For American F3000 veteran and Infiniti Pro Series winner Phil Giebler, a debut in the most prominent road racing-based open wheel developmental series stateside seemed long overdue. The Toyota Atlantic website carried his biography for some...
For American F3000 veteran and Infiniti Pro Series winner Phil Giebler, a debut in the most prominent road racing-based open wheel developmental series stateside seemed long overdue. The Toyota Atlantic website carried his biography for some three years without him turning a single lap in such a vehicle. That finally changed this past weekend in San Jose, where Giebler survived the treacherously tight street circuit and scored an eighth place finish.
"It was a little overwhelming for all the stuff we had to fit into one weekend," Giebler summarized after qualifying ninth in his Condor Motorsports entry, then coming home one lap in arrears after a drive-through penalty. "It was a new car and new track for myself and the team, and it was a lot to take in all at once. All in all, I think we did fairly well as far as coping with that situation. It was really good to get back in a car on a street course, and it was good having my butt in a race car instead of walking around one."
The Oxnard, CA native had not raced cars since placing third at the Fontana IPS event last October but seized this chance thanks to local contractor Jos. J. Albanese Concrete Construction, which celebrated its 50th anniversary by sponsoring a car for this inaugural event. Condor owner Carlos Bobeda, with assistance from former series champion owner John Della Penna, secured an ex-Dorricott Swift .014 chassis from Dyson Racing in the weeks leading up to this one-race deal, but a planned test at Buttonwillow aborted after a head gasket blew half a dozen laps in.
Despite this minimal prep time heading into San Jose, "by first qualifying, I'd barely had 20 laps in the car, and we had a red flag about halfway through the session; at that point I was sitting P2. I was really surprised, having not been in the car and being thrown a curveball this weekend, and I was really excited. So I went back out and pushed even harder, trying to get that pole position, but I ran into some traffic and never really got a clean lap. That's something I'm normally really good at doing, as far as getting a clean lap to go out and give it your best.
"Then we just started struggling later in the sessions with brake problems. Our braking distances were getting longer, and that cut into our track time and speed; this was a common factor all weekend. We'd start off really good, and I don't know if the brakes were getting too hot or not. But we were definitely glazing brake pads and just struggled with that all weekend, and that made for an inconsistent race in the end."
San Jose marked the debut or return race for an ample number of other competitors as well; this factor, along with a narrow course with increasingly notorious obstacles, made the 45-lap event tough from the get-go for this rookie. "I was in mid-pack with a lot of drivers with varying experiences on a track that's really tough to pass. So it was a little frustrating at first; I was getting held up quite a lot. I'd get a run on someone, but I just couldn't brake as deeply as I wanted to and was actually locking up because the car wouldn't slow down initially. So I was just trying to keep the car off the walls at that point. The braking problem would lead into a gearbox problem, because if you can't slow the car down, you can't get it into the right gears. I was kind of using the gearbox as a crutch to slow the car down."
Those mechanical issues led to Giebler running afoul of series officials on lap 15. "I missed the temporary chicane they put in the front straightaway, and then I missed it again, just not being able to get down the gears. I didn't pick up any positions, nor did I gain any time because I was warned in the drivers' meeting that they'd be watching closely, and I backed off accordingly like they told us to. I put the gap over what it was before the chicane, but they black-flagged me immediately. It was one of those things that I had no control over at that point."
Resuming in 11th, Giebler could only make the occasional pass for position, and like virtually every other driver who experienced San Jose last weekend, he found little joy in the new downtown street circuit itself. "The general layout just didn't give you an opportunity for passing, and the one place where you had a really good place for passing would be at the hairpin in turn three, and then they ended up putting the chicane there, which just threw any passing opportunity out the window. The chicane was fast enough (for that). I don't even understand why the chicane was there. That seemed pretty stupid, as safety-wise nobody was barreling in there or collecting the wall going into the hairpin turn.
"I was really disappointed with how things went. Safety barriers were being moved at the last minute; tires were in the wrong place - it just seemed that ultimately everything wasn't as good as they thought they'd be, and I just think they should've been much better prepared for the situation. But we're there to put on a show, and in general I think we and Champ Car put on a good show. The track might be bumpy, or it might have been compromised a little bit by their changing the layout every time we went out, but hey, you just have to deal with it - it's part of the game."
For this weekend Giebler joined forces with points leader and pole sitter Charles Zwolsman, who concentrated on his own championship effort en route to a third place finish behind Katherine Legge and David Martinez. "He kind of left it up to me to get up to speed," Phil admits. "As competitive as drivers are, you don't want to give anyone a hand, and I wasn't expecting any help from him. He did help out when we were talking about the car a little bit, and we actually had similar problems with the brakes; mine's were just a little bit worse. Also with the gearbox from the bumpiness of the track - we had almost identical problems with that towards the end of the race. But in general, it didn't really help having a teammate, and I didn't even get to share data with him, overlay anything or talk about setups."
Giebler won last year's IPS season opener at Homestead (his debut in that series) before funding difficulties derailed his title run with Keith Duesenberg's team. Meanwhile he returned to his first love of go-karting, driving ICA spec Intrepid chassis for Champion Racing. He currently sits second in Western Division points and third in Eastern, having won the Saturday final and Sunday pre-final races in Reno. "I got back into karting mainly through a couple of opportunities that were thrown my way earlier this year. I went out just to go practice at some of the local tracks, and when word kind of spread that I was back and hadn't forgotten how to drive one of these things, I ended up in the Stars series, starting with their big international race in Norman, OK. That was after six or seven years of not doing any competitive karting. I just fell in love with it again; just the energy that you have while you're at a race and the level you have to be at is just amazing, and the competitiveness is just the highest I've been involved in here in the States.
"It's the most fun type of racing I've been involved in and some of the most rewarding when you do well. There's just a great level of satisfaction because there's so much input the driver does have on the kart and in the pits. You work your butt off all weekend, and you're at a different level of working with the team. You're hands-on; you're the mechanic and data engineer, you figure out setups, you get in there and get dirty, then drive the thing as hard as you can. You don't rely on anyone else, just yourself and your mechanic."
Like many others, Giebler finds the new rules package announced for Atlantics last weekend, including a $2 million championship bonus, particularly enticing in terms of a possible full season ride in 2006. Meanwhile he hopes he and Condor can do some if not all of the remaining three races this season. "It's almost 50-50 right now. We're looking at a couple of local sponsors at each of these races. I told everyone I'd love to do the last race in Montreal and go out with a bang at the championship finale."