Category Archives: From A Continental Correspondent

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A Primer on Sports Car Racing – Part Two

In the second part of his survey of the endurance motorsport scene, János Wimpffen considers the leading organisations in European GT racing, SRO, Creventic and VLN.

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The Stéphane Ratel Organisation is now the granddaddy of European GT racing. Its antecedents go back to the BPR (Barth-Peter-Ratel) Global GT Series which began in 1994 and most famously provided the framework for the long-lived FIA GT Championship. After having lost its World Championship status SRO became semi-independent from the FIA which has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

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SRO, through its former European GT3 Championship, was responsible for carving out a niche for the GT3 class and it has become the sole category for what has bifurcated into two quite different series. The present form of the Sprint Series began in 2010 and consists of two races during the weekend. The main function of the Qualifying Race, typically held on Saturday, is to set the grid for the Main Race. Both are one hour in length with pit stops and driver changes taking place during a mandated ten-minute mid-race window.

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The SRO Sprint series is the most creative of all sports car series in testing the waters at some rather unique venues, including street courses in Baku and Moscow.

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The SRO Endurance Series primarily consists of three hour races with the Spa-Francorchamps 24 Hours as the season’s centerpiece. In many ways the Endurance championship is the spiritual successor to BPR as it caters largely to “gentleman” drivers. While the technical formula for both series is based on GT3, there are subsidiary classes reserved for non-pro rosters called Pro-Am and Am (Silver Cup in the Sprint Series).

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The Blancpain sponsored Endurance Series has grown into a very rich forum displaying all of the current GT3 machinery. New models for 2015 include the Lamborghini Hurracan and the McLaren 650S. Many other marques are currently circulating such as Audi, Aston Martin, Bentley, BMW Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Nissan, Porsche, and Jaguar—the last being represented only by a troubled, privately built car.

Entries for the Endurance Series have frequently exceeded 60 cars but the Sprint Series rarely has made it to two dozen. The short races do offer no holds barred cut-and-thrust battles. It is rare for the entire field to make it through the opening lap unscathed. That expectancy of carnage is one reason why some teams have balked and run primarily in the endurance rounds. Orthodox sports car fans may balk at one-hour races being considered a major event but the made-for-TV / video game format has a special type of appeal. Both of the SRO series have exclusive agreements with Pirelli.

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The Dutch based Creventic Organisation has emerged as another major player on the European scene. They have been managing the Dubai 24 Hours since 2006 and this race has steadily risen in prominence, becoming a wintertime jaunt for European runners. Creventic expanded the concept a bit with a loose series begun in 2008 and this year the all-Hankook shod 24 Hour Series has become a full-fledged FIA championship. Despite the title, many of the rounds are actually 12 hour races. The fields for Creventic races are an eclectic mix of GT, Touring and silhouette specials. Overall winners at Creventic races invariably are built GT3 specs. Called A6, they are slightly altered and frequently must run above a reference lap time—a variation on the BOP theme.

2014 Nurburgring 24

There are important endurance races which are independent of any series. The chief European example would be the Nürburgring 24 Hours. For most of this race’s 30 plus year existence it was primarily a gigantic German club race.

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Many of teams in its almost preposterous starting fields of nearly 200 cars still fit the mold of club racers and come from the ranks of slower GT and Touring categories. However, the sharp end of GT3 (called SP9-GT3) has inexorably become the domain of the major factory teams and has been fiercely contested of late by BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. Further afield in Australia, the Bathurst 12 Hours has taken on a similar role as the antipode’s most significant independent GT endurance race.

A Primer on Sports Car Racing – 2015 – Part One

Our old friend János Wimpffen has agreed to share his wisdom with us here on DDC………this is the first of (hopefully) many despatches from the front.

2015 Le Mans Test

This is the first of series of reports which in cyber-terminology may be labeled as a “blog”. Much like others blogs it will be cumulative effort, building up from the start. It will have the elements of a travelogue, with commentary on local customs as well as more traditional race reportage—albeit in a more summary form. The objective is not to provide a lap-by-lap or hour-by-hour accounting of an event. Other sites do that, ranging from merely adequate to exemplary. Rather, a key point is to convey the atmosphere of a race meeting, offering some grander perspective on proceedings. But such embellishment is not being submitted merely for dispassionate pleasure but rather to position each race within the rather broad tent that defines contemporary sports car racing.

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To this end, we begin with what might be termed as a primer on the state of this branch of the motor racing discipline, circa 2015. The tone is to aim for a comfortable middle ground. Often, race reportage presumes that one is already familiar with the cadence of each series, conversant with the names of the teams and drivers, and aware of all the subtleties of rules and technical changes. We will not presume that, nor will we presume that the reader will necessarily be riding on every last nuance of detail. Instead, what we do postulate that since you, Dear Reader, are here—you are already a great fan of sports car racing, only that you are content to be familiar with the general trends. In such manner, there should be nuggets of enjoyment here, regardless of your ongoing level of interest and monitoring of each race and series.

2015 FIA WEC Ricard Test

Sports car racing, for many of its decades of history, has been subject to that old admonishment, “may you live in interesting times.” It is arguable as where exactly the 2015 season sits along the spectrum of interesting to dull, but clearly the tendency is towards the fascinating end.

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The WEC has truly become global in scope and following, meeting or exceeding most expectations. The other series had at various times made forays into having a broader geographical reach but with the advent of the WEC they are all comfortably ensconced within a continental or regional framework.

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The most senior of these series and the most stable is the European Le Mans Series. Its origins were in the early noughties and ELMS has LM P2 as its headline class. The LM P2 category has come a long way over the course of a decade. It began purely as support to LM P1 and was always intended for privateer entrants. It still has that approach but LM P2 has matriculated from a “last man (barely) standing” into a consistent pattern of close, reliable racing at a very high level of professionalism. LM P2 shares a trait that many such classes have exhibited in the past. There was a time when the category was populated by a very colorful array of chassis and engine combinations. Over time a few key constructors have risen to the fore, in particularly Oreca, which dominates numerically as does the Nissan engine. Ligier and the Onroak-built Morgan, along with the BMW derived Judd motors have added variety and genuine heft to the class. They have been joined this year by the Gibson marque, which is actually the reincarnation of Zytek, the car itself a descendant of Reynard, by YGK and DBA (not at all confusing).

2015 Le Mans 24 Hours

 

Three GT classes can be seen in the ELMS and as with all other series; Grand Touring is in rude health. For past decade or so there have been three developments that have cemented GT’s popularity and close racing. First and perhaps foremost has been the emergence of GT3. These cars follow fairly tight homologation standards, are designed to be user friendly—read, good for novice and gentleman drivers, and are subject to the often controversial Balance of Performance standards. BOP’s aim is to regulate that no model exerts undue advantage for too long. Purists may bemoan that BOP goes against the grain of motor sport as being a contest for improved technology, but few can argue with results showing some thrilling contests. Of course, those at the short end of a BOP adjustment will complain—but such wailing has been with us since well before board tracks. BOP is practiced across a variety of classes and series and is the second pillar of GT’s ascendancy. It is manifested on cars largely through playing with aerodynamic features, widening and narrowing inlet air restrictors, fuel capacity, and occasionally through using ballast weights.

2015 ELMS Silverstone

The third major development over the past decade has been the introduction of driver classification systems. Depending upon experience, age, and history of success, drivers are rated as Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Bronze. Each series and each class then employs rules as to the mix required on the roster and for minimum/maximum times behind the wheel. Perhaps paradoxically after having noted the importance of GT3, it plays no role in the FIA WEC and is only one of the two GT classes in ELMS.

