Petit Le Mans week at Road Atlanta near Gainesville , GA is one of the major racing and fan weeks in Sports Car racing.
The Petit Le Mans race is one I have done many times and won twice, 2000 and 2001. I last did Petit in 2008 in the Falken Tire Ford GT with Tim Pappas and Anthony Lazzaro, gaining a top 10 finish after 9 hours plus of racing; sadly that team did not get funding for this year.
The fans love Petit; it has a huge crowd of solid fans, most of them camping from Thursday thru Sunday. As I arrive at the track every day for practice, Petit reminds me a lot of Sebring where you also pass the hundreds of fans lined up outside the track in their campers, waiting to be let inside early in the weekend. The fans camp early to make sure they get their favorite spots around the track when the gates open for them.
Our SCCA SPEED World Challenge GT round number 9 was one of many professional races happening during the week, as support races to the Petit Le Mans. Races start on Friday morning and end Saturday night around 9pm, when the Petit race ends.
Most people will remember the massive rains and serious residential flooding in Atlanta the week before Petit . I am a bit of a weather nerd and was wondering whether we would be affected by any of this, especially if it kept raining.
I was supposed to fly to Atlanta on the Monday. According to the weather guru on TV, the rains that had already lasted a week were supposed to last through the Friday of race week for sure and then maybe even through the following Tuesday after Petit week. This would be just terrible for local people, in terms of swollen creeks and rivers.
Sadly, some tragedies had already been reported and would only get worse if this forecasting proved accurate.
Things looked very grim as my 90 min flight into Atlanta on Monday ended up taking 7 hours, thanks to delays, a re-routing for a fuel stop and then more delays. Seemed like this weather was for real.
Luckily, weather forecasting seems to be the only job you can get 100% wrong most of the time and still keep your job. My drive to the race track on Tuesday was punctuated with sunshine, and the next four days were sunny and warm -- perfect racing weather. A 70 % chance of rain forecast must mean sunny and warm; I just need to learn the language, I guess.
I might look into a career in weather forecasting after racing, they tell me all you need is a hat, a rain coat, a desire to stand on a rainy, windy beach with a microphone in your hand and not mind looking like an idiot.
In all seriousness, I was very happy for the people in western Atlanta that we had a 4 day break in the weather and they had a chance to dry out and take care of their homes and neighborhoods -- 20 inches of rain is an amazing amount in a just a few days.
My K-Pax 3R Volvo team had thought we would be competitive at Atlanta, meaning we thought a top 5 finish was possible after a miserable Road America where we had no chance of a top 5 finish due to the long straights there. Early practice in Atlanta showed that we were indeed competitive with the test day showing us in the top 3.
Now comes Wednesday and our first SCCA practice day. By the way, the weather was perfect, 60% rain means sunny; I’m getting it by this point.
Wednesday meant two sessions of 45 mins for us and also a pr interview for me with Speed TV.com.
Marshall Pruitt, of Speedtv.com fame, had arranged for Allan McNish of the Audi factory P1 team and I to meet with him and talk about our time driving together a decade before. The interview will be on Speedtv.com very soon so I will not take away from that but will talk about it just a little here.
Allan and I drove in the Rohr Porsche GT1 in 1997 when I won the IMSA GT1 Championship and again in 1999 a couple of times in the Champion Porsche GT1 EVO. Allan was just coming into sports car racing from single seater cars and I was moving up to more aero downforce cars, carbon brakes etc, and we met in the middle so to speak. F1 driver meets showroom stock driver in GT1 Porsche. We became firm friends to this day and have shared many good times along the way.
The interesting part here is the impact we make on people and what they remember most about us and what we remember most about them, it seems they are usually completely different.
Marshall asked us what impacts we made on each other in the racing area. I mentioned how Allan’s driving data and brilliance had opened the window for me to see how much I could get out of the car in an aero sense, on the limit and without crashing it.
Allan mentioned I had taught him something about shock control where he never needed to know anything about this. All he knew was aero from running on the smooth European tracks and in very high downforce cars. Shock control was new to him, and quite important, as some US tracks are quite bumpy.
Then my Scottish friend dropped me right in it; after explaining the shock absorber stuff. Allan continued to go about what else he thought was memorable as opposed to remembered, oh dear!!
I’ll paraphrase here: “Andy corrupting this poor little 27-year-old Scot, eye opening, I didn’t know that was legal, she has to be double-jointed,” and other things I can’t remember. I hope Marshall gives me a break when he writes the article.
