This past weekend the BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series moved to Detroit for the Johnson Controls 100, part of the Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit Weekend. This is the second leg of the Johnson Controls Triple Challenge. (First was Long ...
This past weekend the BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series moved to Detroit for the Johnson Controls 100, part of the Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit Weekend. This is the second leg of the Johnson Controls Triple Challenge. (First was Long Beach and the conclusion is at Las Vegas in October).
The Detroit Grand Prix is held on Belle Isle, a public park near downtown Detroit that has spectacular views of the Detroit River. With the addition of 2,315 concrete blocks, 51,000 feet of fencing and cable, over 55 hospitality tents, plus grandstands and other infrastructure, this scenic setting becomes an exciting 14 turn, 2.346 mile street course.
The Epic Racing team came to Detroit with high expectations. In 1999, Steve Pelke, driver of Epic Racing's Kay Manufacturing sponsored #19 Ford Mustang had his highest finish of the year, 7th place, at Detroit. And, Gary Johnson, driver of Epic Racing's BBQ Smoke House sponsored #9 Ford Mustang has performed exceptionally well on street courses. Prior to the Detroit race, Steve was 7th in the point standings and Gary was 12th.
The first practice session was very early on Friday morning. The Trans-Am Series cars were the first to take the track, just as the promoter's crew were applying the finishing touches. This proved to be unfortunate for our team. In spite of the efforts of the promoter to clean the track, the surface was dirty and dusty and as a result very slippery. Steve discovered this at Turn 1 after just three laps and ended up in the tire barrier. The damage to the front end was significant, requiring a new nose box and hood to be installed. During Steve's limited time on the track, he posted a fast lap of 1:44.180 for an average speed of 81.585 mph, 25th fastest among 37 entries.
Gary had a clean practice session, but we learned that both cars would need different gearing for the transmissions in order to reach peak performance. Gary's fastest lap was 1:45.239, 27th fastest.
The crew worked throughout the day on Friday to repair the body damage on the #19 in order to get ready for the afternoon qualifying session. New transmissions were installed in both cars.
At 5:30pm, the cars lined-up for the qualifying session. The 37 entries were divided into two groups based on the season's points standings. Both Steve and Gary qualified in Group 2. Unfortunately, due to time constraints placed on the Trans-Am Series by the promoter, Group 2 ended up with only seven minutes of qualifying time. Neither Gary nor Steve were able to get a clean qualifying lap without traffic or yellow flags. Steve ended up with the 29th fastest time and Gary was 33rd.
As both cars seemed to be handling well, only minor changes were made overnight in preparation for race day. We changed the gearing again in Gary's car, trying to find a bit more MPH that would be needed to work through the field, starting from the back.
Saturday morning's practice session was our final time on the track before the afternoon race. The changes that we made to Gary's transmission proved to do the trick as he cut four seconds off his lap time and was 20th fastest for the session. That's the good news. The bad news.Steve got a bump from behind by #28 Lou Gigliotti and ended up turned around and into the wall. In addition to damaging the new hood, and destroying the new nose box and rear body work, the suspension damage was significant. Upper and lower A-arms, and a shock shaft were bent, plus there was minor frame damage.
With only six hours until race time, all of the crew was assigned to work on getting the #19 ready. Mike Duncombe, Ted Stevenson, Mylon Keasler and Frank Bain did a fantastic job of getting the car back together, making it to the pre-race grid with just five minutes to spare. Gary Johnson had to pitch in, doing the body work repairs that were needed on both the front and rear of the #19 Kay Manufacturing Mustang. Meanwhile, Roman Tucker and Eddie Beal did the pre-race prep on the #9 BBQ Smoke House Mustang. Pam Schwartz and Dani Schwartz were assigned the task (again) of putting new graphics on the repaired and replaced body panels.
When the green flag flew for the 42 lap race, Gary immediately started his ascent from the 33rd starting position. At the end of the first lap, a yellow flag was thrown for the #23 car which had come in contact with the wall. Gary had already moved up four positions to 29th. The green flag flew on lap five and Gary started the attack again. By the mid-point of the race Gary was in 19th place, mostly as a result of good passes, as there was very little attrition at this point. For the next couple of laps, Gary followed closely behind the #17 Corvette of Jerry Kinn, sticking the car's nose along side Kinn several times to let him know he was there, and running faster than #17.
On lap 24, Gary got inside of Kinn at Turn 6. As they were heading down the straight towards Turn 7, Kinn moved to the right to block Gary, squeezing him toward the wall. Gary steered the car left and moved to the other side of Kinn. Kinn immediately changed direction to block Gary, again squeezing him toward the wall. Gary held his position, and Kinn ran into Gary. After colliding, both cars ended up in the wall just before Turn 7. A yellow flag was thrown with both cars too damaged to continue and eliminated from the competition.
Jerry Kinn is the same driver that tapped Gary on the restart at Long Beach and spun him around ruining a chance for a top ten finish. He had also caused a wreck with Jeff Altenburg at Long Beach, and with Mike Davis at Charlotte. After the race, Steve reported that Kinn nearly put him in the wall at the same point on the track earlier in the race. Post-race, we lodged a complaint with the Chief Steward indicating our concerns about the hazard that this driver is to other drivers.
Meanwhile, Steve was having handling problems with the #19 Mustang and unable to make much progress. When the yellow flag came out for Gary's accident, Steve was in 24th place. On lap 28 the green flag flew and racing resumed. As the cars came down the front straight past Start / Finish, Chris Neville #84 made an aggressive move and attempted to make a pass at Turn 1 where the cars, including Steve Pelke, were already running two abreast. There was no room to go three wide and Steve, Chris, Mike Lewis #12, Don Sak #10 and Jeff Altenburg #5 ended up in the tire barrier at Turn 1.
All cars were able to get out of the tires and continue on. However, Steve's car was badly damaged (front end again!!) and he was not able to continue beyond Turn 3. A yellow flag came out and the day was over for Epic Racing.
Final results showed Steve in 28th place and Gary in 30th. Neither one scored points, dropping the drivers to 10th (Steve) and 17th (Gary) in the point standings. Paul Gentilozzi scored his first victory of the year, Brian Simo was second and Willy T. Ribbs was third.
The only good news that came from the race is that Brian Pelke, Steve's son, made his Trans-Am debut driving the #6 Camaro owned by Frank Cioppetini, and finished a very respectable 13th. Brian will also be driving at Cleveland and Road America. With his finish at Detroit, he leads his father in the "Pelke Family Triple Challenge".
The crew will now be burning the midnight oil to get both cars ready for the next race in Cleveland, scheduled for July 1. The Cleveland race marks the half way point in the season. We intend to make up some of the ground we lost at Detroit in order to be positioned for an aggressive assault on the points standings during the second half of the season.
The Detroit race will be televised on Speedvision, Monday, June 26 at 8:00pm EDT / 5:00pm PDT, and again at 12:00 midnight EDT / 9:00pm PDT. If you do not have Speedvision, the race will be shown again on Fox Sports Net on Thursday, July 6 at 1:00pm EDT. We had an in-car camera in the #19 car, so there should be some good footage of Steve's unfortunate mishap.