In a relatively short period of time, the Rolex Sports Car Series has gained a reputation for close-quarters, door-to-door racing -- formerly unheard of in professional sports car racing. And Saturday's Emco Gears Classic at the pastoral, 13-turn...
In a relatively short period of time, the Rolex Sports Car Series has gained a reputation for close-quarters, door-to-door racing -- formerly unheard of in professional sports car racing. And Saturday's Emco Gears Classic at the pastoral, 13-turn Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course did not do anything to detract from that reputation, as 27 of the race's 81 laps were run behind the safety car, which made five appearances at the head of the 45-car field. In the end, Adrian Fernandez and Mario Haberfeld survived the carnage, including a violent, end-over-end wreck involving Joey Hand's BMW, to win their very first Rolex Series race.
"It feels great," said Fernandez, the former open-wheel driver who now fields a Pontiac Riley in the Rolex Series. "I am very proud of the guys. We started this team from zero and everybody thought we were crazy. Now we are a winning team. This is a totally different environment than we are used to: different cars, different drivers, different competition, and different rules that we are learning. The car was quick all weekend. We were quick in the wet and the dry. We made some changes and we picked the right things for the car. We had bald tires at the end, but we had to take a chance on the fuel. Luckily, we have experience saving fuel. We just needed a few yellows and that happened at the end. It was quite a bit of payback for some of the other disappointments."
There have been several disappointments for Fernandez and his team this season, the latest of which came this weekend during qualifying when Haberfeld's third-place time was disallowed after his car's front end was deemed to be too wide by Grand American officials during post-qualifying inspection. The penalty forced Haberfeld to start 27th, dead last in the Daytona Prototype field. To conserve fuel and attempt to regain the track position it lost due to the penalty, the team chose to start the race from the pit lane. This put Haberfeld and Fernandez out of sequence with the leaders and allowed them to gradually work their way to the front during the race's first four cautions.
The strategy worked perfectly and Fernandez took the lead for the first time on Lap 72. But he still needed one more caution to make it to the end of race without having to stop for fuel again and it came on Lap 97, when Paul Edwards' Pontiac GTO.R tapped the back of Hand's BMW. The contact sent Hand flying into the grass on the inside of the backstretch -- the fastest part of the track. Once in the grass, Hand's car became airborne, barrel-rolling violently back across the track before coming to rest upside- down against the outside retaining wall. The car was virtually destroyed, but Hand emerged from what remained of the BMW under his own power. A Grand American representative said Hand was awake and alert after being transported to a local hospital. With only a few minutes remaining in the race, there was not enough time to clean up the wreckage and restart the race. This allowed Fernandez to coast to the checkered flag behind the safety car.
The Krohn Racing Pontiac of Jorg Bergmeister and Colin Braun finished second, followed by Alex Gurney and John Fogarty in the Blackhawk Racing Pontiac Riley. The SunTrust Racing Pontiac Riley and the Howard-Boss Motorsports Pontiac Crawford rounded out the top-five. Championship contender Scott Pruett was eliminated from contention on Lap 85, when Hoover Orsi ran into the back of Burt Frisselle's Porsche Doran, sending Frisselle careening into Pruett's Ganassi Racing Lexus Riley. The collision sheared off the right-front of Pruett's car, ripping away part of the suspension and ending his race. Bergmeister now holds a 25-point lead over Pruett and his teammate Luis Diaz in the Daytona Prototype drivers' championship.
In the GT class, Wolf Henzler and Robin Liddell took their third win of the season in the No. 72 Tafel Racing Porsche. Edwards and co-driver Kelly Collins finished second, followed by the second GTO.R of Andy Lally, Marc Bunting, and R.J. Valentine. Henzler and Liddell now trail Lally and Bunting in the GT class drivers' championship by five points
"After the last safety clear, it became clear that it was just going to be a fight to the finish," said Liddell, who was running third behind Hand and Edwards before the big wreck. "I could see they (Edwards and Hand) were starting to fight at the end. Paul was becoming keener to pass Joey and I could see the whole thing getting tenser. In the end, when the incident happened, it was in a way the opportunity I was waiting for. So I was able to take the lead because I had the momentum down the backstretch. But it was a very nasty situation the way it ended up. I had not seen an accident that bad in a long time."
Edwards appeared to be shaken by what he had witnessed. "There were only a few laps to go and time was ticking in the race," he said. "Joey caught a car in a bad place and he went one way and I went another. We touched and I turned him a little bit. That's the worst thing I've ever seen. I hope he is okay."
The Rolex Series returns to the track on Thursday, June 29 at Daytona International Speedway.
To read Hand's interview by Grand American Road Racing Association, please see this link:
Hand recounts race accident