2015 ELMS Imola

There is an altogether new “budget” class in the ELMS for 2015, LMP3. Chassis specifications are quite restricted with Ginetta being the first to build to the regulations. All cars use identical 5.0-liter Nissan engines. ELMS race are uniformly four hours in duration.

2015 FIA WEC Spa

Most importantly, after 20 years in the wilderness, endurance racing has a World Championship, a platform for manufacturers to applying their technology and marketing. Now in its fourth season, the FIA World Endurance Championship is thriving. It has become the nexus of the most technologically advanced racing vehicles found anywhere. With three manufacturers (and a fourth if Nissan doesn’t fall flat) there is competition at the highest level in the hybrid based LM P1 class. The undercard of the LM P2 and GTE classes is as good as ever. Once again the Le Mans 24 Hours is part of the Championship—although the French classic has always more than adequately held up most of the sports car racing sky even when running to an independent formula. The FIA WEC hews to a very consistent schedule of locations and race lengths, with six hours being the norm apart from Le Mans. Classic European venues are matched further abroad by important new locales like the Circuit of the Americas in Texas, Shanghai, and Bahrain as well as the return of the venerable Fuji.

2015 FIA WEC Ricard Test

While it is vital to introduce and position the FIA WEC at the pinnacle of sports car racing there were no races attended during these particular outings. One of the attributes that sets the current era apart from the last time that there was a bona fide world championship (1992 and before) was that back then it was pretty much the only game in town. Yes, IMSA GTP was quite significant during the 1980s, albeit only in North America, but there wasn’t the plethora of other major events as there is now. This is partly the legacy of the lack of a world series during the intervening period. It allowed such players as IMSA, Grand-Am, SRO, ELMS, and (on a more fractured basis) some Asian series to cycle through, have their own apogees and perigees, and leave a lasting influence on sports car racing in general.

János Wimpffen, July 2015

 

“25 Or 6 To 4”

The internet is a wondrous thing, every day some fresh delight is discovered on the screen. A few weeks or so ago, I had this excellent piece in from our old friend Janos Wimpffen, the Sage of Seattle. It describes a true “back our roots” endeavour, the Thunderhill 25. Enjoy…………..

Never Flagging

Never Flagging

Welcome to the ultimate “run what you brung” endurance race. Set in the desert hills just above the Sacramento Valley and about 100 miles north and east of the Bay Area, this 2.86-mile rolling 15-turn course has hosted this wacky twice round the clock + 1 hour club event since 2003, and a 12-hour variation before that. It has grown in stature since then, adding a smattering of quasi-works entries and a growing list of pro drivers. However, it has done so without ever compromising a casual feel that is the antithesis of Daytona and Le Mans. Press credentials?—you don’t need no stinking press credentials, show up, sign the release, and wander the paddock. Got a team to enter? Wad up some coat hangers into a roll bar and bring your car, we’ll find a class for it. Well ok, it’s not that casual, but you get the idea.

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The race is sanctioned by NASA, not the people who run the Space Station, but rather the National Auto Sport Association, a growing group that has given the rather stuffy SCCA a competitive run with a mix of track days, timed runs, and wheel-to-wheel series across numerous regional divisions. The Thunderhill 25 is the club’s centerpiece event. The track’s California location means that even with an early December date, mild weather can be expected. Such was not the case with the 2013 edition. A lingering cold front hung over the west coast, bringing heavy rain to the more southerly San Joaquin Valley, snow in the surrounding Mendocino hills, and very cold but clear weather in and around the nearby town of Willows. The long December night assured hours run at or below freezing temperatures.

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The 60-car entry was divided into six classes. The fastest, ESR, consisted of two Suzuki powered Radicals, a supremely fast Wolf-Ford, a Norma-BMW, a Spec Racer Ford, a Mazda powered special, and two strange homemade tubeframe open cars built around BMW components—sort of a FrankenBMW mated with the old Cannibal of WSC days.

Big Name, Big Hope. The extremely fast but highly fragile sports-racers have rarely survived long at Thunderhill. The addition little Al and even littler Al was not enough for the Wolf as its engine went out while fighting for the lead.

Big Name, Big Hope. The extremely fast but highly fragile sports-racers have rarely survived long at Thunderhill. The addition little Al and even littler Al was not enough for the Wolf as its engine went out while fighting for the lead.

While rising star Ivan Bellarosa was the fast man in the No. 52 Wolf, and ultimately set the pole time, two of his teammates represented one of the most famous families in American motor racing—Al Unser, Jr., and his son, Al III. The Norma had Randy Pobst, Michael Valiante, and Brian Frisselle on the roster while the other Davidson Racing entry, a Ford powered coupe called the DR, had Burt Frisselle and Mark Wilkins, names familiar to most sports car fans.
The DR was actually in the ES class which consisted of a mix of closed top prototypes, proper GTs, and the hottest of the touring car brigade. Burt Frisselle put the No. 16 DR Eagle on the class pole, followed by another American iron V8 car, the Superlite SLC with Michael Skeen leading the charge. Next up was the No. 00 Porsche 997 GT3 Cup entered jointly by Award Motorsports and all-around GT man Pierre Ehret. They were defending champions and were crewed by several people fresh from Flying Lizard Motorsports. Tyler McQuarrie, Memo Gidley, Vic Rice and Lizard crew chief Tommy Sadler were among the drivers.

Early Christmas Present. It was a low key family and friends affair, made festive for the season. The Bay Area based Acura overcame some wheel and suspension issues to finish a fine second in a very competitive class.

Early Christmas Present. It was a low key family and friends affair, made festive for the season. The Bay Area based Acura overcame some wheel and suspension issues to finish a fine second in a very competitive class.

ES was a most spectacular mix of cars. Three older Porsches and a pair of BMWs represented the more conventional entries. Lexus USA made a foray into endurance racing with an IS F while an Audi TT RS from German based Rotek Racing was one of several international entries at the 2013 race. Another car from far flung regions was the No. 11 Seat Leon Supercopa of the Aussie-Kiwi consortium, Motorsport Services. They have been regulars at such 24 races as Dubai and Barcelona. SCCA World Challenge entrants GMG brought an Audi R8 LMS to round out the most competitive cars in the ES class. To this must be added an only at Thunderhill entry, the No. 66 Chevrolet Silverado pick-up truck. It is actually a 13-year old tubeframe chassis built for short track ovals and gradually modified to run reasonably well on road courses. Another oddity was an ancient Mazda RX-3, running an early 1980s vintage high-end 12A two-rotor motor. A Panoz Esperante and another V8 powered prototype coupe, the DP look-alike Factory Five, completed the class.

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The contents of the remaining classes were a bit closer to normal, although there too the Thunderhill quirkiness could be seen. The starters in the E0 class were all BMW sedans with a Mustang Boss 302 tossed in for good measure. Several Acuras, Lexus, and a Honda S2000 populated E1. Strangest in this group was another car built for ovals, a tubeframe Camaro. The strongest factory presence was also in E1 where three Mazda 6 diesels were in the mix. These were stock production cars unlike the SpeedSource built cars that ran in Grand-Am during 2013. Mazdaspeed billed it as two dealer cars versus a single factory entry. They also had an express target of going the distance on one set of tires. As a result their lap times were as conservative as one could imagine. The drivers tended to only use the top two gears, enabling the diesel’s fine torque to gain momentum.

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There were four privateer Mazdas in the E2 class. These include two later generation Miatas and two rotary powered cars, an RX-8 and a RX-7. Another international entry garnered considerable attention. It was the Spoon Racing Honda CR-Z hybrid. The crew came mostly from Japan’s endurance series, Super Taikyu and had veteran Naoki Hattori as the lead driver plus Japanese drifting champion Daijiro Yoshihara learning how not to slide a car. Mazda Miatas are historically the single most popular model at the Thunderhill 25 Hours and all but one of the nine starters in the E3 class was a popular MX-5. The outlier was a Honda Fit.

