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The Way It Is/ Praise and criticism both at the new Lime Rock

by Gordon Kirby
David Brabham scored an exciting, last-gasp victory for Acura and Highcroft Racing at Lime Rock last Saturday afternoon as the American Le Mans Series raced for the first time on the repaved and reconfigured road course in northwestern Connecticut. The ALMS started racing at Lime Rock in 2004 and over the past five years the crowd has steadily increased. This year saw a nice collection of overnight campers and great weather resulted in a fine raceday turnout, the biggest the ALMS has enjoyed at Lime Rock.

And the crowd was treated to a cracking race, hard-fought and constantly changing all the way between the Penske Porsches, the factory/Champion Audis, the Dyson Porsches and the leading Acuras. Brabham drove an excellent final stint in the Highcroft Acura to seize the lead from Timo Bernhard going into the second-last lap. It was a great come-from-behind win as the Highcroft team had to replace their car's rear wing early in the race after Scott Sharp damaged the car in an incident with some lapped cars. Owned by historic racer and super-enthusiast Duncan Dayton, Highcroft is based just down the road in Danbury so it was a nice hometown win as well as Acura's first outright ALMS victory.

"The car was great," Brabham commented. "Straight away, when we hit the ground here, we were never really out of the top two. Getting pole position was great and we made some little tweaks for the race, and the car was very, very strong.

"The competition out there is pretty fierce and everyone in the organization is pushing pretty hard," David added. "We've had some updates from the last race and they proved very positive straight away. I think it certainly helped us win this race today. The car was very strong. But we're not stopping here. There are more bits coming. We're up against tough competition and we've had to raise our game from last year.

"We had a very good first year but we didn't do as much development last year as we were hoping because they were focusing a lot on this year, and there's been a steady flow of development parts coming through all the time. So I'm very pleased with the progress that's been happening from Acura and Wirth Research and the Highcroft team."

© Gary Gold
These days, Lime Rock is the only remaining serious road course in New England. Opened in 1957, the challenging little 1.5-mile circuit was at its height through the sixties and early seventies when it hosted big-bore SCCA sports cars, Formula 5000 and Trans-Am races.

Over the years, in the face of cold, wet winters, the track has deteriorated and become very bumpy, but current track owner Skip Barber decided the time had come to completely repave the track and bring it up to date. Racing school entrepreneur Barber has spent $7 million on the project and in its debut last weekend the new Lime Rock was both highly-praised and seriously criticized by the drivers. Racewinner Brabham was least critical of all the ALMS class winners.

"They've done a great job with the paving," Brabham remarked. "It's really smooth, a huge improvement. The track surface is great, very smooth. I guess there was a big rush to get it done and there's a lot of dirt inside the grass and the sheer amount of dirt on the track was causing everyone a lot of problems. It's very narrow and some of the straights could be a little straighter to enable us to get past the slower cars a bit easier.

"And bring back the old West Bend. I think that would be a great thing. I'd really prefer to see the second chicane removed. It's really not very nice.

"It's easy to be negative," Brabham added. "But I think they've done a fantastic job. From the time they started digging it up to where they are now, it's quite incredible. Many times in the past where people have laid new tarmac down they've had big problems and keep having to resurface and resurface. But they did a great job of relaying the tarmac here."

Brabham said his approach going into the race at Lime Rock was to treat it like a street circuit.

"The conditions out there were really tricky," he remarked. "It was like you had no grip. You were tempted to go around the outside of slower cars and you could just kinda pull it off because there was zero grip out there. I tried it once and went off and came back on again and didn't lose much time.

"It's more like a street circuit than anything where you have to be absolutely precise. A lot of guys got themselves in trouble which helped us gain places but I was slightly amazed by some of the driving out there."

The most outspoken critic of the new Lime Rock was GT-1 class winner Johnny O'Connell.

"If you don't speak up, nothing gets done," O'Connell declared. "Every year we come here and every year over a million dollars worth of race cars are crashed. Every year we ask for changes, but they don't listen to us. Everybody loves the fans here and it's a beautiful venue but if you're going to spend $5 million to fix up a racetrack, why the heck don't you hire somebody who has actually driven a car in the last thirty years, or competed in the American Le Mans Series, to help do the geometries [of the corners]? If I'm going to build a race car, I'm not going to get an engineer who did the 1963 split-window Corvette. I'm going to get one of the guys who engineered the C6 Corvette.

"With minor tweaking, this could have been great," O'Connell continued. "I think if you ask most of the drivers [they'll tell you that] you took West Bend, which was the most fun corner on the racetrack, and took it away! And I think the geometry of the first chicane could have been improved and the back straightaway should be straightened-out."

O'Connell said he believes most ALMS drivers would not miss racing at Lime Rock.

© Gary Gold
"I think every single driver, if there was one race on our schedule they wouldn't mind losing, it would be this one, and that's because it's dangerous," Johnny went on. "I think there's potential here, but I think the track's involvement with the sanctioning body and the drivers is lacking. I know Allan McNish had a meeting last year in regards to only one circuit and it was this one. Allan's not here this weekend, but I don't think he would have been too pleased with how it's turned out.

"But it is very good pavement," O'Connell added, cracking a grin. "The asphalt's great!"

Factory Audi driver and Lime Rock P1 class winner Lucas Luhr called the chicane at the former West Bend, "a girly corner."

