Sebring personal crew report

Mazda at Sebring March 15, 1997 by Mike Fuller Wednesday, March 12-- Sebring is a leisurely hour and a half drive from Orlando Florida, through back roads, towns...

Mazda at Sebring March 15, 1997

by Mike Fuller

Wednesday, March 12--

Sebring is a leisurely hour and a half drive from Orlando Florida, through back roads, towns with names like 'Frostproof', and early morning fog infested areas and past orange groves, trailer parks, and retirement homes. This is "Old Florida".

Sebring is one of my favorite races to go to. The hub-bub from the season opener at Daytona has died down and the track just has a more personal quality to it than Daytona, or really any other track for that matter, does. Call it charm, call it quaintness, call it rusticness, whatever. Sebring's atmosphere is really indicative of the area. It hasn't changed all that much. Yes, the layout has changed over the years, but the Sebring image is still there.

I got up early in order to make it to the track and to get through registration by 8:00am. The make up of our crew was going to be a little on the slim side. Scott H, Marshal (who hadn't been with us at Daytona), Rick, Dennis, Chris and Scott S were all there. Ed and Steve would be joining us later in the week. Dave Lynn, the Chief Designer, was not going to be able to make the race. He was busy back in Atlanta slaving over the designs for the new 4-rotor Mazda-Kudzu due out soon. I was going to be taking Dave's race track responsibilities over for this race. That primarily meant being concerned over the stickering of the decals on the car bodies and being responsible for all the telemetry data downloads and printouts. Dave gave me a brief Stack data downloading primer over the phone, a pat on the ass, and an "If I can do it you can do it" comment, and suddenly I found myself in charge of something I had never done before! So my main concern after I got to the track was to found out where the team parked and to get a hold of the computer laptop and begin going over the procedures as to how to go about figuring it all out. Dave had phoned Andrew, the Stack Systems representative to watch out for me during the race weekend and to help out if I seemed lost. I got to know Andrew quite well throughout the weekend!!

The first practice session started at 9.45am. Everything was moving so fast for me(having to learn the Stack system, trouble shoot, etc.), that I really wasn't able to do much observing. The first problem I ran into was that the laptop's battery was dead as can be. I'd get everything ready, hop over the wall when the car came in, plug the data jack into the car, and stare at a blank screen. Apparently, it had just enough juice in if for me to get over the wall and about to download before it crapped out. By the third or fourth time I had it figured out(the computer tried to play head games with me all weekend) and didn't waste any more energy humping over the wall! So, suffice to say, Practice Session #1 scored a big zero in data retrieval!

After the practice session, I plugged the laptop in to recharge the battery and headed to the IMSA(the "big" SportsCar announcement wasn't until Friday, dancing girls and all) trailer to get the required stickers issued by them for the car. The IMSA guys said the new SportsCar stickers would be ready soon, but they didn't have them now. Darn! Now being a designer, I must make a comment/criticism on the new SportsCar logo. Understandably it's no Dali nor does it have the recognition of a Raymond Lowey logo design, but man, I must say, it is plain ugly (not to mention that its dimensions are so obtuse as to be difficult to find space on the car for it). And I really think a lot of the SportsCar teams think the same. Oh well, obviously they didn't look to me for my input!

The after noon qualifying session went well. We found ourselves 9th on the day with a time of 1:57.478. We were looking good for the race. The Kudzu could turn times close to that all day practically. Our drivers for the race were going to be Jim Downing, Tim McAdam, and Charlie Nearburg. The driver's main concern for the race was the bumpiness of the track and how to set up the car to cope with the bumps and for performance. Charlie also mentioned that he was getting battered around a bit by the slip stream over the cockpit. A final decision would also have to made eventually on the gearing. But for now, Jim, Tim, and Charlie wanted to feel the car out in the other practice sessions and make a decision on Friday.

Yannick Dalmas tore around the 3.6 mile track in the #3 Scandia Ferrari 333sp machine at a time of 1:49.430, a new track record. The Ferrari's ended up one-two-three on the grid, the Moretti #30 Ferrari picking up the rear. The Dyson and Taylor Riley and Scott entries were nipping at the Ferrari's heels.

