Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I want some Sonic, dammit!

Who's comin' with me?

Seriously, it's too cold and WAY too stupid up here. I want some yummy fast food in a nice warm place. I've been back a day and a half and I hate it worse than ever. Instead of sunshine and a nice warm breeze, I get overcast and 40-degree bullshit.

I came back, instead of going to St. Petersburg (which was right on the way back), why, exactly???

(The sunset at Sebring, always an incredible sight)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sebring 2007 notes, Final

It's now 12:01 AM, Sunday, March 18, and the 12 Hours is history.

I can't start this without talking about the finish -- specifically, the GT2 finish. It was a foregone conclusion that P1 and GT1 were going to be the same old boring deal all year, as there is no real competition for Audi and Chevy Corvette in those two classes, respectively. On the other hand, P2 and GT2 were positively on fire all day, into the night.

The race-end duel between Jorg Bergmeister and winner Jaime Melo might not have been foreseen in the earlier hours, when Melo did an outstanding job of bringing his Risi Ferrari out of a turn 17 spin that by all rights should have ended up in a tire wall. Melo recovered without a scratch, and drove on. Late in the race, with Melo in the lead, Flying Lizard Jorg Bergmeister turned up the volume on his Porsche 997, carved his way through the field, and challenged for the lead in the final minutes. On the very last lap, heading under the bridge in turn 17, Bergmeister briefly edged ahead. Melo drove Bergmeister nearly to the left-side wall, on the way to making the pass and taking the checkered flag. While the pass was certainly controversial (and no doubt Porsche likely has a protest underway as this is being written), the finish was among the most exciting of any class in any ALMS race I've seen.

The newly-minted Andretti Green Racing entry with the open wheel aces Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti, and Tony Kanaan at the wheel spent much of the race on the lead lap, keeping the ever-dominating Audi R10 lead car on the run. At times, the split for overall lead between P1 and P2 cars was under 1 second.

AGR wouldn't have kept heat on the Audi all day, without having already dealt with formidable opponents from Penske and Highcroft.

I've never been a Honda/Acura fan at all (save for the NSX), but they're rapidly gaining my respect as a very real racing enterprise. First race, outta' the box, and they put away not just Penske, but Intersport Lola as well. Astounding.

If there's one thing that was glaringly apparent this time around, it's that ALMS has a huge task on its hands in terms of getting the classes sorted out. Lack of competition in P1 and GT1 is damnable offense - those are supposed to be the top-flight classes showcasing the finest in Prototype and GT racing, and instead all of the action is in the lower-level "2" rungs. That's not a knock at any of the teams competing in P2 of GT2 - if anything, those guys put on one of the greatest shows I've seen, ever. The racing in the two '2' series made me wonder why there really needs to be four distinct classes anyway - at least now, when the two top-flight classes are effectively high-speed parade laps for Audi and Corvette. I'm quite sure the Wolfgang Ulrich and Doug Fehan (managers for Audi and Corvette, respectively) would much rather have bragging rights to having beaten a real opponent on race day, rather than just having to settle for what amounts to an automatic win for showing up.

Peter's comment that, with no real competition in GT1, ALMS should allow the Corvettes to run wide-open with no air restrictors, is an idea whose time is now. The Corvettes are without a doubt THE biggest fan-favorite out on the track, and if they can't have any competition in their own class, why not let 'em chase down some unrestricted Audis? To hell with class designations, let's see some knock-down drag-out racing at its finest.

On the advancing-technology front, ALMS announced last week that it will phase-in use of ethanol across all classes, starting this year and increasing as time goes on. In addition, various alternative fuels are being examined for use in the cars - including bio-diesel for the Audi TDI entries (and any other teams coming into the series running diesels, which would certainly be welcomed). As diverse as the cars are in ALMS, we may soon see competition among fuels powering those cars, as well.

Racing has always been about innovation and using the track as a rolling test-bed for what we see on the street later. That hasn't been the case so much in recent years, but that backwards trend is set to change. Be it ethanol, bio-diesel, hydrogen, or Mr. Fusion, in 2007 we're seeing something we've needed for a very long time: Auto racing as a leader in developing new technologies that will find their way into mainstream use. Peter is all about it with the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation, open-wheel racing is going all-ethanol now, and the American Le Mans Series is going big with it now, too.

I got the sense, listening to Scott Atherton speak about the emerging technologies for fueling the cars in ALMS, that the series is developing both a vision and a message. It has its ties to the ACO with the Le Mans 24 Hours, but now the ALMS has its raison d'etre.

That's it for now, see you at the next pit stop.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sebring notes, Part 4

We're now nearly 6:40 into the 55th annual 12 Hours of Sebring, and what a race so far. The Audis running practically unopposed in P1 are having starter issues (which sucks for them, since every pit stop requires that the engine be shut off, for safety's sake). So, as predicted, the front-running P2 car (currently the Andretti Green Racing/Acura ARX-01A) with Dario Franchitti at the wheel, is kicking ass and is only a single lap down from the overall lead.

