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The Way It Is/ Porsche's surprise Daytona winner

by Gordon Kirby
Most of the fancied runners hit trouble at Daytona last weekend allowing for a surprise winner in the shape of the Action Express Racing Riley-Porsche V-8 driven by Terry Borcheller/Joao Barbosa/Ryan Dalziel/Mike Rockenfeller. Powered by a Porsche Cayenne-based V-8 built in California by the Lozano brothers, car and team struggled for speed in practice qualifying an unpromising eighth. But a last-minute change in setup transformed the car for the race and a flawless run resulted in a solid victory, crossing the line almost a minute ahead of Chip Ganassi's Riley-BMW driven by Scott Pruett/Memo Rojas/Justin Wilson/Max Papis. The race was decided in the final hour when Wilson heard and felt a violent bang and was compelled to bring Ganassi's car into the pits for inspection.

"It was very strange and very frustrating," Justin remarked. "I came out of the bus stop chicane and felt a small explosion. The car shook around and then there was a bit of a rattle. I was wondering whether it was a wheel bearing or I'd blown a front tire. I couldn't work it out and I had about five seconds to decide whether I did another lap or dived into the pits. If I did another lap and it was a tire it would do damage to the bodywork.

"I got on the radio and said I had a large bang. It felt like something broke. So I asked whether I should pit or stay out and they responded when I was already turning into the pitlane. They said just go straight to the garage. It all happened so quick. You don't have time to think about it. So I dove into the pits and checked it out and there wasn't a problem and we went back out and continued. It was just disappointing to have to hand it over like that."

Team leader Pruett said Wilson did the right thing.

"I've had that happen to me before and it's violent," Pruett pointed out. "It's explosive and all of a sudden it feels like the tire is getting ready to fall off. If you haven't experienced it before, it's a pretty dramatc thing."

Teammate Rojas agreed with Pruett.

"Justin did the smart thing and the right thing," Rojas said. "Luckily we got good points from this race. Our two main goals this year are to win Daytona, which we were close, and to win the championship. So it's a good start to the season."

Immediately after the race Ganassi's team had yet to figure out what had happened.

"We haven't worked it out yet," Wilson said. "It's possible that the roll bar snapped but I'm more inclined to believe what Max said. He said he's had it happen before when a big chunk of tire rubber comes off and hits the bodywork. Max said it gives you the sensation of a small explosion and the car moves around and you think you're done.

"When we got back on track we were pushing hard trying to make up time and do the best job we can. It's frustrating but in the split-second I had to decide what to do I had to take the option that I wanted to make sure the car was in one piece."

Rockenfeller was trying hard to catch Wilson when Justin had his problem.

"After the last pitstop he was in front of me and I was trying to catch him," Rockenfeller said. "I could see him in front of me and then all of a sudden he slowed-down a little bit. I tried to get some slipstream from him and he went into the pits. So I was quite happy about that."

Rockenfeller and his teammates had problems of their own to contend with.

"We had no clutch for most of the race and then we had the throttle pedal sticking sometimes," Rockenfeller explained. "That made it difficult because you come down the straight at 190 and something mph and you're not sure if it's fixed or not and when you don't have the clutch to press to disconnect the drive if the throttle sticks, it keeps your attention up.

"So it was not easy, but they fixed the throttle and that showed how strong the team was. I stayed out as long as I could taking the risk and they found a solution. We didn't lose any time on the pitstop. For us it helped that the Ganassi car had a problem but I think we did a really good job. We didn't put any scratches on the car and we never went off the track like some other cars with cold tires."

The winning car was prepared in Brumos Racing's North Carolina shop beside a traditional flat-six Porsche-powered Riley like last year's winner. The tough economic times compelled Brumos to lay-off a bunch of employees last year and cut back to running just one car this year. But that decision left the door open to Brumos building a V-8 powered car to be run in different colors.

"When I came here I didn't expect that we would be there at the end, especially not in the first spot," Rockenfeller observed. "In practice we were struggling a bit with the handling but the team did a really good job to fix the car and make a good setup. We were pretty much changing everything on the setup before the race. The guys on the team were sure it was going to be okay and it was. When I was first in the car I was struggling a bit to get up to speed and find my rhythm but from the second stint on the car was perfect to drive. I think we were able to try to get a hundred percent out of it and that's why we lead most of the race."

