Muscle Milk Pickett Racing returned to its winning ways Saturday in the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón, the same day where three class driver championship battles ended at VIRginia International Raceway. It marked a magical day for the ALMS in its debut at VIR.
Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr teamed for a three-lap victory in the four-hour race driving Muscle Milk’s Honda Performance Development ARX-03a. The day also belonged to Corvette Racing’s Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner, who clinched the GT title with a class victory; and Alex Job Racing’s Cooper MacNeil, who clinched the GT Challenge championship thanks to a class win with Leh Keen.
CORE autosport’s Alex Popow wrapped up the Prototype Challenge title with a third-place class finish in the No. 06 ORECA FLM09 as CORE teammates Colin Braun and Jon Bennett won in the No. 05 entry.
The P1 and P2 championships will go down to the season’s final race – Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda at Road Atlanta. Level 5 Motorsports’ Christophe Bouchut and Scott Tucker won in P2 in a back-and-forth affair with Conquest Racing’s David Heinemeier-Hansson and Martin Plowman.
In GT, Gavin and Milner led twice for more than three hours and took the lead for good at the one-hour, 15-minute mark in the No. 4 Corvette C6 ZR1. Gavin made his 100th ALMS start a memorable one by clinching his fourth class championship. Milner won his first at his home track to go along with a class victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2011.
The victory also sewed up the team championship for Corvette Racing and manufacturer title for Chevrolet.
The Gavin/Milner duo received a good omen at the race’s start. Mark Patterson in the No. 20 Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda spun at the first turn, and Gavin narrowly escaped unscathed. He went back and forth early with Extreme Speed Motorsports’ Johannes van Overbeek, the GT pole winner, in the early going. The pairing swapped the lead twice before Gavin assumed command during the race’s second caution.
“I was hoping things would go well for us, with this being my 100th start,” Gavin said. “When I managed to get through the melee in Turn 1, I thought this could very well be our day. Things worked out for us today, but we've worked at it. We made our own luck. We clambered and put ourselves in the right position. We executed that four times this year, and that’s why we won the championship.”
Both Milner and Gavin had their hands full throughout – Milner with Dirk Müller in the No. 56 BMW M3 GT and Gavin with Jörg Bergmeister in the No. 45 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. The top four cars finished on the lead lap, and Gavin beat Bergmeister by 19.539 seconds.
“This championship feels really, really good,” Milner said. “I’ve had two short years with Corvette Racing. The team made me feel welcome since day one, and to bring this championship to them is amazing. The cars (in the GT class) are so close, and each car has its benefits. Our car is so great in the braking, which is helpful because the two best passing zones here are under braking.”
The GT pole winning No. 01 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ferrari captured the MICHELIN® GREEN X® Challenge win in the GT category at VIR. The MGXC is a race within a race, tracking which teams run the cleanest, fastest and most efficient. It was ESM’s first MGXC win since Long Beach.
MacNeil and Keen looked destined for a runner-up finish in GTC but took the lead on the next-to-last lap when JDX Racing’s Michael Valiante stopped for a late splash of fuel. Keen and the No. 23 AJR Porsche 911 GT3 Cup held off NGT Motorsport’s Jeroen Bleekemolen by 0.423 seconds.
The victory also gave Alex Job Racing its first ALMS team championship since 2004.
For awhile, the GTC race looked like it would be a three-car battle between AJR, NGT and Green Hornet Racing. Damien Faulkner in the No. 34 Green Hornet Porsche led just shy of the race’s midpoint before his Porsche suffered a flat tire
following contact with one of the Level 5 prototypes. That left Keen to fight with Valiante for the final two hours and then Bleekemolen in the final 30 minutes.
The speed differentials between the GTC cars and the rest of the classes didn’t help matters much, Keen said.
“It was a new track for most everybody, especially for the series,” he explained. “The prototype-GT deal was kind of tough today. There was plenty of passing but there were a lot of aggressive prototype drivers out there for a four- hour race. Cooper did a great job in the Turn 1 chaos there. Alex runs such a great program. It isn't his first championship, and it won't be his last for sure.”
The victory was the second of the year for MacNeil – icing on the cake for his rookie campaign.
“I couldn't have done it without Leh,” he said. “With these guys (Alex Job Racing) there is nothing to worry about. They nailed the pit stops. We did a great job in qualifying. The race was super close. There were a lot of good cars and good teams, but that’s what separates Alex Job Racing from everyone else, we can go that extra mile to win the race. This is great… it’s just unbelievable to win my first championship in my first year in ALMS.”
