2016 CHAMPIONSHIP REWIND: Tommy Milner, No. 4 Corvette C7.R
2016 CHAMPIONSHIP REWIND: Tommy Milner, No. 4 Corvette C7.R
On a second Driver’s title, ups and downs in the season and continuous learning
During the last 10 months in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Tommy Milner helped deliver some of Corvette Racing’s greatest moments and triumphs. He and Oliver Gavin won four times including Sebring and Road America – both places where Milner drove stellar final stints to help the No. 4 Mobil 1/SiriusXM Chevrolet Corvette C7.R sweep all six GT Le Mans titles for 2016.
In your mind, what was the lasting moment of the 2016 season?
"The one that will stick in our memories for a long time is the Daytona win. To win in that fashion – a close finish against our teammates who had been strong all race long – set a tone for us for the year. They had been so fast for the previous two years and had beaten us pretty soundly. It was a good confidence boost for us on the No. 4 Corvette team to be competitive against our teammates and the GTLM class. That finish, the last 20 to 30 minutes and it being my first Daytona win… all those wrapped together will be the one day I won’t forgot for a long time, and neither will our team and a lot of sports car fans."
Do you view Antonio, Jan and the No. 3 Corvette team as a competitive barometer?
"Our class is so competitive that it’s not like you’re always just racing your teammates. But in any class, they are always your best comparison. If we’re having a bad weekend and they’re not, that basically eliminates an excuse for performance. So that always drives you on. It’s a very healthy relationship between our two Corvettes and our two teams. I’ve not seen anything negative from that. It’s always been very encouraging; each team uses the other as a baseline or guide to make sure we’re doing our jobs properly. We ultimately want to beat each other just as much as we do the rest of the field."
When did you feel that you and Oliver had a chance to win the GTLM title?
"The start of the year was obviously very good, but when it’s early in the season you temper your expectations a bit. In the middle part of the season, we weren’t doing bad by any means; but we had an issue at Laguna Seca and we had an OK race at Watkins Glen but nothing fantastic. Our biggest competition was in the middle of a modest winning streak. But winning at Lime Rock tipped the scales back in our direction a little bit. We were outgunned a little bit by the No. 67 guys there but we found a way to win. Then Road America was that final push to put it back in our favor again."
Do you find yourself watching the Road America finish and still wondering how that happened and what it took to get there from your side, the engineering side and the crew side?
"It’s pretty much settled in now! I’ve watched the end of it about 25 times. It gives me such a great feeling to remember those emotions of winning a race like that in a way that I’ve never experienced before – when you kind of steal one from everybody else. When you go back through the weekend, we weren’t super quick and in the race we were quite bad to start. Olly really struggled and did a great job of keeping things clean. The first change Chuck (Houghton, No. 4 Corvette lead engineer) made when I got in was a normal change that we would ordinarily make, but it wasn’t enough. There were still some of the same issues that Olly had early; it definitely was not a nice car to drive. That final change was a much bigger swing at it, and in a lot of ways a gamble. It was a risk that Chuck was willing to take which I was as well because we were not very good for my first stint in the car.
"The track always seems like it’s at its best at end when there is the most rubber down and grip. Once that came in, I remember thinking that the car was the best it had been all weekend and I was quicker than everyone else on the track. I was kind of ruing the fact that if we had this car earlier, we would be in the hunt to get some good points. Then the caution came out and we thought it would end under yellow and wouldn’t have a chance to make any progress; if it had stayed green, maybe I could have gotten another position. But we got the green with three laps to go… and we had one chance to make something of it. This was an opportunity to get some points back on the Ford, which I knew was leading. As it turned out, it was better than I ever could have imagined. I never thought in a million years I would have gone from fifth to first in that short of a span.
"Everyone had a hand in making that happen. Olly had a very tough car to drive but kept it under him. Chuck made the right call at the end, and the pit crew guys got us at least two or three spots on stops. That was everyone on the team coming together and doing their part. It was pretty special."
Was there a reason for swing in fortunes on the No. 4 Corvette in 2016?
"I don’t think I can put my finger on one thing. The most logical answer is that it’s cyclical. Even having said that, the No. 3 guys were working as hard as they could this year. All the breaks went their way for a couple of years there. In our case, I think we as a group on the No. 4 Corvette weren’t doing everything in our power to right the ship. We were doing a lot of things to fix it, for sure. Having Ben (Johnson, team manager) take on that role has helped the team as a whole in that perspective. Adding that little bit of extra structure within the team and how we operate was especially good for our car. On the flip side, the No. 3 guys were just unlucky. It’s one of those things that if you look at our rise in 2012 and 2013, we had nearly two years of pretty good results and then we sort of tapered off after 2013. It got us in a rut for the better part of two years. The challenge was to get us back in that mindset of doing the things well that we had done well before."
Even after winning six championships, are there still things you learn and pick up on each weekend?
"In some ways I am still a little bit taken aback with the position I’m in and the success I’ve had. I never expected that – to win Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona and championships where I can look back afterward and say, ‘Yeah, I was pretty good.’ In some ways I have a mentality of just being happy to be here. Sometimes it doesn’t feel totally real.
"This year has been a little bit different in that I’ve felt more comfortable with my position on the team or a sense that I belong. I think why this year was important is that I’ve been through a cycle of having some success, then falling down a bit and then picking myself back up to get back on track again. At the end of the day, you want to do your job well. Each person has an ability to be a help or a hurt. If someone is down because they’re having a bad year, recognizing that gives a chance to give some support and encouragement. This year was less about on-track stuff but in some ways the behind the scenes things that went on to make big differences."
In your mind, how has Corvette Racing’s success contributed to the accomplishments of Chevrolet’s motorsports program?
"Corvette Racing has built this foundation of success, and in some ways we’re almost expected to do well every single year. I believe that all the other Chevrolet teams have the same mentality and the same goals and desires. We’ve done it at Corvette Racing for 16 or 17 years have set a standard. The IndyCar group has carried that well since Chevrolet came back in 2012. On the NASCAR side, Chevrolet is the most successful brand in history. So there’s a culture there with the success of all the programs. It’s never spoken but it’s there within every team – us, IndyCar, NASCAR and NHRA. Chevrolet gets the best teams and the best drivers, and they give us the best equipment. You add all those ingredients together, that’s why there is a standard of what we expect for each of us. Chevrolet has built a foundation for each team and program to work from and build on that toward success."