Monthly Archives: March 2011

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The Death of a Friend

Bill Oursler considers the final edition of National Speed Sport News.

As I’ve grown older, my routines have become more set. On Mondays, for example, I typically get up early, grab a cup of coffee and begin to write a race report for National Speed Sport News, as I did right after Sebring. It is now a week later, and that report will be my last for NSSN. It is not that I am departing from the publication with which I have been associated since 1975, but rather that NSSN itself has departed.

The issue featuring my Sebring report was the final one in a history that stretches back to 1934. The reasons for the demise of this famous racing newspaper are at once both complicated and simple. The most important and fundamental one of course is the internet, the immediacy of which no print medium can match.

When I began reporting for NSSN, it not only covered events, but the business of motorsport as well. Back then a several day old story was still new and unknown until it arrived on a subscriber’s doorstep. Today, it’s “old hat” after just a few hours. In terms of delivery, the printed newspaper is an old fashioned train trying to compete again a high speed airplane. In short it is a race it can’t win, and because it can’t, advertisers increasingly have put their money elsewhere. The result is that the lifeblood of the print media industry has been sucked out of its veins, leaving it to die.

That is the simple part. The more complicated is the fact that that motorsport’s fan base is getting older. The younger generations have different interests, their love of the automobile dimmed to some degree by the perception that it is bad for the environment in its present form. Indeed, in the new world of the immediate, perception more often than not overcomes reality because reality often requires more than a few minutes to understand.

I will miss National Speed Sport News. I will miss working for it. Moreover, I will feel sorry for Chris Economaki and his family who which built it into the powerhouse it was in the sport. Most all of though, I will bemoan the fact that its loss represents an era in which simplicity has triumphed over the search for understanding the complex universe in which we live.

Bill Oursler, March 2011

 

Bump and Grind

Bill Oursler has sat down to consider the events that unfolded in the Central Highlands of Florida last week, here are some of his observations. John Brooks, March 2011.

So what did we learn from this year’s annual Sebring 12-Hour? The answer is not much that we already didn’t know. At Sebring both the slower 2011 prototypes and their 2010 spec predecessors, now hobbled by the rules so they don’t outshine the lesser performing 2011 models were present. And, in looking at the results, if the outcome of the venerable Central Florida affair suggested anything, it was that perhaps, at least at this stage, it might have been better if newer cars had been left home.

And, for those who might need further convincing that the new generation prototypes are ready. there is the fact that the fourth home 2010 bred Audi turbo diesel R15+ had spent more than a little time in the paddock. It was being repaired from its tangle with the second Factory 908 (which eventually struggled across the line in eighth) and lapped as quickly as 2011-spec 908 in front of it, once it returned to the track.


Now, if all of this doesn’t send the ACO boys reaching for the headache powder, perhaps the second place performance of the gasoline powered Highcroft Racing ARX-01e will.

Delivered to Highcroft less than a week before the start, with its paint figuratively still soft to the touch, it ran like a freight train, fighting for the lead for much of the way. Maybe, the ACO will solve the Highcroft Acura issue by simply not inviting it to come over this June; although, given the current Japanese disaster, that might seem like hitting someone when they’re flat on their back. (One never needs bad press, you know.)

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: motorsport in general, and the people in charge of Le Mans in particular, never seem to understand when they have a good thing going. In the last several years the current formula has worked out well, if not perfectly (keep in mind that the gasoline contingent could have used a little more help towards getting an even playing field with the diesels). More importantly, the ACO might likewise want to recognize that manufacturer participation is at best problematical, less centered around winning, than the strength of car sales and the amount of black ink those sales generate.

Differing, and constantly changing agendas over the years, have done little to make sportscar racing’s future a secure one. Stability, on the other hand, has. In a time of economic problems, forcing the sports car racing community to continually spend money appears to this writer to be somewhat stupid. In my view, the ACO ought to keep its fingers off the keys of its word processors and let stability, and the close racing it tends to create, reign and leave the advanced technology avenue to Formula One which now requires the presence of  lawyers and engineers to explain the rules to its fan base.

