to this.
Now, we’re getting ready for Corvette Racing’s biggest race of the year, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. We are heading there with a very strong first half of the year, and Oliver and I have lots of momentum. We have a good shot of trying to win the big one back-to-back as well. Our Corvette is the car for it, and Corvette Racing is the team to do it.
The battle should be phenomenal.
Editor’s note: Autoweek Editor at Speed Tommy Milner, 26, of Lake Mary, Fla., joined Corvette Racing in 2011 as a full-season driver in the No. 3 Compuware Corvette C6.R He realized his potential quickly, winning the GTE Pro class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with co-drivers Olivier Beretta and Antonio Garcia. Milner made the pass for the lead and then completed his stint in treacherous wet conditions before handing off to Garcia for the final laps in the world’s most famous sports-car race.
A second-generation racer, Milner is the son of noted team owner Tom Milner. He has competed in formula- and sports-car series with distinction. He has driven for factory-affiliated teams representing Panoz, Porsche and BMW, and he has competed three times in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He finished third in the ALMS GT driver championship in 2010 and ninth in 2011. This season, he teams with full-time co-driver Oliver Gavin in the American Le Mans Series, as well as co-driver Richard Westbrook in select endurance races.
Follow Milner all season long here at autoweekracing.com and on Twitter @TommyMilner.