Monday, October 19, 2009

What I learned out on the road...

Just spent the last few weeks on the road --- first Road Atlanta for Petit Le Mans (and the biggest storm in that area since Sherman), then a brilliant ride out to the Bay Area for my inaugural trip to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Anyone who's read the Petit article, thanks - it was probably one of my better ones. I had fun with it. And anyone who read the most recent one from MRLS, well, I'll just say I had to throw it together, and try to get it sent out in between power outages in Sausalito last week. Not my best journo work, though my photos are getting better by leaps.

When my babe and I first landed at SFO, we were signed up to get a "Wild Car" through Thrifty. Worked well last year, so I hoped for a similar experience. "I can get you Kia Optima, Kia Forte, PT Cruiser..." Hmm, I wouldn't mind a PT, I thought... "or for a couple more dollars, I have Mustang."

Oh, really? And you say you've got my choice of drop-top or hardtop? Let's talk further!

I ended up with a 2009 Mustang, dark red metallic, convertible.

The 4.0L V6 had over 55k on the clock, the body had several scratches and light dents (each and every one documented with the agency), and it had Hawaii license plates. I searched the trunk, however, and found no evidence of Barak Obama's birth certificate.

The only downside to this car, as I saw it, was the lack of a manual gearbox. I asked the rental agent "do you have anything with a stick-shift?" He replied no, they don't have any. "Is everyone in the area handicapped?" I don't think he got the joke, exactly.

The '09 Mustang, for a year-old hire with heavy use (the tires were brand-new BF Goodrich, thankfully), seemed as if it was at least somewhat well-maintained. Oil and other fluids looked OK, brakes felt good, and everything worked as it should. No blown fuses, no burned-out bulbs. Pre-flight cross-check, clear.

Mustang-buddies of mine will be amused that it took me over an hour in the car, before I figured out where the OD kill switch was - and who at Ford ever decided to put it there?

Our ride, which I dubbed "Mustang Sally" got us around downtown San Francisco for the first few days in a manner that would make Steve McQueen proud. Well, it at least would've been cool to Chad McQueen :) In an area with steep hills, you NEED good torque off the line, and you NEED it going to the wheels with the most traction. Aimed uphill, that's gonna' be your rears. Mustang beats all hell in that setting. I didn't make it a point to light up the tires coming off any stoplights, but it was nice knowing I could have.

On the drive to Muir Woods, we encountered some fantastic twisties that exposed the topless car's handling limits - any time you lop the roof off a car designed as a hardtop, it suffers. The 'Stang showed some chassis flex and a little cowl shake, but I was going too fast and eating the curves too quick for it to bother me. Muir Woods was a fantastic walk, and the redwoods there are astonishing.

Part 2 of the fly/drive holiday took us down Highway 1 to Monterey. Now, I've written before that "the 1" is easily the most scenic drive West of the Mississippi, but it seems like an all-new experience every time I run it. Monterey was almost as quiet and laid-back as Sebring -- a very good place to spend some time (and dollars) checking out Cannery Row and sleeping in a nice hotel... but I was really there for the race.

I had already run Laguna Seca hundreds of times on various video games. Gran Turismo has always been about which car you can get to rip through the corkscrew the fastest, so I at least had a decent concept of the track before I got there.

I was not disappointed at all.

From the top of the hill, one can see a clear shot of the corkscrew leading down to turn 9 -- and a few steps back from there, you've got a great view of turns 10, 11, and on through the front to 1 through 3. It helps if you've either got a track cart, or a buddy to give you a lift.

Speaking of - and this is a sign of the times if there ever was one - I gave Greg Creamer a ride from the paddock up to the parking area. I might not have had much good to say about the guy once upon a time, but then I got to know him. True stand-up guy, lotsa' heart, and quite a talent as an announcer.

The races themselves? A blast. Got to see Jim Hall's Chaparrals, and Jim Hall himself. When the spectacular end of the ALMS race went down, I was in the Flying Lizards' pit, talking with one of my friends on their crew. The Speed/SCCA World Challenge races the next day were fun, but by then we were pretty worn out. And my pick in the race, Boris Said, had a rough go of it.

