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 it was 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 HERE HERE 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.
John Brooks, December 2014