Here at DDC Towers I get to see thousands and thousands of motor sport photos, almost exclusively they are cars on track. I suppose that’s what we are all focused on, the glamorous bit. So it is unusual to say the least to get an edit that is concerned in the main part with the unsung heroes. Twenty years ago the 12 Hours of Sebring was a hot, dusty affair as it frequently is. Dyson Racing pushed the factory BMW right to the limit with James Weaver finishing less than 20 seconds behind Tom Kristensen after half a day of competition.
James and his team-mates, Butch Leitzinger and Elliot Forbes-Robinson, got to stand on the podium and spray the Champagne and accept the applause. They were keenly aware that the result was built on the hard graft and skills of the Dyson Racing crew, a no Bull outfit. Their story that day was captured for posterity by Brian ‘Doc’ Mitchell and it is fitting that on Sebring race-day 2019 we get to salute a memorable performance.
The emails come pinging in, more magic moments from the past courtesy of Brian ‘Doc’ Mitchell. Here he looks back to the birth of the American Le Mans Series in 1999…………a wondrous time. In an hour or so the gates will open and Sebring 2019 will get underway, doubtless in 20 years time those enjoying this amazing event will have similar rose-tinted memories, I hope so.
Malcolm Cracknell was one of the pioneers of sports-car racing media on the internet as the World-Wide-Web was known in those innocent times. SportsCarWorld,TotalMotorSport and finally DailySportsCar were the introduction for most of us to the concept of paperless information in real time rather than on a weekly cycle. I joined Crackers on this journey at the start and now as we head for the winding down laps we spend time looking back as well as forward.
1999 is the target this time round for the Tardis……….
John Brooks and I are quite proficient at nattering away on
the telephone. We call it “living in the
past”, because we always return to discussing racing in a previous era.
For various reasons, I’ve been thinking about 1999
recently. Conveniently that’s two
decades ago, but with the state of my brain, I’ve inevitably forgotten things
that I wish I could remember – so I’ve had to consult the reference books (and
What I do remember is that in late ’98, I was planning a
trip to the season-opening Rolex 24.
Presumably, finances dictated that it was either the Rolex or the
Sebring 12 Hours (in early ’99). I have no idea why I chose the first of the
two endurance classics): perhaps it was simply a desperate desire to escape the
British winter for a few days? I’m
guessing that I hadn’t absorbed how the maiden Petit Le Mans in ‘98 was going
to set the tone for US
endurance racing in years to come. Had I
had any clue, I would have undoubtedly chosen Sebring.
But I certainly didn’t regret going to Florida in January. The first person I met after stumbling into
was Andy Wallace. Oddly, I’d not yet met
Andy: our paths simply hadn’t crossed.
But I was encouraged to find that he knew who I was and that he’d seen
the last news item I’d posted, before dashing to Gatwick. That was an image of the new BMW prototype,
which would make its debut at… Sebring.
Andy and I were both a little perplexed by the BMW’s single, pointed
roll hoop: the governing body was trying to mandate full width roll hoops, but
BMW (and others, subsequently) had presumably found a way round the wording.
I loved Daytona! It
was relatively straightforward to cover the race, live and single-handed, on
the internet – by dashing to the nearby pit-lane every hour or two to grab a
pitstop photograph and, hopefully, a comment from a competitor, then rushing
back to the media center, to pick up the threads of the race.
I was delighted when Dyson Racing took the overall win (AWOL,
Butch Leitzinger and, appropriately, the way the season would evolve, EF-R) –
and also with Brit David Warnock being part of the winning GTS crew in Roock’s
Porsche. This was the event that saw the
debut of the Corvettes, and thanks to a fortuitous bit of timing, I managed to
grab 15 minutes with Doug Fehan, before the track opened. He talked me through the technical aspects of
the car – and immediately planted a soft spot for the Corvettes in my
brain. They weren’t race winners yet,
and anyway, I always liked to see privateers beat the factory cars, which is
just what the Roock Porsche managed.
Years later, James Weaver told me what he thought of the
power output of the (restricted) Ford V8s in the Dyson R&Ss. ‘You can come past the pits (at Daytona) flat
out, take your seat belts off, stand up, turn through 360 degrees, sit down, do
your belts up – and still have time to
brake for Turn 1’, was the essence of his complaint!