We finished off the deal with a ride back to Sausalito, and checked in at the Inn Above Tide. The place was so nice, we hardly left for the 3 days we were in town. Of course, the fact that the Bay area was having some of the worst storms in decades, helped in that decision. But when you've got a comfy room with a fireplace, right above the San Francisco Bay, you're already where you want to be...

The flight home was, if I can complain, too short. Virgin America still stands as the best airline operating in this promised land, and if I had my way I wouldn't fly any other. I got through a couple of movies, as well as dinner and drinks on the ride home - and only spent four hours in the air from SFO to IAD. Landing at home was the downer, if there was one, but it's still pretty good to be back.

I'll have a ton more pics coming soon.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ending 2009 on a high note: ALMS takes on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca!

“California’s been good to me,

hope it don’t fall into the sea…” – Tom Petty

Salinas, CA –

Years from now, when racing cars will be powered by happy wishes or some form of government-mandated recycled sunshine, we’ll look back on the glory days of racing – when horsepower and driver skill meant everything. The old days, when the test of man and machine was all about speed, danger, and fire shooting from the exhaust pipes – not who could program a vehicle to go round a road course with the least amount of offense to groundhogs and snakes and spotted advertisers.

As we saw this past weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the old days aren’t yet gone. In fact, the horsepower war, even in these supposedly dreadful economic times, is still quite alive and well – and it’s moving nicely into the future.

The track itself is most famous for its palpitation-inducing downhill curve, the Corkscrew. No other race course in North America has a twist quite like it – both challenging to racers and amazing to spectators – it’s the one physical element that makes the track stand out most.

With Audi and Peugeot currently back home in Europe and planning their assaults on Sebring and next year’s Le Mans, the time was right for the American Le Mans Series regulars to finish up their business, run the final race of the year, and get a couple of championships sorted out. The fact that two of the three ALMS classes were not decided until the final race, shows just how close the competition has become.

In the P1 class, of course, we had Acura vs. Acura. Two brilliant teams, Patrón Highcroft and de Ferran Motorsports, both provide Honda Performance Development with a strong case to maintain its presence in the series into the next year. Having split most of the year’s victories between them, the Patrón Highcroft team came in with a points lead over de Ferran – and needed to complete at least 70% of the race in order to seal the deal for 2009.

Meanwhile, Gil de Ferran and his team entered the race with more than the title in mind. Without firm control over the championship, all they could do is go at it the way we do in the good old days – hard, fast, unrelenting. Team owner and driver de Ferran won his first Indy Car race at Laguna Seca, with the ride provided to him by the legendary Jim Hall. Thus, as de Ferran brought his driving career to a close, he turned once again to Mr. Hall – this time with a tribute.

De Ferran’s Acura, typically not what we’d call a very eye-catching machine, was done up in livery closely resembling the “milk white” #66 of Hall’s famous Chapparals. Not only were the Chapparals on-hand for the event, but Mr. Jim Hall himself was at the track – signing autographs, shaking hands, answering questions, and even taking one of his old steeds out for a parade lap.

Timeless and as visually stunning today as they were decades ago, just seeing a Chapparal on the course and hearing it rumble by is a great treat… and something even the kids in the crowd hold in awe.

Meanwhile, in the production-car-derived GT2 class, another championship battle had yet to be resolved. The #45 Flying Lizard Porsche group held a lead over the #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari, and, as with the Highcroft team, needed to complete a certain percentage of the race just to hold on to the title.

Holding on, however, is a relative term. Sometimes, holding on to a bull for 7 seconds is all it takes. Racing four hours in chilly and damp air for a class win – championship or no – is like taking those 7 seconds on the bull and doing it hundreds of times over the span of half a night.

The results spoke for themselves – while Patrón Highcroft won its first ALMS championship by staying out of too much trouble and finishing well, de Ferran started from the pole, took off like a shot, and never looked back. The gorgeous white 66 negotiated every curve flawlessly, and it almost seemed as if Gil de Ferran and co-driver Simon Pagenaud were just along for the ride. Not to take anything away from either driver – both are among the worlds best – but the car looked as if it was on rails around the 2.238 mile circuit.

