Having had about enough of the oft quoted cliché, "in the post 9/11 world", I finally snapped at someone that Porsche should adopt those words for their "Omar" Cayenne SUV. The problem is that as tired as you or I or anyone else may be upon hearing those words, it is a fact. Things are different. The schedule for the ALMS fell victim to both politics and economics as two important dates were cancelled thus leaving a large gap between Sebring in March and Sears Point in July. Last year's Washington D.C. round of the ALMS circus was well promoted and received and the sudden cancellation along with that of Mexico City left not only the teams scrambling but that of the series honchos themselves. Because of the usual scheduling to make room for the 24 Hours of Le Mans held every June, a race at Road Atlanta was thrown together just two weeks after the classic in France. The tragic thing is that the ALMS really is the series that does try harder. The cars are of the top variety in terms of pure technology, excellent name drivers mixed in with the "I can afford it" amateurs and always close racing, as it should be when you have cars representing three classes all fighting for the same piece of real estate. To have to keep patching the schedule together is just something that makes pro sportscar racing so difficult to market. It is difficult to take a page out of NASCAR's playbook when you aren't sure if your venue is going to be there. Even with all of these hazards, the ALMS have delivered an excellent first half of the season. Now only if we had a few more races to report on. Hopefully, the second half will be as intended.
The 51st Twelve Hours of Sebring
There is no question that Sebring has replaced Daytona as the most important endurance race in America. With the change of sanctioning bodies and rules changes, the Daytona 24 Hours is a shadow of its former greatness. No longer do the major teams and manufacturers enter the famous ballet on the banks. The controversial alignment with the ACO of Le Mans and the adoption of their rules, have made it possible for the ALMS to let factory teams have a playground. The marriage is far from perfect as Saleen continues to have problems getting their S7 back to its once competitive form. On the positive side, was the much anticipated arrival of the Bentley team. Virtually all of those in motorsport knew that the outfit from Crewe was going all out to win at Le Mans this year and there is no better tune up or proving ground than surviving the pounding that only Sebring can do to a car. Standing in the way of the bottle green winged B coupes were a trio of Audi R8's. The R8 has been the dominant car over the last three ALMS seasons including a hat trick at Sebring. Audi AG had pulled out leaving a trio of "private" teams to uphold Ingollstadt's honor. The whole charade was rather silly as all the faces surrounding the #1 Audi R8 entered by Joest were immediately familiar. Audi UK was backing a car for Mika Salo, Perry McCarthy and Jonny Kane while Champion had perhaps the strongest line up of drivers for their R8 with Pirro, Lehto and Stefan Johansson. So strong was this line up that a majority of the press when polled, gave Champion the nod as the favorite to win. Given the fact that the Bentleys were an unknown coupled with a week of problems, it was easy enough to look Champion's way. I had immense doubt about that forgone conclusion. After all, wasn't it the Joest team that had been the 900 lb. gorilla, wasn't it the Joest team that did the development work on the R8, and finally, wasn't it the Joest team that worked closely with Michelin? Well, wasn't it?
The 12 hours of Sebring is the ultimate animal house party. It is more like a 120 straight hours of pure nonsense and the only logical reason to go to the middle of Florida during spring break. A slight miscommunication (read screw up) on my part had me staying over two hours from the circuit and that was not acceptable. So it was a sleeping bag from Kmart on the floor in a dump of a hotel with John Brooks snoring away for my first night. Things improved the next day as far as accommodations. Famed writer Michael Cotton was staying in a private residence about 15 minutes from the track and they had a spare room. Pete Lyons was nearby in another one of the owner's houses. Armed with a flashlight and directions written on the back of a press release, I spent an hour in the black of night on some roads that made me think of Deliverance. I finally located the house and caught up in the sleep department. I'm from the west coast y'all. The next morning I discovered several lizards sleeping contently a few feet from the bed. The view out of the screen was that of a large lake only yards away and that kind of swamp grass that remind me of nature shows that feature four legged creatures that end up as luggage or shoes. The hosts of the house were downstairs cooking up a huge southern style breakfast for Michael and I. Somehow the subject of gators came up and yes, they do like the grass outside my window. I made a mental note to use the front door from that moment on.