Thunderhills Indeed. The Fantasy Junction Acura heads downhill on the back portion of the course. Despite some cloudy periods, there was no natural thunder in the cold, dry hills.

Thunderhills Indeed. The Fantasy Junction Acura heads downhill on the back portion of the course. Despite some cloudy periods, there was no natural thunder in the cold, dry hills.

The weekend schedule had open testing on Thursday and a long free practice session on Friday. During these periods there were any number of extra cars circulating. Most of the Miata teams had spare cars while cars from the western regional Radical series were employed to give extra seat time to their team drivers.

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A single 30-minute qualifying period the night before the race decided the grid. It took place into sunset so that relatively few teams took it seriously for speed as they were mostly intent on night time settings. A good set of headlights are supremely important at Thunderhill as when the sun goes down the desert is well and truly dark—and very, very cold.

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Bellarosa’s time in the Wolf of 1:37.662 was not only the fastest overall, but nearly 5 seconds clear of all rivals. Burt Frisselle in the Davidson Racing DR also had nearly the same gap on his ES class rivals, the Superlite being second fastest. The fastest “production” car was in tenth overall, the No. 86 tubeframe Camaro driven by California oval track man, Mike David. The Fantasy Junction racing Acura of Spencer Trenery was nearly nine seconds back, second in the E1 class. The remaining three classes had much narrower gaps between first and second. The Pure Performance BMW of Brett Strom edged a similar M3, while the newest of the rotaries, the Team RDR Mazda RX-8 of Dennis Holloway edged the No. 7 BMW in E2. Somewhat predictably, the closest contest was in the near-spec E3 class where the No. 05 Miata of Sonny Watanasirisuk was less than a second ahead of the identical No. 35 Spare Parts Racing Mazda.
One pre-race favorite that missed qualifying was the No. 08 Audi R8 LMS. Drew Regitz backed into a wall early during practice. The damage at first seemed severe but a long thrash revealed that only some suspension components and bodywork needed replacing on the left rear. Alex Welch was able to make the start from the back of the grid.

More or Less Equals.  Three V8-powered prototypes lead a trio of Porsches, representing the top of the grid at the start. Behind them is the eventual class winning Radical and the overall winning Audi.

More or Less Equals. Three V8-powered prototypes lead a trio of Porsches, representing the top of the grid at the start. Behind them is the eventual class winning Radical and the overall winning Audi.

A relatively balmy 41 degrees F greeted the starting field. The 11:00 o’clock starting procedure is a bit unusual in that in consists of one pace lap that returns via pit lane, then another standard formation lap, and finally the green flag. Even before the start there was trouble with the Norma. Brian Frisselle brought it in with an oil leak. Several more stops ensued before the engine expired. Another quick runner, Mike David in the Camaro, also became a chronic early pit caller. Their clutch linkage problems would be solved after some delays.
It has become somewhat axiomatic at Thunderhill that the prototypes will run clear of the production cars in the early going but then fade and retire before yielding to production type cars. At least one of these predictions nearly came true in the opening lap when Ivan Bellarosa spun at Turn 1 of Lap 1—a near repeat of a year earlier.

Extreme Endurance Spirit. The PTG (yes, that PTG) entered Factory Five quasi-DP looking prototype caught fire on the four lap of the race. Any sane team would have gone home and warmed up. But at Thunderhill sanity parks at the gate and the team spent over 20 hours rebuilding the car, finishing the race just a tad behind the leaders.

Extreme Endurance Spirit. The PTG (yes, that PTG) entered Factory Five quasi-DP looking prototype caught fire on the four lap of the race. Any sane team would have gone home and warmed up. But at Thunderhill sanity parks at the gate and the team spent over 20 hours rebuilding the car, finishing the race just a tad behind the leaders.

The Wolf recovered at the tail of the field while Mike Skeen slipped by into the lead with the Superlite. However, he either couldn’t or didn’t hold off a charge by Burt Frisselle and on lap 4 the No. 16 DR took the lead. Less than 8 minutes in came the first full-course caution. Another prototype, the No. 4 Factory Five of Davy Jones started an internal barbecue in the engine compartment at Turn 10. Incredibly, the team attempted to rebuild the car, awaiting a new engine to be shipped in from Stockton while rewiring most of the rear portion of the car. They returned to the race at 10:30 on Sunday, meaning that their third lap clocked in at about 22-1/2 hours—a true zombie effort.
Almost simultaneous to the fire, Ryan O’Connor ground to a halt with the Retro Racing RX-3. It was towed in for the first of two engine changes to its little rotary—tows and motor changes are allowed in NASA space. By the way, their team is retro in more ways than one. The team’s strategy guru is Jerry Hull, who in the early 80s was the crew chief for IMSA GTU champion Dave Kent’s Racing Beat Mazda team.

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Two cars effectively started the race 30 minutes late, the throttle challenged No. 86 Camaro and the No. 44 BMW E46 of V. j. Mirzayan which was unable to fire up on the grid. The team was clueless as to why, but suddenly it started running like nothing happened, until later it died as if it never ran—the mysteries of auto electronics. Cooling system problems would eventually kill the car—ironic given the frigid weather.

Winter becomes Eclectic. These were just two of the weirder entrires. The open top pseudo BMW was one of two similar homebuilt cars—completed only a week or so before the race. The Silverado pickup led for many hours in 2012. Neither car finished.

Winter becomes Eclectic. These were just two of the weirder entrires. The open top pseudo BMW was one of two similar homebuilt cars—completed only a week or so before the race. The Silverado pickup led for many hours in 2012. Neither car finished.

Two cars were genuine non-starters, both with engine maladies. The No. 19 Lang Racing BMW M3 team went home while several of the drivers from the No. 21 N1 Racing Lexus IS300 switched to the team’s No. 79 IS250
Malcolm Niall pitted the Down Under Seat early on. The team would henceforth have a mostly backsliding race of good charges interspersed with long stops. It was a somewhat better saga for Alex Welch in the Audi R8. It was generally forward progress from the back of the field, with several minor delays along the way. The most remarkable recovery was by the Wolf, up to second overall by the 40 minute mark.

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Bellarosa remained on a tear and took back the lead on Lap 19 after turning in a fast round of 1:39.660. He remained in first through to the end of his scheduled stint, handing over to team owner Miles Jackson. This handed the lead back to the Superlite, which was driven in succession by Darrell Anderson, Tim R. Bell, and Chris Durbin.

The Frostbite 25. Keeping warm was the main priority all weekend. The Facotry 48 Radical strikes a pose during practice. It finished second in the sports-racing class, with only three of seven starters making it to the flag.

The Frostbite 25. Keeping warm was the main priority all weekend. The Facotry 48 Radical strikes a pose during practice. It finished second in the sports-racing class, with only three of seven starters making it to the flag.

Another prototype, the No. 48 Radical began a series of unscheduled stops, compounded with the first of several penalty box visits for passing under the yellow. NASA rules are quite strict about transgressions with each subsequent violation incurring ever longer sentences. It became routine by about the 4-5 hour mark to see cars held for as long as 10 minutes at the end of pit lane.
The No. 22 may have been an ersatz BMW, but it suffered from a problem very typically associated with the rear-wheel drive marque, a broken differential. It would later stop with the same problem during the night hours. A more standard BMW, the No. 33 Bavarian Tuning Motorsport M3 of Billy Maher had terminal misfire problems, completing only a handful of laps across several hours. There was much discouragement within the Fresch Motorsport team (No. 32 BMW 325is). One driver was a no-show and they were unable to close negotiations with two other drivers to join them. With only Thomas Lepper and Jarrett Freeman, Jr. left on the roster, they completed a few stints and then packed up.

