TEAM NEWS: Autocon Motorsports Battle In Top Three At Sebring, Late Race Contact Ends Successful Run
Photo by John Thawley The Autocon trio of Mike Lewis, Chris McMurry and Bryan Willman took on many of the greatest names in motorsports Saturday at the 55th running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and nearly went home with a podium finish. Autocon lined up to compete a vastly expanded prototype field. Factory Audi, Penske Porsche, Dyson Porsche, Intersport Creation, Andretti/Green Acura, Highcroft Acura, Fernandez Acura, BK Mazda and others made up the most formidable field in ALMS history.
"I have competed at Sebring many times but this year is so very different," stated team owner and co-driver Lewis. "We are competing against a whole new world of prototype entries, each with huge resources. It is a privilege to be in this arena and go head to head with these world-class teams, and then show so incredibly well."
McMurry was tabbed to qualify and did an admirable job. "Our practice sessions were productive and I had a target time in mind, stated McMurry. "When the qualifying session arrived the car felt good but the time I targeted just didn't arrive. We qualified 4th in class, 10th overall, and well within the group of prototypes so it was fine."
The starting position would prove moot to the Autocon effort as a pace lap incident created the need for rear wing repairs which put the #12 JeanRichard sponsored effort five laps down before McMurry could rejoin the race. "I made a mistake on the pace lap and it hurt us," according to McMurry. "You expect to encounter some difficulties in a 12 hour event, but this was so immediate and self inflicted. My hat's off to the crew for handling the repairs so quickly and standing behind me."
Now relegated 34th position, in a field of 34, the task was clear; that was to stay clean and work back up through the pack. And that is exactly what the entire crew and drivers did. By the time McMurry pitted and turned the car over to Willman the car was scored in 26th. Not bad considering the five lap deficit. Willman did a nice job in his stint and moved further up to 24th and 4th in class. Just past the two hour mark Lewis took over and continued the march forward and setting the cars fastest lap to that point, very close to the speed posted in qualifying. At this time the team began to encounter the first of a couple of unscheduled pit stops to repair broken drive pins on the rear wheels, each stop setting the crew back, but the good driving and crew work continued.
Just past the five hour mark the Autocon effort was rewarded with a move into 3rd in class, a position they would hold for the next five hours, even with the pesky drive pin issue creating difficulties. Indeed as each of the trio of drivers cycled through their stints, their individual times came down with McMurry setting the team's fast race lap just past the nine hour mark with an outstanding 1:53.777. The Intersport entry, featuring a brand new Creation chassis, was closing and indeed regained 3rd place in class during an Autocon pit stop at the 10 hour mark.
Willman, followed by Lewis and finally McMurry took their final stints in an attempt to move up but the Intersport car proved fast enough to prevail. Then, with just over a half hour remaining McMurry was hit by the charging P2 class winner of Bryan Herta at the hairpin, damaging the rear suspension and officially ending the tireless effort.
"It was a great run from the team," summarized Lewis. "A good battle of privateers for the podium. We held it for quite awhile but the pace of the Creation is just a bit better then our Lola -- which is hands down the oldest car in the race, much less P1! Can't say enough about the preparation of the car by the crew. Unfortunately we got hit in the last 30 minutes and the suspension broke, otherwise I believe we would have set a mileage record for an EX-257 Lola at Sebring. We leave Sebring knowing it was a great effort but also with the knowledge we might have had a podium with a bit of luck."
Willman was upbeat after the event. "It was by far my best driving at Sebring. We made no fatal mistakes and ran the car as fast as we could make it go for just shy of 12 hours, just missing our main goal of finishing. However, we easily made 70 percent (distance required to accumulate championship points), a first for me in 6 tries, and ran in a podium position for a long time. The current P1 class may be small, but it is populated with fearsome, fast cars and mighty teams. And I have a year to get ready to try again."
A few hours after the checker flag flew, McMurry reflected on the event. "Ever Sebring event, including the one I won in 2005, is filled with ups and downs. Thats just what happens in 12 hours time. Id guess we spent the least amount of time in the pits of any team, and our on track speed was better than what most expected. Im feeling pretty good about the balance of the season. Were light years ahead of where we were at this time last season when the Lola was completely new to the team.
The next round of the American Le Mans Series is the Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg. The race will start at 5:05 p.m. EDT on Saturday, March 31. SPEED will provide a same-day broadcast event from 8:30 to 10 p.m. American Le Mans Radio and IMSA's Live Timing & Scoring will be available at americanlemans.com.