So far everything was working fine. We had 2 more day's of testing and practicing before the race. We got out at a decent time and headed back to our lodging's. Jim had put us up in the historically famous Kenilworth Hotel. Now you wanna talk about charm/quaintness/rusticness, well this place had it! Built in the 1920s, it hadn't changed much! I searched vainly in my room for a three prong electrical outlet so that I could charge the laptop over night. With Dennis' help, I finally came up with a modified (illegally of course) two prong extension cord(modified, that is, to accept my three prong laptop power hookup!). Finally I took the time to relax and look at some of the data that I had down loaded during the day. It was noteworthy that the car had hit a maximum speed of 172mph on the Ulmann straight, and in looking at the maximum lateral Gs data, the car peaked at about 2.92Gs. Chris and Scott H and I sat around and chatted for a bit, then parted ways for bed. I cranked open the windows (the room was sans air-conditioning-- yeah I know, we were really roughing it) and glided asleep in anticipation of the next days.

Thursday, March 13--

Up at 6.30am. Breakfast with the guys at The Lunchbox(another fine Sebring establishment). At the track by 8.00am. Today there was an early morning practice with an afternoon qualifying session and a night practice segment. I took time in the morning to start to put the finishing touches of the decals on the car bodies. I had to add a few sponsor decals to the race body and finish the whole side of the spare body. The Hella representative came by to talk with Jim about what type lights he wanted to run and while he was here I bugged him for a couple of Hella decals to put above the headlight buckets on the car bodies. SportsCar supplied us with the new Professional SportsCar Racing decals. So I went about putting the new logo decals on the car and making finishing touches to the spare body.

The morning session started at about 10.00am or so, and about 20 minutes before we were going to head out a torrential downpour hit the area. We made the decision to not run in the session and instead take the time to change out the engine and swap in the race power plant. I took this time to sneak into the pit suites and snap some pictures of the cars that had ventured out for the wet session. With so much humidity in the air the WSC car's rear wings were squeezing contrails off the wing tips as the cars blasted down the straight in the rain! You could see the drivers taking care to avoid the puddles accumulating on the straight, staying left(driver's left) down the stretch. A Chevrolet Camaro GTS1 car came barreling down and aquaplaned sideways till he was blocking the track. I watched as the driver struggled to find reverse in order to maneuver the car from its predicament! Then I saw coming down pit lane the Moretti Ferrari 333sp with its rear wing askew! Obviously a victim of an off! Later on in the day I was talking with Tim McAdam and he mentioned that the track is hell to drive in the rain, that the track doesn't drain very well and can't cope with the torrential rains that are common. Though, an interesting fact, the Sebring 12 hour race has only been red flagged due to rain 3 times over the course of its whole history. Two of those times have occurred in the last 4 years; '93 and '95 (I was a spectator both those years and slogged my way around the track, very unpleasant!). Rain at Sebring is a rarity, but regardless, it's not something that you want (unless you're Hans Stuck).

During this lull I also took the time to check out a certain new eye catching car. I went over to where the Ford Panoz GTS-1 was in the paddock and glanced a fine tooth combed eye over the car. Powered by the highly successful Rousch Racing 6.0 litre pushrod V8, built by Reynard, and designed by Nigel Stroud, this car is as close to a single seater GT car as I have ever seen. The front suspension hangs off the engine (front engined car mind you) from a carbon fibre subframe very reminiscent of a single seater nosebox. It is a very interesting and intricate design. Word has it that the Panoz design was initially to become the '98 Viper FIA GT1 challenger, but with the '98 rules banning one-off 'specials', Chrysler was more interested in pursuing the production based racing Viper variants and not some perverted hybrid that could only be raced one year. With the Porsche GT1 and McLaren GTR in mind, Chrysler relegated themselves to running in the FIA GT2 category this year. So, the Panoz should (and by virtue of its qualifying time is) be a quick and potential car out of the box.

I headed back to our camp. The rain cleared up somewhat, and by the time the afternoon qualifying session was upon us the weather was fine. Scott had made a few adjustments to the car as per the driver's request. They were experimenting with a different 6th gear to try and keep the car from coming up on the rev. limiter to soon down the Ulmann straight. There had also been some problems with the Stack lap time beacon. The receiver unit is located on driver's right on the Kudzu, and Stack had placed the beacon emitter out on the track on driver's left. The difficulty that posed was that the drivers were not getting a lap time readout on the dash for each lap and the telemetry was not being segmented per lap (the telemetry didn't know when a lap started and when one began since the beam signal was not being received due to the emitter being on the opposite side of the track). It just was a matter of switching the location of the receiver beacon on our car to the opposite side.

Second qualifying wasn't really note worthy. At this point the Stack beacon was finally giving me corresponding lap times and segmented telemetry, but more importantly, Jim finally had the lap times in front of his face on the dash. This really is a useful bit of information to the drivers. They can then pace themselves throughout the race and have an idea of how quickly they are going without consulting the pits.