ALMS Memory Lane. Here’s a tribute to Don Panoz. Thanks for bringing us 15 years of some of America’s finest sports car racing. Like this Esperanate, it was not always perfect, but it was fun.

ALMS Memory Lane. Here’s a tribute to Don Panoz. Thanks for bringing us 15 years of some of America’s finest sports car racing. Like this Esperanate, it was not always perfect, but it was fun.

The Panoz became another paddock dweller, replacing the clutch slave cylinder. They also fell afoul of the circuit’s strict noise limitation (a frequent issue for several V8 powered cars).
The No. 16 DR began a long series of woes, including a broken exhaust, a split c.v. joint, and a collapse of the rear wing assembly. It then began to regularly toss alternator belts. Well into the night the Davidson Racing team finally threw in the towel, with both of their entries (the Norma was the other) meeting their maker.

Old Time GT Racing. A tube frame Camaro is dicing with the Flying Lizard run Porsche. No. 86 was a short-track racer converted to road courses and was fast in between long bouts of endless problems. The Pierre Ehret driven Porsche was the 2012 winner and led again for several hours before retiring at half-distance with a broken gearbox.

Old Time GT Racing. A tube frame Camaro is dicing with the Flying Lizard run Porsche. No. 86 was a short-track racer converted to road courses and was fast in between long bouts of endless problems. The Pierre Ehret driven Porsche was the 2012 winner and led again for several hours before retiring at half-distance with a broken gearbox.

The No. 68 Mazda Miata had but two listed drivers, Bill Brown and Tony Heyer. They are Thunderhill 25 perennials and epitomize the wackiness of the race. The team’s “strategy” is to race till sunset, and then head into town for a leisurely steak dinner. Then after a nightcap it was time to curl up at the motel. Refreshed following a shower, the ultra-civilized duo saunter back to the track in the hills an hour or so before sunrise and finish the race. Brown noted, “We usually finish mid-pack without really trying.” This year was a bit different. The wheel hub broke out on the course and the team realized that repairs may require them to miss their dinner reservations. They knew their priorities, a convivial supper and slumber took precedence over continuing in the race.
Three short safety car periods came in succession before 15:00, six hours elapsed time. Each was for retrieving various stranded cars. Al Unser, Jr. took over the leading Wolf just before 15:00 and immediately following the last of these neutralizations set the race’s fast lap at 1:37.789. The legend hadn’t lost his touch.

One Less. The Mazda Miata MX-5 is the single most popular production based racer in the world and they made up a good percentage of the entry at Thunderhill. Slow but reliable—well, ok, not this one.

One Less. The Mazda Miata MX-5 is the single most popular production based racer in the world and they made up a good percentage of the entry at Thunderhill. Slow but reliable—well, ok, not this one.

The friendly intra-Mazdaspeed contest swung in favor of the two dealer cars when the No. 70 factory entry had to be towed back with left front damage after the crew failed to properly torque the wheel—self-inflicted wound there. The team lost a half-hour making repairs. Others with delays were the No. 03 Superlite (short-ish pit penalty) and the No. 74 BMW which stopped on course with electrical issues. Almost unnoticed, the No. 24 Audi TT began a slow climb past other production cars and the various troubled prototypes. The No. 9 factory Lexus also climbed through the standings, but a little less steadily with several unscheduled stops, including a puncture and a slow return to the pits. The Seat’s climb was interrupted by some continuing electrical issues.
The Wolf came in for what seemed to be a routine stop just before the late autumn sun began to dip. In the desert, when the sun drops it is like turning off a light switch. Darkness comes rapidly. This was a problem for the Wolf as their headlights, bright at first, dimmed as rapidly as the sky. Its electrics were clearly not recharging and the team had to make several visits back to the garage area to make repairs. This passed the lead back to the No. 03 Superlite.
The E1 class turned towards the various Acuras in the field although the No. 5 Fantasy Junction RSX-S did not share in this joy as they were replacing part of the clutch assembly.

Frankenbimmer.  For those tired of look-alike GT3 race grids, come to Thunderhill. Only here will you see weird things such as BMW based car built over the Thanksgiving day weekend. Yes, the homely Acura ran better.

Frankenbimmer. For those tired of look-alike GT3 race grids, come to Thunderhill. Only here will you see weird things such as BMW based car built over the Thanksgiving day weekend. Yes, the homely Acura ran better.

A main contender for overall honors, the No. 00 Porsche, had a setback when Anthony Lazzaro backed into a tire wall and the team lost about 20 minutes doing bodywork. Having bog stock production cars in the field results in some rather mundane maladies. Such was the case with the No. 62 E0 class BMW 330 of Melhill Racing. They had a leaky dipstick tube. An important E1 class runner, the No. 79 Lexus, lost time with weak front brakes. One of the lesser Porsches, the No. 29 TruSpeed entry (another ALMS based team) had a broken stub axle.
The first safety car interruption in over four hours occurred at 19:20. It was a rather serious matter when Dan Riley’s No. 20 RX-7 was clipped by another car, spun, and was then t-boned. Riley reported some neck pain and the turn marshals took extra care removing him from the heavily damaged Mazda. During this long 50-minute interruption there was a light moment in the garages. The No. 07 Mazda Miata had a broken clutch pedal and a neighboring crew offered a spare from one of the seemingly dozens of spare Miatas scattered in the paddock. The team finished installing it just as the owner of the donor car arrived on the scene, screaming that he hadn’t permitted the loan and wanted it back on the spot. A mechanic for No. 07 happened to be face down / feet up under the dash making the switch. He wrestled the borrowed part back out and brandished it back to the owner with comments appropriate to the momentary absence of sportsmanship in the otherwise friendly club race.
Another short full-course caution at 21:04 was needed to retrieve the No. 48 Radical which had a small engine fire. It was towed back in and after a rapid 30 minute garage call a new Hayabusa-Suzuki was installed. Three more short neutralizations took place before midnight, all for minor stalls and course blockages. At the top the Superlite continued unabated. They built up a three-lap lead which was frozen in place for most of the night hours. This was an apt metaphor, given that temperatures had fallen well below freezing (18 F and windy, brrr).

Early Race Traffic

Early Race Traffic

Positions remained steady state for several hours, which is endurance racing journalist speak for saying that finding a warm spot to take a nap was in order. The most important retirement during this period was the No. 00 Porsche—broken gearbox. They had earlier made repairs to it, but later problems proved terminal. The No. 52 Wolf had a very good run, recovering to second overall. The No. 24 Audi TT RS climbed to third thanks to a continued mostly untroubled run, only a few self-inflicted penalties costing them time. The No. 08 Audi R8 LMS also rose, hovering around fourth before again making a lengthy stop. There were four notably consistent runs; the No. 83 Barrett Racing Porsche, the heretofore unheralded No. 38 Radical, the No. 27 Honda Research West Acura, and the No. 18 Mustang. All made it into the top ten by dint of thus far untroubled runs. The No. 9 Lexus also returned to this fold after earlier problems with a c.v. boot. But the most remarkable of all was the No. 05 Mazda Miata. The 949 Racing team not only led the E3 class but was in exalted 10th overall at 04:00. The Silverado pick-up had led this race in 2012 but their 2013 race was far more troubled. They spent much of the night period replacing the gearbox.

Blue Lite Special. The Superlite thoroughly dominated the first half of the race. Too bad for them that it wasn’t 12 hours in length.

