Virginia International Raceway, Danville, VAApril 22, 2006
Laguna Seca Raceway, Monterey, CAMay 6, 2006
In the mid-1950's, four sports car enthusiasts decided to build a race track. They found a 1,200-acre farm near Danville, VA, and with an additional partner on board, the group were able to proceed. Virginia International Raceway (VIR) opened its gates for business in August of 1957. The third week of April, 2006 saw the long-awaited reunion of Grand Am Cup teams at VIR. The season opening event ran in January in Daytona, FL. Doubtless, everyone was eager to test out the tweaks and improvements that had been put in place since then. The lush Virginia hills host Grand Am Cup competition twice in this year's schedule. Racers will return for the season finale in early October.
Seasonal weather (aka April showers) turned VIR into the world's longest otter slide for part of the weekend. In fact, the qualifying session was cancelled and the starting grid was set according to team points. During the practice sessions that did run, Mustangs were posting very fast laps. The No. 2 Mustang was quickest in second practice with a lap time of 2:05.596 (93.729 mph). In the first session, the No. 4 Mustang was fastest of the session with a lap time of 2:05.648 (93.690 mph), followed by the No. 15 Mustang at 2:06.488 (93.068 mph).
The starting grid represented one of the largest fields in American professional racing history, including 54 entries in the GS class and 45 entries in ST. A total of 17 Mustangs were on the grid. The first of many yellow flags came out just a few minutes into the race and remained until lap 16. The yellow came out two laps later when the Porsche 996 of Race Prep Motorsports collected a tire wall. Lap 23 saw the green return, only to sink again less than two minutes later.
Weather cells continued to pass through the area, slowing traffic to 50 mph under the caution flag. On lap 33, the green returned - with 38 minutes remaining for the race to be completed. By lap 35, the #4 Mustang had climbed to 13th spot and continued a relentless pace to the top, despite yet another extended yellow flag. With four minutes remaining, #4 set fast lap of the race with a 2:05.001 time at 93.44 mph. The Synergy Racing Porsche 997 stayed close on their heels, but was unable to maneuver past.
The all-Canadian team of David Empringham and Valerie Limoges led 11 laps at the end to take the checkered flag, with Blackforest team mates Nastasi and James in second place. The Playboy Racing Nissan 350Z crossed the finish line in third. Due to the outstanding penalties, both Mustangs were moved out of the order and the Playboy Racing car was promoted to the top step of the podium.
Going WestWith that less-than-satisfying (for Mustang enthusiasts) race under their belts, the series moved west for the US Sports Car Invitational at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, CA. The first practice session saw Mustangs struggling mightily with the shorter, more slippery course, along with cooler than usual weather. The top Mustang result was posted by Blackforest's #2 car, driven by Forest Barber and Terry Borcheller to a tenth-fastest time of 1:40.59.
In qualifying later that afternoon, Blackforest's Tom Nastasi and Ian James topped the Mustang chart with a 1:40.06 landing them squarely in 10th-place for the race start. The #15 Playboy Racing car was the next fastest Mustang, with a 1:40.58 time - good for P15. Next morning's practice session saw a few GT's break into the 1:39's, including the Blackforest #2 and #4 cars, as well as the Playboy Racing #15. While these times foretold the race pace that would become evident, they did nothing to improve the Mustangs' positions on the grid.
The green flag fell for the 200-mile race a little before 3:00 in the afternoon. Barely into the first lap, Playboy Racing's #15 car, driven by Rob Finlay, was taken out in turn 5 by the #99 BMW M3 from Automatic Racing. Both cars were done for the day. The green flag returned on lap 7, but only flew until lap 11, when the Hyper Sport #54 Mustang was rammed by Playboy's #33 Nissan 350 and both attempted some landscaping in the turn 11 gravel trap. The race went hot again after a 5 lap delay. Blackforest's #5 Mustang had been moving up the field but in lap 18, the Mustang slid off-course, allowing the #50 Porsche to move into fifth spot. Another full course caution comes into play at the ever-popular turn 11 gravel trap, triggering a round of driver changes.
The race resumed but for a single lap when the Blackforest #77 Mustang, of Jim Bosler and James Gue, lost it in turn 4, taking the #96 Turner Motorsports BMW M3 with it. More driver changes were initiated while the errant cars were collected. Andy Lally pitted the race leading #49 Porsche 997, turning driving duties over while Mark Plummerinherited the lead in the #38 Porsche Carrera. The green flag returned once again in lap 29, yet again for a single round as the #5 Blackforest car mixed it up with a Porsche Carrera and a Nissan 350Z.
In lap 38, the green again waved to resume the race with the #89 Porsche 996 leading the field into the first turn. By lap 43, the Rehagen Racing #58 SVT Cobra visits the gravel trap in turn 11. Both #58 and the race are back in action by lap 47. A good span of racing ensues, but not much of it involves our beloved FR500C's. In lap 61, the #58 Cobra tries to adjust the outside tire barrier in turn 9 and loses its front bumper. An ST car is also stopped off-course in the gravel trap outside turn 6 and a 5-lap caution period results.
From this point, racing continues without interruption and sees the #03 Porsche 996 winning in lap 74, followed by the #81 Porsche 997 and #90 BMW M3. Just out of the podium spots are the Empringham/Limoges #4 Mustang (by just a half second), the Barber/Borcheller #2 car and the Rehagen #59 Mustang GT driven by Ray Mason and Dean Martin. The next closest Mustang finished in 16th spot, being the #47 TF Racing entry driven by Gary Smith and John Kohler.
A total of seven full course caution periods stunted 37 of the race's 74 laps and fairly raises the question of whether this is due to high levels of competitiveness, or overcrowding. Grand Am officials have been issuing penalties for avoidable incidents, but the message may not be getting through yet. Veteran Turner Motorsport's driver, Boris Said agrees. "I think its more the egos getting the better of people." His team mate, Bill Auberlen takes a more charitable view of the drivers, however. "With that many cars, you're going to have a lot of wrecks," he noted.
As we go to press, competition was set to face off at the even shorter Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, AZ, on May 27. Due to the 1.51 mile course length, separate races will be run for the GS and ST classes. Look for results in the next issue!