December 29, 2017
Story by Doc Waldrop Photos by Bill Strong
Billed as the “NYE-ish” 10-hour race at historic Sebring International Raceway, the ChampCar Endurance Series (CCES) gathered one last time on December 29th to compete and celebrate another momentous year of racing on the legendary 3.74-mile International layout. Sixty-six cars answered the call to send out 2017 in style on the rough airport circuit, legendary in the annals of American sports car racing since the early 1950s.
Most of the usual favorites at Sebring were present including the duo of Mitsubishi 3000GTs from Team Jacky Ickx, a strong 3 car entry from the TLM Racing shop of David Tutay, Team Infiniti’s familiar J30 “shark car” (#19), KSR Racing’s SC300 and 300ZX, two Tuttle Motorsports’ Eclipses, and TWOth Autosports potent Honda Civic. These familiar entries were joined by the blazingly fast Busy Guy Racing 2015 Nissan 370Z, the crowd favorite J.B. Bugs Super Beetle, and the first BMW Mini Cooper to run in CCES, that of Turn 7 Motorsports.
The draw of a random pit stall saw no less than 6 Mazda Miatas take the green flag in the lead and fan out going into the long (and VERY wide) sweeping turn 1 left hander with the 2 Glazed and Confused Racing Mazdas sponsored by race sponsor, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, leading the way. A strong pack of faster more powerful C, D, and EC class cars were themselves shuffling spots as they strove for the lead early in the 10-hour contest.
When the concrete dust and ever present scouring sand had finally settled some one hour into the race the lead was held almost predictably by the Busy Guy Racing #185 370Z, followed by the TLM #170 1994 BMW 328, the Kids Racing For Life sponsored 1986 Ford Thunderbird #293, KSR/Flat Out Racing’s 300ZX #223, and the #107 Tuttle Motorsports Mitsubishi Eclipse in 5th. It would seem that pure horsepower would indeed rule the day.
Some of the teams had already pitted for various mechanical issues including the E Racing #890 BMW which had stopped to check out damage to “Ella” from contact on course, both Mustangs from Back Woods Racing and Rhinoceros Racing with smoke trailing from their cars, The Family Tradition BMW M6 with a laptop perched on their roof and hooked into the car, and the Krispy Kreme sponsored #156 Miata with their hood up. The Move Over Racing #696 BMW had also pitted from 8th place along with the leading fast, but evidently thirsty, Busy Guy Racing 370Z.
Conventional wisdom would have it that you absolutely MUST have the minimum number of pit stops to win these races nowadays and with 2-hour maximum stint limits for the drivers, 4 stops would be the ideal strategy to win this 10-hour contest. Of course, if you could pit during a full course yellow (FCY) it would certainly be to your advantage. Ahhhh…but the racing muses know this and will do their best to foul your best thought out plans any chance they get. They first struck at 9:43AM, just short of the ideal time when the pace car went out to gather the field; It would take some time to figure out if the cars that pitted early would truly be at a disadvantage because of the FCY timing. Pit row erupted in a flurry of activity regardless!!!
This first car to hit pit row was the heavily favored Jacky Ickx #935 3000GT with major damage to both rear corners having been hit first by a competitor that resulted in further contact with a tire barrier, followed closely by the KSR Racing’s SC300 #226, the #107 Tuttle Eclipse, and the Team Infiniti J30 #19. Seeking to bring home the overall win, the #935 Martini liveried 3000GT from Team Jacky Ickx was soon back on pit row, their chances for the win seemingly over not only because of the damage to the suspension, but dashed entirely from a black flag, the result of the mandatory window net coming down!
As Noon approached the entire field had stopped again for fuel and driver changes and the lead was once again held by the #185 370Z followed by the agile B class Civic of TWOth Autosport and the J30 from Team Infiniti. The #107 Tuttle Eclipse ran in 4th even after running out of fuel and having been pushed down pit row trailed by the #66 3000GT in the familiar Gulf light blue/orange livery, inspired by fellow native (and team principal) Belgian Philippe Lebec’s boyhood hero, and the team’s namesake Jacky Ickx, in honor of his first of 6 LeMans wins in 1969 in the Ford GT40 before racing for Porsche.
The Sister Tuttle #108 ran in 6th (a totally new Eclipse since the original had been totaled at Road America), followed by another badly vibrating sister car, that of Team Jacky Ickx #935 in 7th. Rounding out the top 10 in the running order was the #223 KSR 300ZX, the Mazda Miata #227 of Agent Chrome, and the #626 Mazda of InActiv Motorsports with a paint scheme honoring yet another LeMans winning car, the bright green and orange livery of the Mazda 787B which won in 1991, which remains as the only victory by a Japanese marque in the most famous endurance race in the world.
