Wednesday, March 19, 2014

7 Hours of Sebring

12 7 Hours of Sebring

ALMS memorabilia: now a collectable. 

ESM's security system

"We're like an old married couple!" -Pat Long

Traffic jam

To discuss every detail about the 62nd running of the 12 Hours of Sebring would take more time than fans saw of actual green flag racing.  Needless to say, it was not a great race. Sure, there were some great moments when the cars were circulating at pace - when they ran at pace. Which could almost be transformed into a question: when did the cars run at pace? The first six hours after the green flag fell on Saturday morning felt like a bad trip to the dentist’s office. The last 20 minutes provided excellent driving, in more than one class. The trouble was with what happened in that period in between 10:15am and roughly 9:50pm.
A rare sight during the weekend: a green flag!
There were a couple of big points that stood out during the course of the race. The first was the broadcast.  Everyone has butchered a name or two in their broadcasting careers. It’s learning from that experience that shows how dedicated you are. Mispronouncing a very complex and foreign name might be forgivable once or twice, but on two separate occasions spaced out over 6 weeks is just poor. With the radio broadcast being played out over the speakers in the media center, everyone couldn’t help but notice that during the first two hours of the race, even the name of the track was said incorrectly. “Seb-bring” is how it was pronounced by the lead commentator, until the color guest corrected on track and a few driver names.
In fairness, I have mispronounced names as well. At Daytona last year, I was unsure of how to say Alex Popow’s name.  Was it said Pop-POW or Pop-OFF?  Instead of saying it the wrong way and then asking forgiveness after, I went and asked the man himself (for the record, it’s pronounced Pop-off). Easy solution to avoid a problem. Before going on the air with new names, I will typically sit down with someone who’s been in the business for a while and go over the pronunciation. And I always ask before an interview if I’m saying their name the correct way. Every now and then, we all slip up and I’m sure my mistakes are many. But at least I make an effort to correct them. Most of the drivers whose names I heard butchered were people who competed at Daytona. That’s more than a month to learn. But that effort wasn’t put forth.
One of the PC crashes
Okay, stepping off the soap-box. The next unavoidable area to discuss is flags. 11 cautions periods, 1 red flag. During a 12 hour race. That’s too many. I’m not saying race control flew too many flags either. The driving standard was pretty iffy in some areas. The PC category needs a solid looking over. That’s not to say all PC cars caused issues. Quite to the contrary, the RSR and CORE Autosport entries gave us some great entertainment as Bruno Junqueira, David Heinemeier-Hansson, Colin Braun, James Gue, Jon Bennett, and Duncan Ende battled it out for the win. It’s the other cars in the class who caused some headaches. Even the 3rd place PC entry finished 7 laps down on the lead battle. 10 PC cars started, and by my count, four had race ending crashes, two more had incidents that took them out of the running, and two others weren’t without their share of misfortune. Spins reigned common as even some of the more experienced drivers found themselves facing the wrong way on course. The PC cars are anything but easy to drive, given their current set ups and it really needs to be reexamined if this class should be driven by “gentlemen” or if for now, more underrated experienced drivers should take the helms.
The other cautions, not caused by PC cars, also stemmed from some questionable driving. The main one that comes to mind was in the middle of a series of cautions, when it appeared something broke on the Risi Competizione Ferrari.  The #62 went careening off T1, snapping right in the middle of a left hand turn. It was what happened after Malucelli managed to limp the car out of the tire barrier that caught everyone’s attention. Instead of waiting for a gap or the marshals to give him the all clear, the Ferrari pulled into a gaggle of cars, subsequently making contact with the #30 GTD Porsche and ending the race for the Momo NGT team as well. This caused another yellow and brought more stress to the Risi team that has already suffered enough bad luck for a lifetime. This is the same crew who had to pick up the pieces after that horrific crash at Daytona and now it appears they’ll have to do the same again. Florida hasn’t been kind to them.
The Viper fire, as seen from the media center
Another team who comes away from Sebring with less than fond memories is the Viper Exchange team, led by Ben Keating. While Keating was driving behind the safety car, his own GTD Viper started to get a little warmer than usual. Well, fast-forward about 30 minutes and his car was smelling like a barbeque. I saw the charred remains of the #33 as it was brought via flat bed and then carried by fork lift into it’s garage. It was a crispy shell of the car it once was, with the windshield disturbingly fried and crumpled. The car, as everyone is most likely aware, burned for far longer than it should have. Now, the marshals close by reacted as they should have. But a lack of IMSA safety crew left a stench through the paddock stronger than the charred Viper. It took too long to put that fire out. It’s easy to say retrospectively what should have been done. But as the car was burning, several murmurs through the media center about how this could have been avoided had the IMSA safety crew been on the job.
Who ordered theirs well done?
Everyone at the track is friendly, and we are one big family. Sometimes, we get mad at a cousin or brother who might do something we disagree with. Someone who took a lot of negative energy at Daytona (and unfortunately again at Sebring) was the race director Paul Walter. Paul is one of the most approachable guys at the track, someone who will make time for a race discussion. I saw him less than an hour before the race started, when he was in the pit lane. When I went over to wish him good luck for the race, he pulled me aside to talk about Daytona. Paul wanted my opinion on what happened. After a few minutes, he explained how they had issued a new bulletin (of which there are more than 70 and we are only in March, which is pretty funny) that, for one thing, details avoidable contact. He said that leaving racing room is one thing but you must respect your fellow competitors, a point he pushed in the drivers’ meeting at Sebring. I won’t go through detail by detail what we discussed but know this: when I walked away after talking to him, I felt much more confident in his decision-making. Even after the Sebring debacle, I feel that a big reminder is necessary. It isn’t just ONE guy up in race control making all of these calls; it’s a group. And if ONE person disagrees with the rest of the group, majority still rules. The calls are unanimous, but when was the last time everyone fully agreed on something? 
Beyond the behind the scenes politics, the attitude of the fans was outstanding! It seems as if the troubles we talk about online and those we constantly complain of were temporarily suspended while the cars were running around the track. People were appeased by the sights of their favorites, the sounds of the engines, and the smell of the tires and brakes. There’s something magical about racing that can bring us all together and it never fails to amaze me how once the cars are out, a peace settles over the viewers. Same can’t necessarily be said for those on the pit wall, but for the fans, all is good with the world when the cars are on track. After a race like that, it isn't only the track that goes cold once the race is done…the fans grow cold too.

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