AIM Autosport Rolex 24 at Daytona Race Report
Woodbridge, Ontario (January 27, 2009) The AIM Autosport crew arrived in Florida with lots of enthusiasm and anticipation for the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The AIM Autosport/Tower Events/Mike Direct Connect No. 61 Ford Riley was all ready to go and sporting new livery. The regular drivers of the No. 61, Mark Wilkins and Burt Frisselle, would team with John Farano and Alex Figge who will race AIM's No. 51 Ford Riley later this season and there was a good chemistry. Rolex class winner David Empringham would also be there as a reserve. From the minute the car rolled off the trailer on Wednesday morning, everything seemed to be going according to plan until it came to a rather frenetic halt early Sunday morning. AIM Autosport had a specific strategy for this years Rolex 24 that had been worked out between team principal Ian Willis and engineers Jim Malicki and Jeff Braun. This was Jeff's twentieth Rolex 24 and his input was integral to advance preparations as well as the advances made during the early hours of the race.
The AIM Autosport/Tower Events/Mike Direct Connect No. 61 Ford Riley qualified fourteenth. Under any other circumstances this might be seen as a setback, but the Rolex 24 is no sprint race and the mantra repeated around the AIM paddock area reflected the fact that anything can happen in a twenty-four hour race. Being prepared for any eventuality and using a "slow is fast" approach to getting the job done right was foremost in everyone's mind.
"Over twenty-four hours, taking your time to ensure that everything is done properly is paramount" commented Braun. "A few seconds delay in a pit stop will not hurt you over the long run compared to rushing through something and getting it all wrong. That can come back to bite you and you end up down laps instead of seconds."
By race time, the No. 61 was up to 12th on the starting grid due to some cars being put to the back for technical infractions. Burt was all pumped up for the start and knew what the pace and strategy would be for his initial stint. The race has started under clear skies and finally, some warm temperatures and after moving up two positions quickly, Burt is on pace and settling in. He brought the car in from 7th for the first pit stop that would include a driver change (John Farano) fuel and a new set of Pirelli tires.
John Farano came to pit road two laps off the leaders to hand the car off to Alex Figge for a double stint.. A pretty good run for the Daytona Prototype rookie driver. Three hours in saw the first full course caution and the team elected to stay out when the rest of the Daytona Prototypes came to the pits. This allowed the No. 61 to regain a lap. This would be the plan through ensuing yellows and eventually, with Mark behind the wheel, AIM was back on the lead lap. After going down three laps by hour three, the AIM Autosport/Tower Events/Mike Direct Connect No. 61 Ford Riley had come back to the leaders over the next two hours. The strategy and the race, were coming to them. With Burt back behind the wheel and 163 laps completed and teams pitting under caution, the No. 61 was in 6th place, just seven seconds back of the leader. Burt continued to keep pace with the leaders and seven hours in, the No. 61 was in the lead. Over the next three hours and with John and Alex completing their second stints, all seemed to be going to plan with the AIM Autosport/Tower Events/Mike Direct Connect No. 61 Ford Riley on pace and sitting in the top ten. The charts showed two laps led and the team proved they could come from laps down to run at the front. By 1:30 a.m however, it started to unravel.
Alex brought the car in for the end of his stint but had lost second gear. The crew swapped out the gearbox in ten minutes and with a full service, sent Mark out for his next run. There was still a problem - but with the electrics, not the gears. The technicians from Roush Yates came to the rescue and over two quick stops under yellow, resolved the problem and the No. 61 was underway again with 306 laps in the books sitting 10th, nine laps back of the leader with fourteen hours to go. Things are looking good as Mark has set fastest lap for the No 61 so far - a 1:43.357 but on the very next lap at 1:47 a.m., the car is headed for the garage with no power.
Before the car has come to a complete stop, the crew have the back deck off and are removing the engine. With fourteen hours to go in the race, the decision is made quickly that "if this can be fixed, let's get the car running and back on track." In under thirty minutes, the engine is on the hoist and the Roush Yates engineers are pulling the covers to get at the suspected part. The AIM crew set about taking care of general maintenance issues on the car in anticipation of getting back into the race. Unfortunately, this was not to be. At 2:50 a.m. the AIM Autosport/Tower Events/Mike Direct Connect No. 61 Ford Riley is officially retired due to engine failure.
AIM Autosport's Ian Willis commented, "Early in the race after a couple of Fords had fallen out we were informed by Roush Yates that they had a suspected problem with the crankshaft position sensor and that ours could have the same problem. We kept going as there was nothing that we could do except will the car on in the hope that it would not fail. When it did fail we were fortunate enough to coast into the pits and the plan of action was to remove the engine as that was the only way to access the suspected part. Once the Roush Yates guys got to the part they found that it was more complex than just replacing a sensor so we were out. John Maddox and the Roush Yates guys are a key contributor to our success achieved last season and we have ultimate faith that they will figure out what happened and we will be on the podium together again this year." "It was pretty tough on everyone and the disappointment on everyone's face was evident" continued Willis. "It was incredible how quickly they all reacted to the initial situation and wasted no time in getting to work on the car. There was one focus this weekend and it was to be there at the end of the twenty-four hours and everyone put in an incredible effort despite the setback, to try and reach that goal. We are really proud of that effort and dedication. It is too bad we did not get to the end but at least we tried. Now we concentrate on the rest of the season and the championship but the entire AIM Autosport crew is already looking forward to the 2010 Rolex 24."
The drivers had this to say:
Burt Frisselle - "The car was awesome and it was great to be up front, even if it was for a short time. We proved that we had the pace and the strategy to run at the front and maybe even win this thing. The guys did a great job and Jeff and Jim made some great calls to keep us in the race. For now, we regroup and look at the championship and build on the momentum the team picked up last season."
John Farano - "Just before I got into the car for my second stint, I was feeling pretty good about how we were doing. I was becoming more comfortable at each opportunity behind the wheel of the No. 61 and had mentioned to someone how it was all coming together. It was a shame to go out so early but I am really proud of the effort we put in. Now it is about getting together with Alex in the AIM Autosport Tower Events No. 51 Ford Riley for the rest of the season. We'll have another shot at the Rolex 24 next year."
Alex Figge - "It's always tough to go out early but I had two great stints in the car and had a lot of fun. At the end, as the crew was packing up, you have to say to yourself, 'that's racing', but I had a blast. The AIM Autosport crew are a great bunch of guys and they certainly put their heart into this program. I am really looking forward to getting into the No. 51 now with John as soon as possible."
Mark Wilkins - "It's tough. The car was really coming in and I had just set our fastest lap of the race. Everything felt great and we were on pace even with having to change the gear cluster. This is one awesome crew that is not afraid to put in the time and extra effort it needs to be a winner. We proved that last season and that is our goal in 2009. As for the Rolex 24, things happen and again, credit goes to the crew and engineers and especially Ian for making the call to get the car back on track. We were here to finish and it was going to take something big to stop us, but we were not going down without a fight. We'll be back." Next up for the AIM Autosport Daytona Prototypes is the Bosch 250 at Virginia International Raceway, Alton, Virginia, April 24-26 with both the No. 61 (Frisselle/Wilkins) and No. 51 (Farano/Figge) Ford Rileys in competition.