Friday, September 12, 2014

Oak Tree Grand Prix at VIR - IMSA United Sportscar Championship

A few of us had the pleasure of attending an IMSA United Sportscar Championship weekend recently, and minus the speeding ticket received on the trip down, the entire event was an absolute blast - with a couple surprises that made it even better.

This year marks the first year of a merger between the phased-out American Le Mans Series, and the Grand-Am Rolex Sportscar Series; now together as one under IMSA as the Tudor United Sportscar Championship.  A couple years ago, we attended VIR for their VIR240 under the 2012 ALMS season, and although this time around the race was shortened from 4 hours to 2 hours and 45 minutes, a cool factor was that the Prototype Challenge (PC) class ran a separate race (2 different races actually) than the Grand Touring Le Mans (GTLM) and Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) classes, where as before they all ran together at the same time.  This made for more outright racing, and less fighting with traffic.  Although the on-track incidents were at a minimum due to the separation of classes, there were also still some intense run-ins with the walls and several off-roading accidents.

Earlier in the morning on Saturday before we arrived, both one of Team Corvette AND Porsche North America cars went off-track at the same location.  The cars were torn down throughout the day and into the night, and were actually rebuilt by the next morning to start last in the grid (since qualifying was missed).  Later in the race on Sunday, I believe the same Porsche 911 GT3 RSR from the day before that had crashed, had another incident and ended up not DNF.

While it's great to be there in the paddock, smelling the IMSA E85 and hearing engines start and turn off, air-tools being used under large tented and roped-off areas, and teams working with each other to get their chassis' dialed-in - We were there for a specific reason: Team Falken.

This was my first chance to see, hear and feel Valentina running in person this year.  We were out strong, showing our support for Bryan, Wolf and the whole Falken crew.  By some power, I was able to get my hands on two Team Falken pit shirts previous to the race, one of which I had signed by both Sellers and Henzler during the autograph session.  What gets even better, is that we came across an artist in the paddock vendor locations that was selling vector art prints of the different teams' cars.  We asked if he had anything for Team Falken and his response was hesitant - He was holding two prints for someone who was supposed to show-up the day before to purchase them, but he said if we came back in a few hours then they were ours.  

1:00PM rolls around and we make our way back over to his tent...the other person still hadn't arrived.  We ended up walking away with #2 and #4 of 100 limited prints of the 2013 Team Falken Porsche 911 RSR with special Petit Le Mans livery, driven by Sellers, Henzler and Tandy in the last ever ALMS race, which they took the win in.  Immediately, we took the prints over to the Falken rig to be autographed.  While talking to Bryan and Wolf, they actually even suggested we go find Nick at the Porsche NA rig and have him sign it as well since he was their third driver in the 10-hour race that they won.  We made a dash over to their autograph table and ended up talking to Nick for a moment, and he told us that he actually had the #1 print from that same artist!

It gets better...  While floating around the paddock during the autograph session, we ended up walking back past Falken when suddenly a rep pulls me aside.  Since I was wearing one of my pit shirts, I had a feeling that she might be upset and be asking where I got it from, or something of the likes.  Instead, I get asked if I'm a Team Falken fan and my immediate response was, "Very much so.."  She says something along the lines of, "We're going to do something for you today.." and sent us over to the other Falken rig where the wheels and tires are prepped and spare parts are kept.  We make our way over, and ask for Brad who we were told to request, and were given three passes to ride on track in the Porsche Panamera Turbo safety car!  The weekend really couldn't have gotten much better...

After our AWESOME ride, we made it back to pit lane just in time for the grid-walk.  Grid-walks are great because you not only get to be up close and personal with the cars, but the whole team and drivers, see their pit areas and insane equipment...and oh the umbrella girls...

In all seriousness though, Falken really does know how to attract the fans and is great at brand recognition.  They chose some great models this year, who were very friendly and talkative.

Love the new style BBS wheels that are fitted on the 2014 GT3 RSR.

Here you can see Bryan and the rest of the team hanging out during the grid-walk.  Wolf is hiding behind the dude in the black shirt, who wouldn't remove himself from my shot.

