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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/ How Dyson Racing won the ALMS championship

by Gordon Kirby
Rob Dyson is a true stalewart of American sports car racing fielding one of the USA's top sports car teams for 28 years. Dyson started racing a Datsun in SCCA club races back in 1974 and moved into IMSA's GTP series ten years later. Based in Poughkeepsie ninety miles north of New York City, his team has won more than fifty sports car races over the years, including two Daytona 24 Hours. Dyson was at the wheel through his retirement from driving in 2003 although he came back to run the Grand-Am series in '07.

Englishman James Weaver was Dyson's lead driver for twenty years before retiring at the end of '05. Butch Leitzinger is another veteran Dyson driver spending fifteen years with the team. Rob remains the firm hand at the helm of his team in company with his son Chris who has established himself in recent years as the team's lead driver.

Dyson's team has competed in the ALMS since 2002, racing a variety of Lola-AERs through '06 and a pair of Porsche RS Spyders in 2007 and '08. Dyson resumed his partnership with Lola in 09 and struck a new partnership with Mazda to develop the company's 2-liter turbocharged ALMS engine.

This year Dyson's pair of Lola-Mazda LMP1 cars were the ones to beat. Indeed, the Dyson Lola-Mazdas won three races--a class win at Sebring and outright victories at Lime Rock and Baltimore. They took five poles, including three front row sweeps, and in Baltimore Dyson's pair of Lolas recorded their first one-two since 2005. In the end, Chris Dyson and Guy Smith won the ALMS Drivers Championship, the team took the Team Championship, Mazda won the Manufacturers title and tire supplier Dunlop won the tire builders trophy.

© Courtesy of Regis Lefebure, Dyson Racing
"We really couldn't be happier with the way things turned out this year," Chris Dyson comments. "It was one of those dream seasons. The competition was pretty fierce throughout the year. Greg Pickett's team really put up a good fight and bringing in our second car for the bulk of the season was a huge asset. It really accelerated our development efforts and gave us another bullet in the chamber."

Chris is 33 and started racing in karts in 1993 when he was sixteen.

"My dad was racing before I was born and my great grandfather on my mother's side was an early automobile dealer who raced in open road races before WWI," Chris remarks. "I guess the need for speed runs deep in our blood."

After a couple of years racing Porsche RS Spyders Dyson's team started racing its current Lola-Mazda in 2009, running two cars.

"Lola has been an integral part of Dyson Racing for nearly a decade now," Chris says. "With the exception of the two years when we ran the Porsche RS Spyder we've been a Lola team since 2002. So it really is a hand-in-glove relationship. One of the best facets of that relationship is Lola's responsiveness to any of our concerns and also the hunger that Martin Birrane still has for being at the top of the sportscar tree.

"I can't say enough about Martin as a person. He's a huge supporter of Dyson Racing and all of his customers. Anybody who races a Lola is on Martin's team. We're fortunate that we've had a long-standing relationship. We've delivered for him and he's delivered for us. So there's a lot of mutual respect and obviously Lola continue to turn out an extremely good car."

But it took all of 2009 and a good part of 2010 for AER to successfully develop the turbo Mazda engine so that it was sufficiently reliable to win races.

"While we had the pace where ever we were racing," Chris notes, "we wanted to address some reliability issues with the engine. All of our work through the fall of 2009 and into 2010 was geared towards reliability.

"I've got to give credit to Mazda. John Doonan has spearheaded the Mazda program and brought some great technical and commercial sponsors to the table that orginated from the Mazda. Independent of that, we've also worked as hard as we can to get the right commercial partners in place to support the program.

"Mazda really is a tremendous company to work for. They have huge integrity and the racing department is a small group that I believe is unmatched by any North American motorsport manufacturer. You only have to look at any results sheet to see how many Mazdas are out there racing.

"It's really an honor for us to be at the tip of the arrow of Mazda Motorsports' program. John Doonan and the team at Mazda Motorsports North America have been a huge part of our success the last few years. They're a joy to work for."

Dyson and his team were convinced they were ready to fight for this year's ALMS championship.

"If you look at our results in 2010 the car was extremely good at all events," Chris notes. "We were consistently on the front row or on pole position and we won a race and took podiums. We didn't quite string together a championship effort but we continued our progress through the fall of 2010 and came into 2011 with the specific goal of getting through the first two races with maximum points and using the Le Mans break to introduce some development."

Dyson's team took full advantage of the ten-week break in May and June between Long Beach and Lime Rock to redesign the engine installation.

"With the gap in the schedule we had a real opportunity to address some things and make a real push for the title," Chris says. "Lola and Peter Weston, our chief engineer, and also AER, concentrated on coming up with essentially a customized installation package that not only improved the rigidity of the car but also improved the intake and exhaust systems. Lola was right on top of that but it was really a collaborative effort between all the partners on a very tight time scale. So the result that we achieved at Lime Rock was terrific considering that Long Beach had only been ten weeks earlier."

