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ALMS: Virginia International Raceway, Race Report

Make it 8 in a row for the Muscle Milk Racing team, and the 49th ALMS win for Lucas Luhr. The Dyson Lola gave them a great battle, and with Guy Smith behind the wheel the Lola was actually the faster car. But better pit strategy from the team at Muscle Milk put Luhr in the lead with a gap the Smith could not overcome.

The start was fairly clean, but Wolf Henzler in the Falken Porsche got pushed off in to the grass and had to pit shortly to clean the front grill. This would really be a non-factor as they were able to stay on the lead lap and with the upcoming caution periods able to get back in the mix.

Mowlem led the field into and through turn #1, but Klaus Graf quickly disposed of him and took the lead. Graf steadily built his lead up to over 10 seconds, but a yellow flag for debris on lap 6 erased his cushion. Graf was able to lap quicker than Mowlem, but Mowlem kept his head down and kept Graf within reach. Contact with another car put Graf off course allowing Mowlem to retake the lead. Mowlem would hold the lead until he pitted to hand the car over to Guy Smith. After driver changes Luhr regained the overall lead with quicker pit work, but Smith was closing the gap. After a brief nose to tail battle, Smith was able to draft by Luhr on the back straightaway. It was a great race up front, as Smith could not pull away from Luhr, until a series of caution periods separated the cars.

Meanwhile, back in PC points leader Mike Guasch had to go behind the wall with mechanical problems. The repairs took them about 10 laps to complete and cost Guasch the chance to wrap up the driver’s title this weekend. Chris Cumming had a great start from his 3rd place grid position and took over the class lead on the first lap. Cumming drove a flawless stint and was able to hand the car over to Marcelli while still in the lead. Jon Bennett slipped back to 3rd while the other Bar1 car with James French aboard held 2nd.

P2 saw both the Level 5 cars upfront with Tucker leading Johansson through the early stages of the race. Lazzaro followed in the ESM entry but lost a little time after contact with one of the PC cars. Debris from left from the contact was the cause of the first yellow flag. There was a scary moment for Johannes van Overbeek during their first pit stop as he took over for Ed Brown. A fire ignited behind van Overbeek during the refueling just as he got settled into the seat. The unaware driver was engulfed in flames for a split second. Luckily the ESM crew was quick with the extinguishers and no one was injured. The car however would retire the very next lap.

GT was its typical nose to tail battle right from the drop of the flag. Beretta started in the #62 had the Risi Ferrari out front early with both Vipers and BMWs in tow. The Vipers had a very strong start, and Wittmer soon caught, and passed Beretta for the lead. As the first hour closed the BMW’s faded a bit, and the Corvettes got stronger. The #55 BMW lost more time during a yellow flag pit stop when the driver’s door would not close. The early yellow shuffled the running order as not all GT cars pitted. Henzler parlayed their very early out of sequence stop to stay out while others pitted and found himself in the lead of GT for a spell.
Ben Keating took advantage of his teammate Faulkner’s great qualifying run and kept the #66 TRG Porsche in the front of the GTC class for his entire stint. He was able to withstand constant pressure from NGT and Flying LIzard entries and recovered from a quick off in the turn #14 complex.

The middle portion of the race was dominated by two back to back fairly lengthy caution periods. These would prove to be very influential in the outcome of the race. The first was for, of all things, a grass fire in the run-off area just outside of the oak tree turn. Just a few laps prior, the #44 Lizard Porsche went off there and apparently deposited some very hot fluid, or debris, which eventually set the grass ablaze. The caution came out and most all pitted as expected, with just over an hour of time remaining, except for the #16 car. Luhr was able to get full service and get back out with the course still under caution, with only one car separating himself and Smith. This decision by Dyson not to pit would ultimately cost them a shot at winning this race.

