"It was brutal." Promptly overlooked amid the torrent of publicity following Katherine Legge's historic Toyota Atlantic victory Sunday morning in Long Beach, the driver who relinquished the lead to Legge quietly nursed his wounds on Monday....
"It was brutal."
Promptly overlooked amid the torrent of publicity following Katherine Legge's historic Toyota Atlantic victory Sunday morning in Long Beach, the driver who relinquished the lead to Legge quietly nursed his wounds on Monday. Series veteran Rocky Moran, Jr., doing the seemingly impossible in his older C2 class Swift, looked poised for a fairly tale third career win -- and first in his hometown event -- when fate intervened and a right rear wheel bearing failed with barely two laps remaining.
"I had all my sponsors there and a lot of potential team owners watching the race, a huge base of loyal fans and Southern Californian go-karters rooting me on, and all my close family and friends," says Moran after his P-1 Racing entry aggressively dueled with the Polestar duo of Legge and eventual runner-up Antoine Bessette. "It was such a fun race -- like what you'd see a lot of times in go-kart racing or NASCAR with lots of lead changes; it wasn't a typical open wheel race on a street course."
P-1 had not competed in Atlantic since last year's race, with Al Unser eliminated in a multi-car wreck on the opening lap of his series debut. The team chose another one-off three weeks ago, and Moran shook down the car for some 70 laps at Buttonwillow. "I was back with Bill Fickling, who ran me in my first race (in 1999). I was back with Tim Lewis, my original engineer (responsible for his first series win at Laguna Seca in 2001). My original sponsor Dave Cutler was there and helped underwrite the race, so it was kind of like a reunion in a sense.
"The car felt pretty good but hadn't been driven in a year and a half. We were on a pretty tight budget; the team went over the car as best they could, but it was in the back of our minds that we hadn't replaced every single part on this car. It wasn't a no-holds-barred effort, so we knew that could be an issue."
That nagging thought would prove hauntingly prophetic.
P-1's chassis qualified for the C2 category, 40 pounds heavier and normally not regarded as competitive versus the leaders, but Moran promptly proved otherwise. "We were a top three car right off the bat but immediately we started having electrical gremlins throughout Friday and Satirday, including both qualifying sessions. I roughly spent about 50% of the time in the pits. We missed a lot of final qualifying in the pits because the car just wouldn't run. We figured out late in the game that it was an electrical plug."
Moran's #5 King Taco/Trench Shoring Swift nonetheless wound up fifth on the grid, half a second behind pole sitter Bessette, and maintained position through the traditionally congested opening corner. After getting around Legge, Chris Dyson and Fernando Rees into second, "there semed like a bunch of yellow flags throughout the middle of the race. It was throwing a curveball into everything, but it was really creating some of fun racing for the fans. A lot of the people watching said it was one of the best Atlantic races they'd seen in the past couple of years."
Once squared against the C1 entries of Polestar, which Moran drove in the opening races in 2004 and finished second with in Monterrey, the C2 disadvantage became obvious. "On a restart Katherine just drove around the outside of me going down the straightaway. The (C2-permitted) motor hopups we did didn't seem to help. If anything, we were down on horsepower so on the restart, she was gone.
"From there on it was a 1-2-3 race with the two Polestar cars in front of me. We were just running around nose to tail, and every time we'd catch traffic, there would be some kind of diceup. One time I passed her going into turn nine because of lapped traffic, then she'd dive bomb me back a little further into the corner, and I was able to go back around her before the hairpin. Meanwhile Bessette pretty much had the race under control; we were just fighting for second."
With 27 of 32 laps completed, and with local yellows putting lapped cars into play again, Moran made a banzai pass that sent the partisan crowd cheering. "I set up Bessette so I could get a run on him going into turn six and was able to make a pretty crazy move outside. It was kind of a Hail Mary -- I knew it would probably be my only opportunity. I had corner speed but not enough straight line speed for those two cars. I just broke really deep and went side by side through turn six together, and I was able to get the lead by turn seven. In doing so, Katherine got by him because he'd lost a lot of momentum. I started stretching out a lead; I think I got up to a second and a half."
That euphoria lasted all of three laps. "Just about the time I thought the fat lady had sung and the thing was in the bag, I started to notice my car was really going loose; the back end started moving all over the place. I thought to myself, 'maybe I'm overdriving this thing; maybe my tires are going away,' so I adjusted my bars.
"I got to the next corner (turn nine), turned in and the car took about three different sets in the corner and I realized something was wrong -- maybe a tire going down. By the time I started going around the left hander before the hairpin, the back of the car was just driving all over the track. I let Katherine by and then the next few guys coming out of the hairpin."
Moran avoided further catastrophe as he limped to a halt along one of the fastest portions of the track. "I'd noticed the car had a tendency to go to oversteer as the race went on, and I think that wheel bearing was ever so slightly loosening up and it got to a point where it was so loose, it actually spun the nut off the stud. There was actually no nut holding onto the wheel. The wheel was about to fall off when I went into the braking zone on the straightaway. Probably another 100 feet and it would've come off."
Did the team's aged equipment cost them dearly? "Bill told me afterwards, 'I could've had the car in here for 40 years looking it over, and I don't think I would've caught that.' It was just something that slipped through the cracks. They'd mentioned they had to tighten up that right rear wheel extra hard with a torque wrench, so I think they were aware there might have been a slight problem, but I don't think he ever thought that it was going to cost us the race.
"It's the kind of stuff you read about in books; it seems like those kinds of failures only happen with two laps to go when you're leading."
So Legge, driving the Polestar entry which amounted to Moran's the season before, wrote her own Cinderella story into the record books, while the eventual tenth place finisher wonders what might have been. "It was a gut-wrenching deal. Obviously I was pretty disheartened and shocked when it happened, but when I looked at all the fans rooting me on, I really felt bad for them.
"On the flip side, I'm actually really happy with the weekend. I think that was close to my 50th race in Atlantic. There's been dozens of races where I didn't have an engineer that gave me a car that would perform like that, and that's what was so precious about working with Tim Lewis. He just gave me an unbelievable car; he allowed me to showcase my ability and use my experience on the street circuits to make passes and move to the front. It was a blast, and I'd rather break leading a race than drone around in fifth or sixth with a car that doesn't really have the speed to run up front.
"I think the people there in a sense knew who the moral victor was. We didn't take home the points or the money, but we were as close as you could possibly get. It's another one of those shoulda, woulda, coulda's."
Moran hopes his stellar Long Beach performance can help him find funding to run further West Coast races for P-1, if not a full season deal elsewhere. Beyond that, in addition to running his growing kart track business in nearby Beaumont, he has leads for potential opportunities ranging from Infiniti Pro and Grand-Am to Craftsman Trucks and Busch North. So while Legge leaves California with the biggest spoils, Moran putting himself back on the radar may just lead to his own happy ending after all.