Blue Lite Special. The Superlite thoroughly dominated the first half of the race. Too bad for them that it wasn’t 12 hours in length.

There were two significant pre-dawn neutralizations. The first, at 04:05—10th full-course caution of the race, occurred when the Wolf was hit and then had a brake failure. Even more importantly, at 05:10 the Superlite came to stop with a catastrophic steering failure. Chris Durbin struggled to bring the car back to the pits but had to pull off course. Suddenly, the car which had been leading overall since sunset was forced to retire.

Yin and Yang. The Rotek Audi TT emerged in front when the prototypes wilted, and then never looked back. Late in the race it is putting one of 77 extra laps on the RJ Racing Miata—winner of the nearly all-Miata E3 class.

Yin and Yang. The Rotek Audi TT emerged in front when the prototypes wilted, and then never looked back. Late in the race it is putting one of 77 extra laps on the RJ Racing Miata—winner of the nearly all-Miata E3 class.

In proper Thunderhill style, we now had a production car in the lead. It was almost as if the Rotek Racing Audi refused to move into first as it incurred yet another penalty and soon after inheriting the top spot it spun briefly before recovering. The American-British-German driving contingent was now poised to add another gem to Audi’s growing endurance racing crown. Rob Huff had started the race, followed in turn by Kevin Gleason, Jeff Altenberg, Roland Pritzker, and Rob Holland, with Christian Miller holding back as reserve driver.
The Wolf was again in recovery mode and was by far the fastest car on track, albeit 14 laps down. However, at 06:25, its Ford engine exploded after being hit at Turn 1 and this time it was not a case of crying wolf for the No. 52 team. It was well and truly gone.

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With the first glimmers of light in the east, this was the situation in the top 10:
1st overall, 1st ES, #24, Rotek Racing, Audi TT RS
2nd overall, 2nd ES, #83, Barrett Racing, Porsche, a massive 23 laps down
3rd overall, 1st ESR, #38, Radical West Racing, Radical, -6 laps
4th overall, 3rd ES, #08, GMG Racing, Audi R8 LMS, -5 laps
5th overall, 4th ES, #9, Lexus USA, Lexus IS F, -11 laps
6th overall, 1st E0, #18, Don’t Crash Racing, Ford Mustang Boss 302, -2 laps
7th overall, 1st E1, #27, Honda Research West, Acura ILX, -1 lap
8th overall, 1st E3, #05, 949 Racing, Mazda Miata, -3 laps
9th overall, 2nd E1, #5, Fantasy Junction, Acura RSX-S, -4 laps
10th overall, 2nd ESR, #48, Factory 48, GTM, -1 lap

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The top E2 class car was the No. 78 Sector Purple Racing Miata in 15th overall. To complete the then current podium standings in the various classes, the third place ESR car was down in 30th overall, the No. 49 CSR Performance Spec Racer Ford—another car lately making longish stops. The second place car in E0 was in 13th overall, the No. 62 Melhill Racing BMW 330. There was a close fight for third in class between the No. 31 El Diablo Motorsport BMW M3 and the No. 67 Pure Performance BMW E46, the two circulating in 18th and 19th overall, respectively. The third place car in E1was in 12th overall, the best of the Mazdaspeed diesels, the No. 55 dealer car. The last two podium spots in E2 were occupied by the No. 74 AAF Racing BMW 325i in 21st overall and five spots further back was the No. 34 Mazda RX-8 of Team RDR.

NA258040 24 fin

The No. 31 El Diablo Motorsports BMW M3 was the leader in E0 for about the first half of the race and set the fast lap in the class. They were overhauled by the Mustang during the night and slipped to fourth behind the No. 62 Melhill Racing BMW 330 and the No. 67 Puer Performance BMW E46. These two BMWs swapped 3rd and 4th, and later 2nd and 3rd in class several times.

Late Entries. No, the tow trucks are not competitors. Then again, at Thunderhill you never know.

Late Entries. No, the tow trucks are not competitors. Then again, at Thunderhill you never know.

The Fantasy Junction Acura led the E1 class in the opening hours. The top spot was briefly taken by the No. 56 Mazda 6 diesel, before the No. 27 Honda Research West Acura ILX took over and headed the class into the morning. The No. 5 Fantasy Junction team recovered to second in class, ahead of the two dealer Mazdas, with the No. 25 Honda Research West Acura sometimes splitting the diesels.

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The leader in E2 for the first half of the race was the No. 34 Team RDR Mazda RX-8. The No. 78 Sector PurpleMiata was second for most of that time before taking the helm of the class during the 13th hour. The No. 74 AAF Racing BMW 325i swapped second in class several times with the two Mazdas. The Japanese Honda hybrid has been unable to rise above fourth in class.

There had been three leaders in the E3 class, all Miatas as the lone Honda has not been fit to make it into the top five. The No. 35 Spare Parts Racing entry started by Hernan Palermo was the first on top, later passed by the No. 07 Pacific Throttle House Mazda. The No. 05 949 Racing MX-5 had been consistently the fastest and did not relinquish the lead after the fifth hour. The No. 23 RJ Racing Miata had a clumsy start but rose to second in class within a few hours.

Coming and Going. While the nearly 3-mile circuit expands over several sets of hills there are also several locations where different sections are in close view. Links allow for various shorter course configurations. The Mazda was one of two Mazdaspeed run cars staffed by drivers representing their national dealer network. If finished second among the three stock 6 diesels.

Coming and Going. While the nearly 3-mile circuit expands over several sets of hills there are also several locations where different sections are in close view. Links allow for various shorter course configurations. The Mazda was one of two Mazdaspeed run cars staffed by drivers representing their national dealer network. If finished second among the three stock 6 diesels.

Sunrise brought little warmth as a north wind kicked in along with the orange disc in the east. At least the dreaded fog was absent. Times did begin to tumble a bit with the improved visibility. The No. 69 Race Epic Porsche was at last running cleanly after having been rebuilt following numerous shunts. The No. 05 Mazda had a long stop but was able to retain its lead in E3 as well as its good overall placing.

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It now came time for some of the overall spots to swap around, thanks to inherently faster cars running well and moving forward from lower spots. For example, the No. 48 Factory Five GTM slipped ahead of the No. 27 Acura.
Heading into the final three hours some 35 cars were still circulating, all relatively healthy although of course many were delayed. The latest to hit problems was the No. 07 Mazda which spun luridly at Turn 1 and required a tow (but not a general caution) to pull it out. There was some important drama earlier when the No. 83 Barrett Racing Porsche stopped on track for a brief period. They did not lose second place overall but the gap to the third place Audi R8 LMS narrowed considerably. Then at almost exactly 09:00 it became an Audi 1-2 when the much faster GMG entry passed the 997 GT3 Cup. This culminated an excellent comeback by the No. 08 entry.

Important Presence. The number 9 Lexus IS F was one of several factory backed entries at this year’s race, signalling the event’s growing importance. They finished fourth in class, a few spots ahead of the Porsche it is trailing at the moment.

Important Presence. The number 9 Lexus IS F was one of several factory backed entries at this year’s race, signalling the event’s growing importance. They finished fourth in class, a few spots ahead of the Porsche it is trailing at the moment.

