Marathon Coach 14-Hours of Sebring
September 22, 2018
Story by Doc Waldrop
Photos by Bill Strong and Doc Waldrop
While many tracks can claim a rich history of long-distance sports car racing in America, no track can claim to have reached the lofty heights that the Sebring International Raceway has reached the world over. Since 2011, the ChampCar Endurance Series has scheduled what many believe is the hardest race of the season: The 14-hour contest around the 3.74-mile, 17 turn complex that has competitors not only battling each other and the hot humid weather (where it invariably rains), but the track itself.
Eighty-six cars lined up on a beautiful Florida day to take the 9AM green flag, including 5 competitors that had raced here since the beginning of this race format in 2011: 4 Paws Racing, Floridiots, J.B. Bugs Racing, Team Infiniti, and Team Jacky Ickx. Fully half the field in 2018 had returned from the 2017 race proving CCES teams are a stubborn lot (or don’t learn lessons very well, have memory problems, are practicing masochists, etc.) including defending race winner’s KSR/Flat Out Racing team with a 3-car entry and 6 of the other top 10 finishing teams.
The Good, Bad, and Ugly #427 Camaro, prepped by Bill Riley and his team, had the lead from the random draw from pit numbers and thundered into the lead followed by the KSR/Flat Out Racing #225 Lexus SC300, the ZR None #486 Chevy Corvette, Crowd Control Racing’s Ford SVT Cobra #625, and the Lincolnfelter Racing #980 Lincoln Mk VIII.
The rumbling sound down the front straight echoed of days gone by. On lap 3 the course went full course yellow (FCY) as the #850 Kelly Brothers Racing Miata lost their motor exiting the turn 17 right-hand sweeper that leads onto the pit straight and spun several times on their own oil. Luckily the entire field made it through the tire smoke and settled down behind the pace car as the track crew cleaned up the mess.
Soon the field was back to green and the positions near the front of the field had changed from the cars that had started near the front due to pit row order to the faster cars that had worked their way through the field by speed. This latter group included the #307 Not Banned Yet 240SX from James Ballenger’s shop, Cone Crusher’s familiar #917 Porsche 944 (last years 2nd place finisher), Money Pit Racing’s #197 BMW E30, and the EC class #3 BMW E46 from David Tuaty’s TLM shops sponsored by Marathon Coach. TLM had also entered 2 other BMWs, both 328 models and also running in the EC class. The pair of Mitsubishi 3000GTs out of Team Jacky Ickx’s stables were just approaching the top 15 after starting well down in the field 1 ½ hours into the race.
The next FCY came right as cars were approaching the fuel/driver change window when the big Lincolnfelter Mark VIII lost it entering turn 5 and backed it into the wall and most of the leaders dove into the pits including the KSR Lexus which had led the race since lap 31. The Cone Crushers #917 Porsche also pitted and by virtue of a faster stop assumed the lead of the race with Not Banned Yet’s Nissan and the Lexus neck and neck for 2nd. The Level 1 Racing #412 Miata was holding off the Nine Four Motorsports’ #840 SC300 for 4th position, both cars having pitted during the caution as well.
Four hours in at 1PM, the KSR #225 had overcome the Cone Crushers for the lead with the plucky Level 1 Miata hanging onto the final podium position. The Running Bulls Racing #160 BMW 325is had parlayed steady laps and well-timed pit stops under FCYs to move up into 4th place over the Crowd Control Racing Mustang. The #66 Jacky Ickx 3000GT was in 6th leading the Nine Four SC300, the BSI Racing #327 Miata, the sister Ickx #935 in 9th, and the #458 WTF Motorsports E36 325i in 10th position. Several of the favorites had their share of problems including the #108 Tuttle Motorsports Mitsubishi Eclipse with heavy contact on track and the Not Banned Yet 240SX had fallen out of the top 5 with a host of problems including flat spotted tires and an off-track excursion that broke a wheel. Soon after the rise to 4th place the #160 Running Bulls dove into the pits having shed its water pump drive belt on the back straight. Luckily the driver caught it in time and the BMW was able to rejoin the race.
While the top 5 stayed relatively the same, the next 10 positions were a real dogfight. For sure the running order was jumbled up while some teams played the FCY strategy, but there was plenty of action on the track as well. The Rotary Rocketeers #250 RX7 was in and out of the top 15 as was the Miatas of #988 Valyrian Steel and #327 BSI Racing. The #52 Empty Pockets BMW, the #441 4 Paws Racing Honda Prelude, GCS Motorsports’ #319 BMW, the Bucket List Racing #70 E36, and the #697 MoveOver Racing 325is had each spent time in the top 15 as the race approached the halfway point. The Kids Racing for Life #293 1986 Ford Thunderbird had also been among them mixing it up.
Approaching that halfway mark an FCY was thrown for one of the TLM Motorsports BMW with an off in turn 5 and this allowed the KSR Lexus to make up some time on the Cone Crushers 944 who had assumed the lead on lap 122 with yet another faster pit stop. When the field went green again the Lexus had made up over a minute. The Level 1 Mazda had maintained 3rd place at the halfway mark over the Jacky Ickx #66 and both cars were 3 laps down to the leaders. The Nine Four Motorsports Lexus #840 was in 5th place with the #935 3000GT in 6th, followed by Crowd Control’s Mustang, and BSI Racing’s #327 Miata, all separated from each other by a lap.
