Wednesday
May072008

Bonilla's Road to Sports Car Racing

Photo Credit: John Thawley As a teenager, Gerardo Bonilla fell in love with sports car racing. Wandering the pit lane at Daytona International Speedway, he became mesmerized by the legendary IMSA GTPs of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Bonilla witnessed drivers such as Davy Jones and Chip Robinson steer iconic machinery like the Jaguar XJR and Nissan’s GTP, one day hoping to be in the driver’s seat himself.

Nearly 20 years have passed, but his dream has now finally become a reality. Bonilla, now 33, has been given an opportunity of a lifetime, racing for B-K Motorsports in the American Le Mans Series. This year, he’s strapped into the BP-sponsored Mazda-powered Lola prototype, hoping to help continue the “Zoom-Zoom” legacy in endurance racing.

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photo by: John Thawley
Bonilla is no stranger to the Mazda family, nor the Wisconsin-based B-K squad. A native of Puerto Rico, Bonilla got his start in karting before graduating to Skip Barber Formula Dodge. There, he not only worked his way up the ranks as a driver, but still today is a professional instructor with the school. Bonilla won the 2005 Formula Dodge National championship and moved to the Star Mazda Championship the following year, claiming the Expert Championship and placing sixth overall in the standings. One overall win in the series propelled him to a dominant season in IMSA Lites, claiming seven victories while driving for B-K Motorsports. And like the past two years of racing, Bonilla came out as champion.

His success with B-K in IMSA Lites was rewarded early this year with a test in the team’s ALMS Lola B07/46 Mazda LMP2 race car. Instantly, Bonilla was on the pace and he was named co-driver to Ben Devlin for the season. It was the next step that would make his sports car dreams come true.

Bonilla has now been hit with the reality of competing on a world-class stage for the very first time. This doesn’t faze him though as he’s set objective goals for his rookie season in the highly competitive American Le Mans Series.

“I want to just learn” Bonilla says. “I want to get to the end of the year even further along than I think is possible. I think that comes through hard work. So I’m just going to do the work everyday like I know it should be done, listen to the feedback of my co-driver and my engineers, take good notes and apply what I learned. I hope to become more professional and just have a really good encyclopedia of knowledge by the end of the season.”

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photo by: John Thawley
Unlike some drivers who migrate from Europe or other motorsport disciplines, Bonilla already has the luxury of competing on the majority of the Series’ circuits, thanks to his Star Mazda and IMSA Lites experience. Only three of the 11 venues on this year’s schedule will or have been new to him. But like many drivers, Bonilla relishes the challenge of learning a new track.

“It’s been a learning experience for me, to learn a new track,” Bonilla says. “St. Pete was a first and Long Beach was a first. Detroit will also be a first. Everything else I’ve done at least a couple of times which makes a big difference obviously.”

Bonilla’s many laps around tracks such as Sebring, Road America and Mosport came from his experience in Star Mazda. Known for breeding the stars of tomorrow, drivers such as Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Michael McDowell and Raphael Matos have all graduated from the spec open-wheel series. Former B-K drivers Guy Cosmo and Jamie Bach have also used the series as a stepping-stone to the ALMS.

“There are a lot of strong drivers there,” Bonilla says of Star Mazda. “So I knew I’d learn a lot. I then got paired with a good engineer and again with great people at Andersen [Racing]. I knew that would teach me more about the whole business of motorsport. I knew it wasn’t going to just be a fast race car; It was going to be a whole education. So that meant a lot to me and the Star Mazda Championship was good for me on that level too.”

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photo by: John Thawley
In 2007, Bonilla made the switch to sports car-like race cars in the form of IMSA Lites. There, he continued to learn the nuances of road racing and continue journey up through the ranks. But one thing he observed right off the bat was the differences between the two series’ cars. 

“IMSA Lites have a little less downforce, and a little bit less power,” says Bonilla in comparison to the Star Mazda car. “But it has a different character to it. So it teaches you to be more precise, to drive with more precision, be more careful with the setup to make it go fast. It had a different lesson. The Star Mazda car is more of a thrill ride and the IMSA Lites car is more of a technical lesson. Both had different things to teach me and both are easily blown away by the Le Mans car.”

This year in the ALMS, Bonilla faces a strong crop of fellow “rookies” to the Series, despite some having successful careers in major open-wheel championships. The likes of Scott Sharp and Christian Fittipaldi will face Bonilla not just on the track, but also for rookie of the year honors at the end of the year.

“I really don’t worry too much about it,” Bonilla says of being the best rookie. “My focus is on the team, improving our race car and operation here. If there are some nice awards at the end of the year, it’s gravy. It would be nice to have and a great gesture, but our focus is on performance.”

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photo by: John Thawley
Rebounding from a rather disastrous season-opening race at Sebring, Bonilla, Devlin and the team rebounded to record two top-10 overall finishes in the street races at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. They now look to continue that momentum heading into summer stretch. While Bonilla admits the team faces an uphill battle going up against the well proven Porsche and Acura efforts in P2, he thinks Podium finishes are not out of the question given the right opportunity.

“That’s going to be the product of hard work,” Bonilla says. “We’re obviously not with the kind of resources that some of our competition has, but that’s part of the fun actually. It puts us in a sort of David vs. Goliath situation. All we have to do is beat them once and it’s a big story. We’re looking forward to that. It’s not going to be any kind of magic. It’s simply going to be hard work, better driving, smart decisions and a lot of work in the paddock that’s going to put us in the situation.”

And if it weren’t for Bonilla’s hard work and determination, he would have still been stuck on the sidelines, wishing he followed his dream.

 

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