With only a bit more than two hours to go there was a change in the E3 class lead. Sadly the long-time great run of the No. 05 949 Racing Miata was stalled and this allowed the No. 23 Mazda of RJ Racing to move to the top. That gap widened to four laps. This left the E2 class battle as the last competitive contest. At 10:00 there was only one lap separating the leaders, No. 78 Sector Purple Racing Mazda from the No. 74 AAF BMW.
The Barrett Porsche again picked up the pace and GMG Audi made another long stop, allowing second place overall to flip again. The top three cars were all in the ES class with the top ESR in 4th. In terms of drivers, here are the class leaders going into the final hour:
ESR, #38, Radical West Racing, Radical: Ryan Carpenter / Todd Slusher / Anthony Bullock / Scott Atchison / Randy Carpenter
E0, #18, Luxury: Don’t Crash Racing, Ford Mustang: Thomas Martin II / Thomas Martin III / Brian Zander / Tom A. Brown
E1, #27, Honda Research West, Acura ILX: Sage Marie / Lee Niffenegger / Matthew Staal / Scott Nicol / Michael Tsay
E3, #23, RJ Racing, Mazda Miata: Rob Gibson / John Gibson / Roger Eagleton / Gary Browne / Jamie Florence
E2, #78, Sector Purple Racing, Mazda Miata: Kyle Watkins / Robert W. Ames / Daniel Williams / Glen Conser

Good Bet Gone Bad. The GMG R8 had all the ingredients of being a favorite; a professional team, a a model and global brand associated with numerous victories, a good driver line-up, and uneven competition. Things began to go awry soon after practiced started. After a huge shunt the crew worked hard to make the grid a day later. It had a roller-coaster of a race, charging to the front before a litany of problems laid it low—ending with the gearbox expiring within sight of the flag and a likely third place finish.

Good Bet Gone Bad. The GMG R8 had all the ingredients of being a favorite; a professional team, a a model and global brand associated with numerous victories, a good driver line-up, and uneven competition. Things began to go awry soon after practiced started. After a huge shunt the crew worked hard to make the grid a day later. It had a roller-coaster of a race, charging to the front before a litany of problems laid it low—ending with the gearbox expiring within sight of the flag and a likely third place finish.

There were last minute dramas when the engine started smoking on the No. 62 Melhill / TFB Racing BMW. Its third in the E0 class was not in threat because of the large gap to fourth, but it did bring about one last full-course caution, the 13th of the race. Sector Purple stretched their lead over 949 Racing and thus solidified the E3 victory. As if they needed more cushion, the overall leading Audi stretched the gap to over 30 laps at the finish. There was enough green running at the end for the ESR class winning Radical to creep into third overall, ahead of the Audi R8. Indeed the GMG entry’s gearbox failed with minutes to go and it was pushed across the line.

Detritus. It’s a classic endurance racing scene. The winner charges through a battlefield of debris. Seen across the Sacramento River valley are the distant foothills of the Sierra Nevada range.

Detritus. It’s a classic endurance racing scene. The winner charges through a battlefield of debris. Seen across the Sacramento River valley are the distant foothills of the Sierra Nevada range.

The victory was another feather in Audi’s cap, even if it came from a private team in a TT RS. For Thunderhill and NASA it was another step towards creating an ever higher profile event.

A Podium?

A Podium?

(The amended results show that the second place 949 Racing Mazda Miata in E3 has been disqualified for mounting improper parts. Of course, in this class the Mazda 1-2-3 is still retained)

Janos Wimpffen, January 2014

Finding Places

The Sage of Charlotte is back, considering the the 911’s early years and the dilemmas faced by those crafting the rules for the USCR.

 

When Porsche’s 911 made its public debut at Frankfurt’s 1963 Auto Show its promise as the foundation for a new era in the economic fortunes of Zuffenhausen were obvious. Less obvious though was its motorsport future, for while the era of Ferdinand Piech would not arrive for another two years, the factory’s engineers were already gearing up for a new generation of sports racing prototypes; an effort that precluded the necessary transformation of the new six-cylinder coupé into a serious GT racer.
Not until 1969, and after the aborted lightweight 911R program had been consigned to the dustbin, did Porsche start the at first slow progression of making the 911 into the dominant player it would become in the production-based side of the sport. The delay in the acknowledgement of the 911’s competition potential centered around two words, “mission statements.”
Arguably, in the latter part of the 1960’s the mission statement for Zuffenhausen’s motorsport program focused on developing and building ever better prototypes that would transform the company from a supporting role on the sports car scene into its headlining star, and with it Piech to the overall industry leader he has become today as the chairman of Volkswagen AG.
Indeed, the 911 played little or no role in the Piech’s ego-centric universe because fundamentally he had virtually nothing to do with its conception. Put another way, it wasn’t his “baby,” and in those days he had little interest in other people’s offspring. For him, his mission statement was one of self aggrandizement. So while he pursued his own objectives, the 911 languished in motorsport hell; not released from its purgatory until Ernst Fuhrmann took the company’s reigns in the beginning of the 1970s, when, as its new President, he pushed the prototypes aside for the firm’s long neglected marketplace best seller.

 

On its 50th birthday year, the story of finding a mission motorsport statement for 911 resonates in the upcoming debut of the NASCAR-owned United Sports Car road course tour that will open its doors with the Daytona 24 Hours next winter. Created from the amalgamation of the Grand Am Rolex and American Le Mans Series championships, their new replacement has, as yet, to release its details of its technical regulations, even though testing is little more than three months away as this is being written.The problem, like that of the 911 is in defining its “mission statement.”

 

For the Grand-Am’s Rolex tour, even though everybody on the NASCAR side will deny it, the mission statement was pretty clear: coral the pool of “gentleman” drivers so necessary to the success of any North American road racing series in order to put the ALMS out of business. Given that essentially the NASCAR folks bought out the Don-Panoz title chase, it was a strategy that worked. But now, having “won the war,” what does NASCAR do with the peace? More specifically, what does it do with the Rolex Daytona Prototypes?

 

 

Given the hundreds of millions it takes to field a headlining sports racer these days, the Grand-Am emasculated their prototypes in terms of the technology, thus cutting cost to the point where the rich gentlemen participants could come and play without worrying about their financial security. Ironically this approach has since its 2003 introduction produced some of the best, closest racing in the sport’s history. On the other hand, it has drawn little more than collective yawns from its audience base: the world inhabited by sports car enthusiasts.

 

Collectively, unlike their stock car counterparts, they prefer high technology overt tight, equalized competition, and so far, to a huge extent, they have eschewed the Grand Am and the Rolex series. Up to now, their lack of enthusiasm has not been that much of a problem, given that the ultimate Rolex consumers weren’t the fans, but the participants. Now, however, if new championship is to prosper, the mission statement will have to be refocused on the techno savvy audience which up to now the NASCAR camp has ignored.

 

In light of the fact that NASCAR wants to keep the Daytona Prototypes as the foundation for its top ranked category, there are some hard, but simple choices to be made. Do those behind the new championship dumb down the performance potential of the present LM P2 prototypes and possibly of the Le Mans GTE production contingent scheduled to race next year far enough so as not to overshadow the DP community? Or, do they bring the DP’s performance up to a level where they’re not embarrassed by those surrounding them on the grid?

 

The first will please the “rich kid” gene pool, the second will satisfy United Sports Car Racing’s larger, and perhaps more necessary, audience base. At this point the time to make the decisions is growing ever smaller. And, while someone is going to be disappointed, there will be chaos and true disappointment if something isn’t do soon. In the end, like the case of the 911, it’s all about the necessity for mission statements.

 

Bill Oursler, September 2013

In The Old Days When Life Was Simple

HDK 4904

At the age of seventy I find myself thinking and talking like my parents before me, which something I swore I would never do, but have done nevertheless. In short I find I’ve become an “old fart” who is not necessarily willing to accept the world as it is today. Clearly then I need to get out of the rut I find myself in, for the world has changed and I need to deal with it as it is, not as it was.

So what has any of this to do with sports car racing?

