It was a quick turnaround for the Acura teams, heading to the Road America race after the Mid-Ohio event the previous week.
But for the majority of the drivers, crews and sponsors in the American Le Mans Series, the trip to Elkhart Lake, Wis., is always fun. Road America is one of the finest and most legendary road courses in the world. The famed four-mile circuit has been a favorite of drivers for the past 50 years. You could ask Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, Derek Bell, Geoff Brabham, David Brabham, Gil de Ferran, Dario Franchitti and Adrian Fernandez. They all love the place.
The history of Road America, the drivers who’ve competed there, the fans who have witnessed the races and the fun throughout the facility have given the track its own legacy.
The team facing the biggest turnaround after Mid-Ohio was the Patrón Highcroft Racing team, which had major repairs to be done. The contact between Scott Sharp’s Acura ARX-02a and the No. 44 Flying Lizards Porsche left the No. 9 Patrón Highcroft machine pretty badly injured. The left side bodywork and the car’s under tray were severely damaged, and extensive attention was required.
But the Robin Hill-led crew did a tremendous job in getting the car ready for testing runs, set for Friday afternoon.
When the track opened for the ALMS machines, there had already been a variety of cars on the track. The Time Warner Cable Road Race Showcase had numerous series participating, and the majority of those cars had already run on the circuit.
So, when the American Le Mans Series took to the asphalt, the racing surface seemed in pretty good shape. It was a little different from the slippery surface that greeted the drivers a week earlier at Mid-Ohio.
The de Ferran car picked up where it had left off at Mid-Ohio, going very fast immediately with a time of 1:50.573 and Gil at the wheel. Simon Pagenaud, coming off four straight wins, looked confident as he took his first laps on the Road America pavement.
“This is a good start for us,” said de Ferran, who is now on his farewell tour in the cockpit. “We had a few red flags that hurt us a bit, but we found a good base with the car for the rest of the weekend. Man, I forgot how quick this place can be. For us, we have no strategy for the championship. We are behind and we just have to go out and win races. The Patrón Highcroft team is a world-class team. They will be strong again this weekend.”
For the Patrón Highcroft team, the Friday afternoon test was a little scary. Obviously, getting the Acura back into shape was difficult on the team. Then in testing, the car didn’t seem right to David Brabham and Scott Sharp. It wasn’t handling properly. And for Sharp, it shortly got worse.
On the back section of the course, known as The Kink, the steering locked up on the No. 9 Acura. Sharp was traveling about 150 miles per hour at that point. And suddenly, no steering! Yikes! Luckily for Scott, he got the car slowed down on the grass and didn’t get into the wall. It was only a few years earlier when Katherine Legge had a huge crash in that same area.
Sharp’s best time of testing was 1:52.916, over two seconds off de Ferran’s time. So, the Patrón Highcroft crew knew they had some further work to do to get the car up to speed for the weekend.
In Saturday morning’s practice session, the de Ferran squad continued to improve. Gil clicked off the first sub-1:50 lap with a best of 1:49.874. Jon Field, with a powerful 6-liter motor well-suited to the Road America layout, was second at 1:51.010, followed by Sharp at 1:51.349. The atmosphere in the Patrón Highcroft stable was not cheery at that point. Brabs and Sharpie were both concerned about their car’s performance. After four straight losses to de Ferran, there was a lot of head-scratching taking place in the No. 9 trailer.
But the team made improvements for the second practice on Saturday. Brabham was better with his car at 1:49.592 to Gil’s 1:49.097. David wasn’t totally pleased, but the team was moving in the right direction for qualifying and the race. Meanwhile, the No. 6 Porsche of Klaus Graf and Greg Pickett had shown some speed, posting the third overall time at 1:51.785, to Fernandez’ 1:51.899.
The Lowe’s Fernandez contingent was nervous coming to Road America when assessing its long straights and the Dyson Mazdas’ turbo-charged horsepower. Co-owner Tom Anderson knew the Lowe’s team faced a tough task in staying with the Mazdas and now, the former Dyson Porsche with Graf and Pickett, as well.
But the Lowe’s team is a veteran and experienced bunch. Chief engineer John Ward is one of the best in the business and Fernandez and Diaz are no slouches either, as Judge Smails would say. That’s a Caddyshack reference.
Qualifying can be a little more daunting at Road America because of the longer circuit and fewer laps to cut a quick time. So, the Acura teams were ready to go when the green flag flew.
Fernandez hit the course fast with a 1:52.917 on his opening lap and jumped to the top of the charts. On his second lap, Brabham took the lead with a 1:49.574, with Marino Franchitti second in the No. 20 Mazda, at 1:51.010.
But, at the eight-minute mark in the 20-minute session, de Ferran showed his prowess with a spectacular 1:49.216 lap. Brabs was in the hunt, too, with a 1:49.065 clocking. Fernandez, manwhile, closed in on Franchitti with a 1:51.796.
With 12 minutes gone, de Ferran notched a 1:48.290, almost identical to his earlier lap, and Fernandez improved to fourth overall at 1:51.222, but was still short of Franchitti. Brabham pitted, and his team looked over the Michelin tires and sent him back out for one final shot at the pole.
But David’s best at the end was 1:49.039, and the pole went to de Ferran, his first ever at Road America. Following Gil were Brabham, Franchitti (first in LMP2), at 1:51.010, Fernandez, at 1:51.222, Guy Smith in the other Mazda, at 1:51.832, and Graf in the LMP2 Porsche at 1:51.922.
