PHOENIX, April 21 -The first indication that things were going to be a bit different this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was that the "Sun" Automotive 200 was going to be a night race. But after three days of beautiful weather for ...
PHOENIX, April 21 -The first indication that things were going to be a bit different this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was that the "Sun" Automotive 200 was going to be a night race. But after three days of beautiful weather for practice and qualifying, no one could have predicted the heavy rains that plagued the 1.51-mile road course in the middle of the Arizona desert Saturday night. It caused havoc to all concerned, including the Genesis Racing team and drivers Chris Gleason of Johnstown, Pa., and Marc Bunting of Timonium, Md., and the Speedvision TV crew that broadcast the race live.
Sun Automotive is actually a group of Penske car dealerships in the Phoenix area and has nothing to do with the weather, but predicting when the showers would hit and how heavy they'd be turned out to be just as important as tire pressures, balance and weight.
The race was yellow-flagged at one point so the track crew's blowers could try to alleviate the standing puddles in turns four and five, and red-flagged with 42 laps remaining when even with those efforts the conditions became unbearable. When the race was mercifully ended at the three-hour mark on lap 133, Gleason drove the Genesis Racing BMW M3 #7 across the finish line in the same spot Bunting had qualified, sixth in class. They were 17th overall.
The sixth was Gleason's third consecutive sixth-place finish in Grand-American Road Racing Association Rolex Series competition.
The race was won by the Lola Judd of Jon Field and Oliver Gavin after the dominant Riley & Scott Ford of James Weaver and Butch Leitzinger spun late in the race.
"The infield was like a lake; it was interesting to say the least," said Gleason of the slippery track conditions, the puddles in the middle of the racing groove, roostertails of spray some 12 feet high, his sputtering engine due to some wet electrical connections, a foggy windshield and eyeglasses and the game of musical chairs that the Genesis crew and the 26 other teams here were forced to play with rain tires and slicks.
"I just said I'm not going to worry about things and just have fun," Gleason added. "I did have fun, but it was tricky and it required a great deal of concentration. The conditions were so bad that tonight I could race with some cars that are normally faster than we are, so that part was fun."
When the race resumed after the red flag for rain with 114 laps complete, race control's directions to the drivers were nothing if not direct: "Go as fast as you can without crashing." Gleason was behind the wheel and that's just what he did, although he definitely had his hands full.
The team's original strategy was to go just within the fuel window and then make its single pit stop relatively early, with Gleason replacing Bunting at that time.
All that went out the window when Bunting made an unscheduled pit stop on lap 20 because the car's oil temperature was too high. He wisely brought the car in to save the engine, and luckily it turned out to be just a wet connection. That pause forced the #7 down to ninth in class and 24th overall early, however, and from that point on the original strategy was scraped.
Bunting worked his way back to seventh in class and 22nd overall before the team ran the car out of fuel and allowed him to pit for tires, fuel and Gleason, predicting correctly that another heavy storm was pending with about an hour and 25 minutes of racing in the books.
"It's breaking up really bad and it's very slippery out here," said Gleason before he'd even made two laps. On lap 90 the conditions forced Gleason into the pits for rain tires. At that point he was sixth in class and 19th overall.
"I should have brought my scuba equipment out here!" Gleason quipped once over the radio.
The full-course yellow for rain and eventually a red flag for the same reason occurred next, but finally the race was restarted and Gleason brought the car home in one piece, completing just three fewer laps than the fifth-place GT car.
Bunting spun once during his stint but immediately regrouped without hitting anything. Gleason didn't spin, but he said he almost did once "big time." Despite everything the BMW M3 came through the ordeal without a scratch, although it was definitely wet.
Two students from the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa - James Cowart of Mesa and Justin Snearly of Scottsdale - were Gleason's guests Saturday. Cowart is learning fabricating and painting and Snearly is studying mechanics. Both happily pitched in on the crew, and among other things waxed the car before the race. That turned out to be an even more important contribution than usual due to the rain.