ROAD AMERICA FOUR-HOUR ENDS IN PHOTO FINISH
Muscle Milk wins in ALMS’ closest overall finish
It took four hours of racing at Road America to produce the closest overall finish in American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón history. Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing’s Klaus Graf crossed the finish line 0.112 seconds ahead of Dyson Racing’s Guy Smith. A back-and-forth Risi Competizione and BMW Team RLL battle in GT ended with the first win of 2011 for Risi.
As the green flag waved on the Time Warner Cable Road Race Showcase, it was Oryx Dyson Racing’s Steven Kane in the No. 20 Oryx Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda that stormed into the lead on the opening lap, passing Muscle Milk’s Lucas Luhr in Turn 3. After two rounds of pits stops and driver changes, the No. 6 Lola-Aston Martin retook the lead in the hands of Graf.
Taking over for Chris Dyson, Smith gave chase to Graf and ticked off several fast race laps before closing the gap to less than two seconds with 15 minutes remaining. Smith caught the tail of Graf’s Lola as the pair weaved their way through battles for the GT and GTC lead. The LMP1 rivals spent all four miles of the final lap glued together and as the two crested the hill and screamed underneath the checkered flag, the timing screens displayed Graf the winner by the slimmest overall margin recorded in ALMS.
“The last 20 minutes, it was probably the toughest of my career,” Graf said. “I can’t remember pushing so hard for the last two hours. We were completely lucky the way the yellow came out (with 50 minutes left). The guys just drove an awesome race. We made for a great show. We showed ALMS has some of the best sports car drivers in the world.”
The win was sweet redemption for the Muscle Milk team, which lost the lead in two corners from the finish in last year’s Road America race.
“It's much easier when you're driving and not having to watch your teammate get squeezed and handled,” Luhr said. “I prefer the driving much more than watching. Klaus is a little bit older than me, maybe after what he did we are the same age now! He drove extremely well. He put all the tricks in to defend the lead. It was close and everything. It was a very emotional day, especially losing the race last year with two corners to the end.”
Autocon’s Tony Burgess and Chris McMurry finished third in the No. 12 Lola-AER.
Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing won its fifth-straight MICHELIN® GREEN X® Challenge (MGXC) trophy. The team topped all three scoring factors – Clean, Fast and Efficient. Muscle Milk led the most laps and had the fastest average speed. The team excelled in Efficiency with its lower overall energy consumption despite weighing 50 kilograms more than the Lola-Mazda.
“It's tough to win the MICHELIN® GREEN X® Challenge; we have a V12 engine, but we've switched to the E85 fuel a few races ago, and with direct injection, we can be efficient and make horsepower at the same time,” explained Graf. “I know we're a bit behind in points there, but we have time to make up ground. It's a special championship. I know ALMS was the first to look into the green initiatives in racing, I think it leaves a lot of opportunities for a lot of manufacturers to prove lots of technologies and a lot of green ideas. This will certainly be a great achievement.”
The GT contest at Road America came down to a battle of pit stops and strategy that ended with Risi Competizione’s Jaime Melo and Toni Vilander driving their Ferrari F458 Italia to its first win in ALMS. Class pole-sitter and defending race winner BMW Team RLL started strong with Joey Hand maintaining the lead through three rounds of pit stops - a tall order considering the grappling for position amongst the GT teams. One such trip saw the No. 4 Corvette C6.R of Oliver Gavin and Vilander exit the pits side-by-side, leading to a synchronized spin for the pair in Turn 1.
“I had an engineer yelling on the radio to shut the door,” recalled Vilander. “I needed to stay on the pit-speed limiter and change gears, so I was running out of hands. I know we were on cold tires, and the touch was not that violent, but it was enough to affect both hands. When I knew I was going to lose it, I hammered down the power and almost saved it. During the stint, I had some issues with the car. We were talking a lot with the pit wall. We weren't sure what was going to happen. The guys on the wall kept telling me we were doing fine, keep it up, we're doing fine.”
Gavin recovered from the incident unscathed and on the move. He passed Hand in the No. 56 BMW M3 GT in Turn 14 for the lead just before the halfway mark. On the ensuing pit stops, however, the No. 56 BMW and Dirk Mueller regained the lead with a quicker pit stop than the Corvette, now in the hands of Jan Magnussen.
Pit stops shuffled the GT order once again when Risi’s Melo beat both Mueller and Magnussen out of pit lane. Working a different fuel strategy, the No. 3 Corvette C6.R driven by Tommy Milner chose to pit with one hour remaining, gambling that at least one more full-course caution would give them the fuel mileage to make it to the end. Unfortunately, Milner caused his own full-course caution, losing control of the car over the Turn 13 rumble strips and coming to a rest against the wall.
In the ensuing pit stops, BMW Team RLL elected to put only left-side tires on the No. 55 BMW M3 GT piloted by Dirk Werner, enabling him to exit pit lane ahead of Melo and take the lead. It was short-lived as Melo retook the lead shortly after the restart and held on for the win.
“It’s been a tough year for us,” Melo said. “We've had some problems at the beginning of the year. This win is really important for us, really important for the Ferrari and especially for this new model. We can never give up. I took the 55 with about 30 minutes to go in the race. I can say it was not easy. It was really hard to keep the pace. I couldn't make a mistake because I knew they had enough to get around. We had to work the tires early in the stint, so I had to manage those for a long time. The first half of the race we felt we could just stay and let everyone else battle. The strategy was just great; Risi showed again we're here to win. We never give up and looking forward to the next race.”
It was the first victory of 2011 for the Houston-based team and the first ALMS win for co-driver Toni Vilander.