On their own lap, the BMW 325is’ of WTF Motorsports and Empty Pockets Racing were duking it out for 9th place trying to stay in the top 10 over an angry hoard of contenders in 11th-15th place who were all one lap down, but on the same lap with each other. The Kids Racing for Life D class #293 Thunderbird led over the Rotary Rocketeers #250, the Turn 7 #770 2910 Mini Cooper, and the Not Banned Yet #307 240SX had rebounded from their problems to run in 14th over the MoveOver Racing Team B #697 BMW 325i in 15th.
Approaching the 8th hour of the contest, both the KSR Lexus and the Cone Crushers had traded the lead during pit stops when the next FCY was called at 5:12PM with 2 cars stranded off track and needing a tow back to the paddock. Race control had been watching an ominous sky with radar indicating lightning nearby and had held off on throwing a red flag until the leaders had both pitted to minimize the impact to the race and to get the corner workers to safety. At 5:33PM, with the course never having gone back to green, the lightning finally forced their hand and the field was brought down pit road behind the pace car.
With no clear-cut end to the red flag (the best guesses were about an hour delay), teams were left huddling in the garages and breezeways to ponder their strategy when the race went back to green flag conditions. This storm system was not like a thundershower cell that had a clear beginning and end, it was more like a sheet of clouds slowly moving over the circuit. At least the rain wasn’t a downpour so the track should develop a dry line fairly quickly when the red flag was pulled. Sure enough, after about an hour delay teams were told to get their drivers back to their cars and at 6:40PM the race was restarted.
With a clear track ahead of them the KSR #225 took off while the Cone Crushers 944 had to not only deal with traffic, but the rooster tails of spray the other cars were kicking up and while the #917 had to be cautious the Lexus was letting it all hang out…literally. The end result was the KSR Lexus was pulling away from the Porsche by several seconds a lap, anywhere from 3 seconds to 7 seconds on a consistent basis. The Level 1 Miata held down the final podium position with the Jacky Ickx #66 on the same lap in 4th while the Nine Four Lexus #840 was one lap down in 5th.
Due to pit stop strategies that were all over the place, the next hours of the race for positions 6th through 15th were constantly changing. ISC Racing in their #201 Miata finally dispatched WTF Motorsports and their BMW as the 325is dropped dramatically from 8th place with a busted coolant hose and then further down in the standings with a bad fuel pump. Crowd Control Racing and Move Over Racing Team B also dropped out of the top 15, the SVT Cobra with brake pad problems and the BMW with a costly 23-minute stop while running in 11th place. The #441 4 Paws Racing Honda Prelude and the #51 Floridiot Motorsports Porsche 944 were the benefactors of their misfortune. The Kids Racing for Life #293 Ford Thunderbird had finally found the speed they were looking for after their last pit stop and moved up to 13th leaving Floridiots, 4 Paws Racing, and the EC class GCS #319 BMW to argue over the last 2 spots in the top 15.
The last hour of the race saw the Cone Crushers threaten KSR/Flat Out Racing for the overall win, but a costly wiring issue with the rear brake lights thwarted their bid for the overall win. For the second year in a row, they would be the bridesmaid to the Lexus KSR #225. On lap 223 the Nine Four Motorsports #840 got by the Level 1 Miata and the #66 Jacky Ickx Mitsubishi for 3rd overall while the Miata moved into 4th position when the 3000GT pitted on the same lap for their final stop. The #66 was poised for a 5th place finish until with just minutes to go the car rolled to a stop with a minor fire near the turn 7 hairpin. While they lost a position on the last lap there was some consolation that it was to their team car, the #935 in its distinctive “Martini” livery.
BSI Racing ran strong all race, their only issue was a PUY penalty that cost them 3 minutes in the black flag box that turned into a pit stop for their driver cramping up, and in the end came away with P7 in their Miata while the Rotary Rocketeers #250 RX7 took home B class honors with an 8th place finish. Turn 7 held down 9th position at the end (on the same lap as the Rocketeers) with their 2010 Mini Cooper having started in 58th and moving into the top 10 just after the red flag stoppage. Tenth through twelfth was an all Miata show, with RYSA Racing edging out the Valyrian Steel #988 for 10th on the same lap. ISC Racing took the final Miata spot in 12th while the Kids Racing for Life Thunderbird took D class honors with 13th place.
EC honors fell to the GCS #319 BMW in 14th with Floridiots in the Porsche 944 finishing in 15th. 4 Paws Racing was just 4 seconds back of the Porsche at the finish and the Not Banned Yet 240SX survived their first trip to Sebring for P17 after all their problems. The Ballenger Motorsports crew in the Nissan was the closest car to the fastest time of the day set by the Good, Bad, and Ugly Camaro with a 2:32.140 vs. the 240SX’s 2:34.877. The Sebring circuit was not kind to the BMW marquee with the highest finishing non-EC BMW going to Running Bulls Racing in 18th overall.
The Chandler School Sportsmanship Award went to Huntsville, Alabama based RocketHam Racing’s Toyota Celica team. A little over half the original 88 starters finished the race and as the ChampCar staff packed up for the next races at Harris Hill and Pittsburg, more than a few teams vowed to return to the historic confines in late December with a bit friendlier race format, that of a Double 7 on the International circuit known the world over as Sebring.
Official Race Results
Pictures to come.