170mph+ was nowhere near fast enough for James. He wanted to reach at least 190. My only conversation with James during that Rolex
meeting was a snatched “Stu Hayner has binned it (the #16) at the chicane,” at
some point during the night.
Right, I’m getting near to the point of this piece now: the
1999 ALMS season, and the influence of one (great) man. I’m not about to review the whole ’99 season:
I’m just going to refer to Sebring, the Road Atlanta sprint race and the finale
at Las Vegas.
I think I’ve already told you that I finally ‘discovered’
youtube last year: I moved house, had to buy a new TV decoder thing, and really
by accident, found that I could watch youtube on the TV (I can’t look at a
laptop for any length of time, because of my illness). And there on youtube are highlights of all
the ALMS races! Brilliant!
Sebring in ’99 was clearly an epic event, and I should have
been there. A huge crowd, a fantastic
entry (58 cars) – including van de Poele / Enge / Saelens in that gorgeous
Rafanelli R&S Judd, a car that Eric vdP described somewhere (at the time)
as, paraphrasing here, ‘the best car I ever drove’.
The admirable Belgian leapt into the lead at the start, and
kept the BMWs at bay for 11 laps, before pitting with a misfire (it eventually
retired after 185 laps). BMW tried to
‘shoot themselves in the foot’, which enabled the EF-R / Leitzinger Dyson
R&S to stay in touch with the surviving factory entry of Lehto / Kristensen
/ Muller – which set up a great finale, with Weaver plonked in the R&S to
try and chase down TK. He came up short
by about 17 seconds at the flag. Great
Audi finished third and fifth with their original R8s – and
a year later, the ultimate R8 would transform prototype racing. Porsches took the GTS and GT classes – as
Corvette Racing continued to develop the C-5Rs.
I’ve no recollection of how (as it was then)
sportscarworld.co.uk covered that Sebring race, but for the Road Atlanta event
in April, the site had the benefit of Philip XXXX’s reporting skills. Alas, I can’t remember Philip’s surname, even
though we have since been in touch on Facebook.
How frustrating! Sorry
Philip. But what a classic race you saw
Andy Wallace led from the start for Dyson (the BMWs were
absent as they prepared to win Le Mans),
but was called in during the first caution period, which turned out to be the
wrong move. vdP and David Brabham (this was the debut of the mighty Panoz
roadster) started well back, after some kind of ‘qualifying times withdrawn’
nonsense – and while the Panoz was a handful during its first run ever on full
tanks, the Rafanelli entry was going like a dream. vdP picked his way through virtually the
whole field and took the lead, which set up a conclusion in which partner Mimmo
Schiattarella saw off Didier Theys in the Doran Lista Ferrari, to win by 25
The V12 Ferraris seemed handicapped by their restrictors in
’99, in ways that the V10 Judd-powered R&S wasn’t. The commentators (rather unfairly) suggested
that the V10 might fail in that last stint – but it was as simple as an
over-filled oil tank blowing out the excess.
I wonder if Dyson Racing ever considered converting their
cars to Judd power? Kevin Doran eventually
did just that with his 333 Ferrari, creating the famous ‘Fudd’.
EF-R / Leitzinger finished third, as their points tally grew
steadily, while Don’s LMP Roadster S finished a fine fifth on its debut.
The Schumacher and Snow Porsches had a great race in GTS
(the former just winning), while PTG won GT – with none other than Johannes van
Overbeek partnering Brian Cunningham. Is
Johannes the longest serving driver in the series?
Don’s series. That
was a sad day, back in September last year, when we learned that Don had passed
away. The greatest benefactor that any
series has ever had? Did he ever get
annoyed if his cars didn’t win? To my
knowledge, he never did. He genuinely
seemed to simply love a great event, his event, attended by huge numbers of
I know how much he loved it when the orange, Lawrence
Tomlinson, Panoz Esperante won its class at Le Mans: when his bellowing (prototype) monsters
beat the Audis, he was clearly thrilled – but he didn’t seem to demand race
wins, the way others might.
My Don Panoz story came a few years later, in the spring of 2004. For the full story, you’ll have to wait until my book is launched (I think enough years have elapsed for the tale to be told), but in essence, Don was grateful for a story that I didn’t write. Don and Scott Atherton approached me in the Monza press room (it was the ELMS race), and Don expressed his personal thanks to me. I was touched!