The competition in P1 and GT1 is... dead. There's nothing there, really. Audi has two cars against... well, nothing! And in GT1 the Corvettes have only token competition in the form of the Team Modena Aston Martin DBR-9. The Aston team has some skilled drivers and talent throughout the team, no doubt, but they're still a privateer entry with too little budget and experience to compete with the all-dominating Corvette C6.Rs.

So, with P1 and GT1 dead, where's all the action? P2 and GT2, for once. Penske and Porsche ignited a storm in P2 last year, knocking both the Dyson and Intersport teams out for the championship haul -- and even taking an overall win once. But this year, other teams are running those very same Porsches (Dyson, for one) and there's also new blood in the form of Honda/Acura. (Yes, Acura is just a name we use in America for "expensive Honda," but let's be generous and let 'em off the hook for once)

The competition between Acura and Porsche, as I write this, is drop-dead FIERCE. At six and three-quarter hours now (5:12 remaining), it's actually a race.

Oops, the #6 Penske Porsche is back in the pits, getting some kind of work done... this helps to offset the lost time that the #9 Highcroft Racing Acura spent in the pits earlier, getting some kind of electrical work done. David Brabham was behind the wheel at the time, and his eyes were saying "get me the hell out of the pits and back onto the track already!"

The Spyker has a roof now. It still looks weird and still has those crazy scissor doors, but it's got a proper hardtop - or a bolt-on. I think it might make a better road car than race car, honestly.

Just prior to the start of today's race, when they let EVERYONE on the grid, I went to say hi to a few of the drivers and other people in the sport - I went to ask Brabs how he likes the new car (he's very happy with it - "it's good, I like it" he said), saw Tracy Krohn (who wished my dear M&mdash the best in her absence, and then I got to finally say hi to Bobby Rahal. I've only wanted to meet this guy since I saw him win the Indy 500 about 20 years ago, and this morning I just walked up to him - he knew who I was, already - but got to introduce myself and welcome him and Rahal Letterman Racing to the series.

Bobby has run here before as a driver, but not as a team owner. Rahal Letterman, like Andretti Green, has had plenty of success in open-wheel racing, but both are entirely new to sports cars.

Full course caution now, some debris on the track... I'm gonna' run down to shoot a few images, and come back to this later.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sebring Notes, Part 3.

Thursday night practice was rain delayed. Now, in road racing it's not like NASCAR - if it rains, so what, you maybe put on rain tires, perhaps engage the wiper(s), and go on racing. This is what separates the men from the boy-racers. Racing in inclement weather has always been some of the most exciting stuff for me - and as a colleague put it, "there's two kinds of sports: Motorsports, and minor sports." Rain is one occasion that makes racing truly special - any sport you can't engage in the rain, is for the weak (and thus, isn't a sport).

However, yesterday's rain was classic Florida rain - so strong was the downpour, I couldn't see past 30 or 40 feet. From my spot in the office, the flag stand is maybe 120' away - and it was completely invisible. The amount of water on the track - on the front-stretch right in front of me - was so deep, the wind was actually making WAVES in it. The only suitable racing at that moment, would've been a Jet-ski race.

So, the traditional Thursday night practice session was delayed by almost an hour, as the safety boffins made drivers and teams (and fans) wait and wait... for 45 minutes, before they set the cars loose on the track. It was a combined practice session, meaning all four classes of cars were out at once. One car, the Konrad Porsche 911 GT3 RS, either had the most dreadful brakes ever, or a driver who was scared shitless. My bet is the latter, as the driver kept locking the brakes entering the hairpin at Turn 7 - a spot where I was shooting still images (and a little bit of motion video) for the first time at night.

One of the coolest things about endurance racing in this country is the fact that you have to have some of the racing - almost certainly the finish in most cases - at night. Shorter 3-4 hour races *can* be started in late afternoon and drift into evening, but it all seems so staged. With a 10-12 hour race, it's a war of attrition and survival of the fittest -- nobody talks about who won the 3-hour race a few years ago; it's always Le Mans, Sebring, Petit, or sometimes Daytona 24. Watching these cars split the darkness with high-powered headlights in white and amber hues, never gets old on me.

Hanging out with PMD yesterday was quite cool. That's the only word I can apply to it: Cool. He's got at least one major manufacturer in the chamber and ready to go with the hydrogen program - and at least one other manufacturer looking to hedge their bets. It's exciting to see all of this coming together right now - and while I can't say too much right now, I can say with some degree of certainty that the future of motorsports will look something like what Peter is working on right now.

He hadn't been to this track in many years - so far back, in fact, that he had to ask me where he would find the Media office. Many of the historic photos on the wall in here, from back in the days of "Le Mans-style" running starts, he was right there with his brother Tony (who was a driver for the Corvette team back then)... he had lots of great memories to share - from a different day, one we'll never quite see in the same way again.

