FLAMES AND CHAMPAGNE For Lynx Racing drivers Memo Gidley and Sara Senske, changing horses for the NASCAR Save Mart 350 weekend at Sears Point Raceway produced results that neither will soon forget. Gidley, the current points...
FLAMES AND CHAMPAGNE
For Lynx Racing drivers Memo Gidley and Sara Senske, changing horses for the NASCAR Save Mart 350 weekend at Sears Point Raceway produced results that neither will soon forget.
Gidley, the current points leader in the KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Championship, swapped his 1,200-pound, Lynx Racing-sponsored formula car for the 3,400-pound OilChangers Monte Carlo to compete in the GT America stock car support race... and was forced to bail out when flames erupted from under the dashboard.
Senske, a rising star in the Star Formula Mazda Championship ran her first-ever Russell/USAC Triple Crown Pro Series race, finished third, set the fastest lap (2/10ths of a second faster than the eventual winner)... and got her first-ever taste of champagne sprayed straight from the bottle.
Gidley's weekend was one of those crazy ones that leaves everyone involved scratching their heads. In a heat race on Thursday afternoon, he tangled with a backmarker and repairing damage to the car kept the crew working until 2 a.m. When it came time to qualify at 8 a.m. Friday morning for the afternoon race, the team was told tech inspection was closed, so Gidley just fired it up and went out on track.
He was quickly black-flagged for 'fuel spillage', and again for not having gone through tech. Between trips to the pits and heavy traffic on track, he only got one clear lap and on that lap turned a time that would have been good for the pole position, 6/10ths of a second faster than the second-place car.
Series officials, however, decided that since the car had not gone through tech inspection after being repaired, Gidley had to go to every driver who qualified and get them to agree to let him move up. When he reached someone who said 'no', that is where he would be gridded. He got everyone in the field of 24 cars to agree except the driver who qualified sixth, so Gidley started seventh.
He passed that sixth-place car on the first lap, racing door-to-door through the first and second turns. Gidley continued to move up, despite three caution flags that interrupted the 30-minute race. He was running fourth with ten minutes to go when flames erupted from the dashboard.
"I hit the fire bottle and bailed out of that car so fast it looked like I'd ejected from a jet plane," says Gidley, who finished third in his first-ever GT America race at this event last year and followed it up with a win in the Reno Grand Prix late last year. "Even though it was a tough weekend and I didn't finish, the crew was still jazzed because we were fast when the car was running and the potential to win was there all weekend. This is only the third GT America race I've ever run, and although my focus is on driving in CART in 1999, there's plenty to learn from this kind of racing, and I think people respect you for trying something different."
Senske's weekend, too, was a triumph of will over mechanical maladies. The Russell/USAC car she drove in a special arrangement with the Russell Racing School is virtually identical to the Lynx Racing-sponsored Mazda she drives in the Star Formula Mazda series. But rather than having your own car all season, the car you drive is chosen from a pool of cars by a drawing.
Due to a rash of gearbox failures, she was able to get only a handful of at-speed laps, never more than three at a time, in the pre-race practice sessions. When it came time to qualify on Friday afternoon for the Saturday race, Gidley’s problems in the GT America race, combined with another crash that destroyed some of the track’s emergency communication system, resulted in the Russell/USAC qualifying session being cancelled. The grid was set by practice times and Senske started eighth.
"I never really got comfortable in the car, and although I've raced at Sears before, we ran the new NASCAR track configuration that I’d never been on,"says Senske, who is currently ninth in points after six of 13 races in the 1998 Star Mazda Championship. "Getting up into the top three was a real battle, and because we didn't have enough time in practice to really get the car set up and handling well, I learned some good lessons about how to get the most out of the car. It was really cool to finish on the podium in this race because, although I've had top-three finishes before, this was the first race where I got to spray champagne and get my picture taken holding the trophy over my head. It was a good learning experience and gave me a good psychological boost going into the second half of the Star Mazda season."
Gidley's next driving assignment will be with the Lynx Racing team in the KOOL/Toyota Atlantic support race for the Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland CART race on July 11. He and teammate Buddy Rice will be debuting the team's new Swift 008.a Atlantic cars and looking to continue the early-season winning streak that saw Gidley win three of the first four races, and Rice win the other. That same weekend, Senske will be racing in the Star Mazda event on the oval at Pike's Peak International Raceway.
Both Gidley, 28, of Novato, California and Senske, 19, of Kennewick, Washington (as well as Rice, 22, of Phoenix, Arizona), are members of Lynx Racing, the most successful open-wheel driver development program in auto racing today. Lynx Racing has won the last two Atlantic championships and the first four races of the 1998 season. Program graduates include CART drivers Patrick Carpentier, the 1996 Atlantic champion now driving for Player's/Forsythe and 1997 champ Alex Barron, now driving for Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers.
Gidley, like CART star Greg Moore and Trans-Am Champion Tommy Kendall before him, drove in the Russell/USAC Championship on his way up the ladder. In addition, Lynx Racing crew members Satoshi Mori and Tom Darms are graduates of the Russell Racing Mechanic's Training Program.
The Russell/USAC Triple Crown Pro Series is comprised of three races, including the USAC Championship Race Weekend at Willow Springs Raceway on August 2 and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck race at Sears Point on October 11. The series is limited to 18 entrants, with each paying $15,000 to run the series, or $5,000 for an individual race. Russell Racing provides the car, transportation, mechanics, fuel and tires. The race winner gets $2,000 and the series champion gets $5,000 in cash and a test day in a KOOL/Toyota Atlantic car courtesy of Yokohama Tire Corporation.