Saturday, January 28, 2006

Start You Engines!!!

As I write this, I am watching the first few hours of the Rolex Grand Am Series 24 Hours at Daytona. That’s right, the 2006 racing season has officially begun, and I am absolutely thrilled! What I love about this particular endurance race, is that, rather than just driving around the circuit saving the equipment for the last few hours, these guys actuially race from the drop of the green flag!
Naturally, the Daytona Prototype (DP) cars capture most of the attention, with the
high speeds and big name drivers, but the GT class is also very competative. The DPs average between 112 and 115 mph, which is fast for a road course; these are specialty cars built for racing. The GT cars, regular Porsches, BMWs, Pontiac GTOs, Chevy Corvettes, and Mazdas, modified for racing, run at a more reasonable speed for a road course, and, being lapped by the DPs after only three laps by the DP cars, create a moving obstacle course for the faster class.
What names there are in this race! Not only are there the Grand Am superstars, Butch Leitzinger, Andy Wallace, Max “The Axe” Angelelli, “Mad” Max Pappas, and Jan Lammers, but easily recognizable names from the other racing series; Rusty Wallace, Danica Patrick, Casey Mears, Sebastion Bourdais, Bobby Labonte, Paul Tracy, Kyle Petty, Buddy Rice, Jimmy Vasser, and, one of my all time favorite drivers, Tony Stewart. To qoute race commentator Benny Parsons, “This is like IROC on steroids.”
Speaking about Tony Stewart, who injured his ribs two weeks ago while racing in a Midget open wheel racer, was interviewed prior to the start of the race. “They (his ribs) were getting better,” he replied in response to a question about his injury, “but since I’ve gotten in the car this week, They’re pretty sore again.”
To say that Stewart is tough is an understatement. This is a man preparing for a grueling endurance race. After the aforementioned accident, his right arm in a cast as a precaution, Tony “Smoke” Stewart remained at the weekend long event, watching the races and signing autographs, quipping “It’s a good thing I’m left-handed.”
He vowed to his fans that no injury would keep him from racing. Now, he is teamed with two men who are arguably the top two drivers in Grand American racing, Andy Wallace and Butch Leitzinger, in the Howard-Boss Pontiac Crawford #4 DP. Last year, the same team nearly won the “24”, leading during the last three hours until a cooling system problem virtually took the car out of the race. Two years ago, with Stewart in the lead, in a car with a severely damaged rear end, the car gave out with only 23 minutes left in the race. Barring mechanical problems this year, this team should win. Can rotten luck run three years straight? I think not.
After the first four hours, the race has been quite eventful. As I mentioned earlier, these guys race from the drop of the green flag. Paul Tracy quickly took the lead after starting in the 12th position. Max “The Ax” Angelelli lived up to his nickname and quickly cut his way through traffic, moving from the rear of the field into the top ten. There have been several accidents, mostly among the GT cars, but there is yet plenty of time for repairs. Still, it is bad news to have mechanical problems this early in the race, and several of the DP cars have gone to the garage for extensive repairs. Last year’s Daytona 24 winner, and the reigning Rolex Series champion, the SunTrust Pontiac Riley #10 DP, driven by Angelelli, Wayne Taylor, and Emmanuel Collard, has just suffered serious damage in an unavoidable accident with a GT car, four hours and fifteen hours into the race. The news is that the car may be beyond repair.
The #4 team is doing well. After starting in the 22nd position, Andy Wallace brought the car up to 12th. Max Crawford, the designer of the Crawford chassis, is the team owner. Katherine, his daughter, and Andy Wallace’s wife, is the team engineer. She is very much into the race, and was chiding her husband, over the radio, that he was not taking advantage of the powerful engine, but Andy has won many sports car races by being methodical. After 2 1/2 hours, he handed the driver’s seat to Butch Leitzinger, who brought the car all the way up to third before handing the car over to Tony Stewart. The team was delayed, having problems fastening the shoulder belt over Tony’s HANS device and rib protection. The car fell further back in the field, to 11th, when the Grand Am officials imagined smoke coming from the car and forced Tony to make another pit stop, where it was found that the only smoke associated with the car was Smoke himself. The race was under caution, for the aforementioned accident involving the SunTrust car, and I would think that the officials, being mistaken, would have given the lost postitions back to Stewart, but they didn’t, No worry, though, Tony has brought the car up to the 9th position, as I sign off, and no doubt will bring the car toward the lead before he finishes his stint.
Unfortunately, this is the only report on the Rolex Daytona 24 I will be able to post this weekend, as I will not be able to return on line until Monday. Speed TV coverage of the race will resume at 8pm ET. For live reports, check or GrandAmerican. Go #4 Team!

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