Incidentally, I’m hoping the book will be launched at Brands Hatch on May 25. Anyone who reads this is invited to attend – and I’m sure you’ll announce it on DDC nearer the time, once it’s confirmed. Thanks in advance for that!
Right, back to 1999.
Don’s cars took a 1-2 at Mosport (Tom Kjos had taken over reporting
duties – and what a great job he did over the years), won again at Portland,
lucked into the win at the second Petit Le Mans (that man Wallace joined
regulars Brabham and Bernard), lost out at Laguna Seca – and all the while,
EF-R had been racking up the points.
The proposed San Diego race
didn’t happen, replaced by a fanless Las
Vegas – and I was determined to be there. With the help of Brooksie, Kerry Morse and
Cort Wagner, the trip was on.
The TV highlights of that race don’t match my memories in
one, significant respect… Having qualified eighth and ninth, the Dyson entries
experienced very different fortunes.
AWOL and Butch in #20 were out after just 22 laps with gearbox trouble,
but James was EF-R’s ‘wingman’ in #16.
In the opening exchanges, my memory is James really going for it – but
the highlights on youtube don’t really show that. I can still picture the Riley & Scott on
a charge, its driver all ‘elbows out’ as he battled to give Elliott a chance of
the title later on. Jean-Marc Gounon was
almost as boisterous in the DAMS Lola: it was fantastic entertainment.
But #16 then suffered with a fuel pressure problem, and it
looked as though the Panoz drivers (B & B) would be title winners – until
their engine failed with 17 laps left. BMW finished 1-2, but EF-R limped home
sixth and he was the drivers’ champion.
I surprised James Weaver by appearing in the pit-lane
wearing his old, ’96, BPR
Gulf overalls (lent to me
by Kerry Morse – I’ve no idea how he got hold of them).
“You’re wearing my overalls!” said an otherwise speechless
Oh, the Rafanelli R&S was first retirement,
unfortunately, with overheating. Was it
the right move to park that car and race a Lola in 2000?
Cort Wagner was the champ in GT, while Olivier Beretta took
the honours in GTS, in an ORECA Viper, a car that I haven’t mentioned in this
tale (Le Mans
was the initial priority). Wagner and
Muller won their class at Las Vegas,
with the red and white Vipers 1-2 in GTS.
My last thought here is connected to youtube, again. Something I’ve been getting interested in is
the whole 9/11 thing. I’m not going to
ram my thoughts down your throat – but I would like to suggest that you look up
Rebekah Roth, Christopher Bollyn, Barbara Honegger and / or Richard Gage, and
listen to some of their views on what really happened in September 2001. The more you find out, the more extraordinary
that tale becomes. If you find that lot
interesting, you might also consider looking up ‘Operation Mockingbird’.
Now, I’ve got to go and look up my favourite ALMS race on
youtube: Laguna Seca in 2005. I think
that was the one when John Hindhaugh ‘did his nut’ when the overall leaders
came up to lap the scrapping Corvettes and Aston Martins. Great memories (or just plain “living in the
The last visit to the territory of NoRight was for the first American Le Mans Series round of 2001. Arriving from the wintery UK and expecting a repeat of the sweltering heat previously encountered in September I got a shock. The conditions in Texas during March were more Donington than Dallas, damp, cold and grey.
The series had lost the Vipers of ORECA, the BMW V12 LMR had retired and Schnitzer now had M3s to join PTG in the fight with the Porsches for the GT class. Overall the numbers were down, 34 entries had participated at Las Vegas, here in Texas four months later that was reduced to 22. Certainly the grid was not helped by the competition at Grand-Am who had 35 cars turn up at Homestead the same weekend. A big incentive was not having to take on the Audis or the Panoz, Dyson Racing could bring along the Riley & Scott to win, that would have been unthinkable in Texas. The vastness of the Texas Motor Speedway and the reduced car count gave a feeling that the ALMS was somehow losing momentum, in danger, perhaps, of stalling.
On a positive note Champion Racing had acquired an R8 to give the Joest pair a run for their money, though they would take some time to get up to speed, including drivers who could take full advantage of the Audi’s potential performance.