At Lime Rock the team introduced the revised engine installation which improved the Lola's chassis rigidity. The new package also lengthened the wheelbase making for better handling.

"That improved the car's stability and helped with the rigidity of the chassis," Dyson commented. "It made the resolution of any setup changes we made to the car much higher."

Dyson added a second car at Lime Rock and did not suffer a single engine failure during any races this year.

"All the while we had phenomenal reliability from the engines in both cars," Chris Dyson relates. "We've not had a single issue during a race through the year. In fact, with the exception of a brake line getting cut by happenstance during the Petit Le Mans we had absolutely zero mechanical issues all year which is really a credit to the crew and the preparation we've put in place over the last couple of years."

© Courtesy of Regis Lefebure, Dyson Racing
Michael White is Dyson's team manager and has been with Dyson since 1995.

"He does an absolutely phenomenal job, not only organizing our effort but also assisting with the incorporation of the Oryx team effort."

Peter Weston has been the team's technical director since 2003. Prior to that Weston was Lola's chief sports car designer.

"Peter has a close relationship with Lola," Chris comments. "There's huge mutual respect between him and the technical team there."

Four of Dyson's employees have been with him for more than twenty years.

"I think one of our biggest benefits is the continuity of our staff and their familiarity not only with our technical practices but with each other."

As well as driving Chris is involved in establishing and fostering the team's technical and commercial partnerships.

"My role never really stops," he says. "I think I do well when I'm busy and the last couple of years have been extremely busy. But they've also been extremely rewarding. When I'm not in the gym training and getting ready for the next event I'm on the phone with one of our partners trying to fulfill our program's requirements and trying to define where we need to be both short and longterm.

"I'm fortunate that I've got great support from my management within the team. I also work with my dad to figure out the longer term, bigger picture strategy and also managing our relationships with key sponsors and technical partners."

The Dysons struck a deal early in the year with Humaid Al Masaood and Oryx Racing to run a second Dyson Lola-Mazda starting at Lime Rock in July. Al Masaood is from Abu Dahbi but grew up and went to university in the United States, playing tennis and golf during his college days. Al Masaood had raced Radicals and GT4 Aston-Martins and most recently competed in Europe's ALMS Lights-like category. Rob and Chris were introduced to Al Masaood by AER (Advanced Engine Research) who have developed the team's engines for most of the last ten years.

"We've been working pretty hard since the end of 2009 to try to create the right solution to return to a being a two-car team," Chris remarks. "We had a limited basket of resources in 2010 and rather than continuing to run two cars we focused on addressing the package from stem to stern. Running two cars has always been our natural order and we were fortunate enough to get to know Humaid.

"AER introduced us to Humaid's group. They had been working to get into LMP racing and were looking for the right avenue. It just so happened that we had a fortuitous gap in our schedule where they were able to come over and test and we all got to know each other.

"We put together a budget that would be needed for the second half of the year and they were able to raise the resources to help make that happen. If you look at the progression they made since Lime Rock it was a huge assistance for the team."

Tom Maplethorpe is the team manager on Al Masaood's Oryx car.

© Courtesy of Regis Lefebure, Dyson Racing
"Humaid brought a few additional crew members with him so it was really a union of sorts this year."

Dyson admits that he was surprised by Al Masaood's performances this year.

"I think astonished is probably a more accurate term," he grins. "I knew that Humaid had some talent from the first time we tested. He had never driven anything as fast as an LMP car but he'd been a competitive athlete his whole life. So I knew physically that he would be up to the task. But clearly, these cars--turbocharged, ground effect cars--require a specific skill set.

"I think it's a credit to not only the cars that our engineering team turns out but also to Humaid's innate ability and I can't say enough about Steven Kane either and his role in helping Humaid come along so well. But at the end of the day you've either got the talent or you don't. He was an unknown quantity going into the season and if you look at the way things turned out you would have to say he's a frontrunner of the future."

Guy Smith qualified Chris's car twelfth at this year's Petit Le Mans but they had to start last from the pitlane after changing the engine prior to the race.

"It's always a thrill to compete in the Petit Le Mans," Chris says. "It's probably my favorite race because, first of all, it's at Road Atlanta, which is one of my favorite tracks. It's such a rhythmic but daunting and rewarding place. It has all the elements of a classic road course and at Petit Le Mans you've got probably one of the biggest fields you're going to see anywhere on a track where space is limited.

"So going into that race you get yourself mentally prepared for a real test, not only of your fitness and resolve but of the team as well. It's one of those races that because it comes at the end of the year the technical package is at its peak and the team is super-sharp in its execution. So it's really like finals exam.

"What was nice about this year compared to previous years was I was able to truly enjoy the driving because we basically had the championship cinched up. So I came into the weekend completely relaxed and Guy and I were really excited. We had Jay Cochrane back in the car and all three of us just couldn't wait to get started.