This year's running of the 12 hours was to be Michael Cotton's last and as a tribute to the man whose motorsport reporting is considered the standard, Kevin Jeannette had brought a Gulf Porsche 917K for Michael to drive during the exhibition parade laps. Siffert and Rodriguez were the two drivers that Michael most admired for their raw speed and courage and his writing describing the on track battles between the two in their Porsches became the stuff of legend.
Qualifying turned out to be both a surprise and controversial as Bentley topped the time sheets and looked to have pole locked up. However, a post technical inspection showed a height infraction and the times of both cars were disallowed and the two from Crewe started in 52nd and 53rd position respectively. At the very least, this was going to make the first hour of the race worth watching. This left the #1 Joest Audi R8 to start from the top slot with Champion sharing the front row. Just behind in third was the MG-Lola in the LMP 675 class of Dyson Racing with the Audi UK entry holding down fourth on the grid. GTS featured the renewed battle between the factory Corvettes and the Prodrive Ferrari 550 Maranellos that were starting to truly come in to their own. GT was the usual Porsche Cup selection with a few Ferrari 360's tossed in to keep the group honest. The GT class is a strange gig. On some circuits the Ferrari 360 is a far better car than the Porsche. Overall, it is the talents of Alex Job, along with some factory backing, which keeps Porsche on top of the GT class. Not that many really care because the fans want Porsche running in all the categories again. That is, with the possible exception of truck racing. Sure.
The first two hours of the race were all a fan could ask for. The #7 and #8 Bentleys hooked up in formation and like a runaway train, rolled on through the entire field until hooking up with the leaders. The sheer speed of the bottle green coupes down the pit straight dwarfed almost everything else. The expected problems finally did come and slowed the Crewe effort down but excellent pit work kept the Bentleys in the hunt for the entire race.
The Corvette Ferrari battle never really materialized. Problems struck both camps early on and the lone outsider, the Olive Garden Ferrari 550 (proudly wearing european car stickers) was the first GTS car to drop out on lap 59. The Alex Job team continued their mastery of the GT class, however, several of the private teams are getting closer. Risi Competizione came to Sebring as one of the favorites to win GT but had a series of setbacks in practice and during the race. A podium finish seemed to be in the cards for the #34 Risi Ferrari but driver Kevin McGarrity suffered a huge crash near the pit straight after being bumped by a faster car. The 360 was all but destroyed and the delay of the safety crew to aid McGarrity caused teammate Marino Franchitti to air his feelings to track officials. Fortunately, McGarrity's injuries were not life threatening but it took some time to remove the stricken Ferrari and get back to green.
With the race winding down, it appeared that those who picked the Champion team to finally get that long awaited win would be rewarded. However, Reinhold Joest has a reputation for not settling for anything less than a win. Very quietly and without much fuss, the #1 R8 bid it's time and preserved their Michelin tires. This proved to be the difference as Joest made better use of tire management and caught the Champion team out of synch. For the second year in a row, Champion was a bridesmaid while Joest captured their 4th straight Sebring crown. Bentley served notice for the upcoming Le Mans by finishing 3rd and 4th. Maybe this wasn't a classic race but the closing hours were full of drama.
Atlanta Grand Prix
The hastily thrown together round at Road Atlanta featured most of the usual suspects. Joest had skipped Le Mans but his crew was very much in attendance at La Sarthe as they had been "loaned" to Bentley (need we say more?) and now they were back in their familiar silver Infineon Audi R8. Champion were upbeat after a fine third at Le Mans behind the two from Crewe. Even the JML Panoz team were looking forward to a good race on their home track. Dyson continues to get the MG-Lola sorted and one day it will be a surprise victor. Prodrive was back as were the Vette boys, who were still smarting after having been thrashed by the Ferrari at Le Mans, so revenge was on their minds. Champion principal Dave Maraj went out and got J.J. Lehto specifically to partner Johnny Herbert for the 2003 season. Lehto is simply fast in everything he drives. His great stint at Road Atlanta finally brought Maraj and his Champion team the laurels that had so far eluded them. It wasn't that the Joest team had a bad race but they just didn't have the pace that Lehto set. With six races upcoming in the next ten weeks, there very well could be a change in the leader board. The same for GTS as the Corvettes got back on track with a win. That could prove to be short lived though as Prodrive has added superstar drivers and former Panoz teammates, David Brabham and Jan Magnussen for the rest of the season. Roll 'em Pete and bet the farm, this is going to be a rumble of righteous proportions.