While de Ferran appeared to coast to an easy victory, the battle in GT2 was as hard fought as anything since… well, the GT2 finish at Sebring a couple of years back. In the closing laps of the race, Jan Magnussen seemingly willed his Corvette Racing C6.RGT to the front of the pack, and gave Flying Lizard Joerg Bergmeister (whom had already wrapped up the GT2 championship during the race) two hands full of a challenge. Mags relentlessly chased the silver and red Flying Lizard Porsche around the track during the last few laps, passing him briefly and then yielding the lead back to Bergmeister, before closing in on the final corner of the last lap. The Corvette nudged the Porsche once or twice, then dove to the narrow gap between the Porsche and the inside retaining wall.

The champion Bergmeister was having none of it, and drove Magnussen into the concrete, before Mags propelled the ‘Vette forward – contact with the Porsche again – and suddenly Mags is hard into the outside wall with the Porsche showing brake lights before taking the checkered flag.

Clearly, these two teams have a rivalry that seems to be mounting with each race – and while the forum fanboys from either side will each assign blame to the other side, the truth is it was racing. Neither driver would yield an inch, and neither one should. You simply can’t manufacture a finish as good as we saw in GT2 at Mazda Raceway the other night – and with the rules for 2010 becoming a bit more consistent, we’re likely to see the same kind of excitement from these two teams all year long.

The one remaining class title, P2, had already been secured during the rain-shortened Petit Le Mans a couple of weeks ago. With the title wrapped-up, Adrian Fernandez and co-driver Luis Diaz brought the Lowe’s Acura to a last-man-standing class win in P2 – hot on the heels of de Ferran, and missing the overall win by just 0.662 sec.

Fernandez was one of the first to sign on when Acura entered the series a few years ago, and has always been a consistent performer. It seems bittersweet that this season, as he finally takes the P2 championship, it’s his last in the series.

Elsewhere in P2, Dyson Racing’s Butch Leitzinger and Marino Franchitti had a great-looking car (the ARCO/Mazdaspeed Lola #20) die suddenly early on, while the team’s second car – the BP-liveried #16 of Chris Dyson, Guy Smith, and Ben Devlin was one of the quickest on the track. The 16 was running a blend of petrol, ethanol, and bio-butanol, and it was fast. Damn fast. And, because the fuel is not yet officially approved for competition, the team’s efforts made for what amounted to a very good test session. Expect to see this alternative fuel OK’d for use in the future, though, as it shows lots of promise.

Off the track, Marino, Butch, Ben, and Guy were being adopted – as those were some of the names given to dogs and cats (as well as other animals) from the local SPCA. It’s no secret that racers love animals, and it seems quite a few tracks have animal shelters close-by, if not across the street. To that end, the Mazdaspeed team took advantage of running on their “home track,” teamed up with the SPCA of Monterey County, and offered a number of animals for adoption who had been named for various drivers, crew, or even Mazda’s corporate motto: “Zoom-Zoom” the cat. A great move by Mazdaspeed, the SPCA, and the fans they helped connect with animals needing good homes.

That’s it until Sebring – I’ll see you at the next pit stop.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Man Plans, God Laughs.

With all of our advancements in technology, sometimes it's easy to become complacent – after all, we have so many toys, so much accumulated knowledge. We have touch-screen everything and cinnamon dental floss... and Google. What could possibly be beyond us in the Internet age?

The answer is simple: We need to control the weather; which I expect we'll get around to, soon after we solve the global economic crisis, famine in Africa, and Bernie Ecclestone.

Last weekend's Petit Le Mans powered by MAZDA6 was set up to be the racing world's version of Ali vs. Frazier - a match the American Le Mans Series and its fans had been waiting for all year. While Audi has unquestionably been at the top of their game for the better part of a decade by now, having won the vast majority of endurance events dating back to the turn of the century, the last two years have seen the emergence of the young lions from France, in the form of Team Peugeot TOTAL. 2008 saw Peugeot bring a hard challenge, though Audi showed the world it was still the great force it had always been. Audi's triumph over Peugeot at last year's 24 Hours of Le Mans has been chronicled masterfully in the film "Truth in 24," one of the best documentaries of auto racing you'll ever see.

