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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way it Is/ A fine season kick-off

by Gordon Kirby
David Donohue and Juan Pablo Montoya gave us a great start to the racing season on Sunday afternoon as they battled furiously for victory in the Rolex 24 hours at Daytona. The 42-year old Donohue scored the biggest win of his career as he overcame Montoya's unrelenting efforts to take the first Daytona 24 hours win in thirty years for the late Bob Snodgrass's Brumos Porsche operation from nearby Jacksonville. Donohue used his Porsche-Riley's superior power to take the lead from Montoya with forty minutes to go and went on to win one of the most exciting Daytona 24-hour finishes in recent history by just 0.167 of a second.

Donohue's co-drivers were Buddy Rice, Darren Law and Antonio Garcia while Montoya was paired in one of Chip Ganassi's two Lexus-Rileys with defending Grand-Am champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas. Just five seconds further back in third place was the second Brumos Porsche-Riley driven by Hurley Haywood/JC France/Joao Barbosa/Terry Borcheller while Wayne Baker's Ford-Dallara took fourth place driven by Taylor/Max Angelelli/Brian Friselle/Pedro Lamy.

So Ganassi's team was thwarted in its attempt to score a fourth win in a row at Daytona. Nobody was more deserving than the Brumos operation run by veteran crew chief Mike Colluci. The team has been on an uphill climb in recent years and last weekend's victory showed that the Brumos Porsches will be serious Grand-Am championship contenders this year. They've been helped in their quest of course, by the Grand-Am's desire to see a Porsche in victory circle resulting in the Porsche engine getting a break this year versus the Lexus, Ford and Pontiac engines.

2008 and 2007 Grand-Am champions Scott Pruett and Alex Gurney were particularly vocal about the situation last weekend. Pruett and Gurney have been lobbying Grand-Am officials in recent months to level the playing field for the rest of the season but neither Scott nor Alex believe the Grand-Am will grant them any breaks this year. With Porsche pulling out of the rival ALMS series and Penske Racing joining Brumos in the Grand-Am with Porsche-powered cars the Grand-Am hopes to pull Porsche into focusing its American sports car racing effort on the Daytona Prototype series.

Such will be the case for this season and possibly 2010, too, but Porsche is expected to return to the ALMS in 2011 with a P1 car powered by a two-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine. Meanwhile, the Grand-Am will enjoy Porsche and Penske's participation and the series hopes to take advantage of the ALMS's weakened state to establish a stronger footing for itself in American racing over the next year or two.

Penske's Porsche-Riley driven by Timo Bernhard/Romain Dumas/Ryan Briscoe qualified second at Daytona last weekend. The Penske Porsche-Riley was in the thick of the battle for the lead until fuel feed problems and a CV joint failure dropped the car down the field. Bernhard/Dumais/Briscoe eventually finished sixth, eighteen laps behind the winner.

Other top contenders were Ganassi's second car driven by Scott Dixon/Dario Franchitti/Alex Lloyd and Bob Stallings's Gainsco Pontiac-Riley driven by Alex Gurney/Jon Fogarty/Jimmy Vasser/Jimmie Johnson. Dixon/Franchitti/Lloyd finished four laps down in fifth place after repairing brake and bodywork problems. The Gainsco car also encountered a series of problems, losing more than twenty laps fixing bodywork and transmission failures. Gurney/Fogarty/Vasser/Johnson made it home in seventh place behind the Penske Porsche-Riley.

It will be interesting to see therefore how this year's Grand-Am season unfolds. Will the Brumos and Penske Porsche-Rileys continue to be the cars to beat? Or will the Ganassi, Wayne Taylor and Gainsco teams bounce back into the spotlight, with or without the Grand-Am's help?

Three months will pass before the Grand-Am season resumes in earnest and as the series's bosses decide whether they're going to level this year's playing field or not, it's instructive to consider the analysis, energy and effort put in by Ganassi's sports car team in recent years. Mike Hull is the general manager of Ganassi's Indy-based IRL/Grand-Am operation and veteran crewman Grant Weaver is the team's shop manager. Hull explained some of the thinking that's gone into developing Ganassi's top-ranked Grand-Am team and preparing to win a 24 hour race.