Just like the genetically engineered foods we now eat, my sport – pardon me, our sport – has been engineered to produce the results its organizers want to see rather than letting chance and nature dictate the final random outcomes of the past. Yes, there remains the element of chance, but it has been reduced substantially by maneuvering the regulations so that there will be no boring finishes.

For those of you who are non believers I would suggest you examine the NASCAR’s Grand American Rolex championship whose scriptures seem etched in sand because they appear to change on a moment’s notice, as was the case in last month’s season opening Rolex 24. There, in the name of equalizing performance, the officials decided to reduce what they saw as a perceived advantage the Corvette Daytona Prototypes enjoyed over their rivals, only to give the Chevrolet sports racers some of it back when it became obvious they –the officials – had been a bit over zealous in their approach.

I’m not for such actions, but I recognize why they are taken. After all, racing – at least here in the United States – is more entertainment than it is sport. Yet, in this case the changes were made in a matter of days, not years or months, but in days. Moreover, there will be further performance balancing changes for the next two Rolex rounds, after which the Grand-Am will review things again.

Even in the relatively low tech Grand-Am universe, this imposes unnecessary costs on the participants, just as it does when Formula One and others make regulatory revisions throughout the season in an effort to enliven the show. It is as if the rules makers want to wipe out their mistakes on an ongoing basis rather than trying to get things right in the first place. Indeed, about the only other comparable such situation is in the mortgage industry with its variable rate loans, and we all know what they’ve led to.

But, those in charge of the Grand-Am haven’t stopped at performance balancing. At Daytona, they instituted new full course yellow flag regulations that made it easy for those who had lost laps to make them up. In fact the loosening of the scriptures was such that one of those prototypes that was in a position to win in the final stages had been as far as seven laps in arrears – not once, but twice.

No one can argue that the Grand-Am’s actions made the Rolex 24 far more exciting than it otherwise might have been. But, is that what the sports car fan wants? Certainly the NASCAR spectator does. However, I’m not sure that certainty applies equally to the world of road racing.

In my day, what sports car spectators seemed to desire the most was to watch excellence and to dream about that excellence. Consider the 1973 Can-Am where Mark Donohue and his 240 mile-an-hour turbocharged Porsche 917/30 dominated the proceedings. Despite the lack of close competition, the 1973 Can-Am was the most successful season at the gate in the history of the series; something that can not be said about its subsequent years when the turbo Porsches were not present, leaving in their place equally matched, but largely uninspiring lower performing substitutes in their place.

With Grand-Am and its NASCAR approach to the sport about to take over the North American sports car scene in 2014, there are many worried about the future. And, in my mind, they have more than a little justification for having those concerns. Not only did the Can-Am fade away into history after its competitive playing field was leveled, but in the decade since the Grand-Am debuted its techno restricted Daytona Prototypes, it has not been particularly popular with its intended audience.

It appears that even now there is a desire for excellence rather than engineered mediocrity. And that gives this “old fart” hope for the future.

Bill Oursler, February 2013

 

 

 

 

 

Keep Your Friends Close, Keep Your Enemies Closer?

GRAND AM AT LE MANS?

If you’re a sports car racing fan, you’ve most likely given little respect to the NASCAR owned, Grand American Rolex-backed, series led by the dowdy, less than pleasant looking Daytona Prototypes. And, while those at the Grand Am may disagree with your opinion, you’re not alone.

For the most part the DP concept was conceived as a cost containment exercise that would allow the rich gentlemen drivers in North America to indulge their desires to race in the higher, more exotic reaches of U.S. road course sandbox without having to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to win at places like Le Mans these days.

The problem for the Grand Am and its competitors is that the rules have so reduced performance that what emerged from the NASCAR kettle was something that no one other than the participants themselves cared much about. In short, while the Rolex series and its premier event, the Rolex 24, retained their prestigious names, that’s about all they kept.

Put another way, the Grand Am championship retained the bun, but threw out the meat. Well, boys and girls, get ready for a shock: the Grand Am may be going big time. Following on the heels of last week’s announcement that an upgraded version of the Daytona Prototypes will be merged with current crop of LM P2 cars to form the top division of the combined ALMS-Rolex successor title chase in 2014, came rumors that the DP set may well be headed to Le Mans.

What insiders have been saying quietly for months, namely that such talks between Grand Am officials and their ACO counterparts have been ongoing, peeked into the daylight with a report on SPEED TV’s website not long after the Grand Am-ALMS press conference in Daytona Beach.

Whether or not those supposed talk produce a substantive result remains to be seen. As with all things concerning the merger of the two American road racing camps, when it comes to the details there is only vagueness; vagueness that for the most part is justified given the disparity in the basic philosophies behind the Rolex and ALMS championships.

What is not so vague, however, is the major league problem facing the sports car segment of the motorsport industry. Put in a single word it is “cost.” Up into the early years of the 21st century, privateers such as South Florida’s Champion Racing, which won Le Mans with its non-factory Audi R8, could obviously play and equally obviously be successful at the highest levels. With the coming of today’s computerized, electronically dependent prototypes that require crews measuring in the hundreds that is no longer true.

The creation of headlining programs now rests solely with the manufacturers, some of whose resources have been stretched beyond the breaking point; as witnessed by Peugeot’s abrupt department in 2011. For The ACO limiting the pointy end of the finish order at the Sarthe is a desired intention. However, it is also one that pushes championships like the ALMS, and even the Rolex down a notch out of the so-called “Big Leagues” where, for promoters the money is.

Of course there is an answer to the dilemma, cheap horsepower and lots of it, which is readily available not only in the engines used by off shore powerboat racers, but in NASCAR’s stock car world as well. However, in the current “green” environment the horsepower solution is path not likely to be taken, even if most fans might like to see it become reality.

So, what does all this come down to? The answer is “dog food,” or how best to sell it. No matter how good the salesmanship, if the dogs don’t like, and won’t eat, the dog food, its maker might want to consider changing the recipe. Will the public flock to Le Mans to see the Daytona Prototypes scurry around for a class victory? Probably not. Would they pay more attention if those same DP’s had a chance at beating the sophisticated manufacturer prototypes? You bet.

Returning to America in 2014, if fans knew they were watching cars with such a potential, would they pay more attention, and perhaps more importantly for promoters pay to watch in person in larger numbers? That is the question. After all, car racing is a professional sport first and a testing ground second. Given a choice, one suspects that people will make their choices based on their preferences. One can only hope that those in charge read the tea leaves correctly.

Bill Oursler, January 2013

Saturday Night Special

The City Challenge in Baku continues to surprise, I am delighted to post not only another fine selection of images from Pedro.

 


Ferdinand Alexander Porsche 1935-2012


The automotive world lost one of the least known, but perhaps most influential of its design geniuses last week with the death of 76-year-old Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, better remembered by most as “Butzi,” in Salzburg, Austria after a lengthy illness. The eldest son of Ferry Porsche and the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, Butzi carved his own niche during his tenure as head of the sports car company’s Styling Studio.


It was while he was in charge that he penned the body shape for the iconic 911, whose original bodyshell, with modifications, remained in production from the fall of 1964 through the mid 1990’s. And, while it has been superseded in the years since, the overall “look” of the 911 has remained intact to this day.

After leaving the company at the end of 1971, in a change of direction to broaden the outlook of the firm that saw all family members, including Ferry Porsche himself, depart their day-to-management positions, Butzi formed his own company, Porsche Design. His talents quickly made it famous for its award winning high end consumer products led by its long line of watches and sunglasses that were almost required purchases for aspiring “in crowd” members.