Bill Oursler, March 2011

 

 

 

 

I Read The News Today Oh Boy

Actually that will be something that won’t be said again, at least when referring to US publication, National Speed Sport News.

Chris Economaki sold copies of the first issue back in 1934 and has been involved ever since as a contributor, then Editor. He became known as “The Dean of American Motorsports” and has several media centres named after him, most notably that at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His work with NSSN has had a profound influence on North American Motorsport, as attested by the number of awards he has received over the years.

Economaki’s daughter, Corinne, is the magazine’s current Publisher, but this week came the announcement that the print edition of the magazine would cease after the 23rd March 2011 issue. For many people in the business this represents the end of an era. 77 years is not a bad innings, but for Chris, a familiar figure at all the big races until recently, this must be like a death in the family.

RIP National Speed Sport News, 1934-2011

John Brooks, March 2011

Heat Haze On The Runway

So that was Sebring, first blood in 2011 to Peugeot. Not, however, the new finned factory cars; ORECA, genuine sportscar folk, scored a memorable win in 2010 spec car in the 12 Hours run around Hendricks’ Field last week.

While I was kicking my heels over here, watching Ireland beat the bejesus out Grand Slam hopefuls, England, David Lister had his Nikons set to stun.

His first visit to the Florida Classic turned up the usual bag of gold. He has graciously agreed to share some of this treasure with us.

Enjoy!

John Brooks, March 2011

 

 

La Route Est Dure…………….Deux

The Great Men. Norbert and Bob

During 1986 and 1987 the combination of Bob Wollek and Rothmans Porsche 962C were irresistible at Le Mans, at least during Qualifying. The races proved more problematical.

Before the Storm

Teammate Jochen Mass was involved in someone else’s accident, which accounted for the 86 race and the following year Bob did not even get to drive a lap as his 962C was the highest profile victim of the engine problems that afflicted the Porsche competitors during the opening stint of the race. It was not Bosch’s finest hour but the real villain of the story was poor quality fuel supplied by the ACO.

Porsche at Porsche Curves

I had started to get media accreditation at Le Mans back then and I recall attending the annual press conferences at that time. Actually there serious incentives to go along and sit through an hour of French, in 1986 Moet et Chandon provided all attendees with a magnum of their vintage Bubbly. I still have the bottle, if not the contents. The usual routine was to have the FIA President Jean Marie Balestre, bellow at the assembled hacks about whatever issue was troubling him at the time. It was usually to do with Formula One, which would confuse us all mightly.

A Day in the Office

I do remember the President being stopped in his tracks after an intervention from the taciturn Bob Wollek. He had listened to the rant, took issue with some particularly egregious assertion, then quietly and firmly contradicted Ballestre, for once silencing the garrolous Frenchman. Those in the crowd such as me, who did not really know Bob were impressed. He could talk the talk, as well walk the walk.

Crowd Pleasing Man

1988 saw the end of the association between Rothmans and Porsche, so Wollek joined Joest to partner Klaus Ludwig. However the 962 was not really up to the level of either the TWR Jaguars or the Sauber Mercedes. Le Mans once again saw disappointment with his factory Porsche lose the lead with engine failure.

Victory Lane

Whatever the frustrations La Sarthe brought, on the other side of the Atlantic things were very different. Four outright wins in the Daytona 24 Hours told a completely different tale of Bob Wollek from the results at Le Mans.

The end of Group C, driven down by the madness of the the F1 based engines and technology and the spending war in IMSA almost killed sportscar racing for good.  Wollek’s career like so many of his contemporaries was on hold till matters improved.

Courage, Mon Brave

A gradual revival in the mid 90’s brought Bob Wollek back to the top table. Once again a Le Mans win went begging in 1995. In truly awful conditions, co-driver Mario Andretti was forced to avoid a spinning car and clouted a wall. The repairs cost the car six laps, when the Chequered Flag was waved the next day the Courage was just over a lap down on the winning McLaren.