"From the outside the Grand-Am might seem like a simple formula," Hull commented. "But it's a very complicated formula and it's very difficult to be prepared to fix your problems quickly in the Daytona 24 hours. It's very hard to understand that it's actually twenty-four, one-hour races, not one. It's all about each segment of the race. You have to win each segment in order to win the race at the end and when your mindset is more sprint-style racing. Whether it's a 500-mile race or a 200-mile race, or a two-hour road track race, that's very different than the mindset you need here.

"We got waxed when we first came here," Hull added. "We went home and totally re-evaluated our position in being ready to race the twenty-four-hour race again."

Hull was candid in listing what the team got wrong in its early attempts at long-distance racing.

"Being prepared to fix our problems was a start," Hull recounted. "We also needed to have positive momentum with lap time segments going into each segment and understanding what you actually had to achieve. Another thing is having a car that all the drivers were comfortable with. Having your guys prepared to do basic things on the cars for a twenty-four hour period. Another thing to learn about was racing in any kind of climatic conditions. I don't think we were truly ready to win this race until 2006.

"To give you an example of how far we came in that period of time; we made a decision to come back to the garage and in six minutes we changed the gear stack, the radiator, the driver, the tires, the front and rear brakes. We changed the aerodynamic configuration on the car with the trim package and we changed the alternator belt and battery. We did all that in six minutes under full-course yellow so we lost two laps, and we won the race!

"The hardest thing you have to do in this kind of racing is to make the decision to make changes on your car like that so that when you go back on the racetrack you can run at a pace that you need to get to the end. Most racers don't want to do that. They just want to keep going. But you have to be prepared to make those changes quickly."

Shop manager Grant Weaver and his colleagues have focused on making any pitside repair work take place as rapidly as possible.

"Grant is in charge of a group of guys who practice in the building at the shop to do all those changes in the garage," Hull commented. "We have one group of guys who practice doing all the changes on the car in the pitlane. But we have a second group of guys who work in the garage area and make those changes as quickly as they can in combination with the over-the-wall guys. And if we have to service both cars at the same time in the garage we're prepared to do that and the guys practice that.

"We get the cars prepared early enough so that there's time for the guys to practice all these things in advance in the shop. It's all those things that help us to win the race and when we started in the Grand-Am we were not prepared to do those things at all. We thought we were pretty good. But we were terrible. We've come a long way and Grant and a lot of other people have been very instrumental in making it happen from the very beginning."

Hull says the effort that goes into preparing to make repairs during the race represent a substantial amount of the team's time.

"In comparison to car preparation," Hull replied, "if you include the management of how we do it and the practice of doing it, this work represents fifteen percent of our total time. And it's a work in progress to this day."

Grant Weaver explained the team's Rolex 24 hour debrief session.

"The week after next we'll sit down with all the entities involved for this race and go over what went right, what went wrong and what we need to look at for next year," Weaver commented. "It tends to be a very long gab-fest, but we take extensive notes and come up with a list of priorities of what we need to work on. We do that every year and we're constantly improving it.

"This list has grown to be about four hundred items long. We try to make sure that we have a remedy for every issue that has arisen, a way to fix it quickly. If we need to redesign or remake something, we do that. If something didn't work as well as we liked it to, we'll do whatever it takes to fix it. We start to work for next year's race a week and a half from now.

"At the end of next fall," Weaver added, "we'll sit down and figure out where we are for what we need to do for this race. We'll have about six more meetings prior to coming here to make sure we haven't missed anything."

Weaver made the point that the Grand-Am operates on a much smaller budget than the ALMS or European Le Mans Series.

"It's not like Le Mans with the big factory efforts where you can just roll it back into the garage and everything is there," Weaver noted. "These are all private teams in the Grand-Am. So the financing isn't there to have a kazillion dollars in equipment. We have to make the best use of the funds that we're given. So you won't see a six-minute rear-end change, like the Audis were able to do. But we're not going to take much longer than that."

Mike Hull says many people in the IRL's IndyCar and Grand-Am series have been wondering how Montoya will do in next spring's series.

"Everybody in our shop at Indy are working to make our overall product better," Hull said. "We're not an Indy car shop. We're a race shop. If one of our Indy car mechanics has a really good idea for the future for our sports car team, then the sports car guys immediately adapt that idea. It's all about accepting what's the best way to do it today."

As ever open-mindedness is the key to success in motor racing whatever the formula.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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