Perhaps most importantly, at least it seemed that way at the time, there was a new Panoz, the LMP07. In addition Doctor Don put his hand into his pocket and ran a pair of the old LMP1 cars to pad out the field at the sharp end.
One thing that was familiar was the lack of a crowd and the lack of decent locations or backgrounds to execute my art…………..even the light deserted me until the race started.
I do recall a few things about the second ALMS race at Texas Motor Speedway. The Australian Grand Prix was also running that Saturday evening after the track action had finished, time zones are a wonderful thing. So we all got in our rental cars and drove 50 miles (all journeys in Dallas are 50 miles or more, it’s the Law) to a sports bar where the Grand Prix was being televised. I had just acquired my first digital camera; it was powerful Juju back then, the ability to see your work instantaneously, no waiting for the film processors to do their work. Instant gratification, how very 21st Century?
I was sitting with Dindo Capello and Michele Alboreto watching another dull Schumacher/Ferrari procession when I piped up.
“Dindo, did you damage the car today, during Qualifying?”
“What do you mean, damage?” said the completely innocent Italian, butter would not melt, his eyes showing the hurt he just endured when such an outrageous suggestion had been aired.
“When you hit the chicane and scattered the poles”
“No, no that was not me”
“Well, how do you explain this?”
I flicked the back of the camera to show cart wheeling poles from the chicane that Dindo had driven over. It was a magic show, that Michele had been keenly observing as Dindo squirmed, his mistake now public.
Michele seized the moment, grabbed the camera and got all the Audi crew to see the evidence of his friend’s indiscretion. I recall it cost Dindo a round of drinks. From that point on Michele and I got on like a house on fire.
Another new car making its début in Texas was the Callaway C-12 R, it was a handsome beast even if the results never reflected the potential.
In real terms the race was largely settled before it began, the Pirro/Biela R8 had its pole position time disallowed as their Audi’s rear diffuser was 2mm higher than the rules allowed, so they would start at the back of the field. Dindo Capello led away at the Green Flag, he was joined in the Audi for 2001 by Tom Kristensen as Allan McNish had jumped ship to Toyota in preparation for their 2002 Formula One campaign.
Most cars start slowly and develop but the LMP07 went the other way. The race at Texas was the only time that it looked like a winner, a late race stop for fuel denying a début win for Brabham and Magnussen, thereafter it was a dog. The team dropped the car after Le Mans, reverting to the trusty LMP1, a decision justified with victories at Portland and Mid-Ohio.
Kelly Collins had a massive crash in the factory Corvette after a puncture, he was lucky to walk away after the heavy impact. The guys at Pratt & Miller faced some sleepless nights to get a new car built up for Sebring less than a fortnight later.
GT was the property of Alex Job Racing with the paring of Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen overcoming the BMW challenge.
Tom Kristensen brought his R8 home for yet another Audi 1-2 and the Panoz was third. Once more the crowds stayed away in droves missing another good battle and a tight finish. Plans to run again at Charlotte late in 2001 were quietly dropped and that was the end of the Roval experiment. And yet the ALMS had not finished with stadiums as we shall see in Part Four.
What went wrong? Why did ‘Takin’ It to the Streets’ not work? I can offer some thoughts………….
Simply that sportscar races held on these hybrid tracks were artificial, driven by TV and marketing demographics, planned by those who had little feel for what they were doing. We would all show up with the “Hey another day at the office attitude” and none of the anticipation that the mention of Le Mans or Nordschleife or Spa brings. Sportscar fans are usually amongst the sharper knives in the block and even the dumber ones could sense that this was ersatz racing, endurance lite and avoided it like the plague. If the real fans did not care why should casual spectators spend their time and money?
This failure and the failure of street events such as Miami and Washington (for different reasons) pose a question. Is there a future for sportscars given the need to increase attendances to get greater coverage, to get more sponsorship $$$, to get greater coverage? Or should we just give up and admit that F1 and NASCAR have sucked the life out of the sport below their Augean stables? Perhaps the answer lies with a different question. Instead of chasing new markets should we not just consolidate our existing strengths and concentrate on improving the show……….sort of “Build it and they will come” philosophy?
