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.

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