We went out for night practice and ran some laps. Tim mentioned after his stint that the traffic was the worst he had ever seen it. He really felt scared out there with some of those drivers. There was some difficulties with the Stack beacon again, and in consulting Andrew, it appeared that the problem was stemming from the fact that the beacon was located too low a height for our receiver to see it (many teams use the same Stack beacon emitter, so the unit is set up at a height that is optimum for all the teams using it). That is, the body work on the car was probably blocking the signal. The solution for this was probably going to be setting up our own beacon.

After night practice we closed up shop and headed back to the Kenilworth.

Friday, March 14--

Another early morning and fine dining at the Lunchbox. Today's one and only session was in the morning, but there were other events going on at the track in the afternoon. The Historic Sportscar Racing organization was putting on an exhibition race and the 2nd round of the Endurance Championship concluded the afternoon.

The night before I had been going over the telemetry from Thursday and noticed on the mph vs. rpm graph what appeared to be major speed drop offs. It seemed as though as the car was accelerating, over the course of the graph building the acceleration curve, the speed would spike and drop off suddenly. I had no idea what the problem might be (thought that maybe it was related to the bumpiness of the track) and brought this up to Jim who was interested in looking at the data to make a final determination on the 6th speed gearing for the race. With the speed drop offs on the graph it made it very difficult to determine correctly what the speed was at a given rpm (and hence the difficulty of determining the change that had occurred with the new 6th gear). So suddenly the data itself was called into question. Was the data problem related to a sensor failure, a mechanical failure, or what? Was the data useful? I tracked down Andrew to consult with him on the situation. He quickly diagnosed it as a wheel speed sensor problem. So we knew it was a sensor problem and that basically only half of the data was being read, and that the data that was there was accurate. With speed vs. rpm knowledge in hand and also a weather report that said on race day there was going to be a head wind on the fastest portion of the track, Jim made his decision on what 6th gear to use for the race. Scott H, gearbox guru , went about making the gear change and switching out and putting race drive shafts on the car (since most of the crew was taking a break watching the afternoon races, I gave Scott a hand in putting the drive shafts in). After working on that I requisitioned Dennis to give me a helping hand with finishing off the decaling of the spare body. We were in somewhat of a rush to get back to the hotel since Tim and Charlie were taking all of us out to dinner. We were treated to a wonderful dinner at Zeno's Italian restaurant and many a wonderful story about racing (supplied by Tim and Charlie of course). With full stomachs and in good spirits about race day (Marshal was very adamant about not using the word 'luck' in regards to tomorrow--it takes commitment and good preparation to do well in racing) we headed off to bed.

Saturday, March 15th--

In my mind Sebring is the toughest sportscar race in the world. It is a true test of a car manufacturer's product and of a driver's skill, savvy, and endurance. From Sebring's bumpy tarmac and poor lighting to the sometimes ridiculously slow backmarkers. Sebring is the race that sportscar racing is about. Sebring is racing's equivalent of real world driving on the streets. And isn't that what racing is about, extrapolating it to real life conditions that would be found on the highways of the world to test the skill of drivers and designers? If so, then Sebring is the race track that recreates the world driving microcosm!

At 8.00am we had a brief practice session. Everything went fine with us (though we weren't getting any lap times on the dash or on the telemetry and the decision was made to place out own beacon), but not for some others. Early in the session the #43 Scandia Ferrari 333sp spun and tore up the right side of the car and wing endplate. Talk about a big scare for one of the race favorites! Practice was eventually flagged when the #06 GTS-3 Porsche 944 Turbo snap steered into the wall at turn one. These guys were located next to us in the paddock and worked ten times harder than we had the course of the week getting the car together and running. It was sad seeing them out on the spot.

The cars were grided by 10.15am in anticipation of the 10.30 start. Before the race all the cars are lined up single file and at an angle on the pit straight. This is very reminiscent as to how the cars would have been lined up for the "Le Mans" starts of the past. At the engine start call we headed back to our pit stall waiting for the start. We were situated next to the #43 Scandia Ferrari and the #33 Buick Kudzu .

Jim was the starting driver. After a delay (now I know it was caused by the Panoz, thanks to Tim Crete's race report), the green dropped and the battle was on. We started from 11th position on the gird and into the first corner lost a number of places. The Mazda rotary engine lacks torque compared to the other cars we were surrounded by on the grid (Camferdam's Chevy Hawk, the #28 Intersport Oldsmobile Spice, #11 Oldsmobile Spice GTS-1), and by virtue of that torque deficit, we generally fall back immediately at the start only to pick off the cars in the turns and lead them by the end of the first lap.