After two races with electrical and mechanical issues, the Muscle Milk HPD ran faultless for the entire weekend. Graf took pole position and set an all-time VIR lap record for the 17-turn, 3.27-mile layout. Luhr recorded the fastest lap of the race and also went quicker than the previous record.
“It was very good to win, especially when you know that we are always the quickest car on track,” Luhr said. “In the last two races we were as fast as we were today, but we had some small technical issues. It's nice not for just us drivers but for the whole team to finally be rewarded for their hard work.”
Everything clicked Saturday. Graf started first, and the duo never looked back. The only slight problem – if you can call it that – was a concern of overheating when the radiators collected debris from the circuit. The Muscle Milk crew made short work of that on the final pit stop.
Other than that, the only issue was traffic. Staying clean meant that Muscle Milk moved that much closer to clinching the ALMS’ P1 championship. Unofficially, it only needs to complete 70 percent of next month’s Petit Le Mans. Saturday,
Dyson Racing’s Chris Dyson, Guy Smith and Johnny Mowlem placed second in P1 and remain in the title chase as well. They debuted a flywheel hybrid system this weekend in the Lola-Mazda.
“It was difficult to manage the traffic,” Graf said. “There were certain places where you could just not get around slower cars. It also depends on what class you're overtaking. Overall everybody had some incidents but we saw a really good race. We came here doing what we wanted to do. We drove hard, we went fast, and the team didn't make a mistake. (Finishing 70 percent at Petit Le Mans) is not the easiest thing to do. We'll go back to the shop and regroup. It will be a big team effort.”
Muscle Milk’s win also increased the team’s prototype-category lead in the MGXC. It is the team’s fourth MGXC win this season.
CORE autosport’s sixth PC victory was the latest highlight in what has been a dominating season. Bennett and Braun won by a lap over PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports’ Rudy Junco and Marino Franchitti. It wasn’t without drama, though. Bennett, starting from the class pole, lost positions in the Turn 1 chaos but held steady in third place for most of his stint. It was at times a rough-and-tumble affair for both Bennett and Braun, who won for the third time this season.
“We ended up tangling with a GTC car early, and then we took another strong hit to the car,” Bennett said. “It was becoming a tough day. I knew Colin and I needed to keep pushing to try for the driver's championship. I had an uneventful end of my stint and handed it over to Colin and he went like a rocketship like he usually is.”
That didn’t mean it was clear sailing. Braun took over shortly past the 75-minute mark and dueled with both Junco and Franchitti for the remainder of the race.
“Some guys were good with traffic, and some guys were not so good,” he said. “But it turned out to be really, really fun. I knew with the strategy we put together it would be really, really tight on the fuel. We had the quick car, and it afforded us the chance to put a bit of safety fuel in the car. I think we could have made it but it was nice to be safe there.”
Popow, who drove with Tom-Kimber Smith, finished on the PC podium for the eighth time in as many races to win his first ALMS championship. It seemed in doubt in the early-going as the No. 06 ORECA suffered moderate rear damage
after being hit from behind on the opening lap.
“It hasn't sunk in,” he admitted. “It is amazing. Today we were running strong, but we had troubles during the race. We were hit, our steering wheel broke in half … so it was eventful. The team did an awesome job as always. They have been the key to winning this championship. I have to congratulate Jon and the job he has done putting together this group of professionals.”
Tucker and Bouchut won together in P2 for the fifth time this season in a class battle that had more ups and downs than VIR’s layout. But in the end, the No. 055 HPD ARX-03b came from the back of the grid to a class victory.
“Unfortunately the tires got blistered in qualifying, so the team made the decision to change them before the race,” Tucker said. “With the longer race we figured we could get caught back up. So I just had to stay out of trouble and give the car to Christophe in good shape without any damage and our plan worked.”
It did for the most part. Heinemeier-Hansson in the No. 35 Conquest Morgan- Nissan swapped the lead with Ricardo Gonzalez in the No. 95 Level 5 car. All three P2 cars were penalized multiple times for avoidable contact – a testament to how hard the racing was between the P2 runners and the rest of the field.
Bouchut ran the last hour of the race without incident, however. The Level 5 pit strategy and execution proved to be the ultimate difference.
“Here it is not easy to overtake,” Bouchut admitted. “It is hard to evaluate when you have to (make a move) and when not to go. Sometimes it is a bit crazy. I started to get a little desperate, and I was penalized. We had to push that much harder to get back and be able to win the race, which is what we did.”
Gonzalez, Tucker and Luis Diaz finished third in class driving the No. 95 car. But it was excluded after it failed the post-race stall test; the engine did not shut off when the air intake was sealed.
The final race of the 2012 American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón is Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda.