Sebring: Carsport America race report

Carsport America brings big GTS excitement to Sebring. March 18, 2003 Glendale, WI -- Tom Weickardt's Carsport America delivered new excitement to the GTS class at this year's Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. The bolstered squad brought added flavor...

Carsport America brings big GTS excitement to Sebring.

March 18, 2003 Glendale, WI -- Tom Weickardt's Carsport America delivered new excitement to the GTS class at this year's Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. The bolstered squad brought added flavor to the class with the debut of their stunning (and according to Radio Le Mans -- a quick fan-favorite) Pagani Zonda GR. The team also scored last hour race action attention from the fans -- and the deadline media in the press room -- in a dramatic twelfth-hour bid for a GTS podium with their Viper GTS-R.

The team took on the incredible challenge of debuting the Pagani Zonda GR at the first, and one of the most important, sports car races of the season. The car arrived at Sebring from Italy on March 4, giving the crew a mere 11 days to prepare the car for the start of the big race on the 15th. The #17 Pagani Zonda GR turned respectful trouble-free times during the pre-race test sessions, as well as through the official practice and qualifying sessions -- albeit with the standard road car engine. Drivers Anthony Kumpen and Mike Hezemans were quick to compliment the car's first performances. After qualifying on Friday, the team replaced the engine with their newly arrived race engine -- just in time for Saturday's start. With high hopes for their new car the team proudly rolled it out for the pre-race ceremonies. Hezemans took the first seat for the start. Although those in racing will readily agree that a good result is not often the case for a new car's first ever race appearance -- the team was still mightily disappointed with an engine failure took them out in the first hour of the race.

Pagani Zonda GR Driver Anthony Kumpen

The car drives really, really good. The problem is that the engine broke down, and we don't know yet exactly what happened. We did 1200 km's of driving during all the tests and practices. We changed the engine on Friday afternoon before the race -- and maybe that was a mistake. This car was so new, and ran for the first time only a little over two weeks ago -- we expected that we would need to work things out.

Pagani Zonda GR Driver Mike Hezemans

It was a pretty short race for us, which is not so good, but we did have a good week. We tested a lot, we got to know the car and we have a lot of information that we can use for the rest of the season. Now we will start developing the car for Le Mans and we will see what happens. It was a shame that the rain stopped the practice on Friday night, otherwise we could have tested the new engine that we had put in that day -- and we would then have discovered the problem and put in another engine for the race. It was bad luck about the bad weather, and it was bad luck about the engine.

Carsport America's #71 Viper GTS-R, piloted by the trio of principal/driver Tom Weickardt, Jeff Altenburg and Jean-Philippe Belloc, brought its own share of excitement as well. Not faced with the daunting task of fielding a GTS entry with virtually zero development, as they had with the Pagani GR, the crew understandably fared much better with the Viper GTS-R. The Carsport squad maintained a consistent and relatively uneventful 10-hour run with the Viper and found themselves with a strong podium possibility in the race's final two hours.

With the retirement of the GTS class-leading Corvette in the 11th hour, the team needed to only surpass the 283 lap mark of the retired Corvette in order to secure the 3rd podium spot. With 1 hour and 20 minutes left -- there was more than enough time.

Having narrowed the distance to a mere 7 laps, the Viper hit the wall in turn 3 and suffered severe left rear suspension damage. Thus began a nail-biting, sod-chewing, crab-like nearly 30-minute trek by Altenburg to bring the car into the pits for repair -- hopefully in time to return to the race and surpass the 283 lap mark.

Suddenly, Carsport America's effort to make it into the pits and back on track seemed to capture the rapt attention of fans and media alike. The television broadcast aired radio communications between the team and Altenburg -- allowing viewers the chance to hear the team coax Altenburg back in. Die-hard fans around the track strained to spot the cars progress to the pits. Radio Le Mans' John Hindhaugh was in full vocal glory. Upstairs in the media tower print journalists and website editors were mentally calculating their guess as to the time needed for the repair, and the team's chance to complete the needed laps. They all cheered when the car finally made it to the assigned pit. Furiously the work began under the watchful lens of the Speed Channel's pit camera. Altenburg climbed out of the damaged, now over-heated car and was instantly met with a microphone tendered by the broadcaster's pit reporter. IMSA officials kept a watchful eye.

Most figured that the team had ten minutes or less to make the needed repairs in order to get back on track and eliminate the lap gap before the twelfth hour struck. Belloc hops into the car while the crew successfully completes the task at hand. With just over 20 minutes left on the race clock, Belloc took the car, and the team's hopes back on the track and in pursuit of the 283 lap mark. Cheers were heard above the roar of race action. It was close, but there was time. With 280 laps completed, and only 3 to go, Belloc pulls off the track, flames coming from under the car. The effort was retired, hopes were dashed.

Viper GTS-R Driver Jeff Altenburg

The Carsport America guys did a fantastic job. I can't imagine this Viper getting any better than it was today. Jean-Philippe ran 2:02 flat, I was in the :03's and Tom was very quick as well -- quicker than he's ever been. Had I not made the "bonehead" move of the week here -- we would have been on the podium. As we were getting closer and closer to the 283 lap mark, everyone kept saying over the radio to "take it easy -- just a few laps to go" and sometimes when you back down a notch or two you can sometimes loose a little bit of the focus. That's what happened to me. I lost my focus and went a little wide in a turn, got in the dirt and the grass and couldn't hold on to it. I hit the wall. It was an adventure trying to get the car back to the pit -- it was desperation on my part basically. It was very, very hot in the car. It was overheating. My only thought was if we could get the car back to the pits, and repair it in time -- we might still have a chance at the podium. That was my only thought by then.

Viper GTS-Driver Jean-Philippe Belloc

The race was both very exciting and very disappointing at the end. The only thing that we needed to was to finish the race, only to pass the line. Unfortunately, we were unable to do that. At the end I tried to pass the line, but it was not possible because I think we had oil on the clutch. I don't know exactly what happened really, but the clutch was not working so I started to not use the clutch, but the engine was overheating. When I first got in the car, while they were making the repairs, I could tell that the clutch was not working right because it was feeling very strange. It was very disappointing, because the team "carried the car" - to will it back out on the track and past the line. It was important, I think, for the team and for Tom to pass the line and finish the race. But racing is like this sometimes. I know that anything can happen, even in the last minute, the last seconds sometimes -- as today demonstrated.

Carsport America Principal / Viper GTS-R Driver Tom Weickardt

A great job by the team! Not once, but twice - the crew rose to the challenge. First, in preparing the Zonda for its maiden race, and second, with their valiant effort to achieve a podium with the Viper. We were faced with an incredible challenge in preparing the Zonda for its first race -- within a very narrow window. The team pulled it off. We had trouble-free runs all the way leading up to the race. Unfortunately, an engine issue shut us down. We have high hopes for this new car, and given some time to sort it out, I think we can be strong contenders. With the Viper we found ourselves with an opportunity for a podium. We were tested in trying to secure that podium, what with getting the car back in and quickly making the repairs. We may have missed the podium, but the team passed the test!

-ca/hc-

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Series ALMS
Drivers Jean-Philippe Belloc , Anthony Kumpen , Mike Hezemans , Jeff Altenburg , Tom Weickardt