Racing today has become about closeness. Photo finishes, improved safety and lowered operating costs have made many sanctioning bodies look to spec racing, where all the cars are the same and the contest then becomes a driver vs. driver battle.
The major casualty in these forms of racing (ie: IndyCar, NASCAR, etc.) has been truth in engineering and innovation. There is not much you can do to innovate without breaking the rules – and being hung out to dry for it.
When the American LeMans Series (ALMS) came to the Monterey Coast at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, this theory was thrown to the dogs as multiple chassis, motor, and tire combinations had no hindrance on the level of competition. The four hour enduro proved to be an absolute slugfest. It looked far more like a 20 mile sprint as it proved one of the most closely contested, nail biting, bump-and-rub fests of sports cars and prototypes lapping the twisty, hilly 2.238 mile circuit in 1:13.948 while making insane 10,000 rpm noises.
The cast of characters was a virtual whos-who of road racing with stars from IndyCar, Formula One, and international endurance racing. Add to that the sights and sounds of world class driving; fans were treated to one of the best and closest races that one could witness as throughout the 4 hour enduro, mere tenths of a second separated the cars in each class.
Mazda Raceway – first known as Laguna Seca – was one of America’s earliest road racing circuits, dating back to 1957. Prior to its inception, the town of Salinas hosted sports car racing on its public roads. Once built, the beautiful, hilly circuit hosted some of the greatest races, cars and stars. Mazda Raceway’s rich history abounds when you look around and consider the cars and people who have raced there; it dates back to the first Laguna Seca race, won by Pete Lovely in a Ferrari.
Swiss Neel Jani, teamed with F1 star Nick Heidfeld at Rebellion – a Swiss manufacturer of ultra high end timepieces with a price tag of $100,000 – took pole over Rob Dyson in a Lola by just three tenths of a second, followed by ALMS’ winningest driver Lucas Luhr. At the start of this epic contest, the prototypes walked away from the field. Heidfeld navigated traffic with absolute mastery while Luhr’s teamate, Klaus Graf kept him in sight. The Dyson entry faded early in the race at the hands of Guy Smith.
For the driver and spectator alike, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is a marvel – carved into the natural terrain of the Monterey Peninsula. The deeply banked corners invite drivers to squeeze the throttle just that little bit more and the flat, tight right and left handers force the driver to think ahead to his perfect line.
Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew can be considered the second most famous corner in racing – only to the legendary Eau Rouge at the Spa Francorchamps Grand Prix Circuit in Belgium. The Corkscrew’s legend has seen triumph such as the gravity defying pass Alex Zanardi made on Bryan Herta to win the ChampCar World Series race here in 1996. The Corkscrew has also seen tragedy, as only a year later it would claim the life of Gonzalo Rodriguez in an Indy car as his brakes failed at the end of the Rahal Straight.
Watching the several attacks of drivers coming through the Corkscrew is a revealing insight into the experience level and aggressiveness of each racer. Some will stay on the pavement, while others will bottom out and scrape the bottoms of their cars on the rumble strips, catching the aggressive line and maybe a 100th of a second advantage as they navigate the last three turns of the course.
The off camber downhill left to right can be a smooth experience, rewarded with a clean line to the final corners of the raceway. Or in some cases, it will lead to disaster, as some will pirouette on the exit at the bottom.
This corner is as fabled as the drivers and cars who attacked it for nearly 60 years. All will speak of it with respect as it has proven to be an equalizer.
When prompted about the two world famous corners, the drivers have opinions on which are their favorite. Lucas Luhr in the Muscle Milk Lola said he enjoys the speed of Eau Rouge at the Belgian Grand Prix Circuit Spa Francorchamps when you get it right…
However, Falken Porsche factory driver Wolf Henzler loves to pivot his GT3 RSR through the Corkscrew.
Wolf Henzler and team mate Bryan Sellers drive for Falken Tire, based out of Fontana, CA. The team is blessed with incredible equipment and veteran team manager Rob Walker – who has been in racing since his beginnings in formula One in the early 1970s. Henzler loves racing stateside and despite growing up attacking the great circuits of his native Germany and Europe, had high praise for Laguna Seca and Road America which he listed amongst his absolute favorites.