Just over the halfway mark at 1:15 PM another FCY came out and the #935 pitted with the driver heard to say, “It’s a handful”, vibrating so much that his hands were numb as he exited the car. Sill, they gamely held on to 3rd place following the leading #107 Tuttle Eclipse and the #66 3000GT. So far Mitsubishi ruled the day at Sebring with the #108 running in 5th, only the 370Z of Busy Guy Racing spoiling their parade in 4th.
Mitsubishi’s star and multi-car teams continued to shine brightly as the race’s next hour unfolded as the two sister Tuttle cars, the #107 and the #108, led the race, separated from the two Jacky Ickx 3000GTs running in 4th and 5th, only by the 2015 Busy Guy 370Z which had come roaring back to the top 5 time and time again from frequent stops for fuel to run in 3rd. The TWOth #552 Civic had fallen to 6th place, the driver complaining about intermittent power steering problems, the Agent Chrome Miata in 7th, and Team Infiniti’s automatic transmissioned J30 in 8th. InActiv’s Mazda 626 had moved up to 9th place followed by the #988 Valyrian Steel Miata which had cracked the top 10 when the KSR 300ZX #223 was retired to the paddock following a lengthy pit stop shortly after halfway.
As so frequently happens in long-distance endurance events, the glory for Mitsubishi was short lived when at 2:04 PM, the #66 Jacky Ickx car pitted and was quickly brought to the paddock with a suspected dropped valve. With only 4 hours to go the veteran team elected to retire the car for the day and concentrate their effort on the remaining car running in 3rd that E Racing had reported was visibly crabbing sideways down the long straightaways.
The next entry and contender for the overall win, the #226 of KSR/Flat Out Racing, soon after rolled to a stop on the back portion of the course, smoke coming out from under their hood, having lost their engine and oiling down part of the course from turn 8 to turn 11. This brought out a FCY as a rollback was sent to fetch the stricken SC300 so as not to oil the track down any further. Naturally, most of the leading cars pitted and the running order was slightly jumbled as some stops took longer than others as teams looked over their cars and looked for a great finish, still some 3 hours away.
Sure enough, misfortune struck again, this time when the #107 Tuttle Eclipse was black flagged from the lead that they had held since halfway, the result of heavy smoke trailing the car on the straights. The team initially thought they had overfilled the car with oil, but soon was seen bypassing the oil cooler which had sprung a leak. Other cars being black flagged for various mostly mechanical reasons included the #912 Apex Predators’ Firebird, the E Racing/Gas Monkey 328i which had been hovering between 10th and 15th place virtually all day, and the Turn 7 Motorsports BMW Mini Cooper.
No sooner had the #107 rejoined the fray having bypassed the oil cooler in a 12-minute stop. 5 laps later the car was retired for good having come in on a wrecker with a front wheel missing. Shortly thereafter the sister Eclipse #108 pitted with a loose rear wing. With 2 hours and 20 minutes to go the team also elected to change drivers and refuel. After the stop they would rejoin the field in 3rd, trailing the two remaining cars on the lead lap, #185 and the resilient #935. When a FCY flew at 4:11 PM the thirsty 370Z pitted from the lead as did the #327 BSI Racing Miata in 8th place, replacing a left rear tire in the process. Perhaps counting on a longer yellow, the #935 pitted under green flag conditions when the field roared back to life just 7 minutes later.
The Tuttle car was in a quandary: While they maintained a few second lead over the Busy Guy Z that was an EC Class car thus ineligible for the overall win, the #935 3000GT was not that far behind. Brian Tuttle desperately needed a full course caution to pit the #108 Eclipse a final time and hopefully maintain the lead for the checkered flag and the win. Tuttle was running out of time since their driver had gone in at 3:39 PM. His 2 hours behind the wheel was almost up and the #108 was reluctantly brought in leading the race under green flag racing at 5:31 PM. The question of if they could get by with just the mandatory driver change and avoid the minimum 5-minute stop for refueling was answered when the first fuel jug went over the wall.
While the drama intensified at the front, almost lost was the battle further down in the field. The TWOth B Class Civic, 5 laps down to the leaders, unsuccessfully tried to hold off the much more powerful Team Infiniti #19 which had swapped engines to the J45 4.5-liter V8 version earlier in the year for 4th. The #411 Anderson41 Motorsports D Class BMW held down a solid 5th on their own lap alone by themselves. No less than Johnny O’Connell himself was in their pits, coaching his son (and presumably the rest of the team as well) around the Sebring track. With his record 7 class wins at the fabled 12-Hours of Sebring track he just might know a thing or two about getting around there quickly…
The A classed BSI Mazda Miata #327 in 6th was just barely holding off the B Class InActive #626 and they both had been in each other’s sights for many of the past several hours. The BSI Miata had managed to claw their way back up near the front after overcoming a pair of early mistakes when they ran out of fuel and then were black flagged for a 5-minute contact penalty while running in 4th place about 3 ½ hours into the race. The Glazed and Confused #256 running in 8th similarly had a great battle going with the #988 Valyrian Steel entry, both A class Mazdas. Pure speed and horsepower may have won the race, but no one in the Miata camp was willing to concede that simple fact.