Peugeot finally broke through with a fantastic win at Le Mans this year, having gone seemingly overnight from young guns to seasoned vets, and with the addition of hired ace (and multiple Le Mans winner) David Brabham. Having proven they not only have the technological edge of a faster car and top-shelf talent behind the wheel, the last piece of the puzzle - the ability to run full-tilt with no errors on track or in the pits - was finally in place.

Finally, Audi had a worthy competitor to their endurance racing crown.

Yet, for all of the hype surrounding these two teams and their return to American soil to settle their Le Mans-borne grudge, Mother Nature had other plans. Now, sports car racers pride themselves on the ability -- no, the specialty -- of racing in any conditions. Burning hot sun? No problem. Darkness? We've got headlights that work. Heavy rain? Bring it! Wipers and Rain-X were made for this, weren't they? It's what sets the sports car guys apart from NASCAR, a series that has to pack up and go home if the announcers have to break out their umbrellas. Sure, nobody can run an oval in the rain, but as my fiancée recently pointed out "those guys in NASCAR have a hard enough time turning right, so on a wet track that would be a disaster."

But enough about Brian France's Circus of Dwindling Ratings: We came to Atlanta to race, rain or shine.

And race, we did... for just under five hours.

Watching Allan McNish run away from the pack on lap 1, you'd think he was being chased by crazed autograph seekers who had mistaken him for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. McNish flat-out tore away from the field, eager to establish a lead that even the lightning-quick Nic Minassian couldn't touch. The repeat-Petit Le Mans-winning Scot wasted no time getting so far out in front, it looked as if he might just put a full lap on the entire field - the wet track working to the Audi team's benefit, as they've run (and won) in the rain at Le Mans so many times.

Then, the inevitable happened.

Or, to borrow another oft-used metaphor, the wheels fell off - literally. Multiple caution flags flew due to cars simply losing their wheels, most notably the Drayson Racing Lola/Judd, and the Primetime Dodge Viper Competition Coupe. The loose-wheel cautions, combined with a perfectly-timed full-course yellow for the Doran Ford GT's hood flying off (for the second time that day - the first time was during the morning warm-up), played right into Peugeot's hands.

As the track began to dry after the morning downpour (the first in Petit Le Mans history), the twin Peugeot 908 HDi FAP cars were able to get traction and cut into the Audi team's lead, lap after lap.

No sooner did Peugeot gain the lead, the inevitable happened, again. The rain that had caused so much disaster in Atlanta and the surrounding areas during the previous week, returned with a vengeance. The rainfall itself would not be enough to stop the action, but the flooding across the track at various points - standing water deep enough to be impassable by race cars - caused the first Red flag in Petit Le Mans history. Just under 5 hours into what would have almost certainly been a full 10 hour race, the cars were parked on pit road while track officials fought Mother Nature. A huge disappointment for the racers, the fans, the series, the track, SPEED channel - everyone involved.

Of course, it didn't take long at all for thousands of FaceSpaces and Tweety-pages to fill with angry voices, complaining of every conspiracy imaginable: The track or the series was trying to cut things short, for some idiotic reason. Michelin had provided "good" tires to one team, and "bad" tires to another. All of it absolute bullshit, without a doubt. Michelin was forced to issue a press release, stating that no, the ALMS has exact rules governing wet tire specs, and ALL of the LMP1 teams were running on the same spec tire. For Michelin to have to defend itself during a race, shows that some of the "wonderful" internet-related technology we've all come to embrace, has its downside.

The Red flag period lasted nearly as long the race itself, as the flooding was so immense, there was no way to continue. There simply was nowhere for the water to go, with all of the water runoff areas overflowing -- even the Media center was overcome with water, though that was quickly and efficiently remedied by a combination of helpful staff and an inventive idea or two. Coupled with the torrential rain was occasional thunder and lightning, the latter of which is a show-stopper in any series.

