MILLVILLE, N.J.-Freedom Autosport's Derek Whitis and Tom Long finished sixth at New Jersey Motorsports Park on Saturday. It was a good finish after the hurdles the team faced throughout the day. Still, the GRAND-AM Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge team walked away feeling that they could have done more...and that there is definitely a devil in New Jersey.
Freedom Autosport's drivers were candid about their "New Jersey curse" prior to the race. Although the team put a MAZDASPEED3 on the podium there last year, they are still waiting to have a smooth, and successful, race in New Jersey with their Mazda MX-5s.
The No. 25 Mazda MX-5 of Whitis and Long was fast going into Saturday. In pre-qualifying practice, though, some issues came to light and the team realized they would have to do a motor swap with only two hours before qualifying.
Not only did the Freedom Autosport crew get the motor swap complete, but they also gave Whitis a great car for qualifying. He promptly went on track and snagged the fourth spot on the Street Tuner grid with a time of 1:33.136.
"That was an amazing feat for the team, and our crew really deserves credit for giving us a competitive car in such a short time," Whitis says.
The first challenge had been met, but early in the race Whitis was spun by another car. The No. 25 got lodged in a gravel trap, bringing out a full-course caution and putting the car a lap down. Undeterred, Whitis and Long fought their way back onto the lead lap.
Long made a pit stop under caution, and the fresh tires helped him work his way from the back of the lead-lap cars to sixth. Long says, "We fought all the way through the field just to finish sixth with a Freedom Autosport Mazda that could have won this race. It's a little frustrating, but at the same time it's great feeling of accomplishment to finish sixth when so much went wrong. We like this track and the MX-5s always run well here, but there really is a devil at this track."
"It's not the finish we wanted, but breaking into the top six after our setbacks is really a testament to the Freedom Autosport crew," Whitis says. "They never stopped working to get us to the finish line, and we really hope to reward them with a win soon."
The No. 26 Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 of Rhett O'Doski and Andrew Carbonell was poised for a podium finish before they had their own share of the New Jersey curse. Carbonell was running in fourth with 25 minutes to go when he was called in to serve a drive-through penalty. He dropped to the back of the field, but worked his way up to 16th before the checkered flag.