Blonds Have More Fun
Well the numbers that attend Le Mans and the other classics attest to the popularity of the endurance form of racing……sometimes. There are many who would no more stop breathing than fail to turn up at their favourite event be it La Sarthe or Sebring; these folks would no more go to a Grand Prix or Daytona 500 than fly to the moon. Some of the more extreme cases plot their trips throughout the year and there are many websites run by the fans for the fans. Even the absence of a historical lineage is no obstacle to success as the instant classic status of Petit Le Mans proves.
Maybe that is it, in this age of hundreds of cable channels, the internet and all day drinking hours, for us to get off our backsides and go to a race meeting without the incentive of making a buck, requires that the venue/event has a sense of occasion, a promise of a place in history ……….most of us Sartheophiles reference our personal index of the years by the who-what-why of 24 hours between 3.00 pm on two days in June. I suspect the same is true of the guys on Sebring’s Turn 10, even for the most part, like the 60’s, if you can remember it you weren’t there.
Our fables are not of dragons and wizards but of Ickx in 1969 or 1977 or Andretti in 1970 or of Pedro and Seppi just about all the time. In an age when almost everything is pyrite to find the genuine article is exciting and precious, so seeing a McNish or a Lotterer on a charge is the real deal but only given the right setting.
It would seem that the best hope for the healthy future is to learn from the past, successes as well as failures and go for fewer “classic” events at the remaining few real tracks. Quality over quantity……..F1 and NASCAR are on the opposite course, so that’s proof enough for me.
LMES…….this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
John Brooks December 2004
Excuse some of those conclusions, hindsight is a wonderful thing or a complete embarrassment. The answer would appear to be the FIA World Endurance Championship……………..
The landscape of the American Le Mans Series had changed significantly for the 2000 season with the arrival of Audi and their second endurance sports car, the R8. This would blossom over the next six seasons to become one of the all time great race cars. The lessons of the shortcomings of the R8R had been absorbed so the R8 handled well, had good downforce and was quick in a straight line.
However it would not be a push over for the newcomers as both BMW and Panoz had well proven teams and cars. In reality both were at a disadvantage with compromises that they had to make to conform to the new aerodynamic regulations introduced in the wake of the Mercedes-Benz’ flying accidents at Le Mans in 1999. In addition to that BMW stopped development on the V12 LMR before the season commenced and began focusing their attention on their upcoming return to Formula One.
When the calendar was announced it contained three more visits to Oval Land……. the stadiums at Charlotte and Texas would join Las Vegas on the trail.
The first of these races was to be Charlotte in the heartland of NASCAR territory. The second round of the ALMS would be a tough event to sell to the Good ‘Ole Boys but the circuit itself was pretty good, a quick infield section with elevation changes, up to Daytona International Speedway standards other than the section taking the infield track back onto the banking at turn one and a silly chicane on the back straight.
The transition from infield to the banking caught out a few during the weekend, one of the first being Allan McNish in the Audi R8R, in the penultimate appearance of that car. The new R8 had crushed the opposition in the first round at Sebring but it was being kept in reserve for the Le Mans 24 Hours, so McNish had to push to the limit in the old car which he shared with Dindo Capello and Michele Alboreto. Spinning the Audi was bad enough but then seeing a grinning photographer with his 500mm lens lined up to record the indiscretion made things seem even worse.
Once we were all back in the paddock the Wee Scot forced a rueful smile when he confirmed that the wanker he had spotted with the camera was indeed yours truly, his description, not mine.
Charlotte marked the low point the Audi campaign in 2000, the R8R was just about able to run with the Rafanelli Lola but not BMW or Panoz. These two teams would battle along in the race with the #42 BMW V12 LMR just shading the #1 Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S.
Charly Lamm’s boys just about out fumbled the Panoz guys in the pits and in traffic but the result could have gone either way. JJ was pleased though…………….
Brabham and Magnussen were just eight seconds down on the BMW lead car when the flag dropped with the Rafanelli Lola picking up the final spot on the podium.
The Audi of Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela could only manage sixth place, the return of the R8 to the ALMS could not come soon enough.
GTS was reduced to a Viper parade, as Corvette kept their powder dry in anticipation of their first trip to Le Mans for the Test Day later that month.