Alas, a bit after 8 PM, the checkered flag was waved, and the race declared complete. The result of racing's Ali vs. Frazier was, arguably, a split decision. Peugeot's Franck Montagny and Stephane Sarrazin scored the win (with their teammates Nic Minassian and Pedro Lamy second), but nobody had much to celebrate. We will now wait for Sebring – pending Audi and Peugeot announcing their intent – to see the now even-longer-awaited rematch.

Man planned, and God laughed.

Now, that said, there was no shortage of outstanding action and notable events that DID take place during the week: Following an absolutely disastrous crash of the Patrón Highcroft Acura (which left driver Scott Sharp amazingly free of serious injury) the team immediately ordered up a spare tub to be sent from their shop in California. Forget the obvious staggering freight bill to overnight the monocoque - the cost to the team to skip the race would have been absolutely prohibitive. Many of you reading this, have already seen the crash on Speed TV and Youtube.

If you haven't seen the time-lapse video of the Highcroft team building the car from tub to complete racer in a mere 20 hours, you're missing out. That video, released by Highcroft during race day, shows just what can happen when a real team gets down to work and doesn't stop to breathe until the last bolt is tightened to spec. The effort these guys showed was absolutely epic, and it paid off with a solid 6th place finish - one which likely would have been higher, had the race gone the full run.

The BP Dyson Mazda/Lola team in P2 scored a victory in more ways than one. Not only was it the first Petit Le Mans win for Dyson Racing, but also for Mazda - making Mazda the first Japanese manufacturer to win both the Le Mans 24 Hours, as well as Petit Le Mans. A second Dyson Mazda was entered, though not scored, because it was running an experimental fuel. The mix of gasoline, ethanol and biobutanol seemed to propel the car around the circuit at least as well (if not better) than most of the other petrol-powered cars, adding further credibility to ALMS' goal of leading the way in alternative fuels and 'green racing'. In fact, the alt-fuel car finished far ahead of the other cars in P2. Fuel for thought.

That the race was sponsored by Mazda6, is just more pride for the company that seems to be more deeply vested in sports car racing than any other. Rather than throw millions of dollars at NASCAR and F1 (yes, that's you, Toyota), Mazda's sponsorship and backing of sports cars - from grassroots to the Le Mans level - is highly commendable. The same goes for their open wheel program, with the Skip Barber series, Star Mazda series, and Cooper Tires presents Mazda Atlantic series as well.

In the same breath, it's impossible to look at the last endurance race of 2009 and not recognize the Corvette Racing team. For all of the media-fed derision of the biggest car company on Earth (depending on what week it is and whose numbers you believe) this year, GM's commitment to keep the Corvettes a top-flight operation is proof that the company's still got all the mojo it needs - at least when it comes to its racing program.
On the other hand, privateer Primetime Viper racing manages to soldier on without so much as acknowledgement of its very existence from Dodge.

Speed Channel deserves a nod, for finally having the good sense to agree to air the entire race flag-to-flag. Of course, because Mother Nature had her own agenda for last Saturday, much of the coverage was dashed. Still, it was the right move, and it will still be the right move next year. Keep doing it right, Speed.

The latest entry into the SPEED/SCCA World Challenge Series is the stunning TRG Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren 722 GT. The car isn't yet winning races, but the visuals and sounds of this beast are absolutely devastating. The engine is said to be a 5.5L V8, driven by pistons. It sounds, however, as if it's driven by the angry tortured souls of a thousand Prussian warriors. Get out of its way, before it eats you.

The staff at Road Atlanta and the American Le Mans Series have certainly suffered tons of undue criticism, thanks to circumstances beyond the control of any human beings. Their handling of the situation, however, was the best anyone could hope for. These are true professionals at work, and their ability to respond to adversity is worthy of sincere praise.

Speaking of which...

Last and far from least, long-time IMSA Pit Chief Dick Martin announced at Petit le Mans that he intends to retire at year's end. In a meeting on Thursday, he made it clear that this wasn't due to illness or disagreement with the sanctioning body -- he just wants to do other things and enjoy life while he's young enough and in good enough health. Over the years of covering the sport, it's rare to find anyone so universally respected and genuinely loved by everyone from the paddock to the corners to the announcer's booth. I'm not the only one who wishes him the best in this life, whatever he chooses to do. Thank you, Mr. Martin.

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