In the GT Class, Porsche GT3 RSRs diced with Ferraris, Vipers and Corvettes thrown into the mix for good measure. The Vettes, however were the class of the GT field, as the marque celebrates its 60th Anniversary this year. The factory Corvette team led by Formula One veteran Jan Magnussen saw amazing success as they continued to defend their 2012 Championship with their turbocharged nearly 900 horsepower beasts.
However, right behind the Vette of Magnussen (literally nipping at his heels throughout the entire race) was the only Falken Tire clad Porsche, in the capable hands of Wolf Henzler and Bryan Sellers. Lap after lap, the Porsche nagged at the Corvette. You could throw a blanket over the top five in this class, as they all stayed in a 3 second window for the entire 4 hours.
Corvette driver Jan Magnussen, who drove F1 for for the Jackie Stewart Ford team in the late 1990s, was confident throughout the race. “Our team is so experienced and kept on the radios to help us figure where the (Falken) Porsche was better and worse than us. This gave us the ability to capitalize on the advantages.”
The races at the front of each class have been a marvelous dice. For a four hour enduro to have the front runners split by less than two seconds in each class at the half way mark is a credit to the level of competitiveness within this series. The diversity of the cars in each class proved undeniably that spec racing may not be the end all of close rivalry.
Former F1 star Olivier Barretta in the Risi Competizione Ferrari had a rash of stop and go penalties for contact throughout the race. The team seemingly spent more time in the penalty box than an NHL enforcer, dashing the hopes of the Prancing Horse for a GT class victory.
With 48 minutes to go, two prototypes pitted nose-to-tail under one of several full-course yellow flags with Jani beating Luhr out of box – but as the race restarted, Jani got hung up in the corkscrew as Luhr made a ballsy inside move to re-take the lead – reminiscent of the famous Alex Zanardi move all those years ago. The two zig-zagged through traffic inside of a second until they came together in Turn 3, with Jani making contact on the inside, forcing the champion to the outside dirt, damaging the right front fender on the Muscle Milk Lola.
The resulting contact left Jani with a punctured tire, forcing him to pit with 35 minutes remaining – ending what was an incredible battle at the front – or was it?
With 14 minutes left in the race, the last caution of the day was brought out, as the Delta Wing expired in the entrance of pit lane.
With the exception if its sad ending, bunching up the field for a sprint to the finish, the Delta Wing was one of the biggest non-stories of the weekend. Once considered to be the next formula for the IndyCar Series, the batmobile-looking Dan Gurney/All American Racers creation also went to Le Mans with a dismal performance.
Repackaged for this race with a Mazda-powerplant, the Delta Wing was entered in the Prototype 1 class and played backmarker around the Salinas, California circuit with former ChampCar star, Katherine Legge of the UK turning in a fast lap some thirteen seconds a lap off the P1 Pace.
A green white flag signaled the last lap of the hard run 4 hour enduro, mixing up the field Nascar-style for a one lap dice for the checker. It can be said that NASCAR already has an influence in ALMS, as ALMS and NASCAR’s Grand Am will unite next year in one series. Whispers in the press room suggested such nefarious influence as ALMS Chief Steward Paul Walter is slated to be in the gig for the new 2014 series.
In the end, it was Lucas Luhr (with team mate Klaus Graf) victorious over Jani, all with an incredibly brave drive against the Rebellion, which was seemingly the superior car for most of the day, giving the Muscle Milk Lola team a well-earned top step on the podium. Taking the flag in the Prototype 2 class was Marino Franchitti – little brother to IndyCar star Dario Franchitti and teammate Scott Tucker.
Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr celebrated a hard earned victory with Muscle Milk team principal Greg Pickett.
Rebellion, while not taking the overall win, won the Michelin Green X Challenge, a contest within the race of efficiency. The Green X Challenge recognizes the cleanest, fastest, most efficient cars at each ALMS race.