911 GT1

Porsche returned to racing and Le Mans in 1996 with the 911 GT1. Somehow Porsche decided to shoot themselves in the foot by allowing Joest to run the ex-TWR Porsche WSC prototype. It outran the fancy GTs winning by a lap from Wollek.

In 1997 there was more cruelty for the Frenchman at Le Mans. The relative performance of the Joest prototype and the 911 GT1 had been reversed. So as dawn broke on the Sunday morning, Wollek’s wait for victory, in the race he cherished above all, looked to be finally over. Then a half shaft failed pitching the Porsche off the track. A few hours later the sister car caught fire, handing another win to the Joest team.

Cheese!

1998 would be Bob Wollek’s last chance to take outright victory at Le Mans. He was originally down to drive one of the prototypes that were entered in support of the new 98 GT1 cars. Yannick Dalmas had a training accident and as a result swapped cars with Wollek. Good luck coming his way?

Rub of the Green

The 1998 race was a fantastic contest. After the demise early in the race of Mercedes Benz and BMW and the lack of pace from the Nissans, the battle was going to be between Toyota and Porsche. The Japanese had a speed advantage but suffered with gearbox problems. Both teams had accident damage to contend with after localised showers during the night. Brundle’s Toyota was eliminated whereas the undertray on Wollek’s car was replaced in 30 minutes after Müller had taken a trip across a gravel trap. The other Porsche had a leak in the cooling system but got back on track slightly quicker than #25. Come 3.00pm on Sunday that would prove the difference between first and second.

This could be the last time……….

There was no fairy-tale ending for Wollek, tears on the podium from him and his team mates, generous applause from the huge crowd.

Champion Stuff

Porsche cancelled their prototype racing project at the end of 1998 and decided to focus on a 911 customer programme. Wollek was retained by the factory and parachuted into cars as necessary. So the Champion 911 GT1 EVO for Sebring.

Portland Pavement

Other destinations were the Konrad and Freisinger teams.

On Parade

For 2000 Wollek joined Dick Barbour Racing at Le Mans and in the ALMS.  Le Mans produced another class win and then it didn’t, as there was a squabble about fuel tank capacity. As ever the ACO had the final word.

Head of the Pack

The team dominated the ALMS GT class. Bob surprised his younger colleagues such as Lucas Luhr and Dirk Müller with his speed, it drove them up the wall trying work out where the pace came from.

Texas Two Step

2001 saw Wollek join Petersen/White Lightning, another Porsche customer. Then came Sebring.

Memorial

Take a trip down Highway 98 towards Okeechobee, you will find the above marker, a simple tribute to a great champion.

Rest in Peace, Bob.

John Brooks, March 2011

 

 

 

 

La Route Est Dure…….Une

Birthdays, anniversaries, memorials. Who knows where the time goes?

From the Fans

There is something in our wiring that makes us reconsider events in an orderly, time related  fashion, I suppose some of it has to do with our annual trip round the Sun. Maybe the concept of decades came from having eight fingers and two thumbs. Whatever, ten years seems to be significant period, perhaps because we know that we will only experience a handful of such landmarks in our brief time here on earth, it us gives pause to stop and reflect.

Ten years ago tomorrow, St. Patrick’s Day 2001, I stumbled into Sebring International Raceway in the dark. Our American cousins love their early morning photo meetings. So we assembled grumbling, the collective noun for a bunch of photographers is a Moan. Sheriff Rick Dole tried to instil some sense into us, giving details of the reserved spots for the turn one opening lap scramble and reciting the dos and dont’s.

Then someone, I can’t remember who, asked had I heard about Bob?

Bob?

That could only mean Bob Wollek.

What?

He’s dead, killed last night in a road accident.

Brilliant

This seemed impossible, Bob Wollek had survived during a truly dangerous period in motorsport and now as he contemplated retirement he was killed in a pointless traffic incident.

Tribute

Just how pointless was soon evident when the circumstances emerged. Bob was a keen cyclist and would use that method of transport to get to and from the circuit. In fact he would ride to Le Mans every year from Strasbourg. So on Friday afternoon he left the Sebring paddock en route to his lodgings, west along Highway 98 towards the small town of Lorida. An 82 year old local resident driving a van collided with the Frenchman killing him instantly.

The Florida Highway Patrol reported “Wollek had been riding close to the edge of the pavement marking and the van, traveling in the same direction behind other traffic, hit the back of the bicycle.
Wollek was taken to Highlands Regional Medical Center with fatal injuries.”

Spirits

To say the paddock and the whole crowd were shocked would be a gross understatement, as evidenced by the signs posted up around the pits and the respect shown on the grid of a minute’s silence. The Petersen/White Lightning Porsche that Bob was scheduled to drive was also withdrawn from the race.

Kremer 917

I am not about to try and write a feature on Bob Wollek’s career, that requires a book, in fact one has just been completed by Jean-Marc Teissedre. Rather I have looked through the small archive and using a few shots will post some recollections in my personal tribute to the man.

Back in 1981 Bob was already a top line sportscar driver and champion, I could not even get media accreditation at that year’s Brands Hatch 1000kms. However with a bit of effort from the spectator area this modest effort was possible. A Kremer 917? Yes the brothers from Cologne built up this fibreglass kit car, based around the original iconic design. It failed to impress at Le Mans but ran respectably at Brands, dueling for the lead till suspension failure.

936C

Another year, another adaptation, this time the 936C. For 1982 Joest Racing was aware that getting a customer version of the Porsche 956 would have to wait till 1983. So adapting their ‘customer’ 936 chassis and sticking some bodywork allowed them to be in the pack. In fact they were best of the rest after the Porsche and Lancia factory efforts.

Joest Porsche 956 at Brands Hatch

1983 saw Joest get hold of a Porsche 956 , chassis 104. Wollek used it to good effect with WEC wins at Monza and Mugello (both with Stefan Johansson) to bag the WEC European Drivers Championship. The DRM title too with three wins.

1984 saw Wollek join the Martini Lancia team, an odd choice given the reputation for chaos that the Italians had. The LC2s were fast and fragile.

Too Little, Too late

The following year the problems persisted, though there was a win at Spa. No one cared though, Stefan Bellof had been killed during the race, the result was irrelevant. Of course it would not have escaped Wollek’s attention that had he stayed with Joest in ’84 and ’85, he might well have been a double winner at Le Mans.

Pole at La Sarthe

1986 came and Lancia left Group C and Jaguar joined. Wollek returned to the factory Porsche team, in place of Jacky Ickx who retired. Pole at Le Mans meant nothing after co-driver Jochen Mass clouted the barriers after encountering an oil spill.

I was at Brands Hatch to see Mauro Baldi and Bob defeat the other privateer Porsches and the TWR Jaguars, in the Richard Lloyd 956 GTI.

More tomorrow.

 

John Brooks March 2011

 

 

Bob……………

Another day, Another Dollar.

I am very pleased to welcome prolific author and columnist, Bill Oursler, to the DoubleDeClutch crew.

Bill kicks off his contribution to this blog with a look back at the man known as “Brilliant Bob”. Today marks the French Champion’s tenth anniversary.

Bob Wollek 1943-2001 RIP


 

Stay in this business long enough and you will, more often than you might want, find yourself remembering the good guys who are no longer with us. In the case of Frenchman Bob Wollek those memories are particularly bitter sweet since he was killed not on a race track, or even in a car, but rather on a bicycle riding down a local road in Sebring, the victim of an improperly driven motor home.

 

This week is the tenth anniversary of that senseless and ironic tragedy. Therefore, on it I think it is more than appropriate not just to take note of his passing, but to celebrate the man.