Even though Falken doesn't always qualify very high, they seem to have a way of fighting their way through the pack.  Bryan started the race this time around, leaving the car to be driven to the end by Wolf.  They held steady around P5 or so for awhile then started to fall back when both Team Corvette C7.R's passed eventually.

But they stayed on the hunt through traffic all the way through 'The Roller Coaster' and used their own strategy to shoot out to the front of the pack.  After a much needed yellow flag for a crash by another team, Wolf drove the car extremely mildly to conserve fuel.  By the last green flag of the race, Team Falken was P1 in class and Henzler was able to hold that position for several laps.  Unfortunately we had to leave before the end of the race, but continued listening to the broadcast on our drive home.  I sat in the back seat, thinking for sure that Falken would take the win on this one finally.  Until the very last two turns of the last lap, when the Risi Competizione Ferrari made its move on Valentina and was able to sneak on by.

Falken still went home with a second-place finish, and that was enough to be excited about.  This was a great learning opportunity for the team - For the fans, I think we were considering this a first place finish and an overall win.  Looking forward to what can be accomplished by Team Falken at Circuit of the Americas coming up in just one week.

Aston Martin also had some challenges to overcome, as their car had just arrived a few days before the race weekend and had to be put together at a nearby garage known for NASCAR builds.

Although they finished 12th in class, the car was sounding INSANE.  You could tell that there was potential left to be obtained through the chassis however, and that with more time, TRG could dial the car in more.

I wouldn't mind hanging around the TRG-AMR team a bit though...

On the subject of GTD, the Turner Motosport BMW Z4 took home first place in class.  Well deserved, as you could tell the drivers were really fighting for their spot.

It was pretty wild to see just the two classes running together actually because in the straights, the GTD cars are almost just as fast as the GTLM class.  The advantage of the GTLM cars comes through in the aerodynamics of the cars, and shows in the turns.

In fact, the SRT Motorsports GTS-R's had some interesting encounters with aerodynamics throughout the race, where at one point coming up The Roller Coaster, one of their cars had three wheels off the ground and held a wheelie for a brief moment.

Flying Lizard Motorsports had both of their Audi R8's out - Finishing in 7th and 16th places, the GTD class was clearly very competitive this season.

It's still a bit strange to see Flying Lizard running non-Porsche chassis...

One thing I wanted to be sure to mention, is that the Leader Lights System seemed to actually be working accurately this year!  It was nice to be able to keep a little better track of where everyone was in position.

Virginia International Raceway is straight-up just a beautiful track.  It's clean and laid out great - It makes sense, and is great for spectators. We ended up camping out Saturday night with ease, and woke up to GTLM practice on Sunday morning - A way that I wouldn't mind waking up every morning.

The BMW Team RLL Z4's are insanely fast this year, and held P3 and P4 strong for a majority of the race.

They really know how to be strategic and work off of each other through traffic.  Due to the short wheelbase of the Z4's, they can really dash in and out of the turns nimbly.  

At least the Corvettes look a little cooler this year with their C7.R chassis.

I really enjoyed hanging out at Turn 1 and watching the cars come down from 180+ MPH to make that turn.
No Flex Zone.

Really digging this shot of the Flying Lizard R8.

The driver of this GTD Porsche kept on it while his rear bumper was hanging on by a thread.  We watched on for several laps as he went by and thinking for sure that the bumper would fall off at any second.  But it appeared to hold on until a stop in the pits when I'm sure they just ripped it off.

It was cool to see such a large amount of team entries and new liveries this year.

I thought this was pretty cool - An R8 with a Paul Reed Smith Guitars sponsor, as their factory is just over the Bay Bridge, and about 45 minutes away from us.

Aside from the United Sportscar Championship that weekend, there was also Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge, Lamborghini Super Trofeo, Maserati Super Trofeo, and Cooper Tires Prototype Mazda Lites races going on.  I wasn't expecting so much to be going on, and it was really cool to see the PC practices go to Lamborghini races, which lead into the Maserati racing.  While walking through the Maserati Paddock, we spotted this Maserati MC12 Corsa.

Congrats Risi Competizione for taking home first place in the GTLM class, and stealing it away from Falken...
See you at COTA... ;)


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