Photo by John Thawley Long Beach, CA --- For the second consecutive street race, Autocon qualified third (10th overall) in the P1 class, this time at the Long Beach Grand Prix, the third round of 2007 American Le Mans Series season. Only the unbeaten Audi team gridded in front of Autocon in the P1 class as the tight streets of Long Beach showed favor to the more nimble P2 prototypes led by the Porsche and Acura factory backed teams.
The race itself on Saturday created different challenges as a pace lap incident and the ensuing pit stop for repairs put the Autocon effort two laps down at the green flag. But the team co-drivers, Mike Lewis and Chris McMurry, got back to business and raced on to a fourth place, points-paying class position in front of a huge audience for the ALMS debut at the famous harbor front street course.
Long Beach is the first of three events in 2007 where the ALMS shares co-headline status with the Champ Car World Series and, while this sharing brings a whole new fan group, it also resulted in a very limited amount of track time for the ALMS competitors.
Lewis, who has accumulated many miles at Long Beach in TransAm events, took the lead role in the lone 45-minute practice that preceded qualifying and found it difficult to bring the Lola up to speed on this tight temporary circuit.
"This is one of my favorite circuits from TransAm days, and is almost a home town event for our team. But it is not a course that suits our Lola very well at all. It was very difficult to get the power to the ground. The Lola has very good aerodynamic grip for high speed cornering but there are few places here to put that to advantage. It also took a lot of laps to get heat into our Dunlop tires and, until we got some heat in the tires it was very slippery."
Nevertheless, Lewis took full advantage on his mount in the 25 minute qualifying session, knocked four seconds off his limited practice time, and made a sudden jump in the standings to leap into third and hold off any assault for the remaining P1 entrants.
The was modest optimism leading up to the late Saturday afternoon start of the one hour forty minute sprint race. We were hoping for a good result, but we knew we were going to struggle at the start as was the case at the St. Petersburg race. We run the lightest car in the series, and without the weight getting heat in the tires quickly is impossible, and that makes the first few laps nothing short of incredibly difficult, said McMurry. I grew up in Wisconsin, and the first few laps remind me of driving on ice in the winter.
"I was really taken aback by my mistake, added Lewis, about the second pace lap. I was accelerating out of the turn and the cold tires just caught me out and I banged the left front corner. I got right back to the pits for some patch-up work and then went to work to keep the car in contention for as many points as possible."
McMurry took over for the finish of the race and cemented the points award with a good, clean run to the checkered flag. "Two things kept us from a much better performance," stated McMurry. "First, the limited track time made it tough on the entire team. I was still learning the nuances of the course even during my race stint. Also the Lola was really challenged on this course. We were probably the worst car over the bumps of any of the competitors. It was just impossible to get the power down when we needed it. But the course is very nice and the event is huge in the Southern California market. I will look forward to a return visit with a car more suited for a course like Long Beach."
This event solidified the importance of Autocons recent news to move from its aging Lola to the Creation chassis it acquired a few weeks ago. After the Long Beach event the team decided to skip round four in Houston, so the Southern California event became the last time fans will see a Lola EX257 in professional competition in the U.S. or Europe.
I think were all looking forward to the added weight and the smooth application of power that the normally aspirated engine will provide. It should make us much better at the beginning of the races, as well as throughout, said McMurry. Personally, I loved driving the Lola, especially on the permanent road course where it was at its best.
The Creation is expected to arrive stateside in early May in order to debut at the Utah Grand Prix at Miller Motorsports Park May 17-19.
"I can't wait to get some miles in the Creation," said Lewis. "The Lola was a big step up for Autocon and it moved us up to the major leagues, but it is no longer a state-of-the-art racecar. The Creation is another big step up and we expect to use it to compete for podiums this season and into the future. We are taking all the steps to meet the evolving regulations of ALMS for 2008 and beyond. One of our goals is to obtain an invitation to the 24 Hours of Le Mans next year or the following year."
Plans are in place for the Autocon trio of drivers, Lewis, McMurry and Bryan Willman, to have a full day of testing in the Creation prior to the Utah Grand Prix. Lewis further described the future. "Creation is fully behind Autocon in the endeavor. They will provide engineering and technical support which will greatly assist our ability to take advantage of the full potential of the car. Bryan, Chris and I, as well as my loyal Autocon team are really looking forward to the Creation arrival and get after some podiums on behalf of JeanRichard and our other sponsors and supporters."