BMW Team RLL completed the GT podium with the Auberlen/Werner duo in second followed by Mueller and Hand.
Corvette Racing’s No. 4 Corvette C6.R won its third-straight MGXC GT award this year, a scant 0.4 points ahead of BMW Team RLL (No. 56) and 1.4 points ahead of Risi Competizione. In the GT category, all but one of the cars that finished the race used E85, giving them all strong Clean scores. The key to winning this category was race speed (Fast) and energy consumption (Efficiency).
Level 5 Motorsports won the LMP2 category in its return to ALMS competition at Road America. Sharing driving duties with Luis Diaz and Christophe Bouchut, team owner Scott Tucker’s stint in the No. 055 Lola-Honda was only a small slice of a busy weekend at Road America. Tucker was also entered in the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge by Yokohama, the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship and the SCCA Pro Racing Trans Am Series.
“It was a great weekend and a great opportunity to get extra seat time racing in four different races this week,” Tucker said. “The Cup car is a legal car in the Trans Am class, plus our Prototype Lites car. It was an experience and we learned a lot from the laps in the car. We had a great race today and worked really hard.”
Though the team represented the only LMP2 entry on the weekend, Diaz and Bouchut noted other goals and challenges Level 5 set for themselves during the race.
“I'm very happy for this drive,” Diaz said. “My last race was Long Beach, and coming back with all the development of the car and the chassis, it was impressive to see all the advancement in just a short while. Scott did a great job keeping the pace and Christophe was amazing through traffic. I know this team is committed to win. The goal was for overall podium, but we had a trouble with the pit-speed limiter, which put us back a bit. But I'm sure by the end we will be fighting right there for the overall win.”
“The car was working so well all weekend,” Bouchut said. “It was an LMP2 and there is not a lot of difference between that and the LMPC, so we’re close on the power on the straights, but we have to brake hard on the brakes in order to get around them. It was a fun race though. We had to work really hard for our place.”
In LMP Challenge, PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports scored its first ALMS victory with the duo of Butch Leitzinger and Rudy Junco. Troubles early for class championship leader CORE autosport enabled title rivals Genoa Racing to take an early lead with driver Eric Lux, who co-drove the No. 63 ORECA FLM09 with Christian Zugel and Elton Julian. The final full-course caution period put Leitzinger within striking distance of Lux. With little more than 30 minutes remaining in the race, Leitzinger moved his No. 52 ORECA FLM09 around Lux and crossed the finish line with a 19.515-second margin of victory. It was Leitzinger’s 10th career victory, but the first for both PR1 and Junco.
“The PR1 team is excellent, and very inviting,” Leitzinger said. “They are an efficient team, no bells and whistles and they just get things done.
“It was a great race to push the entire time and the car held up,” beamed Leitzinger, who has now raced in eight ALMS classes. “At any one point in a restart, we were all together. There is never a car you can think, ‘Oh well I'll be able to get him around.’ You have to be careful around every driver because they are so competitive. This is a very proper racecar, but because you can't change a lot on the cars, it really comes down to how well the team works together, your strategy and how well the drivers can race and get the car set up.”
Black Swan Racing successfully defended its 2010 GT Challenge Road America race win but not without a fight. Though team owner Tim Pappas held a firm lead in the early stages, TRG’s Spencer Pumpelly, hot off two consecutive GTC victories, took the lead shortly before the halfway mark. Pappas’ co-driver Jeroen Bleekemolen retook the class lead when Pumpelly hit pit lane, a dance the two teams continued at the next round of pit stops. Starting from the back and operating on a different pit strategy, NGT Motorsports’ Sean Edwards emerged as the GTC leader in the closing laps.
Running second, Pumpelly eradicated Edwards’ nearly 10-second lead in the final green flag stint, but Bleekemolen who came through on top. With four minutes remaining, the Dutchman was around Pumpelly and into second in Turn 6. On the final lap, Edwards suffered a punctured left rear promoting Bleekmolen and Black Swan to the lead in the No. 54 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, which coincidentally was having its own tire trouble.
“I got Spencer on the outside of Turn 6 and got up to the 30,” Bleekemolen said. “He hit me with an 'all-or-nothing' move which caused one of his tires to puncture, but he got a penalty [for avoidable contact]. Then on the last few corners I had the tire go down and had to limp it across the line for the victory. It was a really exciting last few laps.”
Pappas, who leads the GTC drivers’ championship, credited the team’s shrewd fuel strategy for the win, its first since Long Beach of this year.
“Throughout the day we had really good pit stops and our strategy was sound,” Pappas said. “We knew it'd come down to fuel and that’s what Jeroen was really good at, plus driving fast. I was really set on just the third place. I knew Jeroen was pushing it to the maximum. But in the back of our mind we thought, ‘There is no way the 30 car could go this long on fuel.’ So it would come down to the 54 and the 66. We had to wait and see if either would make a mistake. We had to come in and take five seconds of gas and it turned out to be the right choice.”
Pumpelly, who drives the No. 66 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup with Duncan Ende, finished 2.497 seconds back in second. Even with the time penalty for contact with the No. 54 car, the trio of Edwards, Kaufmann and Cisneros, finished third.
The Time Warner Cable Road Race Showcase will air on ABC, Sunday, Aug. 21, at 4:30 p.m. (ET) or 2 p.m. (PT). The race will then be available for on-demand viewing at americanlemans.com.
Round Seven takes the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón to the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix on Sept. 3 for a 4:30 p.m. ET start. The race will air on ABC, Sunday, Sept. 4 at 4 p.m. (ET) and be shown live in the U.S. on ESPN3.com or americanlemans.com outside the U.S. Ticket and schedule information is available on the ALMS schedule page.