The only opposition was a pair of venerable GT2 Porsches which were a long way off the pace, though troubles for #92 Viper meant that Zak Brown and Vic Rice Roock Racing 911 bagged runner up spot to Olivier Beretta and Karl Wendlinger.
The GT class had been invaded in 2000 by a horde of the new 911 GT3-Rs , nine examples of which were at Charlotte. Their début earlier in the season at the Rolex 24 had been marred by a series of engine failures, I looked at that race earlier HERE
They were opposed by two PTG BMWs, the E36 version almost pulling off a shock win after the Dick Barbour Racing ‘werks’ 911’s both hit problems early in the race.
Eventually the Bob Wollek/Sascha Maassen 911 recovered to take victory for Stuttgart rather than Munich.
The crowd numbered in the hundreds rather than Nevada’s tens but in the confines of the huge auditorium designed to take the huddled masses of NASCAR fans this looked pathetic, a problem experienced at all of the Ovals visited. Signs warning “NO THROWING, You will be Removed” stencilled onto the wall were not required………apparently it is a local sport to lob fast food and the like at passing cops, photographers etc., during quiet periods on the track……..a sort of Agincourt Experience with half chewed wings ‘n B-B-Q sauce rather than arrows……..no one much cared about the few clueless photographers like myself stumbling around in search of inspiration, we remained largely safe, a danger only to ourselves.
If Charlotte had been pleasant enough on April Fools’ Day then the furnace conditions encountered at Texas Motor Speedway in early September were not. Whoever signed up the circus to perform in this part of the world at the beginning of September kept a low profile during the weekend, if discovered he, she or it would have been lynched.
Those of us compelled to work outside in temperatures of 110F looked like extras from Lawrence of Arabia and as for the poor sods driving front-engined, closed cockpit crucibles such as the Viper and Corvette, words fail to describe the heroics required of the drivers just to last the race.
In recognition of the insanity of trying to run in the noon sunshine the race was timed to start at dusk…….about 2 degrees cooler………naturally not all Texans are mad despite what you may read and they stayed away in droves…….the rest of us were not so fortunate.
The grid lined up for what seemed forever, certain drivers getting dehydrated as the various pre-race ceremonies dragged on. One problem for the photographers was actually finding anywhere accessible during the race to shoot the cars, hence taking to the stadium’s roof.
The Audi R8 duo had the rest of the pack under control with McNish and Capello in search of a third win on the trot in the second part of the ALMS season.
BMW had managed to paper over the cracks in their operation but Texas would see their first failure to grab a podium place since their appearance in North America at the 1999 Sebring 12 Hours.
Even Jörg’s new hair style could not improve things.
The challenge to the Audis was led by the #1 Panoz crew who were a lap down by the end of the race, a podium was their reward. No one had an answer to the R8.
Lehto and Müller’s title aspirations were given a slight boost when the Schnitzer team ordered their sister car to crawl to the finish, letting #42 into a distant fourth.
There were celebrations in the Pratt & Miller pit as the Corvette of Ron Fellows and Andy Pilgrim took the first win in the ALMS against the Vipers. One of the ORECA cars ran out of fuel, the other had a malfunctioning cooling system which cooked Wendlinger in the first stint.
Similar stories were found in the GT class, I recall Rohan Skea staggering out of his Porsche after a single stint in a very bad way and being taken straight to Medical Centre. Most teams had personnel in and out of the doctors’ care, it was an extremely unpleasant place to be working at.
The race went to Pirro/Biela in spite of the superior pace of the McNish/Capello R8. Two yellow flag periods taking over a minute’s lead from the #77 car, then a problem with the radio meant a mix up with the final pit stop, it was that kind of a race. Most of us could not get away from the place quick enough and there were no spectators to impede our exit.
Two months and three races later we returned to Las Vegas Motor Speedway to continue the lacklustre pattern of holding ALMS events at this kind of venue………..as usual the on track stuff was OK but there was little or no interest locally and few in the way of spectators to be seen. Even the promise of the Steve Soper Experience could not tempt the punters away from the tables and slots.
Actually some off track action WAS exciting as nearby Nellis Air Force Base played host to all kinds of foreign exotic warplanes on some sort of Top Gun event. The pilots, being gearheads, would circle low over the stadium on their final approach to the base, giving us something new to argue about. Those who had been to Vegas before had scant enthusiasm for the place, a little of that town goes a long way.
