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American Le Mans 2009 – Utah Grand Prix



ALMS: Utah Post-Race Notebook 

Early ‘Challenge’ Impressions

Sunday’s Utah Grand Prix marked the debut of the ‘ALMS Challenge’ class, a category open for eligible competitors from the Patron GT3 Challenge. Introduced to give accomplished amateurs a chance in the big leagues, the Challenge class initially proved to be a concern among veteran ALMS drivers and teams. But in fact, the race ran without any major incidents, to the surprise of some.

“I was a bit skeptical coming into this weekend about how that might play out,” said GT2 winner Patrick Long. “I remember my first endurance race when a prototype went by me, I literally had a manual reset of my mental side of things. But these guys did a great job and were running with us with closer closing speeds compared to the prototypes. It was easy and a welcome competition equalizer as we now had a class to overtake. I think it was all positive.”

Five Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars pulled double-duty this weekend, with local squad Snow Racing reigning supreme. Husband and wife pairing Martin and Melanie Snow not only took the inaugural ‘ALMS Challenge’ class victory, but Martin also swept both Patron GT3 Challenge races over the weekend – all with the same car.

Martin and Melanie, though, were no strangers to multi-class competition and the presence high-speed prototypes, as they were also class winners in the very first ALMS race in 1999. The duo competed in the inaugural season and a handful of events in 2000, but none others up until this weekend.

The Snow’s extensive experience at the wide-open and fast-flowing course played a deciding factor in entering this weekend’s event. But Miller also proved to be a good starting race in the five-round championship, especially for others without past ALMS experience.

“That was one of the things we took into consideration when we decided to jump into this new class,” Melanie said. “This track is amazing; we had a spotter sitting up in the Attitudes [corner complex] to see the entire track from there. He was [giving us pointers], so that way we didn’t bother anyone else’s race and we could still have

our race. Although there was a lot of traffic, if you went to other [tracks], there’d be even more traffic. We’re so happy it was our home track and we were able to win it.”

With a 26 second margin between the pole-sitting LMP1 car and the fastest Challenge competitor’s lap time in qualifying, prototype drivers had their work cut out for them on race day. Cars like the race-winning de Ferran Motorsports Acura lapped the GT3 Cup Porsches approximately every five laps.

“I was quite concerned going into the race, not only because of the speed differential being very large, but I think those guys were not used to dealing with faster cars in traffic,” overall race winner Gil de Ferran said. “I had a couple of hairy situations in the race, but it wasn’t as bad as I was anticipating. I think the fact that this is a long circuit, being quite wide and good to overtake contributed to this benign phenomena. It will be a lot harder at a place like Lime Rock.”

Fellow Challenge competitors even had good words to say about their prototype counterparts. With the first caution-free race since Mid-Ohio in 2007, there was plenty to cheer about for all parties.

“It was a very clean race,” said former ALMS prototype driver turned driver coach and Challenge racer Guy Cosmo. “[The prototypes] got by as soon as they could, which I’m accustomed to. I’m sure for some of the newcomers in this class, it’s probably a little surprising of how aggressive they would be. Everybody was really nice to each other out there. It shows the level of professionalism in this Series.”

However, the Cosmo and John Baker-driven Porsche GT3 Cup car as well as the sister Orbit Racing machine of Ed Brown and Bill Sweedler were later excluded from the race for ride height infringements found during post-race inspection. Both cars had originally finished second and third, respectively.

Overall, though, high marks were given to the Challenge category’s debut. But as de Ferran eluded to, the real test will come at the next round at the narrow and unforgiving Lime Rock Park in July.

Dyson Comes Close To P2 Win

It had appeared Miller was going to be Dyson Racing’s breakthrough race, especially after seeing both of its Lola B09/86 Mazdas running 1-2 in the opening hour. The turbocharged Mazda MZR-R-engined machines clearly had the power advantage in the high desert altitude, but the naturally aspired Acura of Lowe’s Fernandez kept its undefeated record in LMP2, taking the win.

Dyson initially had opted for a split strategy, with the No. 20 car of Marino Franchitti taking fuel-only on its first stop, and the No. 16 entry of Chris Dyson getting tires and swapping over to co-driver Guy Smith. However, just a few minutes later, smoke was reported to be coming out of Smith’s car, and he pitted to also find electrical issues.

Smith lost eight laps in the process, leaving the No. 20 machine as Dyson’s only hope for the class win. Franchitti maintained the lead but pitted with one hour and nine minutes remaining. Butch Leitzinger took the wheel, but there were concerns if the car could go the distance on fuel. Sure enough, with the clock ticking down, Leitzinger came in for a splash-and-go with 20 minutes remaining, narrowly losing the lead to Adrian Fernandez.

Leitzinger trailed Fernandez by less than three seconds and was unable to bridge the gap until the Acura driver came up on the lapped Dyson team car of Smith. Unable to get around the No. 16 machine, Fernandez lost time to Leitzinger in the final two laps, but held on to the win, by a narrow margin of 0.585 seconds.

“We seemed to be pretty close on lap times when we had a clear track,” Leitzinger said. “More than anything, it came down to who could get the breaks in traffic. I think I missed a couple of those today. But you have to look on the side that the BP Mazda is improving every race and we’re definitely breathing down their neck.”

The No. 20 car’s third stop for fuel effectively cost them the victory, leaving some disappointed faces in the Dyson camp after the race. With only being able to go 48 minutes on a full fuel stint, there’s definitely room for improvement, especially with the majority of the remaining events also being two hours and 45 minutes in length.

“I think that’s probably an area we’ll work on in the Le Mans break,” Leitzinger said of improving the Mazda MZR-R’s fuel economy. “I think we went hard in the beginning and [Fernandez] may have been going lean, trying to stretch their fuel. We’re closer every time, but when you get out of the car right now, you forget that part.”