If you love a good underdog story, John Church, John Miller, and the modest JDC-Miller Motorsports outfit from Savage, Minnesota, have sports car fans covered. Their overall win Saturday night at UFC Sebring, the site of 12 bruising hours of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship action, was a story told in four parts.
It begins with redemption, after leading most of November’s 12 Hours of Sebring to no avail; includes survival, thanks to seemingly every one of the 37 cars in attendance taking or delivering body blows from start to finish; incorporates surprise, after the leading Chip Ganassi Racing entry was knocked out of contention with a little over an hour to go, and closes with a performance supreme; as Sebastien Bourdais overcame a handling issue that should have ruined JDC’s chances with the checkered flag in sight.
And now, for the smallest team in the factory-rich DPi class, the honor of winning Sebring in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R will take some time to settle in for the former Road To Indy squad.
“We started in the open-wheel, and we’d been at the Sebring 12 Hour race several times because we always had a race there with either the USF2000 or the Pro Mazda series,” Church tells RACER. “And so we’ve been around the race since the late ‘90s, and when we made our pivot back in 2014 to do sports cars, we already knew it was a very iconic race. So to now win it overall is huge.
“It’s one of those deals where you’re obviously super-happy to win it, but then you start thinking about the fact that the next time you go there, your team’s going to be up on the wall there with a banner as a winner with all the rest going back to the ‘50s. That’s pretty cool.”
Good luck and bad fortune play roles in most endurance races. JDC dealt with both sides of the coin on its most recent visits to Sebring, which offered wildly different outcomes.
“This win made up for last November, because we felt like we were in a pretty good spot there until we got hit late in the race; we were controlling the race back then until we were taken out,” Church says. This one, we spent nine hours at least a lap down. I went to Sebring feeling like we had a good shot at it. I really did. I just knew how good we were there last November; how good the drivers were. And then the week didn’t go great, but it never really does. When the race started, it’s just like everything started going against us.”
The tale in November involved leading or being in contention for a victory for most of the 12 hours, only to have it go wrong late in the race. As Church tells it, the majority of Saturday’s race with the French trio of Bourdais, Tristan Vautier, and Loic Duval felt like a continuation of all that went sideways late last year.
“At the end of the first lap, we got hit by the 48 Cadillac when it spun in Turn 17, then it goes yellow, and now you’ve got a pit at the end of a short yellow, and you go back to green, so that’s not ideal,” he says. “Next thing you know, we’re a lap down. We put four noses on the car! We had a right-front tire that was going down. Seb was two laps into a stint and we had to tell him, ‘Well, this right-front tire isn’t building pressure, and it’s actually losing (it).’ And we’re already a lap down.
“You’re doing everything you can to try and get your lap back. Nobody’s allowing you to get your lap back because they’re all trapping you a lap down whenever we went full-course yellow. And then you’ve got a tire that’s leaking. I told Seb, ‘We’ve got to nurse this to the halfway point of the stint because we’ve got to get off sequence again to try and get our lap back. We can’t come now for a ******* tire.’ And every time you turn around, we put a nose on. Then they’d go out and tear a couple of dive planes off of it or somebody would hit us. And it’s like, ‘Oh my God. What do we got to do to catch a break?’
And then Tristan gets in the car and leaves the pits and there’s only one other car on track nearby, and that’s the 31 Action Express Cadillac. And he loses it in Turn 1; just clobbers us. I thought it was over at that point, because it was a huge hit. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ Drivers are complaining about the car not being very good. We’re a lap down, but we’re running with the pack and I’m going, ‘How bad can it be?’ We weren’t able to drive around and lap ourselves, but we weren’t falling behind, either. Then we finally got our lap back a couple hours from me the end, then we finally started making progress.”
Unexpected contact shaped JDC’s November race in a negative direction. Unexpected contact did the same for Scott Dixon on Saturday when he was driving into the distance with the No. 01 Cadillac Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac.
“Probably the biggest gift of all was the 01 Cadillac having its problem because it was pretty untouchable at that point,” Church concedes. “And I figured, well, we can get on the podium. And if we play our strategy right, we should be able to get second pretty easily, but I didn’t see any way we were going to beat the 01. Then we left the box and I look out, I’m like, ‘Holy ****. The 01 is still in its box!’ Then you go into that mode of, ‘Alright. Well, I hope he sits there for a lap. Let’s get a lap on him now and then we’re in good shape.’ It was crazy.
“And then six laps from the end, the rear wing fell apart after being hit. I think we got hit seven or eight times during the race. I told the guys at the end, ‘We’ve never put four noses on a car in a weekend.’ In fact, I think after the third one went on, the guys started repairing the ones that had come off before they went to the trailer for the fourth one, because the burn rate was so high on noses at that point. It’s like, ‘Holy ****, we’re going to run out of spare parts!’ That’s what’s funny about it, is that it was one of those races where you think there’s no way it’s going to work out, but nobody gave up. You really have to give credit to our crew and the whole team for this win.”
A PERFORMANCE SUPREME
After lavishing praise where it was due with his team, Church turned his attention to the man who put on one of his greatest drives at a time when all hope was nearly lost. Renown for his specific chassis handling preference where the rear of the car needs to be completely stable, Bourdais was dealt a blow when the No. 5, with all the aforementioned hits it took during the race, lost the upper rear wing element.
Whatever stability he had at the rear was gone in an instant. The four-time Champ Car champion, who makes his speed through deft management of understeer, was now left to wrangle an oversteering DPi around the world’s bumpiest track with a handful of laps left to run. By all accounts, Bourdais should have motored backwards as the No. 55 Mazda RT24-P and the No. 48 Cadillac settled the score for first place.