The race went green again but didn’t even complete one full lap before we had a major accident. Coming up through the high speed esses Holzer in the #48 GT Porsche and Cisneros in the #30 GTC Porsche touched side to side which sent them both straight off the pavement. Both cars hit the tire barriers violently. The #48 ricocheted between the barriers and shot back across the track in pieces. Meanwhile the #30 bounced up over the first barrier, flipping end over end, finally landing on top of the 2nd tire barrier. Amazingly. the #30 landed on it wheels and both drivers walked away, shaken but not broken. The Porsche’s of each however were a total loss. The second lengthy full course caution period ensued.

This time Dyson brought Smith in for his final service but he was one of only a few that pitted so when he returned to join the queue, nearly the entire field separated him from the overall leader, Lucas Luhr. Smith was still quickest of the two, but not by enough to overcome a deficit of that size. The Muscle Milk team responded to the challenge presented this weekend by Dyson Racing with another solid performance.

Once the caution periods cleared the and the race entered its final run toward the checker, the class pictures became clearer.

Scott Sharp worked his way up into the lead briefly in P2, but Briscoe was just to strong over the long run and took the lead for good with about 45 minutes remaining. Sharp battled Cosmo, then Franchitti, and was able to secure a 2nd place finish for his team, splitting the Level 5 cars. The win widened Scott Tucker’s lead over Sharp in the driver’s championship and and secured the team championship for Level 5.

Once the PR1 Mathiasen entry fell out of the PC battle, the #8 of Bar1 almost ran the gamut untouched. Marcelli took the car over in lead and never looked back. The class win here at VIR gave the team back to back victories. Kimber-Smith and CORE Autosport finished 2nd in class and the last spot on the podium went to the #7 Bar1 of Mitchell & French. Guasch and Cameron were able to salvage the day by getting the car back in the race and finishing 5th in class. By completing more than the minimum 70% of laps they will earn championship points.

Smart driving and even smarter pit strategy put the #06 CORE Porsche out in front of the GT class following the cautions. They were far from the quickest car on track, but with Patrick Long behind the wheel he would prove to be very difficult to pass. Malucelli in the quicker Risi Ferrari caught up to Long but getting around him was a different story. Long, in what could be one of his best drives in recent memory, used every bit of the track and every ounce that 911 had in it, to keep Malucelli at bay lap after lap. Malucelli finally used the superior speed of the Ferrari to get by Long on the back straight. Malucelli would go on to get a much deserved win for Risi team. Behind Long, their was such a heated battle between the Corvettes and BMWs that neither was able to make up any ground on the front two. Long was able to hold on to 2nd place in GT which was a fantastic result for new competition partner of Porsche.

The fight for positions 3 through 6 were as good as it gets. Going into the final minutes it was Magnussen in 3rd, followed by Milner, Muller and Martin. Team Corvette was desperately trying to clinch the team and manufacturer titles, and to gain points for Magnussen/Garcia in the driver’s championship. At the same time BMW was trying its hardest to spoil the GM party and keep Muller in the title hunt as well. Milner was doing his best to protect his wingman up front but was under attack from both black and white Z4’s. There was bumping, rubbing and smoking of tires, but by the time the BMW’s finally scratched their way by Milner, the race was winding down and Magnussen had built a small gap. Corvette was able clinch both the team and manufacturer championships. The Vipers slid to the back of the class as the #91 suffered from and stop-and-go penalty and the #93 had their hood come loose causing them to run off course.

It was flag to flag in GTC for the #66 TRG machine in the hands of Keating and Faulkner. The TRG car has been fast all weekend it proved to be so also in the race. Bleekemolen and Edwards would finish 2nd & 3rd respectively and were able to run with Faulkner at the end, but didn’t have enough to close the gap. This win follows a win two weeks ago at COTA giving the TRG group back to back class victories.

It was a great race weekend here at VIR. The ALMS won’t be back, but the new United Sportscar Racing Championship will and VIR will greet them with a host of improvements. A complete repaving of the racing surface, widening of the track in certain areas and other improvements are scheduled for this winter. But the ALMS still has one more round to go, the big one; the Petit LeMans.

Russell Wittenberg