It's now about 09:56 EDT here, and I've got a nice freshly-minted representative from Highcroft Racing begging my attention. Since David Brabham is with the team now, I really should talk with her a bit...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Sebring notes, Day Two

Last night was Sebring's big Gala, and for the second time my buddy Tim and I scored invites and went to have a blast. Unlike last year, I decided there wasn't much harm in having a few drinks - I'm a very self-aware drinker, and know at any time when I'm sufficiently too pissed to drive - so on I went. Several open bars, wall-to-wall babes, lots of delicious gourmet food, more open bars, music everywhere, and still more blazing-hot Florida girls around the place than I could keep track of.

If I lived here, I'd be dead by now.

Tim got about as 'faced as I did - though nowhere near as badly as he did last year. This time, he could at least walk at the end. Anyway, what I hadn't considered was towards the end of the night, I would have an hour-long drive from Sebring to Arcadia, where my hotel is. For anyone who didn't catch yesterday's dispatch, my car lost its clutch somewhere back in North Carolina - and it's not fixing itself.

So, there I am shaking off the drunkest fit I've had in a decade (at least), the muscle aches setting in a bit from the exhaustion of being up and driving a VERY unhappy 5-speed Neon over 1300 miles in the last two days, and now I've gotta' go the last hour to a (hopefully) warm bed to fall into...

The Best Western in Arcadia, FL is... well, it's a place to crash, at least. The bed is too damn soft - and is probably older than me, for that matter. Get Stearns & Foster on the phone, stat.

Today's been mostly good, though -- even though I got to the track incredibly late (I've never shown up after daybreak before, until today), the place is alive and the cars are wonderful music to my ears. Plus, my boss is going to be in town, to promote his brain-child, the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation. I spoke with Peter on the way down here, and some of his ideas for the future of the sport are nothing short of astonishing. He and I have never done a race together, in the six years or so that I've been writing for So, it'll be a first for me.

Oh -- note to O&mdash -- info on the Jetta TDI entry in the World Challenge Series can be found here and here and here. The car has a very distinctive sound, and it's quite fast. My Neon bows to the Chili Pepper TDI's healthy torque.

Speaking of my hobbled little Neon... the plan right now has a gang of sport compact freaks tearing into it once I get back up around Charlotte, NC, either Sunday or Monday. Cross your fingers, eh?

I'll likely cook up another dispatch later on tonight, after Night practice completes at 21:25 EDT.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sebring 2007, Part 1

The drive down from MD to Sebring, if I blast straight down I-95 til I hit Daytona, can take as little as 13h 26m. I've done the trip at that pace, stopping only for routine pit stop stuff. Cup of coffee here, smelly gas station bathroom there, and I get through it quickly.

But this year, for the second time, I agreed to take one of my best friends down to Sebring with me. This is, however, a best friend who no longer lives "about an hour" out of the way. As I found out on my way down, he now lives about FOUR extra hours off the beaten path. I left my house around 9 PM Monday night, and arrived in Sebring just before 9 AM today. Approx 1300 miles logged already.

The extra drive was nice, though, as it took me down I-81 to I-26, just brushing Tennessee and then back into NC through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The drive is one of the most scenic anywhere this side of the Mississippi, and I'm certain that at least one person reading this knows just how breathtaking the scenery can be.

But still, an additional four hours of mountain driving can really take its toll. And so, it did: MY CLUTCH IS GONE.

I can no longer shift using the clutch on my car. If I want to engage reverse, I have to shut the motor off, pop into reverse, restart the motor, back up, shut off, engage 1st gear again, and restart.

So, my second clutch, after barely 90k, is toast. My first clutch out-lasted the transmission itself, still working nicely when the gearbox blew out at 95k. This new clutch, Mopar's "High Torque" model taken from the PT Cruiser, is fried. Broke. Annihilated. And this, after my driving in the last few years has been an exercise in smoothness.

If I had a shop (and some skilled help), the damn thing could be done in a night, parts totaling $250 or so. Instead, the only shop in town that can touch it before next week wants over $600, and takes cash only.

Sorry, I'll drive the fuck outta' the car, and if it dies, I'll deal.

In the meantime, I'm having to drive the car like an old racer without synchros -- literally rev-matching and banging it into each successive gear. This probably isn't doing any real damage to the gearbox, or maybe it is, but I'm past the point of concern. When I get home, I'm finding a good shop and dropping off all of my cars for an extended stay. It's probably gonna' eat my savings whole, but fuck it. I'm gonna' go find an alligator tonight, and punch his fuckin' lights out - and have Tim get it all on video tape.

Oh yeah, I'm at the track and there's lots of cars and some hot chicks and it's fucking hot out.

That's my Wednesday update. Damn car.