Corvette Scored the GT Class win with team mates Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia holding off the Falken Porsche of Wolf Henzler and Bryan Sellers.
Hollywood nearly scored kudos as television and movie icon Patrick Dempsey and his Tully’s Coffee team looked to score its first victory in the highly competitive GTC Henrique Cisneros were jubilant in the post race press conference–continuing to sip on their bottles of Champagne from winners circle. “I don’t feel bad at all about denying Dempsey his first win in the series. Some one had to lose and today it wasn’t us!”
Tandy left from Monterey on Sunday to compete in a Porsche at the fierce Nurburgring 24H – contested on the 90 corner, 14 mile long German Nordschleife circuit.
Luis Diaz brought home the Prototype Challenge victory with teammate Mike Guasch, finishing an impressive 5th overall.
Many in attendance continued to voice concerns about the Grand-Am/ALMS merger – one party noting that the Grand Am prototypes are seven to ten seconds slower than the Prototype 1s in ALMS. Some were even wondering if the series will return to Mazda Raceway at all in the future. The newly minted United SportsCar Racing series will have much to prove to the faithful as it begins its season in 2014.
Mazda had a major portion of the support shows through the weekend with their highly entertaining Prototype Lights and Playboy MX-5 Cup series – the races won respectively by Sean Rayhall (no relation) and Elliot Skeer. These stepping stone series are producing top-level drivers with lessons off the track in the business of racing that they will carry throughout their careers.
Beyond the fast cars and technology, racing never ceases to offer up eye candy like no other. Falken Tire sent their fabulous grid girls, like Julie Galindo and Gabriela Rilee.
Continental Tire sent some grid girls as well.
Momo, who had a beautifully liveried Porsche, also sent some beautifully liveried models.
For many, racing, cars and the pursuit of speed will always be about who has the nicest chariot to pick up the babes. A rather chauvinistic pursuit to some, but one that dates back to the invention of the wheel. In its one-upsmanship, the male will always seek to have the coolest ride.
While a shot like this could be considered humorous, valuable seconds can be lost in the pitlane due to picking up debris on hot and sticky tires. In racing, even a half of a second could mean victory or loss. Every person on the team has a key part of the overall mission – to beat everyone else.
In this Rebellion office, serious business is done by Nick Heidfeld and Neel Jani. Endurance racing is different than other forms of racing. Not only do you have to add fuel and change tires, you also must change drivers. Each stint is taken by one of three types of driver; the lightning fast driver, the steady driver who can maintain position and bring the car back in one piece; and the driver with the checkbook that makes all the other driving possible.
Spares are in abundance for the top teams. Anything on the car can sustain damage and pit stops allow for spare parts to replace broken ones. The modular nature of a modern racecar means that everything from body parts to sophisticated electronics can be snap-fitted as quickly as fitting a tire. The idea is to keep the car on track for as many laps as possible within the time limit. Distance is not covered while a car sits on pitlane with a problem.
P2 is a class that will soldier on in the new series. It will be interesting to see how the United Sports Car Racing series pans out in the years to come. While principals are confident in the success of the new series, many of us have a wait and see attitude.
Laguna Seca’s original layout had the track shooting up the hill from the main straightaway. Today, due to the influence of the FIA and FIM, the sanctioning bodies of Formula One, World Endurance racing and World Superbike racing, the course now has a hairpin at the end of the straight and two additional corners. Regardless, it is a beautiful place to visit and take in things that go fast.
If you love sports cars and racing, ALMS provides action like no other in the modern age. Today, with so many series moving towards spec racing or same chassis/engine/tire package in the fallacy to make the racing close and more affordable (Affordable? That’s laughable), the thrill of invention and innovation is alive and well in ALMS!
Now in its final season, ALMS is as non-spec as you can get with multiple manufacturers, tires, and engines. It represents close wheel to wheel, doorhandle to doorhandle racing, ultimately spitting in the face of those who think that spec is the answer to an exciting race.
:: Tom Stahler