 

And celebrating Bob Wollek is not difficult to do. Although he never won his country’s greatest sportscar race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and while he wasn’t a regular for the Porsche factory for most of his time in motorsport, Wollek’s record was, to say the least, spectacular. Indeed, one could argue strongly that he was perhaps the greatest ever French sports car driver, a truly high accolade given the number of superb two seat racers that country has produced throughout the years.

 

Wollek was a highly competitive individual; a trait he showed in the mid1960’s when he was a winning member of his college ski team. In fact, Wollek was in training for a spot on the French Olympic squad in 1968 when he suffered an injury that forced him to quit the sport. Still, even by then he had already dabbled in motorsport, running a few rallies in a 911 the year before. However, with a career in skiing now denied him, he then took up racing on a serious basis, running primarily in the French national open wheel arena before switching to the sportscar world.

 

Once there, he spent the next three decades compiling a phenomenal record, that included his 1982 crown winning performance in the hotly contested German National Championship, as well as his four Daytona 24 Hour victories, and his Sebring triumph in 1985. Interestingly, in the mid-1980’s one of his regular partners was A.J. Foyt, a man Wollek was introduced to at Daytona in 1983 when the American was abruptly added to the Swap Shop 935 team, of which Wollek was a member, during the race.

Miller High Life

 

 

The Frenchman expressed his far less than enthusiastic attitude about Foyt’s presence to a television reporter in a pit interview on Sunday morning, using expletives that had to be deleted before it aired. In spite of that outburst, Wollek grew to respect Foyt, especially after the four-time Indy 500 winner helped in bringing the Swap Shop 935 to Daytona’s Victory Lane in what was Wollek’s first 24 hour triumph there.

 

Although determined on the track, Wollek could be introspective, once nearly coming to tears in the press-room at Le Mans in 1997 when explaining he caused the retirement of his factory 911 GT1 by losing control and and wrecking the transaxle on one of the high curbs surrounding the Sarthe circuit. In reality, though, it turned out that there was nothing Wollek could have done, the cause being a half shaft which failed on its own.

 

With the factory’s withdrawal from the sport at the end of 1998, Wollek again found work, driving for privateer Porsche teams, and was scheduled to race at Sebring in the highly competitive Petersen-White Lightning 911 GT3 on the weekend of this death. Today ten years later, Wollek is remembered as a hard nosed competitor and a good man. Surely that speaks all that needs to be said about him for those of us who still miss him.

Bill Oursler, March 2011


Overtures and Beginners

And the World is like an apple,

Whirling silently in space

The year grinds into gear and out of the dark winter months. Like the cherry blossom on the trees right now the motor sport world blooms at the various media days and launches.

Last week it was the turn of the 2011 British GT Championship. Silverstone was the venue for the event and the whole affair is looking very promising with both quality and quantity on the up.

David Blumlein took his trusty Nikon along to capture a flavour of the event. He has kindly agreed to share it with us in this gallery. He is turning out to be a truly Special Correspondent.

The World’s Favourite Rotarians

Mazda 717C

More from the big box of old stuff.  Once heard never forgotten, as the twin rotor engines roared out their song. The chassis design was pretty wild too. From this small acorn a mighty Le Mans win would be grown for Mazda, the only Japanese manufacturer to achieve this to date.

With Japan in turmoil after the disaster of last week, our thoughts and prayers are with the Japanese people, this is a reminder of better days. The Sun will shine again.

John Brooks, March 2011

Thinking Inside the Box

Racing in the Rain

A September Sunday in 1983, no Indian Summer at Brands Hatch, just rain and mud. 1983 was the year that Group C really took off with Porsche 956 factory and customer cars battling with the dramatic but fragile Lancia LC2 trio.

This 1000 kilometres around the Kent woods was also the final international victory for the great touring car/sportscar champion, John Fitzpatrick.  Driving with Derek Warwick in the John Fitzpatrick Racing Porsche 956 they defeated a pair of factory Rothmans Porsche 956s, a feat that only happened a handful of times back then. Something to be celebrated.

The Box? The one that I found a pile of negs and slides dating back to the 80s that I shot. Expect to see more.

John Brooks, March 2011