Even Morse getting me the loan of a Lincoln TownCar – Cartier Edition of course, with white-walled tires, gold stripes and blacked out windows could not lift the mood that we were all in the wrong place.
It did however piss off David Price, who wondered how a low life like me got to ride around like a Rap Star or Vegas pimp, and he had to put up with some anonymous Camry, he grumbled to anyone who would listen………… P. Diddy Brooks anyone?
The event was the penultimate round of the series in 2000, there being a race scheduled in Adelaide on 31st December but Las Vegas still had an end of term feel with a few new entries joining in and some familiar faces about to leave. Tom Coronel impressing in Carsport Holland Viper he shared with Mike Hezemans.
The BMW V12 LMR was making its final appearance as there was no desire from Munich to go Down Under. The car, a collaboration with Williams Grand Prix, had a great racing record over two seasons, victory at Le Mans and six ALMS wins, including Sebring. Quality. Regrettably it also brought down the curtain on the sonorous BMW V12 engine which aurally entertained those track-side since 1995. For 2001 BMW would be running M3s in the GT class.
Another great combination that was making its final ALMS appearance in North America was ORECA and the Dodge Viper GTS-R. After five seasons the French team was headed into the ranks of prototype racing with a Dallara chassis and MOPAR power. The list of the Viper’s successes is almost to long to contemplate.
Reflecting the improvement in the Panoz’ performance as the season progressed Magnussen jumped McNish and Biela at the start of what would be a chaotic and incident packed race.
McNish restored the normal order of things but then the bumping and boring began…………..
Both Panoz entries were in the wars as was Müller’s BMW and Capello in the #77 R8, there were several incidents.
The upshot was a fortunate victory for #78 who had been largely off the pace, especially Biela, but you take the wins as they come.
As was the custom that year GTS honours went to the Viper of Beretta and Wendlinger with the GT class win going to the Dick Barbour Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R of Bob Wollek and Sascha Maassen. It was their fifth win of the year and would be Wollek’s final victory of his career, as he would be killed in a pointless road accident the following March while out cycling near Sebring. I have written about the mercurial Frenchman HEREHERE and HERE .
Another Roval, another failure to bring in the spectators, even someone with Don Panoz’ deep pockets would have to consider how long this strategy would be tried.
2001 would provide the answer and that is the topic for Part Three.
A few hours will pass and the American Le Mans Series will be just a memory. The final flag will drop appropriately enough at Road Atlanta, motorsport’s Georgia Peach. Although the first ALMS race was Sebring in 1999 as seen above, the spiritual home is, and always will be, Braselton.
Fifteen years ago the world of endurance racing was turned on its head with the alliance of Don Panoz and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and the first Petit Le Mans. For the most part this has been a successful partnership, though not without its issues. New management has arrived, let’s hope that they can build on the heritage of the past.
I sit here on a grey, soggy afternoon in Surrey I recall the races and places and faces…………….however I don’t think I can add much to my thoughts written 12 months ago on the way to Georgia HERE
God Speed American Le Mans Series, and thanks…………….without you I would have missed out on seeing some fantastic racing and, much more importantly, missed out on meeting some amazing people. Too many to list but you know who you are……………let’s hope for a safe race today on both sides of the world, there have been too many reminders of our shared mortality this year.
As the field blasted off for the 47th edition of the 12 Hours of Sebring, who could have imagined that 14 years on that we would still have the American Le Mans Series? Sportscar racing in North America had been in turmoil for the best part of a decade and it seemed that state of affairs would continue.
Well it has been a helluva ride for those lucky enough to have a small part. My involvement was full on during the first four years but much less since, nevertheless I always look forward to rolling into Road Atlanta or Sebring. Will that be true in the future? Who can say.
So rather than get angry or despondent, celebrate the fact that we have been lucky enough to be part of some of the greatest racing seen in the past couple of decades. Nothing lasts forever, ask Peugeot.
The message is the same today as it was in Roman times, Horace had that nailed down. Perhaps we should party like it’s 1999.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other destinations were the Konrad and Freisinger teams.
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.
Take a trip down Highway 98 towards Okeechobee, you will find the above marker, a simple tribute to a great champion.