"We had a problem in the morning warm-up which relegated us to start from the pitlane but in some ways that just made it more fun, just the prospect of knowing that a ten-hour race tends to come to you. It's one of the races where if you keep your wits about you can end up running up front.

"Before the race we were talking about the way the diesel drivers were driving in practice--slamming into each other and taking ridiculous amounts of risk--we all figured we were running for third. We talked about that and Guy and I were convinced we had probably the fastest gasoline car in race trim. We didn't quite show it in qualifying but we always come through with the race setup and we did that at Petit Le Mans.

"We went into the race with all our tire plans and strategy ready to go and, lo and behold, at about the halfway point we were running fifth and were about to go into fourth. We had gone from 53rd and last from the pitlane to fifth place a lap or so adrift of the overall lead. So it was really satisfying."

But two strokes of bad luck were laying in wait for them.

© Courtesy of Regis Lefebure, Dyson Racing
"Unfortunately, it wasn't the dream result that we hoped it would be because Guy had the misfortune to have a freak severing of a brake line. Some debris came up through one of the brake ducts and it sliced one of the brake lines and the pedal went to the floor. Thankfully, it happened in a section of the course where he wasn't going to get in trouble. We lost twelve or thirteen laps fixing that, then we marched our way back to eighth place and a few moments from the end we just had an unfortunate piece of timing.

"I happened to be coming up through turn one right at the point where an LMPC car was coming out of the pits. I couldn't see it and we ended up making some contact which broke the oil cooler and sent me into one of the more exciting spins I've ever been in my life. But I didn't hit anything! I was waiting for the inevitable crunch and it never came.

"We were basically out because it's hard to drive a car around the track without oil. That was unfortunate because that was about eight laps from the end. I was just trying to bring the car home and not do anything silly but it was still a fun race and we're still proud of what we did, especially considering the pace the diesels were running and the way the rules are written."

The Dysons are big believers in the ALMS's philosophy which produces great diversity in cars and manufacturers.

"I feel like every single weekend that I go racing in the ALMS that I'm really part of something special," Chris remarks. "At every race we go to there's a bigger crowd every year and there's something exciting in the air. There are new cars that turn up every year and new driver combinations. You've got a tire war going on and manufacturers coming out with interesting new technology that they're connecting with their marketing and their R&D.

"It's really the last bastion of what motor racing used to be which was an innovative place where people could promote and showcase products that were going to be seen on the road. I think unfortunately racing has gone away from that element to its detriment. I think fans come to see the variety and hear the different sounds of the engines. They love the different closing rates between the different categories. That's why 80,000-100,000 people come through the gates at Road Atlanta.

"At Long Beach and Baltimore the crowd was arguably bigger for the ALMS race than it was for the next day's IndyCar race. We love running side by side with the Indy cars because your road racing fans get a real bang for their buck.

"From my standpoint I love racing in the ALMS because it's essentially the successor to the IMSA GTP cars that I grew up with which everyone still raves about for good reason. When you go to the Petit Le Mans or Sebring you feel you're part of something that is as big as the sport can be. Especially with the way the global economy is going I think it's great to still have a place that promotes diversity and innovation but also keeps an eye on what's important to the competitors commercially. It's a tough balance but if you look at the success of the series with the way things are economically it's pretty remarkable how well it's stood up.

"It's a credit to IMSA for making sure the competition is always close. Even though the car counts aren't massive, the chief protagonists are still going head-to-head at all times and that's a direct credit to the IMSA staff. The ACO rules are a very good basis but you've also got to create a spectacle where everyone has a chance to compete if they do a good job."

Dyson intends to race two Lola-AER/Mazdas once again next year.

"The plan is to run the ALMS with two cars and come back to defend our title," Chris says. "I'm pretty optimistic that we will continue to run two cars and there may be some opportunities to run more than that. Those discussions are taking place right now. We plan to continue with the Lola-Mazda package. We're just trying to implement some further development over the next few months so we can come out of the gate smoking at Sebring. The opposition is not going to be sleeping and we've got to answer the bell."

Plans to race in the Rolex 24 hours at Daytona have been shelved.

"There are no pans to do that event," Chris says. "We worked very hard to try to make this year's race with a Lola-Ford Daytona Prototype. But in the end we couldn't get to the budget level that we needed to do an adequate job. So since then we've concentrated exclusively on our ALMS program.

"You can never underestimate what the public wants and what I like about the ALMS is that it thinks big. You look around the paddock and you have not only awesome cars and committed manufacturers but you've got the variety and the excitement. That's why people get excited about motor racing. I think if anybody who's in the management of any racing series forgets that they do so at their peril."

My congratulations to the Dysons and their team for winning this year's ALMS championship. The ALMS could not have a more committed and skilled team to wave the flag as their champions.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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