When a great series like the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship comes to your home track, it is really difficult to say no to a weekend at the track. Now, of course, I'm using the phrase "home track" a bit liberally, as it's really a 5 hour drive, but with a track as amazing as Laguna Seca, you'll use any excuse possible to get out there! The beautiful seaside scenery, the surrounding county park area, when combined with some of the best racing in North America, it all adds up to an amazing circuit, and a phenomenal weekend.
With IMSA's full roster of series in attendance, we knew that this would be well worth the drive. TUSCC obviously took the headline position, but with lead-ins by a GT3 Cup double-header, and a fantastic Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge round, there was action from front to back across the whole weekend. Porsche was heavily represented this weekend, with several cars in each race, and an absolutely packed GT3 cup grid.
As I pulled into the circuit, it was a bit of a return home for me. I had not been to a major motorsport event since we went to COTA last fall for the shared WEC and ALMS weekend. I could feel the vibration in my brain as the excitement built, getting that proverbial kid-in-a-candy-store feeling.
Race 1 - Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge
With a couple 997 GTS racers in the "Grand Sport" category, and a handful of 987 Caymans in the "Street Tuner" category, it seemed like there were Porsches kicking around everywhere you looked on track. As usual, I was flying the "Rum Bum Racing" fan flag, and I was cautiously optimistic for the various Cayman racers in ST.
Against a variety of V8 sedans and pony cars, Rum Bum's 997 has been punching above its weight class for a number of years. Having won the class championship for the last two years, the team came to Laguna Seca with some pretty high hopes, and deservedly so. The car is already carrying some pretty hefty weight penalties for having run well earlier in the season, and is down on power in comparison with some of the other teams, a true detriment on the huge uphill climbs of the Laguna circuit.
In the first half of the race, the gathered masses were privileged to witness the team work the wheels off of the Porsche in a fight to the front from a relatively poor 13th position qualifying effort. Nick Longhi started the car, and just had to keep his nose clean. Just 16 minutes into the race, Longhi hopped out, and Matt Plumb slotted in to begin his monumental effort. Just before the halfway point of the 150 minute race, the 13 car moved into the lead of the race, and started gapping the field to the tune of 2.5 seconds.
With just about an hour remaining in the race, something unexpected happened. Plumb sensed something had gone awry with the car, feeling a tendency for understeer going into the corner, and the car got "darty" on the straights. A quick dip into the pits to suss out the issue at the next full-course-yellow, and the car was back on track. Unfortunately, the stop placed Plumb at the back of the field, including the slower ST class. For the next hour, Plumb was driving like a man possessed, taking cars left, right, and center.
After clearing the ST leaders (passing some 30 cars in 20 minutes), Plumb caught some luck when a caution came out with 30 minutes remaining, bunching him back up to the Grand Sport pack, back in 19th. In the ten minutes following the return to green, Plumb gained 5 positions before a final caution period with 20 minutes remaining. One more dash into the pits for some fresh Conti slicks, and Plumb managed to stick the landing on 6 more passes before the checkered flag. From 13th to the lead, back to last, and a climb back to 8th, the car and the drivers certainly had a workout, and proved the class of the field. In my opinion, this was the most exciting race of the weekend.
Race 2 - TUSCC GT Daytona
Saturday began with an Alex Job Porsche starting the 2 hour GTD sprint race in second position. Leh Keen put in a stellar lap in qualifying, only barely losing it out in the final seconds to former Porsche ace Spencer Pumpelly in his Flying Lizard Audi. On the very first lap, Patrick Dempsey lost the back end of his car under braking for the corkscrew, and backed the car into the sand, calling out the first yellow flag. After the green flag dropped again, Pumpelly and teammate Canache, the 45 Audi ran off and hid for the whole race, regulating a 6ish second lead over the field.
The race went relatively well for a large portion of the 2 hours, and only 2 short caution periods resulted. Much of the Porsche contingent was caught out by fuel strategy, and many of them had to come into the pits for a splash of fuel with only minutes to go. There was one Porsche team, though, that made the right moves, acted on the right calls, and kept a clean nose to take a podium position in the final corner.
Magnus Racing, possibly the strongest GTD Porsche team in the paddock right now, grabbed the GTD team points lead with a 3rd place finish at Laguna Seca. Coming off their class victory at the 12 hours of Sebring, Magnus drivers John Potter and Andy Lally were visibly disappointed with a 19th grid position, but worked diligently and the race just fell their way. Entering the final lap, the team looked like they would have to settle for fifth, but a dive to the pits for the AJR/Team Seattle car moved them up to fourth, and when Pumpelly's leading Audi ran out of fuel at the top of the hill, they just managed to step onto the podium.
The 3rd placed finishing position for the Magnus team moves them into the GTD points lead, which is a place they are happy to be, and likely to stay if they stay on form.
Race 3 - TUSCC GT Le Mans
The GTLM class race later in the day was probably one that Porsche would prefer to forget. Qualifying wasn't a complete loss, as Nick Tandy managed to stuff the #911 factory 991 RSR up into third on the grid, but Pat Long's #912 was mired back in 8th, and the Sellers/Henzler Falken Tire #17 was 10th and the last starting position.
After a long weekend of racing, the GTLM and Prototype field took the green flag late on Sunday afternoon to close out Sunday's festivities. Between the high speed winds that whipped around the hill, the large swathes of sandy runoff area, and a number of off-track excursions earlier in the weekend, the track was simply littered with sand, grit, and rubber, just waiting to be picked up by anyone who ran off line. As such, the track was pretty much limited to a single line for most of the race, and passing was difficult to maneuver.
There was a lot of dicing in the Prototype field, but the GTLM field was pretty much locked in step for two hours. A few cars, like the 55 BMW and the Fisichella/Kaffer Ferrari were pretty racy, and made up a few positions, both on track and through strategy, but for the most part, teams finished where they started.
For the last couple of laps, the 911 car was defending from the 55 BMW, which was on a hard charge on fresher tires. Being at the track, you get to experience the sights, smells, and sounds first hand, but you really don't get the big picture of the race, and I have yet to see the contact that occurred between Richard Lietz and BMW's Bill Auberlen. I was standing just past the start-finish on driver's right when the checkered flag flew, and all I could see was that the BMW had moved ahead of the Porsche on the final lap, and didn't know the context until I'd gotten home.
The contact, nearly an hour after the race was over, was deemed to be worthy of penalty, though, as the 911 was given the equivalent of a 60 second stop-and-hold penalty, which cost them third place. With that penalty in place, the Lietz/Tandy car ended up finishing down in 9th. Long and Christensen finished 8th, and the Falken car gave Porsche their best result with a 4th place, just off the podium. I'll withhold final judgement until after I've seen the footage, but as both the 911 and the 55 crossed the finish line, and neither were spun or damaged, I'm inclined to believe the penalty levied was unnecessary.
In all, I'm really glad that I made the trip out to the California coast to see the races, as the weather was brilliant, the racing was pretty good (like pizza, even when it's bad, it's still pretty good), and let's face it, I could use the exercise. Having logged more than 25 miles of hiking around the circuit, I can think of no better way to spend a beautiful spring weekend.
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