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Aussie V8 Supercars Set To Mess With Texas

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 17 2013

Australian V8 Supercars have landed in America. (Photo courtesy of the Circuit of the Americas)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

AUSTIN, Texas – Intent on adding the United States to its global expansion list, the Australian V8 Supercars Championship began hot-lapping around Circuit of The Americas Friday in sedans featuring steering wheels on the “wrong side,” marques like Holden Commodore and the promise of door-banging worthy of “RU Faster Than a Redneck?”

So, what exactly is a Holden Commodore, as head redneck Jon Reep might ask?

“Yeah, we just call them Chevys over here. Everyone understands that,” said Jamie Whincup, the four-time/reigning series champion and current point-leader. “I think this year with the look of the car – the VF Commodore, we call it – is exactly the same shape as what your Chevy (SS) NASCAR is. Yeah, the body work and all the lights and whatnot are exactly the same as in NASCAR.”

Not that the V8 Supercars hierarchy envisions displacing NASCAR in the hearts-and-wallets of America’s racing fandom. The Austin 400 weekend schedule lists a pair of quick 45-minute sprints on Saturday and Sunday, the first time the series has competed in North America in its 53-year history.

“I think we would loved to have been here earlier, it just wasn’t possible,” said Whincup, driver of the No. 1 Holden Commodore VF fielded by Red Bull Racing Australia. “We couldn’t find a facility like what you guys have got here in Austin. We’re forever trying to expand the category, we’re trying to get bigger – we’re trying to branch out from just a small racing series around town to try to get four or five high-quality international events per year.

“We’d love to crack into the American market if this works, and maybe it’ll open up an opportunity for the European market. We think we’ve got a good product; we really do think it’s good racing and we do believe if we can educate you guys on what it’s all about you’ll enjoy the spectacle.”

To that end, a pair of 747 freight planes landed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Tuesday carrying more than 220,000-pounds of race cars and equipment valued in excess of $100-million. In addition to the aforementioned Holden, manufacturer support comes in the form of 650-horsepower, rear-wheel drive versions of the Ford Falcon FG, Nissan Altima and Mercedes E63 AMG.

A field of 28 drivers will compete on COTA’s 2.4-mile short-course, rather than the 3.4-mile Herman Tilke-designed layout that played host to the inaugural Formula One United States Grand Prix amid rave reviews last November. Likewise, it’s generally been a case of love at first-sighting for the Aussies.

“When you come up over the hill (on Farm Market Road 812) – just before you get to the circuit and you come over the crest – it looks fantastic,” said Whincup, who leads Will Davison and his No. 6 Pepsi Max Crew FPR Ford by 65 points (958-893) after 12 rounds. “And then as soon as you get here it’s every bit of that.

“The circuit itself is really unique. Generally most other circuits are made up of combinations of different corners from other tracks around the world, where this place sort of innovated some new corners, which you don’t see anywhere else. It’s a good challenge for us to try to learn how to maximize, but all-in-all it’s fantastic for our category to be here; we’re hoping to have a good weekend and keep coming back here for years to come.”

The teams ripped through four, 30-minute practice sessions Friday with Craig Lowndes topping the chart in the finale at 1:32.9042-seconds. “We spent three sessions redesigning the car a little bit,” said Lowndes, driver of the No. 888 Red Bull Racing Holden. “We went up and down with spring rates and everything else. We got a pretty happy balance right at the end of Session 3 and in Session 4 we were debating whether to put a second set of (Dunlop tires) on.

“Still learning the track but I’m fortunate to be here at the moment. It’s got a great mix of lefts-and-rights, high-speed and low-speed and some great elevation changes. It’s a fun track. For me it brings back the European days of fast circuits.”

Lowndes, third in points with 843 and the only driver to record a lap in the 1:32-category, was followed by Will Davison’s Ford at 1:33.2403-seconds and Garth Tander’s No. 2 Commodore in 1:33.4845-seconds. For comparison, the opening morning practice was led by Fabian Coulthard and his No. 14 Commodore in 1:34.3942-seconds.

