By David Phillips
Caution: Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. So should be the mantra for competitors atop the GT Daytona (GTD) standings in the 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
While the likes of manufacturers Acura and Lexus, teams Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian and AIM Vasser Sullivan, and drivers Mario Farnbacher, Matt McMurry, Aaron Telitz and Jack Hawksworth have been slugging it out in the points and on the racetrack throughout the season, they would do well to keep an eye on the Turner Motorsport BMW.
Piloted by Bill Auberlen, Robby Foley and, in this weekend’s Motul Petit Le Mans, Dillon Machavern, the No. 96 Turner BMW M6 GT3 has not played a featured role in the championship battle. Auberlen and Foley have, however, won two of the past four races. While they sit sixth in the driver standings, 18 points out of first, there’s a sense of momentum in the No. 96 camp.
What’s more, this weekend sees them return to Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta as defending Motul Petit Le Mans champions, having scored one of the most memorable wins in GTD history a year ago.
While the Turner team still faces a mountain to climb to challenge for GTD hardware this season, that mountain became less steep last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL when Auberlen and Foley won the MOTUL 100% Synthetic Grand Prix as the championship leaders finished well down the order.
"Honestly, going into Charlotte I didn’t think we had a shot at winning," said team owner Will Turner. "It’s a track that is unforgiving, not a lot of space to pass, and we just wanted to survive. I never would have thought we’d only be 18 points back after Charlotte.
"The success at Charlotte has turned it around. With just three races left, 18 points is a lot to make up but we’re sniffing around, right? Don’t count us out. We’re a longshot but we’re gonna do what we always do, which is do our best and hope it shakes out well."
A key factor in the Turner surge has been Foley’s performance. In his second season with the team (and third full season of racing), the 23-year-old is rapidly adding to his driving data bank. In addition to his GTD duties all season with Auberlen, Foley is campaigning in both of Turner’s BMW M4 GT4s in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.
"The GS and the GTD cars don’t always translate directly," Foley said. "They’re very different to drive and you’re going a lot faster in one than the other, but it helps to gain track knowledge. Yes, I’m reasonably experienced but I’ve only been racing at this level for two or three years, and every lap helps anytime you can get behind the wheel of a race car. With the schedule the way it is this year, now we’re racing nearly every weekend, so it’s good to stay active."
Few have been more "active" over the years than Auberlen, who turned 52 on Tuesday. As has been well documented, Auberlen supplanted Scott Pruett as IMSA’s winningest driver when he took his 61st checkered flag at VIRginia International Raceway in August.
"There’s no substitute for mileage in a race car," Auberlen said. "It’s all developing the library, as I call it. Every experience – when that tire goes off, the fuel load burns off, the track changes, or the temperature goes up or down, you’re putting all this information in (your head) for the next time you run across it. So over the years I come up to a situation and say, ‘Yep, I remember that from six years ago and this is what I need to do.’ So you minimize your mistakes and maximize every tenth of a second on every lap you’re out there."
Auberlen applied all that knowledge when he battled with the Mercedes-AMG of Felipe Fraga and the Audi of Christopher Mies for lap after lap in the closing stages of the 2019 Motul Petit Le Mans. Auberlen took the win when the Mercedes ran out of fuel midway through the final lap and fended off Mies’ last-ditch overtaking maneuver a couple turns from the finish.
"I’ve been racing since I was 17," he said, "and I’ve had a lot of great races. Petit Le Mans last year … it was my birthday, we were battling for second in the championship and we’re battling Fraga and the Audi behind me for the lead of this race for hours. When I crossed the finish line, it was one of the most exciting moments of my career. To be on the top step of that podium was one of the highlights of my career. I loved it so much."
While Auberlen can’t promise a repeat Saturday evening, he guaranteed they will make every effort to get there. And at endurance grinds like the Motul Petit Le Mans, effort often equals results.
"It’s such a long race but know this: We will fight and never give up," Auberlen emphasized. "Petit Le Mans and Sebring are similar in that, even if you don’t have the fastest car, you can will your way to the front.
"You grind for every tenth of a second, and you race that guy. You race that guy until he falls off the track, makes a mistake or runs out of gas, and you try to get on that podium and gain every point you can. And sometimes miracles happen."
Motul Petit Le Mans action begins with practices at 11:15 a.m., 3:45 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. ET Thursday, followed by qualifying at 12:30 p.m. Friday. Each of those sessions will stream live on IMSA.com.
Live coverage of the race is available on NBCSN from 12:30-6:30 p.m. Saturday, switching to NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports App and TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold from 6:30-9:30 p.m., and returning to NBCSN for the dramatic conclusion from 9:30-11 p.m.