Prior to the race, team principal and newly elected member of the CCES Board of Directors, Rich Sainato, had replied to my good luck wishes with a “meh… not needed. This is a half-assed race for fun weekend” prior to leaving Atlanta for the long tow down. I added that I was going to mention them in the pre-race ChampCar Live broadcast and his reply was to further downplay their involvement in the race with a “now I feel like we have to perform well, you NOW have the insider information that we’re there to play this weekend.”
With the minutes winding down, virtually unnoticed throughout the long day, down in 10th place, was the single entry from the John Allen Special Juggernaut, the #80 BMW 325is that was there to “play and have a fun weekend”. Their friendly rival, the E Racing #890 was trying to catch them for the final C class podium spot and went so far as to put Randy Pobst in “Ella” for the final stint. In the end, despite a personal best fastest time of the day (FTD) of a 2:39.256 on lap 181 for the team with Randy driving, it was to no avail and the BMW finished P4 in C class and 14th overall. Some vindication for owner Elon Goran for their misery back in the 14-hour race, but not much knowing that team.
Speaking of FTDs, the EC class Busy Guys 370Z was the fastest of the field with a scorching 1:31.463 around the 17-turn track, but that was no shocking surprise considering the rest of most of the field were campaigning some 20-year older machines compared to the “teenager” amongst them. They led the field for the rest of the race. Back in the front after pitting the #108 held the slimmest of leads for the overall win over the #935 3000GT, but the Jacky Ickx machine was closing fast despite the handling difficulties.
Without their designated “closer”, Mark Thompson, who was at home recovering from the flu (but watching ChampCar Live naturally) the job of catching the Tuttle car fell to Chris Bany in the #935 and he dialed up his efforts to post the team’s FTD of the day on lap 198 with a 2:36.747 and passed the #108 2 laps later, with only 6 laps remaining in the race. Team Jacky Ickx had yet another overall win at their home track!!! Two laps later the #108 failed to appear as was seen to be parked at the entrance to turn 17, the victim of a broken axle in the righthander leading onto the long back straightaway.
Not all was quite settled yet even though the checkered flag had fallen: After the race the #108 upon being confronted by CCES officials about inconsistencies with their engine swap, the team decided to forfeit their position and not present their car at impound. This moved every team behind Busy Guy’s 370Z and the Mitsubishi #935 up a spot, the Nissan driver admitting he had absolutely no brakes for the last 45 minutes of the race and that is why he coasted slowly through pit out.
Perhaps fittingly for the Sebring racetrack, largely considered the 2nd most challenging endurance race next to LeMans, the #935 carries the Martini livery and model number of the factory Porsche ride that Jacky Ickx campaigned after the initial win in the Ford GT. Alas, the Porsche 935 model never won at LeMans, but Ickx did record 3 overall wins in the 936 designation. In an interview, Lebec exclaimed that he won’t spend near as much time and money on wheel alignments in the future as the left rear of the 3000GT was clearly toed out and had been for the majority of the race!!!
Also pleased at the finish was the owner of the Team Infiniti #19 J30, Ed Steinhoff because with a 2nd place finish he had broken a long streak of a “certain # place” finish at Sebring. That number is SO taboo to Ed that we will not even mention it here out of respect. This finish echoed the 14 Hour race finish in 2013 when the popular “Shark Car” finished runner-up to the #66 car. Both these teams have a LOT of laps around Sebring, probably even surpassing all but the most successful pro teams and drivers.
No less than 5 EC class cars finished in the top 15 and the Busy Guy 370Z team drivers vowed to be back. Closer inspection of the results from the race would lead you to believe that the revised TVPI points system is working as the remaining 10 positions were also divided equally with the C/D class cars occupying 5 spots as well as the A/B class smaller displacement cars. Truthfully told, the A and B class cars occupied 4th place and 6th through 9th place. They had more than equaled the bigger bore cars’ results overall. It was also nice to the see the “little guys” win when the SLS Racing team, campaigning the former “Corvette Summer Stingata” (a heavily sculpted Miata), in their first ever ChampCar race take home the Chandler School Sportsmanship Award with their positive attitude and willingness to help other teams.
This race ended the 2017 season on a high note and weary teams returned home for the New Year and the long offseason. WRONG!!! The 2018 season starts in just 5 weeks when a lot of the same teams will descend from all points to converge on Road Atlanta for a 14-hour race on yet another historic bucket-list track! We will see you all there!!!