The BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series returned to Texas, September 29 - 30, for the Texaco / Havoline Grand Prix of Houston. This is the third year that the Trans-Am Series has visited the 1.527 mile, 10 turn temporary street course, and the ...
The BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series returned to Texas, September 29 - 30, for the Texaco / Havoline Grand Prix of Houston. This is the third year that the Trans-Am Series has visited the 1.527 mile, 10 turn temporary street course, and the second trip to Houston for the Epic Racing team.
We were looking forward to the return to Houston for several reasons. First, we had a great experience with the fans the previous year. They were especially interested in the Trans-Am Series, and the paddock area in the Convention Center was exceptionally conducive to fan interaction. Second, Gary had started the 1999 race in 18th place and was all the way up to 6th with three laps to go when we ran out of fuel, a rookie team miscalculation. We knew our cars could perform on the tight Houston street course.
As is typical of the race weekends when the Trans-Am Series competes alongside the CART FedEx Championship Series, the schedule included only two on-track sessions prior to the race on Saturday. Therefore, the Epic Racing team had established an objective to have the cars set-up ready to race when we arrived in Houston for the first practice session. Our experience from the 1999 race helped to establish a base line for the cars, a luxury that we did not have at other tracks we had visited this year for the first time.
During the practice session on Friday morning both Gary Johnson in the #9 BBQ Smoke House sponsored Ford Mustang and Steve Pelke in the #19 Kay Manufacturing sponsored Ford Mustang reported that the cars were running and handling great. Steve was 17th fastest of the 31 cars entered, turning a fast lap of 1:17.527 for an average speed of 70.907 on the tight course. Gary was 22nd fastest with a fast lap of 1:19.746, and average speed of 68.934.
At the end of the practice session, a front brake caliper on the #19 was leaking brake fluid so the crew put a new Alcon caliper on the car. Based on our experience at the Texas Motor Speedway three weeks earlier, brake problems were expected at Houston due to high brake temperatures. To combat this, during the time-off between the two Texas races, we had installed brake water systems on both cars to help cool the brake rotors. With the new caliper and the cooling system, we expected that Steve would not experience any of the brake problems he had at Ft. Worth.
Looking for some help setting up the cars to better handle the bumpy street course conditions, we met with representatives from Penske Racing Shocks. They provided some adjustment recommendations for the shocks. With these minor changes and the new brake caliper we were ready for qualifying.
Steve just missed being in the fast group for qualifying, as the 15 fastest cars made up Group 1. Both Steve and Gary were part of the slower, Group 2. Johnny Miller in the #64 Automation Direct / UPS Corvette was also in the slower group due to some problems he experienced during practice. Steve's plan was to hook-up with Johnny and try to stay on his tail to get in some fast laps. Unfortunately, the plan never came to fruition as the #19 car broke an axle on the third lap of the qualifying session. Steve never had an opportunity to get the car up to speed, and ended up with a time of 1:22.167. He would have to start at the back of the field in 30th position.
Gary shaved three seconds off his earlier practice times, but was still 22nd fastest in the field, as most of the drivers were able to reduce their lap times. He reported that the shock adjustments had made a big difference in the car's grip on the track.
In preparation for Saturday's race, the crew put new axles and a new differential in the rear end of the #19 Mustang. The #9 car did not require any changes, just the usual pre-race checklist.
The Saturday afternoon race was scheduled for 65 laps or 90 minutes, whichever came first. Starting from the back, Steve was faced with a real challenge to meet the team's goal of a top 10 finish. As soon as the green flag flew, he started his assault and by lap 4 he had gained seven positions to 23rd. Gary also was moving up and gained two positions to 20th.
On lap 7, Gary radioed to car chief Roman Tucker to check the front end for damage on the next trip down the front straight. Apparently while chasing Jerry Kinn for position, Gary rear-ended Kinn when a car in front of both of them braked harder than expected entering a turn. Roman checked the front end the next time by and could not see anything that would keep the #9 from continuing.
A yellow flag came out on lap 10 for debris on the track and to remove the stalled car of Don Sak. Steve had moved up to 20th position and Gary was 18th. However, Gary reported that his car was smoking badly and losing power. Gary brought the car into the pits and engine builder Mylon Keasler and car chief Roman Tucker started searching out the problem. What they found was an oil line had been knocked off, apparently by debris that Gary had picked up on the track. While the race was essentially over for the #9, the crew worked fast and furiously to install a new oil line in order to get the Mustang back out on the track so that we could pick up at least a few championship points. While the #9 sat in the pits the green flag flew on lap 14.
Two yellow flags later, on lap 27, the crew had finished the repairs to the #9 and sent Gary back out. By this time, Steve had worked his way up to 13th position and was having a great race. The car was fast, handling well, and Steve was driving masterfully.
The green flag was displayed on lap 30 and one lap later Steve was passed by Paul Gentilozzi who had pitted on lap 20 for a flat tire. By lap 42 when the next yellow flag came out Gary was in 24th position and Steve was in 14th and breathing down on Jerry Kinn for the 13th spot. The green flag came out again on lap 45 and Steve began to apply heavy pressure to Kinn.
Three laps later, a half lap after putting a great move on Kinn and picking up the 13th spot, as Steve exited turn 10 and headed down the front straight, he slowed tremendously. Watching in wonderment as he went by our pit stall on the front straight, the crew radioed, "what happened?" Steve responded that he thought the motor gave out. The day was done.
Twelve laps later the race ended on a timed basis. The Epic Racing cars, both experiencing problems, finished 22nd (#19) and 23rd (#9). Paul Gentilozzi was the provisional winner with Chris Neville in second and Jack Willes in third.
After the race the Epic Racing crew checked the #19 car and found that it had been the transmission that let go, not the motor. This was somewhat of a relief as the motor was fresh from Lozano Bros. Porting just prior to the Houston race.
While we were checking out the broken parts SCCA Pro Racing was evaluating the race results. Apparently during Gentilozzi's pit stop for the flat tire his pit crew had violated the rule that permits only three crew members "over the wall" to work on the car. A 25 second penalty was applied, dropping Gentilozzi to 6th place. Also, Jack Willes was penalized for passing Brian Simo under yellow flag conditions, dropping him to 7th position.
After assessing the penalties, the win went to Chris Neville and Epic's good friend Stu Hayner picked up 2nd place. GJ Mennen moved up to take 3rd place, the final podium spot.
With his 22nd place finish, Steve Pelke dropped to 13th in the Drivers' Championship, but is only four points out of 9th place. Gary Johnson held his position in 18th and trails Willy T. Ribbs and Michael Lewis by seven points. In the Owners' Championship, Epic Racing continues to hold down 7th and 8th place.
The Houston race will be televised by Speedvision on Friday, October 13 at 8:00pm EDT, 5:00pm PDT, and again at midnight, EDT and 9:00pm PDT.
There are just three races left in the BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series: October 15 at Laguna Seca in Monterey, California; October 29 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and November 5 on a temporary street circuit at the Naval Training Center in San Diego.