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.

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