By the way, in all honesty, I believe Allan McNish is the most brilliantly fast prototype sports car driver in the world today, period, and it’s a privilege to call him my friend, even if he drops me in it, in a good way. Really, we were all laughing, that’s for sure...
Back to the racing, Wednesday was not a good day as far as our testing with the number 8 Volvo S60 AWD. In fact I only got a couple of laps in the 90 min of practice we had. I had diff issues, rear end oil leaks, a sticking steering rack and suspension problems.
So, my crew had a heck of a day. They were not to blame for any of the problems; it was just new parts and a continuation of development and testing we had been doing all year. It just seemed to be my turn to have issues during practice.
This practice problem bug seems to go from car to car these days. Randy Pobst, my team mate in the number 1 car, had a trouble free day and was right up in the times. It seemed like the new EMCO parts in our transmissions were holding their own as Randy had no problems and had done a bunch of laps, this was great news.
I am a great student of Winston Churchill; I just think the man was an incredible inspiration and leader like no other. His words regarding never giving up are frequently the ones I remember when things are not going so well. They help me focus on the real issues and not on feelings of doom or self-pity, calling Dr. Ruth/Dr. Phil/Tony Robbins, etc.
We went into qualifying having very little idea how the car was going to handle; I put the pedal to the metal and ended up 2nd behind my Randy. I was ecstatic.
We had the now traditional coin toss and for the second time this year, poor Randy lost it and we ended up going from 1st and 2nd to 4th and 5th. Not ideal, but hopefully not too bad, if we could get our Volvos to launch when the starting lights go out, the way we know an AWD car can do.
Race day and guess what … 50% chance of rain …. That means sunny and warm all day. Excellent!
The start of this race is one people will talk about for a while. The starting lineup was Brandon Davis in 1, Eric Curran in 2, James Sofronas in 3, me in 4, Randy in 5, Tony Rivera in 6.
We do standing starts in World Challenge, as I have mentioned before, and when the red light goes out - we go!
Well, I went and most of the others around me didn’t, for a bunch of reasons. It ended up that I was all alone when I entered turn one, coming from the second row!!
My AWD Volvo will fly off the line if all goes well, but this year, we have only had one other good start. That was in New Jersey, where I also won.
How I got to the front that quickly is a bit bizarre. One point here: the Sun was making the red lights we use for our starts a little opaque, so I gave my sunglasses to my crew chief before I left the grid. I’m glad I did.
Here are the reasons why I looked like I was a snake on greased ice fired out of a gun:
At the start Brandon Davis was in neutral, he told me. Eric Curran’s rear tires just spun and he didn’t move because his team had tried to modify his launch control to help his starts James Sofronas almost stalled. I started with no problem. Randy, my teammate, did not see the light as he said it was a glare issue, so he didn’t move; and Tony Rivera stalled and didn’t move.
I am not telling you this to make me look good; I have jumped and messed-up my fair share of starts. I tell you this to show how bad it looked for them and how ridiculous the Volvo looked as it ripped off the line.
It almost looked like I had apparently jumped the start, as I slithered around Curran to avoid hitting him in the rear. In fact my own crew were questioning me after the race on what happened at the start until I filled them in on what drivers had told me. I hope you guys watch this one on TV; I know I want to see it.
To my way of thinking, the start was the win. Oh yes; by the way, I did win this one!
Eric Curran drove his butt off in his Whelen Corvette to come from fifth to second. Had he not spun his tires at the start and had to chase me down from my five-second lead, he would have been hard to beat.
As it was, he had the fastest lap and ran me down to a one-second gap. But with five laps left, his tires were finally gone and he dropped back to finish a solid second, with Brandon Davis coming in third in his ACS Ford Mustang.
Sadly, Randy Pobst had some driveline issues, similar to the ones I had in practice, and had to pull out of the race early.
We had Spencer Pumpelly back with us in his stunning TRG Mercedes SLR. We also had Boris Said, now of NASCAR road racing fame and an old teammate/competitor of mine. It’s great to see these cars and great drivers with us in World Challenge.
Before the race we had a WC Vision meeting where we discussed the state of the series. We also knock around marketing ideas to go forward with to make us more competitive and stronger as a professional race series product.
We had a great talk from Jason Dukes; a long-time race fan and public speaker in the marketing area. He had some great ideas about how to market our series, and observations about how other series like NASCAR and F1 had done it right, while others may have done it not so well.
It was great stuff and with the likes of Jason helping the WC Vision team I think 2010 is going to be great, I hope they’ll give me at least a motorized shopping trolley to race and I’ll be there.
Next stop Laguna Seca on October 11th. Randy and I are hoping for good things. I’ll see you guys in a couple of weeks.