By hour one we had moved from 11th on the grid to 9th overall, one lap down. The #16 Dyson machine led the field. The #43 Scandia Ferrari had faltered with fuel injection maladies and fell back to 56th place.

As the race worn on we moved up the charts. The race was punctuated by eternal periods of yellow. We used these opportune times to fuel the car and check tire wear . The car ran nearly flawlessly over the rough Sebring race course.

Early on Jim had an off course excursion that wiped off the front right Katayama lip splitter and damaged the left side one. The car was brought in and the remaining splitter was torn off. Jim went back out and radioed back that the car was experiencing understeer due to the lack of front downforce. It was decided to not replace the Katayama lips that would probably necessitate re-drilling the wholes and fixing things up a bit. Instead, to cure the understeer, Scott and Chris ran back to the trailer and got the front end winglets that we use for the high downforce circuits and wet conditions. It was hoped that putting the winglets on would cure the understeer. During one of the caution periods, the car was brought in, the front winglets put into place in their low downforce slots, and the car was sent back out with Charlie at the wheel.

At the fifth hour mark the track came under a red flag for the wrecked #74 Stuck/Adam Porsche GTS-1. We first heard about this over the radio with Jim when he came back screaming about a crash that he just nearly was involved with! Apparently Adam's incident happened right before Jim's eyes and nearly collected the Kudzu! At this point in the race we were fifth overall. The cars were lined up on the pit straight to wait for the cleanup. While the car sat on the grid we weren't allowed to do any work on it. All we could do is wait for the race to restart.

The race restarted after an hour break. By now the sun was starting to set and the visibility was becoming poor with the sun low in the sky. The Kudzu had lost 2 of the 4 head lamps since past half way point (SportsCar rules mandate lights on for WSC cars during all periods of the race). Something would have to be done if the lighting situation got any worse. During one of the many caution periods we brought Tim in for fuel and tires, sent him back out ahead of the pace car, and back in to replace the dead bulbs. Now with 3 of 4 headlights working, into the night we went! At 6:42pm, eight hours into the race, we were 3rd overall, one lap down on first place.

And there we stayed for the next 2 hours or so. We would fuel the car, put on new tires, swap drivers, send it back out, and then wait for the car to come back in. It was during one of the last stops that something happened to the radio. Either the jack wasn't hooked up during the driver change, or it came loose, or the radio went dead. Regardless, with about an hour to go, running in third place, suddenly Tim comes down pit lane unexpectedly. The car comes to a halt and time yells, "Vibration!" at the top of his lungs and points to the front end indicating the tires. Ed and Scott change the front tires and Marshal waves Tim out. We wait not knowing if Tim will come back in or if the problem was cured by changing the front tires. Seeing Tim go by once, twice, three time we are convinced that the problem has gone away or is now bearable.

When it rains it pours the saying goes. With about 45 minutes left, Tim is coming down pit lane. The car stops on the marks and my eyes glance over the car. Obviously the car has been off the track. There are tons of hay and grass lodged in the radiator ducts, all over the front end of the car; the car has been feeding. I can smell grass burning that has been dumped into the brake cooling ducts. The winglets are missing, the only remnants are some fluorescent orange pieces and the bolts that attached them. Tim is livid, you can see it in his eyes! Scott, Ed, and Dennis scoop the grass out, throwing it over the pit wall and pilling it up out of the way and give Tim the sign to head back out. Tim dumps the clutch on the rev. limiter and burns out.

But we're not over yet. The SportsCar official informs us about 10 minutes later that Tim will be coming down pit road sans headlights. It appears that lighting is dead. Spare bulbs in hand we wait for the car to show up. Darkened she cruises to a stop. Marshal rips off the cracked and damaged front right lens cover, doesn't even bother to lift the body work up. Scott changes one of the dead bulbs and Tim goes back out once again, one light a flicker. At this point it is obvious we have lost 3rd place. We had hoped that maybe the #4 Olds R&S might succumb to the same fate of its sister car (rod through the block as at Daytona), but Revenge is past us and we falter to 4th place.

Apparently there was a ding-dong on for top place. Hell, that was the last thing I was aware of. A close finish and Ferrari takes the win. Third place had been ours. Tim drove like a demon. His eyes were red! The car glowed function with the missing headlight lens cover, racer tape, grass residue, and dirt and tire rubber crud all over it.

Is real life tranquillity punctuated by moments of unexpected excitement? If so, then Sebring had nearly exacted its toll.

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About this article
Series IMSA Others
Drivers Yannick Dalmas , Jim Downing