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Starworks’ Season A Humdinger – And Gut Buster

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, October 29 2012

The 2012 season was a memorable one for Starworks Motosports' owner Peter Baron. (Photo courtesy of the Rolex Grand-Am Series)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Leaning against a counter top in his Starworks Motorsport hauler last Saturday, Peter Baron burped out a sarcastic laugh when it was suggested to him that 2012 must have been his best year in racing. Ever.

The ever-young-looking Starworks owner reached into the front pocket of his pants and pulled out a pill wrapped in clear, sealed plastic. “Pepcid,” he said. “That’s what this season has been about.”

It was kind of a surprising answer from Baron. His team had, afterall, logged one of the best years in recent sports car-racing history. Starworks had, incredibly, won its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It also won the Twelve Hours of Sebring. It won the North American Endurance Championship and capped off 2012 by winning the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP2 championship, marking the first time in 23 years that a United States-based team has captured a FIA series title.

So, why the pocket full of antacids?

“Well,” Baron, who was at Kansas Speedway for a two-day Rolex Grand-Am Series open test over the weekend, said, shoving the Pepcid back into its holding-area pocket, “it has just been incredibly stressful.”

On this day at Kansas Speedway, which will host its first-ever sports car race next year, Baron was a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

He did smile and puff up considerably when talking about recent successes. Like, Le Mans, where drivers Ryan Dalziel, Enzo Potolicchio and Thomas Kimber-Smith wheeled the Starworks No. 44 HPD ARX 03b-Honda to victory lane.

Peter Baron, flanked by drivers Ryan Dalziel and Enzo Potolicchio, had some great moments in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Starworks Motorsport)

Baron liked talking about that so much that he had a tough time coming up with the proper words when describing being an American who won the biggest, most important sports car race in the world.

“Boy, it’s funny,” he said when asked about his emotions as his car crossed the finish line at the Circuit de la Sarthe last summer. “It was almost like a dream-like state. It was different. It’s hard to say which one’s harder to win, the Daytona 24-hour or Le Mans, but the thing I’ve got going for me at Le Mans, it was more of a realization of a dream. As a kid, I remember growing up and on Channel 2 in Chicago, they’d play the ‘Le Mans’ movie with Steve McQueen. That movie came out, basically, when I was a kid and I remember watching that movie. It was that whole thing. It was a bit of a dream-like day. And different language, different time zone. But winning that one, you’re in the record books forever.”

It is not a common sight to see an American spraying wine on the French fans and media after Le Mans. That whacked Baron in the old gob but good last June.

“The thing that is so special,” Baron said, “the nice thing they do is they do the podiums with the countries’ flags behind you and all of a sudden you’re on the podium up there and everybody’s spraying champagne and you look up and the stars and stripes are up there and they’re playing the National Anthem. That, it’s, still, heck, it’s five months later?… And I still get tears when I think about it.”

Sebring, Baron said, yes, that was special too. His driver combo of Stephane Sarrazin, Potolicchio and Dalziel won LMP2 and was third overall in its HPD ARX-03b Honda. The only cars to beat Starworks that day were the monster factory-backed Audi R18s.

Baron said that the Sebring victory took the pressure off at Le Mans and also allowed the team to head to France with bags full of international respect.

Starworks' Ford Riley takes the checkered flag at The Brickyard Grand Prix. (Photo courtesy of LAT/USA)

Starworks – which kicked off its season at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Dalziel, Potolicchio, Allan McNish, Lucas Luhr and Alex Popow finished second overall in their Ford Riley prototype – also won the inaugural Brickyard Grand Prix at iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And a couple weeks later, Starworks cars finished first and second at Watkins Glen and yes, that was great too.

And the WEC  and North American Endurance championships? Fabulous.

“Winning the North American Endurance Championship with Sebastien (Bourdais),” Baron said, prompting an NFL-caliber forearm shiver – and a quip of “just so much love here” – from Bourdais who was walking through the hauler at Kansas just as his name came up in the conversation, “and Alex (Popow) was special.”

Especially because of who Starworks beat to get the NAEC honor.