The qualifying results marked the first time this year that the Lowe’s Fernandez team had not captured the LMP2 pole. But, as Anderson predicted earlier, it was not surprising, given the Mazdas’ straightaway speed.
In Sunday’s morning warm-up, Pagenaud was quickest at 1:51.358, with Field second, Brabham third and Fernandez fourth. Still, Brabham seemed pleased with the changes the Patrón Highcroft team had made overnight. Perhaps this race was going be a ‘knock down-drag out’ affair after all.
A good crowd greeted the racers when the cars lined the grid for the main event. Pagenaud, Sharp and Diaz were the starting drivers for the Acura teams.
Pagenaud, from pole, took the lead at the start with Sharp tucking in behind the No. 66 XM Radio machine into Turn One. Sharp complained on his radio that the No. 9 car had too much understeer, allowing Simon to open up a good margin by Lap 5. On the sixth lap, Pagenaud held over six seconds on Sharp, and Diaz was stuck in sixth overall, following the LMP2 Mazdas and Field’s LMP1 car.
On Lap 8, the yellow flag appeared when a GT car spun into the Turn 12 sand trap. This early caution period led to some interesting strategy among the leaders. Pagenaud had complained early in his run that the rear end of his Acura was sliding a little too much.
So, the de Ferran crew made the decision to pit early for fuel and a change of tires. They reduced the pressures in the rear tires in an effort to help Simon get through the corners better. Plus, the team had a plan to move through the field quicker and take the lead when other cars might pit under green-flag conditions. In recent years, there had not been many yellow-flag laps at Road America. So, the de Ferran bunch played with the odds this year.
The green flag flew again on Lap 12, and Sharp was off in a flash, extending his lead to 17 seconds by Lap 16. Pagenaud sliced his way through traffic and moved to second by Lap 16, then, mounted on fresh Michelin rubber, set his sights on the leader. By Lap 26, Simon was on Scott’s rear wing and the two were embroiled in an exciting battle.
But on Lap 28, the de Ferran strategy basically fell apart when a full-course yellow hit the circuit. This allowed Sharp to pit, and Brabham jumped in the car with fuel and new tires. Pagenaud did the same, and de Ferran took the wheel. It was a great drive from behind by Simon to the front of the field, but the caution period evened everything out.
Following the restart on Lap 32, lapped cars posed a problem for de Ferran, as Brabham was able to open a seven-second advantage by Lap 41. Gil closed the gap to under two seconds by Lap 50, and a shootout looked to be imminent. But the yellow came out again on Lap 53 when Chris Dyson had a problem on the front straightaway with his Mazda.
Pit strategy came into play again for the two Acuras battling for the overall lead. Gil pitted quickly for fuel and four tires. It was a fast stop and the popular Brazilian looked to be in great position to take the lead. But Rob Hill and Duncan Dayton made a call similar to the late one at Lime Rock, with Brabs taking on fuel and only two left-side tires. Thus, in a mad scramble to exit the pits, Brabs pulled out just in front of Gil.
Also in a maneuver similar to its pit stop at Mid-Ohio, the Lowe’s team made a quick fuel stop and Fernandez got out of the pits in the overall lead. It was another great move from Ward, Anderson and the entire Lowe’s team.
On the restart, the power of the LMP1 Acuras was too much for Adrian’s LMP2 Acura on the straight, and the battle was on between two good friends, Brabham and de Ferran. It was nose-to-tail before Brabs caught some traffic and opened up a five-second gap.
The final full-course caution came out on Lap 64, as Brabham, de Ferran, Fernandez, Butch Leitzinger and Graf made up the top five. As Brabs prepared for the ensuing restart, he slowed and cleaned off his tires. But his pace was slow, slower than normal pace-car speed. On the radio, Hill yelled to Brabs, “David, if you don’t get to pace-car speed, the IMSA officials will send Gil past you for the restart.”
Brabham picked up the pace quickly as the green flag flew again. De Ferran was right on Brabs’ rear wing as they entered Turn One. Meanwhile, Fernandez was keeping a strong pace to stay in front of Leitzinger for his sixth win of the year.
“I kept looking for David to make a mistake,” said de Ferran. “I felt like I was quicker. But getting by him was very difficult. He is one of the best sports-car drivers in the world. He doesn’t make mistakes. I wouldn’t think he would do anything different. There wasn’t anything more I could do.”
At the checkered flag, it was Brabham by a mere .461 seconds over a charging de Ferran to clinch the second overall win of the year for the Patrón Highcroft team. The Highcroft win snapped the four-race victory streak for the de Ferran team, which was seeking an ALMS-record five wins in a row.
“This win was big,” said Brabham. “We had a tough race at Mid-Ohio last week and the car wasn’t good early in the weekend. But the crew just threw a lot of changes at the chassis on Saturday night, and the car felt so much better in the race. This team is a top-notch team, and they showed it with their strategy in the race. It is exciting to be back on the top of the podium today.”
In addition, Fernandez placed third overall and took another LMP2 win for the Lowe’s Fernandez organization. The win extended Diaz and Fernandez’ points lead in LMP2, with three races remaining in the 2009 ALMS campaign.
“This is my first win here at Road America,” said Fernandez. “I was second and third here in CART, and Luis won here in Formula Atlantic before. So, I really wanted to win here. Road America is one of my favorite tracks, and now I can say I was a winner here. It has been a great year for us. Now, we want to capture the LMP2 championship.”
-- Tom Blattler