Bump ‘n’ Grind……..Bill Oursler reflects on the ALMS Portland race.
The Forest for the Trees – The ALMS heats up the Northwest
The American Le Mans Series came to Portland the other day and put on one
hell of a race – in spite of the officials. Leaving hype and agendas aside, 2004
has not been the best season the ALMS has ever enjoyed, Nor would one expect
things to be much different given the circumstances surrounding its leading
prototype category, now effectively reduced to just three true contenders.
Hi, do you know us ?
The fact of the matter is that we’ve seen the Champion Racing Audi R8 before,
as we have Rob Dyson’s two MG Lolas, cars that are now assigned to the
championship’s LMP 1 division, but are allowed to run to their older LMP 675
regulations (as is the Audi, by the way). Last year the lightweight MG Lolas proved
the equal in performance to the Audi camp, a fact that has carried over to this
season also. Unfortunately, also carried over is the unreliability of the Dyson cars.
It is this fact, which has largely been responsible for the domination shown by the
South Florida-based Champion squad and its drivers. Marc Werner and J.J.
Lehto in the Audi R8 versus the Dyson line up that includes James Weaver, Butch
Leitzinger, Andy Wallace and an increasingly competitive Chris Dyson in the quick
Lola vs. Powerman and the money-go-round
Even though the two Dyson cars occupied the front row at Portland, Lehto and
the Champion R8 disposed of them quickly at the start in Portland, seemingly on
the way to yet another boring Audi triumph. That, however, was before he met an
errant Porsche 911 GT3RSR which, apparently unconcerned about keeping watch
for faster traffic, spun the Audi off the track. In the chaos that followed, Lehto made
up more than a 20-second deficit to put himself in a position to shadow the back
of Chris Dyson’s leading Lola. No matter how hard he tried, Lehto couldn’t find a
way by as his fury rose. Then came a breather, as Gunnar Jeannette’s Panoz GT
engine fire brought out the affair’s only full course yellow. This allowed all the
contestants, including Lehto, Dyson and Leitzinger to pit for fuel and tires.
You in a heap o’ trouble boy…
It is here that IMSA, the sanctioning body began to get things wrong. On the
restart, Lehto found himself behind not only Dyson, but also Leitzinger. Not
wanting to waste time, Lehto ran side by side with his Lola rival through the
curves at the end of pit straight, a place where even one car has a hard time
The result was predictable. Leitzinger taking an off course excursion, as Lehto
again began his chase of Dyson, who was showing extreme coolness under
great pressure. Quite what the IMSA authorities were thinking of, may or may not
have been known. In any case they decided to hand Lehto a stop and go penalty,
a penalty which Leitzinger later made clear he thought was totally uncalled for.
After that, when Lehto had his Audi within hailing distance of Dyson for a second
time, he was in yet another incident, this time in the same curves where he had
met up with Leitzinger earlier. But this time by Oliver Gavin’s Corvette. IMSA not
wanting to appear one sided, handed Gavin a stop and go for what was obviously
a pure racing incident.
Lehto, whose mood had soured considerably, again brought himself to the back
of Dyson’s car, where he struggled for a third time to take over the lead. Then, as
he, Dyson, Leitzinger and Gavin were passing a bunch of slower GT Porsches at
the head of the pit straight, everyone – except Dyson – got tangled up with
everyone else. The end result was that the already battered Audi sustained new
damage while Gavin and Leitzinger visited the local scenery after the Corvette
tangled with the Lola, spinning both off course. The result ? You guessed it –
IMSA penalized Leitizinger, who was definitely a man with no place to go at the
Eventually Lehto did pass Dyson, and predictably, after the latter handed over to
Wallace, the Lola spent considerable time in the pits getting its engine healthy
again. As for Letizinger and Weaver, they finished second, just a hair less than a
full lap behind.
Where are we or you can’t get there from here…
It was, perhaps, the best race of the year. Yet, for some reason, IMSA’s officials
thought they were at an SCCA National where gentlemen race without beating on
their neighbors. The truth is the ALMS are in the business of entertainment, not
sport. And, as the movie says, “racing is rubbing, or in many cases, banging and
barging. People don’t want to see nose-to-tail processions, not matter how close
the freight train.” They want action, a fact that the rival Grand American tour seems
to understand well.
No one wants to see injury and destruction. But, when two cars challenge for the
same corner, or accidentally get into each other’s bodywork, nature should be
allowed to do its work without interference. The ALMS has enough problems that it
doesn’t need its officials deciding the outcome of races. Come on boys, this is not
a cricket match. If you want to stay in business, then you’re going to need those
Hollywood type car chases and special effects. Stay cool and worry about the big
things, let the little one’s work themselves out. It will be better that way.