"I really like the new pavement," Luhr said. "It's a little bit low grip, but it's much, much better than it was in the years before. It's really nice and smooth. But the West Bend corner was one of the best corners in the ALMS series and they took it away from us and gave as a stupid chicane. I don't get the point. And then besides the curbs you put a pit full of gravel and after one hour of the race when you arrived at the chicane you wondered if you were on the racetrack or if it was dirt track racing because everything was covered with sand and mud.

"I think, like Johnny said, before they change something they should take a guy from the prototype and from the GT cars, and maybe a car owner, too, and say, this is what we want to do and then get their opinions. If you don't do that you will never make it better, and that's what happened here. For sure, they had in mind to make the racetrack better but in my opinion they made it all worse."

Commented GT2 class winner Jorg Bergmeister: "The tarmac is beautiful. That part is really nice. But West Bend was such a cool corner and now instead of having to go through a real man's corner we have to do almost a three-point turn to get through."

Track owner and former racer Barber says the track layout devised at Lime Rock was in response to conversations with Le Mans winner Allan McNish.

"Allan McNish, who is a great driver, a very professional driver, was the leader in asking us to find a way to slow these cars down through West Bend," Barber commented. "He was right, and this is what we decided to do."

Before the race, Barber was sure he would hear at length from the ALMS once the sanctioning body had gathered their own observations together with those from the drivers and team owners.

"I'm sure there's going to be a list of changes they want to see made," Skip remarked.

Before any of those are discussed, many details of Barber's redevelopment project remain to be completed. The second turn, a left-hander, will be eased and the track will cut across into a quicker, less abrupt right-hander to follow on the run-up to the old West Bend. Also, a new pit entrance will be built starting halfway down the 'Downhill', extending the pitlane by two hundred feet, and the backstraight will be made wider.

"The new sections are wider and we plan to widen the backstraight," Barber explained. "We planned to do that as part of this rebuild but we just didn't have the time to move all the earth. There are 20,000 cubic yards me need to move.

"We've spent $7 million," he added, "when you include all the barriers and we had to buy a piece of land to have the room to move back the big berm at West Bend."

Skip says the repaving has been done thoroughly and correctly.

"We took the whole thing up from the walkover bridge to the backstraight," he commented. "It's turnpike standard construction. There's two and a half feet of gravel with membranes to drain the moisture. Anywhere in the northeast, with the winters we have, the asphalt's ability to drain is tough on a racetrack. And when you're located in a flood plain like we are, it's even more difficult."

The new Lime Rock is much better for the fans because there are more viewing areas and spectating berms and the place is much more organized.

"Until now, you could only see half the track," Barber observed. "But now we've opened-up the uphill and you can really see West Bend, old and new. For the vintage Labor Day weekend, we're going to open-up the leftside of the downhill under the bridge. I stood on a ladder and watched some cars go through there and the cars just explode out from under the bridge. You get a great sensation of speed and sound from there.

"And we're connecting everything by paths. So you can walk in, stop at the new spectating berm before you come over the bridge, then you walk across to the downhill. You can watch from there, then walk over the pedestrian bridge, stop on the right side of the bridge where you get a different view of them coming at you from the new West Bend. Then there's a path to the uphill which we've made into a very wide path up to the bridge.

"I think and hope," Skip added, "that we've managed to do as much for the spectators and all the club people as we have for the competitors."

A key component in bankrolling the repaving and developing of Lime Rock is 'The Club at Lime Rock Park' which entitles members to sixteen 'track days' each year. There are two levels of membership worth $25,000 and $100,000, and Barber has been able to attract 137 members.

"It's a fifty-year membership with an absolutely bullet-proof contract to protect the members," Skip explained. "I did that because I was worried about what's going to happen twenty years from now. This is such a beautiful piece of land and it's worth more money for other uses. I've had a standing offer for years to turn it into a golf club and I can see twenty years from now some well-intentioned guy owns it with a big mortgage, the same way we did, and you get to a point where there's no gas that summer and he's out of business. So you make it a golf club."

Barber believes that in this way more tracks will follow in Lime Rock's footsteps.

"I believe it's a coming thing," he said. "Some new circuits have been built for this kind of thing, but we're the first professional road racing circuit to do it. In many ways, road racing has become less fan-based and more participatory.

"Mind you," he added during our mid-morning raceday conversation. "Having said that, it looks like we're going to have a huge crowd today."

There at two more big events at Lime Rock this year. NASCAR North stock cars race in August and there's a vintage festival on Labor Day weekend, a four-day event with a car show on Sunday.

"When the stock cars race here in August, they'll run the classic Lime Rock circuit," Barber noted. "For them, none of the corners are flat, like they are for the ALMS cars."

But the vintage cars will race on the new track.

"I think the track is too easy for slow vintage cars," Skip remarked. "In something like an MG TC, you put it in high gear and never shift. You tap the brakes once, and you can use half the width of the track. So we're going to use the new track for the vintage event. I'm sure there will be a lot of complaining that they have to shift gears, but that's part of the fun, isn't it?"

Barber is pleased that changing weather patterns mean he's able to squeeze more useful days from each year.

"The winters have gotten milder and we keep stretching the season," he said. "We now run from about the third week of March through Thanksgiving. We get a few days snowed-out every spring. But the track's busy every day and it's been busy every day for twenty years."

Long may it continue. Like I said before, the track is the only serious road course northeast of New York City and I hope the ALMS people can figure out a sensible way to make the new Lime Rock work for them and everyone else.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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