TOOELE, Utah (Sept. 16, 2008) -- All that's left to do is win. So simple and to-the-point is the game plan for the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Dallara team of Wayne Taylor Racing as it heads to Utah's scenic Tooele Valley to drop the curtain on...
TOOELE, Utah (Sept. 16, 2008) -- All that's left to do is win. So simple and to-the-point is the game plan for the No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Dallara team of Wayne Taylor Racing as it heads to Utah's scenic Tooele Valley to drop the curtain on another Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series season with Saturday's marathon SunRichGourmet.com 1000 at Miller Motorsports Park.
For the first time since Max Angelelli and Wayne Taylor co-drove the SunTrust Pontiac to the 2005 series championship in dominating fashion, the Rolex Series title chase is a foregone conclusion even before the green flag falls for Saturday's 1,000-kilometer season finale. This year's title was clinched three weekends ago by the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driving duo of Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville. In 2005, Angelelli and Taylor needed only to start the season-ending race in Mexico City to lay claim to the title in America's most competitive road racing series after having posted a remarkable five victories and 10 podium finishes in 14 starts that year.
Such was not the case at the 4.5-mile, 24-turn Miller Motorsports Park road circuit the past two seasons, when SunTrust arrived on the scene for the finale very much in the thick of a multi-car chase for the Rolex Series championship both years. In 2006, Angelelli, Taylor, Ryan Hunter-Reay and the SunTrust Racing machine were clearly the combination to beat. They led a race-high 53 laps and had the championship in their grasp before electrical gremlins set in and dropped them several laps off the pace in the waning moments. Last year, Angelelli and Jan Magnussen methodically worked their way into the race lead after the two cars they had to beat for the championship -- the No. 01 Ganassi Lexus and the No. 99 Gainsco/Bob Stallings Pontiac -- both encountered problems while tangling with each other on the race track. Ironically enough, Angelelli ran over debris spewed all over the track by Pruett in the No. 01 car with the race still under green. Angelelli punctured a tire, which broke apart while he tried to limp the car back to the pits, and the flopping tire tread helped spark an engine fire that destroyed the SunTrust Racing machine and its title hopes for the second consecutive year.
Despite the disappointments at Miller in 2006 and 2007, SunTrust maintained its streak of top-three finishes in the season-ending points -- something it has done each year since joining the Rolex Series in 2004. In SunTrust's inaugural season, Angelelli and Taylor finished second, just 10 points behind champions Pruett and Max Papis and the Ganassi team. Angelelli and Taylor's 2005 championship came by a whopping 34-point margin over Ganassi's Pruett and Luis Diaz. And after consecutive third-place finishes in 2006 and 2007, Angelelli and this year's co-driver, Michael Valiante, still have an outside shot at third place once again, which would be a remarkable feat in light of a tumultuous season that included the introduction of the all-new Dallara chassis, several on-track incidents not of their own doing that spoiled potential race wins, and a devastating transporter fire in May that wiped out the original Dallara and all of the team's equipment, spare parts, tools and race-weekend apparel.
As they head to Utah this weekend sitting seventh in the championship, momentum is certainly on the side of Angelelli, Valiante and the SunTrust team. They're coming off a dominating victory from the pole Aug. 23 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., which they backed up with another front-row start and second-place finish at New Jersey the following weekend. And the team has proven at Miller Motorsports Park -- for the better part of two of these 1,000-kilometer marathon events, at least -- that it's entirely capable of running consistently at the front of the pack in Utah's high desert. Will misfortune finally decide to take a day off?
Max Angelelli, co-driver of the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara:
In your first two visits to Miller Motorsports Park, the SunTrust team flirted with opportunities to win the race and clinch championships but fell victim to misfortune both times. How do you feel about heading back there this year?
"I've always said that I don't believe in luck. This year, so far, we've been successful on the race tracks that we've either never been to or always had bad races. At the other tracks, where we have usually had success, things did not go so well, this year. So, we'll go to Miller and fight like we never have before to win the race and finish the season in the best possible way. The last two years, we were always very fast, there. We led both races. But that race is a long race, and a lot happens. A lot happened to us. Two years ago, it was electrical problems that cost us the championship. Last year, we ran over debris and punctured a tire and the car ended up catching on fire. I'd really like to finish the season with a win. That is my target. I will do everything I can to finish 'P1.'"
You did not get to race the new Dallara at the Watkins Glen six-hour race in June, so this will be the first time the car will be faced with competing in an endurance race. Does that concern you?
"The race distance this weekend doesn't really concern me. It's just 1,000 kilometers or seven hours. If it was a 12-hour race or more, I might have concerns. But at this distance, no. We've been working very hard with the Dallara people back in Italy to address all the little issues that you need to deal with for the long distances. This race is a very good race for us to understand what we have for endurance distances. If all goes well, we can possibly leave the car as it is and go testing in October and November with the car just like it is as we prepare for the Daytona 24-hour in January."
Miller is truly a unique track with 24 turns over 4-1/2 miles. How would you describe the experience of driving there?
"The track, it's a lot of work, a lot of cornering, but nothing happens, basically. It does not really have any fast, tight corners that scare you, or corners where you have to apply much technique. There is an enormous number of identical corners. But nothing that makes a driver feel all that challenged. It is a race track of patience rather than one that relies on heart or skill or feeling brave. If you look at the lap times, there is a very small difference between lap times between the cars. On a track of this length with this many corners, there should be a much bigger gap between the fast cars and the slow cars. But with so many corners that are so much the same, all you do is brake, lift and go, over and over."
Michael Valiante, co-driver of the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara:
Your overall thoughts heading to Miller for this weekend's season finale?
"I am really looking forward to Miller. I love the track and it is a huge mix of high- and low-speed corners. The corners are very wide and make it easy for GT and DP cars to get through. We're continuing to improve our car each race, and I think people are recognizing what a team effort it's been. Everything is finally starting to gel and it seems as though we have gotten the monkey off our back. We just need to continue what we are doing and we will have a shot at winning at Miller."
With all the setbacks the team has experienced this season, it might have seemed inconceivable to finish the season in the top-five, or even the top-three, in the standings, both of which are entirely possible this weekend. Do you agree?
"We really fell behind in the early part of the season with all of the crazy circumstances and bad things that happened. Things finally started to calm down. And although our work ethic never changed through it all, our luck finally has. For sure, this has been one of the toughest seasons for me, personally. However, I am surrounded by great people at SunTrust Racing and we have rallied together to get the results we are all striving for."
Wayne Taylor, owner of the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara team:
We're down to the final race of your most difficult season, but the team seems to be getting into a groove coming off of a win and a second-place finish. Do you have any special feelings about the coming weekend?
"It seems strange to be going to this race and the banquet and not be in the top-three, which has been the case the last four years. But we're pretty excited as we look ahead to the new season in '09. This long race in Utah will show us how our new Dallara will do over the long haul since it's run only in the short races, so far. It'll be a good race for us and a good test for us, actually. We'll go there, obviously, with the goal of winning. The championship has already been decided. We have a mathematical possibility of still finishing in the top-three in the points. But a lot of other things need to happen that we can't control. So, we'll just keep it simple and go all out to try and win the race and see where that ends up putting us in the standings. That's the only thing we can control. Last year, it was a pretty disastrous ending for us, burning the car to the ground. We had some bad luck with electrical problems the year before. We'll hope to turn that around this year. We've got a good car and the best team, so I'm not worried. We've really taken big steps forward in the development of the car. It seems to be pretty quick everywhere we go. We'll hope to take advantage of that this weekend and on into next year."