“At the start of the season, there was sort of like a joke. ‘Has (the team of Target Chip) Ganassi not won enough?’ Naturally Ganassi is great at endurance events,” Baron said. “That period was probably the happiest. To go 1-2 at Watkins Glen and (win the NAEC) was pretty awesome.”

So, where does the pocket full of Pepcid come in? Well, it starts big time at Indy and involves Ganassi.

It appeared that Starworks was headed for a double podium finish at Indy’s infield road course. Dalziel was running third when a caution came out. Just as it did, Dalziel was ran off the track and into a gravel trap by driver Juan Pablo Montoya, a NASCAR driver who was running a second Daytona Prototype for the Ganassi team.

Dalziel and Potolicchio, who were leading Ganassi regulars Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas in points when the incident occured, finished seventh. That shunt by Montoya, who has developed the reputation as being a torpedo during his occasional forays in to sports cars, likely cost the Starworks “A” team the 2012 Grand-Am championship.

Alex Popow and Sebastien Bourdais kiss the bricks at Indy. (Photo courtesy of LAT/USA)

No penalty was issued to Montoya or his team after the wreck.

Baron’s plea to Grand-Am officials about the incident was, he said, listened to with non-fuctioning ears. Series officials said they extensively reviewed tapes and deemed the event a simple racing “incident”.

“That cost us 11 points in the championship,” Baron said. “How that was handled, we’re still not at all happy with. To this day, we have sent them all kinds of records that show there was a yellow out when he hit us. You know, people argue, ‘Well, it looked like a racing incident.’ Did it look like contact? Yes. But it was a yellow. That’s the whole problem. If it was green, I would be the first to say that Ryan left the door open or did something he shouldn’t have. But it was Turn 1, there was a car stopped and the Turns 1, 2 and 3 complex were all yellow. And the series didn’t recognize that so that’s our huge bone of contention.

“So, you look at how that car (of Montoya) knocked off the second- and third-place cars in the championship that day, and how the (Ganassi) 01 car took out the Stevenson (Camaro) and they (officials) said it was because it bounced off the wall and then hit the Stevenson car, that was just terrible officiating that day and that basically cost us a championship that day or a chance at the championship. If we would have had the 11 points back we would have done things different at Montreal and, well, you know…”

Baron took a deep breath. Then he resumed talking about his frustration. “When you look at it on track, we knew we had the speed to beat Ganassi, we knew the Corvettes were fast, it was just a matter of we got it taken away from us.”

The incident and its aftermath not only may have cost Starworks the Grand-Am championship, it did cost them the services and finances of Potolicchio.

The Venezuelan, who also had ripped the series for giving what he believed were unfair advantages to the new Corvette DPs, pulled out of Starworks shortly after Indy.

He told reporters, “It has become painfully apparent, as the season has progressed, that the disparity between the Grand-Am approved bodywork of the Corvettes and all others is insurmountable at high downforce tracks such as Barber, Detroit and the final two races at Laguna Seca and Lime Rock; and that series officials, while acknowledging the facts, are not prepared to do anything about the situation.

“Add to this, the ridiculous inconsistencies and preferential treatments that have become a routine part of the race control and administration process, it has just got the point where we have said, ‘enough is enough’ and decided to focus our energy, and our investment, where we can participate on a level playing ground.”

Baron was left to refurbish his team – which he did in WEC -and NAEC-winning fashion.

The weather was late-autum-ish at Kansas Speedway over the weekend. The wind was bitter and the sun drilled through gray skies occasionally, but the temperatures never really warmed up.

Ditto for Peter Baron’s ex post facto view of the 2012 racing season.

“The Montoya incident, how it was handled with the series not recognizing the yellow that existed when he hit us out there and that caused the program to fall apart, and Enzo leaves the series and that leaves us in a bad spot,” Baron said. “There has been so much drama and things behind the scenes that it really hasn’t been that enjoyable of a season. It’s (2012) had one of the best results on track, but one of the least enjoyable seasons off track.”

Yes, quite a season for Baron and his stomach acid.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, October 29 2012
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