Less well known, was his contribution to the motorsport side of Porsche. There he made history as well with his design of the Porsche 904, the two-liter, first all-fiberglass car ever fielded by the Zuffenhausen factory. Not only is the 904 considered the most beautiful of all Porsches, it dominated the small displacement sports racing category for more than two years between 1964 and the early part of 1966.


In addition to the 904, Butzi likewise worked with the engineers during Porsche’s first foray into single seat, open wheel racing. It was his design, the 1962 Type 804 that brought the factory its first and so far, only Formula One triumph as a chassis and engine builder. That highlight moment came when Dan Gurney won the 1962 French Grand Prix at Rouen. In addition, he drew the bodies of Porsche’s later Spyders and several of their enclosed coupe counterparts that kept Porsche in the sports racing game until the 904 made its appearance.


He is survived by his wife and three boys.

Bill Oursler, April 2012

Sebring 2012 – The Old Gal Wasn’t What She Used To Be

When I was studying military history as a young college student back in the 1960’s, my professor told me that if someone asked why I was doing so, I should immediately change the subject. In retrospect, it was both sage and non sage advice.

 
History, which is truly important (“those who don’t learn the lessons from it are doomed to repeat them over and over again”), gets no respect. Indeed, for the most part it is ignored in a world preoccupied by the present in a near total self indulgent way. And, perhaps even more sadly, when those among us decide to pay attention, they tend to do with such superficiality that they might as well not have bothered in the first place.

 
All this was brought home to me at Sebring this year. Aside from the fact that its duality as both the season opener for the American Le Mans and the new World Endurance Championship caused it to be possibly the most confusing, difficult to follow long distance event of all time, it marked the 60th anniversary  of the first ever 12-Hour in 1952. And, while Sebring has Ken Breslauer as both its press officer and “historian in residence,” the folks at the top all too often pay only lip service to his knowledge and talents.

 
As an example, despite Breslauer’s efforts, Sebring has yet to put a proper museum together to celebrate its legacy, or even to explore a working relationship with the Collier Museum, one of the finest collections of significant race cars anywhere, that is located in nearby Naples, Florida.

 
A second example, was the non presence, at the luncheon celebrating the occasion, of my friend Luigi Chinetti, Jr., who lives barely 100 miles from the track, and who, with his father, a three-time Le Mans winner, played a significant role through their Ferrari North American Racing Team, in Sebring’s past.(Among other things, NART fielded the first Ferrari 250 GTO to race at the 1962 12-Hour, the car winning its class and finishing second overall behind a NART entered prototype.)

 
There are others who weren’t part of the tributes to the now more than six decade existence of Sebring’s famous affair. However, Chinetti would have brought a unique perspective to the happenings this March on the aging circuit, having grown up in and around the race and the sport. For Chinetti, like so many others, the past was a better place to be: a time when humans, rather than computers were the keys to design excellence and design individuality. Yet, just as is the case with other aspects of life, respect for and an understanding of history does not mean we should live in the past, and as I noted learn from its lessons to make the present and the future better.

 
Over time motorsport in general has made tremendous strides in safety and efficiency while not forgetting the inherent excitement any speed contest generates. Love them, or hate them today’s prototypes are the ultimate in ground bound racing technology, and as such are truly unforgettable. It is that factor, which was present in spades at the 12-hour among the prototype categories, as well as in the production GT entries, that will keep the interest of the fans.

 
What history does is to polish the tradition that this new wave of racers are carrying on, and thereby enhance their importance. I may be an old fart, but that 250 GTO which Chinetti and his dad put on the 12-hour grid 40 years ago, now is worth well over 25 million dollars: not bad for an obsolete race car that, along with its almost equally valuable contemporaries that some would so casually dismiss as part of the dustbin of racing’s past.

 

Hopefully as people decide to explore history, I will be relieved of the necessity of having to change the subject when I’m asked why I’m a historian. And, that, as far as I’m concerned can only be a good thing.

Bill Oursler March 2012

Italian Treasures

Italy as a state celebrated its 150th birthday in 2011. As part of the festivities the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile was rebuilt and reopened in Torino. Motorcars are as much a part of the true spirit of Italians as pasta and opera, a world without the automotive art of Italy would be a poorer place. So late in the year our Special Correspondent paid a visit to the collection, one or two rare treasures caught his eye.

1908 Brixia-Zϋst 10 h.p.

Founder Robert Zϋst, of Swiss origin, had a precision tool manufacturing plant at Intra on Lake Maggiore. At the turn of the century the company experimented with prototype cars and in 1905 the Zϋst company was founded in Milan to make cars and commercial vehicles. Initially expensive large cars were produced but a branch was set up in Brescia to make lower-priced smaller cars under the name Brixia-Zϋst – Brixia is the Latin for Brescia.

This splendid example has a monobloc 3-cylinder engine of 1386 c.c. The company was taken over in 1917 by O.M. (Officine Meccaniche). Production of the bigger S305 was continued until O.M. introduced their own designs, one of which won the first Mille Miglia in 1927.

De Dion rear axle

Here can be clearly seen the layout of the famous de Dion  suspension arrangement mounted on one of the company’s very popular runabouts. The de Dion tube is attached to the two rear uprights, helping to keep the wheels vertical (and thus more in contact with the ground) as the suspension rises and falls.

The arrangement became universally popular on racing machines from the Thirties onwards and production cars occasionally adopted the design also e.g. the Rover 2000 (P6) and the Smart City car. Interestingly de Dion themselves abandoned it for their own production cars from 1911!

1925 Diatto Tipo 30

Diatto was a carriage building firm dating from 1835 which gradually diversified into railway engineering and iron founding. Come the 20th century the company turned to cars and, during the First World War, aero engines including Bugatti’s 8-cylinder under licence. In 1922 the Tipo 20 2-litre overhead camshaft 4-cylinder car was marketed and from this evolved the Tipo 30, one which finished 11th in the 1925 Le Mans 24-Hour race.

Diatto built a number of Bugatti Brescia cars under licence and their straight-8 racing design was taken over by the Maserati brothers as the basis for their own Tipo 26.

1947 Cisitalia 202 SMM Nuvolari

Piero Dusio made his fortune through his textile business which specialised in oil cloth, sporting goods and military uniforms. He was no mean racing driver either, having finished third in the 1938 Mille Miglia driving the previous year’s winning Alfa Romeo. He set up the Corsorzio Industriale Sportiva Italia, Cisitalia, in 1944 to produce some exquisitely styled sporting coupés and spyders with Pinin Farina bodies. They were the work of Dante Giacosa (father of the Fiat Topolino), Giovanni Savonuzzi and Piero Taruffi and were based on the 1100 Fiat o.h.v. 4-cylinder engine. There was a multi-tubular chassis of chrome-molybdenum tubing, transverse-leaf independent front suspension and a rigid rear axle on coil springs and quarter-elliptics which served as radius arms.

1947 Cisitalia 202 SMM Nuvolari

This spyder was one of five entries for the 1947 Mille Miglia and almost provided the great Italian driver Tazio Nuvolari with his second Mille Miglia win. Dusio’s over-ambitious commission of a Porsche-designed flat-12 four-wheel-drive Grand Prix car caused the money to run out and Dusio moved to Argentina in 1949.

Chassis of the 1935 Fiat 1500

Fiats are often thought of as straightforward run-of-the-mill cars but from time to time this company has come up with some special designs – the 8V for example. There was inspired thinking behind the new 6-cylinder 1500 introduced at the 1935 Milan Show. This replaced the mundane Tipo 514 and was a breath of fresh air: aerodynamic bodywork, tubular backbone chassis and independent front suspension, a first for Fiat. It became a rival for the outstanding Lancia Aprilia in the late Thirties.

David Blumlein, February 2012