Teammate Dalziel agreed with Rockenfeller's assessment.

"I think all four of us went into this race with a major unknown," Dalziel commented. "We were pretty lost in practice. I think the one thing where I knew the team was going to perform was reliability. I felt like if we were reliable we would be there at the end and after the first couple of hours it was obvious that we were fast. I think that regardless of what happened with other cars the important thing was that we never went off track. We never had any mechanical problems or hits on the track. I think this a huge achievement for a new team.

"I did a test in Denver in 2008 in a Riley-Porsche and when I drove this car I was completely shocked by the improvements they've made in twelve months," Dalziel added. "What we're running here isn't what they're going to have for the rest of the season and I think they're going to be a threat throughout the season. I think the BMW is a really strong package but I don't think there's one manufacturer that's better than the others. I think they're all pretty even.

"I think the Porsche has some torque to find. Once we get up on the banking we're actually pretty strong. But through the infield, I think if we had a little bit more time during the test days we could have tried some different gears. We had some handling issues and I think if we came back tomorrow we could do something different. But I think it's a great engine. It's been reliable and I didn't see anybody pass us on the banking. It's not there, but it's very close."

Pruett believes Ganassi's switch to BMW engines will serve the team well this year.

"Sometimes you get used to what you're driving and you adapt to it from a development standpoint of both the chassis and driveability," Pruett observed. "It's been interesting for me going from the Lexus to the BMW because the BMW is like a street car engine. It's got great driveability and acceleration so it's a significant improvement for us.

"I think we have very similar horsepower than the Lexus, no better because we ran the same gears as last year at Daytona. The biggest thing is it's massively better getting up and off the corners. So it's a lot better in traffic and under yellows and running in the rain. So I believe it's been a massive change for the good.

"I know Mike Hull and Chip labored a little with the decision about which engine to go with," Pruett continued. "They deliberated until the tenth hour but once that decision was made we were flat-out into the changeover. Yes the #02 car had a problem but for changing to a new engine it's gone flawlessly. The engine itself is superb. I've kind of struggled in the rain over the last few years but at the start of the race we went right to the front, took the lead and the engine ran just fine. We had great power so we're looking good for the season.

"It's going to take us a litte bit to really adapt this engine to our program because the center of gravity is higher and there are different things we can do because of the way the engine runs. We ran Lexus engines for six years and there were things we had to do with the car to adapt to the peaky engine. So it's going to take a little bit before we catch our stride. We're working hard but we've got to get through a few races before we know exactly what it needs and continue working on making it better. Right now the Fords are the strongest, no question. They've got some serious grunt."

Only fifteen Daytona prototypes raced in this year's Rolex 24, down by four from last year. The field was filled-out by thirty-four GT cars, but the level of competition at the front of the field remains as fierce as ever.

"Every year it seems like the cars get more refined and more robust and more durable so nobody's losing a wheel or a transmission or brakes," Pruett observed. "I think it talks about the quality of the cars and teams in the Grand-Am and the level of competition. I know we ran hard the whole time. You had to be careful in traffic but there were no issues as far as having to conserve brakes, engine or transmission. We just ran the thing as hard as we could the whole way. We ran the shit out of it."

Added Rojas: "Obviously, the #9 car is going to be tough to beat. They won the race and are leading the championship and I look forward to the season. There are some really good and really quick cars out there which had problems today like the #10 car and the #99 car and the Shank cars. Those cars are going to be up there all year and that's what Grand-Am racing is all about. It's endurance racing but it's flat-out all the race. This is a twenty-four hour race sprint race. You drive a hundred percent all the time and the car allows you to run a hundred percent. You cannot give anything up in these races. We got good points today and we're contending for the championship."

Meanwhile I was pleased to bump into Nick Craw at Friday night's Rolex dinner. Nick assured me that the FIA is going to take more of an interest and active role in trying to integrate American and international motor racing and encourage the return of innovation to the sport. Craw made similar remarks at the RRDC dinner on Wednesday evening and in our private chat at the Rolex dinner I was impressed by Nick's quiet passion and commitment to these subjects. It would be great if some years down the road we will have the opportunity to see innovative, ground-breaking and truly international sports car racing make a return to Daytona.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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