Robin Liddell nursed a smoking car to the finish line Friday to win the Alan Jay Automotive Network 120, the second race of the 2021 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge season.
While holding a 5-second lead over Jan Heylen in the final minutes of the two-hour race at Sebring International Raceway, the No. 71 Rebel Rock Racing Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R that Liddell co-drove with Frank DePew began emitting smoke from the rear end.
Liddell backed down but kept it going for the final three laps, eventually finishing 3.343 seconds ahead of the No. 16 Wright Motorsport Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport that Heylen co-drove with Max Root.
The smoke roiling from the back of the Camaro worried Liddell as the final minutes ticked away.
“I was very concerned,” Liddell said. “But I didn’t feel anything mechanical. I was just waiting for something to tighten up or let go. In the end, to be fair, I wasn’t really pushing the car very hard. Our whole thing was about rolling speed. I was lifting off (the accelerator) very early and saving the gas and carrying as much speed as I could.
“It didn’t hurt our lap times massively, but it made a big difference to our fuel mileage. That was the only way we could have done what we did today. There was absolutely no way we had the performance to win outright if we’d have just pushed and done the same strategy as everyone else.”
As Liddell coaxed the No. 71 Camaro closer to the finish, DePew watched nervously.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re going to get this,’” DePew said. “That was with about four laps to go. I was hearing the team calling out the fuel numbers. As long as Robin, knowing that we don’t have quite the car, he could take off before Heylen gets too close. Then all of a sudden, the car starts smoking. The last three laps were nail-biting.”
While Liddell was winning the Grand Sport class and overall, Jon Morley prevailed in the Touring Car class in the No. 61 Road Shagger Racing Audi RS3 LMS SEQ he shared with Gavin Ernstone.
Morley and Ernstone overcame mechanical issues discovered Thursday in practice, and Ernstone drove the car to the lead during his stint.
“The team ironed every single one of those problems out,” Morley said. “Since Practice 2 it’s been flawless. I was just looking forward to getting back into it. … I had a much more exciting race than I intended.”
The win by Morley and Ernstone in TCR added Sebring to their list of achieved goals.
“We just executed everything we talked about,” Ernstone said. “Just driving the car really smooth, look after the car, don’t touch anything. … This is a big check off our list. We’ve got (wins at) Daytona, Laguna Seca and now Sebring. Looking at the wall and all the names on the plaques out there, I was really emotional.”
The Michelin Pilot Challenge season resumes May 15 with the Mid-Ohio 120, part of the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio weekend.