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Flat Spot On – A Big Start and Finish

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 14 2021

The No. 3 Chevrolet Corvette C8.R driven by Antonio Garcia, Jordan Taylor and Nicky Catsburg leads a string of cars during Saturday’s running of the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. (Photo by Richard Prince for Corvette Racing)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

BRASELTON, Ga. – Driving into the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta for the running of the Motul Petit Le Mans was a reminder of Tom Wolfe’ s opening to the “Last American Hero.” The line of cars on the two-lane highway through rural north Georgia leading to the track stretched for as far as the eye could see. The excitement about this wild, ultrafast thing known as sports car endurance racing was brighter than the red maples and yellow poplars on a stunning, cloudless fall day.

With plenty of time to scan the AM radio for more local color while waiting for the snake of cars’ slow but steady progress, the only thing missing was Wolfe’s apocryphal radio ads for labial cream that spoofed southern mores. Instead, advertisements for chainsaws, Lincoln vehicles and those instant thermometers made popular by COVID were the highlights. And, for sure, there were more Porsches in this car line.

Just about 12 hours later, the final hour of the race lived up to its tradition of unpredictable finishes. A significant racing chapter ended with a stunning comeback by Mazda’s factory team. Then, as the checkers were getting ready to wave, the DPi drivers’ title was decided by a crazy quilt sequence at Turn 10, two corners from the finish after a ten-race season. 

The splendid final hour helped make up for a race whose first nine hours were more like a Super Bowl that fails to live up to its Roman Numerals due to a slew of safety car periods. But on this day when the largest crowd to ever attend a race at storied Road Atlanta, the racing gods played taketh and giveth. If those long safety car periods seemed to take the race into the primordial snooze, well, they allowed the factory Mazda to make its comeback. 

Mazda scored the overall victory at the Petit on Saturday.

In Mazda’s final appearance with a prototype in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, its team was three laps down in the fourth hour. At the finish, Harry Tincknell used lapped traffic to take the lead with 22 minutes to go from the Cadillac DPi of Felipe Nasr. In this race, dodging the traffic consisting of slower classes often separates the tears of joy from the other kind. Tincknell was superb, although his friend and fellow Brit Nick Tandy, whose Corvette was retired after contact by the Mazda in the closing minutes, might disagree.

“I always brake in a straight line,” said Tincknell with a shoulder shrug. Such are the close quarters in the Petit, where neither Corvette took the checkered flag.

What started as a swan song swoon that turned into a champagne bath for Mazda and its Multimatic Motorsports team was a popular result among the racing cognoscenti. The Japanese company has given a great deal to the sport with its grass roots programs and to the executive branch. John Doonan, one of the architects behind that grass roots effort, is now president of the WeatherTech series’ sanctioning body IMSA. 

Ironically, the Mazda team, where Jonathan Bomarito and Oliver Jarvis were Tincknell’s co-drivers, had yet another engine problem, a failed spark plug that had to be replaced on the pit road at the beginning of the fourth hour. The four-cylinder turbo engine has been problematic since the DPi cars were first launched. “At the start of the program we were spraying fire extinguishers at it,” said Tincknell, “and now we’re spraying champagne.” 

Meanwhile, back at the championship won by Nasr and co-driver Pipo Derani, who were joined here by one of this year’s Le Mans 24-hour winners Mike Conway…

Once demoted to second at the exit of Turn 7, Nasr spent the remaining minutes of the 10-hour race holding off the Acura DPi of Ricky Taylor in the tussle over the title. Similar to last year’s run-in with this same team, and reminiscent of the aggressiveness of his father and team owner Wayne, Ricky Taylor dove inside Nasr’s Whelen Engineering Racing entry at the end of the back straight. The margin for error was less than razor thin.

After splashing the gravel when his wheels went off, the Acura skated past the Cadillac, then across the track and into the grass on the outside of Turn 10. Taylor led into Turn 11, but ever-cool Nasr’s momentum due to staying on the asphalt carried him past going down the hill toward the flag stand, the checkered flag and the championship. 

“I saw he wasn’t going to make the corner,” said Nasr. “It’s crazy how it ended.”

This Petit Le Mans featured some fabulous high-speed action all afternoon and during the dark evening as well as the steady stream of safety periods, including one brought out by a monstrous fifth gear crash by GTLM class driver Jordan Taylor, Ricky’s younger brother, on board his Corvette C8.R that collected six other cars.

In an event known for its unusual developments once the sun sets, Taylor, who fortunately suffered only a strained lower back, was taken by surprise in broad daylight in an incident that raised questions about IMSA’s restart procedures. 

Taylor restarted his GTLM class Corvette C8.R amidst the usual gaggle of GT Daytona entries. Because of, ahem, a rule that allows drivers to pass before the start-finish line once the green flag is waved, Taylor came over the crest of the hill on the backstraight in fifth gear at 110 mph and clobbered two GT Daytona entries stopped on the track due to the accordion effect of restarts.

“It’s unfortunate that you have a mix of drivers and cars that don’t always work well together,” said Taylor during his comments in the media center, referring to the different classes and the Mitty-esque tradition of gentlemen drivers, some of whom prove more worthy than others. 

The No. 10 Acura of Ricky Taylor, regular co-driver Filipe Albuquerque and Alexander Rossi required much of the race to come to life. This followed a desultory qualifying session on Friday for the Acura squad, when the No. 31 Whelen Cadillac won the pole in the hands of Nasr and the Acura ended up seventh, 0.650 seconds back.  Out-qualified by the Acura of Meyer Shank Racing, set-up difficulties were blamed for the poor showing by the Taylor team’s ARX-05, problems which apparently continued in the race. Coupled with Mazda falling several laps down, the race seemingly belonged to the Cadillac of Whelen with occasional look-ins from the other Cadillac teams.  

Oh, well. Sometimes it goes this way in motor racing—a big start, a big finish and a long middle. In this case, there was a reminder of the old drivers’ bromide about racing being 99 percent boredom and one percent sheer terror. Watching Taylor’s crash was sheerly terrible. Thankfully, the admirable safety of the cars and their cockpits withstood the challenge.

In the final two hours, it was a race to see if the event would average one long caution for each of its ten hours. Fortunately, the final count was nine, which set up the non-stop, spine-tingling finale. And, it must be added that the constant re-starts enabled the DPi field of seven stout entries to remain within shouting distance of one another for much of the race.

All of this is a prelude to the new prototype class known as LMDh expected to be fully online in 2023.  The new class of sophisticated hybrid prototypes will represent a bevy of manufacturers, albeit absent Mazda, interested in how to better use electricity in cars. As rules packages go, the new class is expected to help bridge the gap between the little Le Mans in Georgia and the big Le Mans in France, because of shared rules.  Sports car racing indeed has a bright future if these LMDh cars can race competitively here in the “red clay wine country” and in the 24-hour run just north of the Loire Valley’s wine country in France…

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” carries a five-star rating on Amazon. Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the 2021 release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse,” which carries a five-star Amazon rating.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 14 2021
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