“We really turned it around in the third session and fourth session,” said Davison, who advanced from 10th to third during the former practice and up to second in the latter in his Falcon. “The track evolved a lot as the day went on, which was quite fun. As a modern-day F1 circuit it’s got a few elements where you’ve got to be really technical in parts and where you’ve just got to be balls-out.”

The 2.4-mile short -course features 20 turns in rapid succession. “There’s a helluva lot of corners, especially on the track we’re driving on compared to the long circuit,” Whincup said. “Surprising amount of corners and not many straights, and the straights we use for a bit of a breather. So it’s quite a physical place.

“When you have seven or eight corners to learn it’s one thing, but when you have 20 or so it’s a whole lot more work. This circuit is quite unique and not something I can compare to any place else. It’s going to be tough. I think it’s a good idea that we’re on the short circuit. It would have taken probably two minutes or so to come around, so that’s too long if you’re sitting in the grandstands waiting two minutes for the cars to come back around. That’s the main reason why we run the short circuit.”

The four Supercars races here also will feature pit stops for the first time this season, a bow to tire wear on a relatively new surface and perhaps to American oval-track racing culture. Dunlop is supplying a hard-compound tire (280/680R18) for this event – a “control tire” in that all 28 cars receive the same rubber on all four corners. Each team will get 28 hard-compound tires and 12 wet tires. The tire is 12 inches wide on an 18X11-inch wheel.

The history of V8 supercars racing obviously traces its beginnings to the Land Down Under, where from 1960 to 1968, a single race determined the Australian Touring Car Championship. In 1969, the championship moved to a series to decide the winner.

COTA – first purpose-built grand prix facility in the United States – will become only the sixth venue outside of Australia to host the series, following the recent additions of Pukekohe and Hamilton in New Zealand, Shanghai in China and the equally lavish Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

“When we first went to Abu Dhabi, I criticized the track like crazy because it was so flat, and boring,” said James Courtney, driver of the No. 22 Holden Racing Commodore. “It simply had no character to it. The same can’t be said here. This track has plenty of character. I mean, when you’re going up and down Turn 1, it’s almost like being on a rollercoaster. Then you come out on the other side and into the fast stuff. I think that turn is the track’s most important feature, and will have the biggest impact on how we drive the race.

“Braking going up that hill is applied much later than you think, so that’s a bit unique. But then after the turn the track narrows quite a bit and straightens out. You’ll probably have 28 cars going up and trying to get around, and only three coming out. It’s really quite a bit wider on the entry than it is on the exit, which should provide for some interesting racing.

“So as far as I’m concerned, this is the best track Tilke has designed yet. And I think American race fans should be really proud of what they have here at Circuit of The Americas.”

For the record, V8 Supercars first raced outside Australia at Pukekohe in 2001; COTA will be the series’ 22nd international event, and the Aussies haven’t exactly snuck into Texas’ capitol city.

“There seem to be quite a few more Australians here than there have been at some of our other out-of-country races,” said Todd Kelly, driver of the No. 7 Jack Daniel’s Racing Nissan Altima. “What I’ve found interesting is how many Americans are aware of our racing series. It will be interesting to see what the actual response is this weekend, but at this point I expect to see a lot more fan support in the United States that we’ve seen at some of our international racing events.”

Jonathan Webb, who placed fourth during the final practice in his No. 19 Team TEKNO Holden, believes that if the typical NASCAR fan – or in Reep’s case, self-described redneck – gives the series a look (Sunday at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. EDT, on Speed) he/she might get hooked. “The comments and feedback we get, no matter where we go,” Webb said, “is that fans tell us how much they appreciate the aggressive nature of our racing, with all the rubbing and bumping that goes on. We’re hoping that American race fans, who are familiar with NASCAR, will appreciate that as well.”

Like the lap times that dropped as the track rubbered-in Friday, Whincup looks for this event to build momentum over time. “It’s a huge market over here,” said Whincup, who also is a four-time winner of the prestigious Bathhurst 1000. “I look at my social media stats back at home and I’m just blown away by the fan base that’s over here in America and follows our sport. It’s unbelievable. It did highlight that we potentially can work here, and this weekend we’ll find out.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 17 2013
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