Grand Prix features diverse field

Cars of varying weight, speed on track together at event in Washington

Auto Racing

July 18, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Tom Kristensen, who will be driving an Audi prototype in the LMP 900 class this weekend in the Cadillac Grand Prix of Washington, wouldn't find it very much fun to go out on the Capital Beltway and maneuver through the traffic during rush hour.

But put him and his car on the 1.7-mile road course in the RFK Stadium parking lots with three other classes of cars all traveling at different speeds, and the man is as happy as any kid in a playground.

"In a prototype, you are constantly passing a slower car - four or seven times on the same lap," he said. "Over a 2-hour-and 45-minute race, there is a lot of action. You can never rest."

The very idea of it fills Kristensen, who will celebrate his 35th birthday Sunday, with anticipation. And his voice speeds up as if to keep pace with his mind's vision.

"You can be leading in the prototype class, but you are constantly approaching other cars on the limit of their cars," he said. "It takes very, very high concentration. The drivers of the slower cars, they have to watch their mirrors, because a small mistake can be fatal."

Professional motor racing returns to the Washington area for the first time in 20 years this weekend. And what kind of motor racing is it? It is not the familiar stock cars of the Winston Cup series or even the traditional open-wheel cars that everyone knows from the Indianapolis 500.

Instead, this Grand Prix features the sports car series that competes under the same rules as the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. Sunday's American Le Mans Series event features four classes of race cars running on the same track at the same time. Each car has at least two drivers who share the driving duties. At a race like this one, there will be at least one driver change, and it will usually be made during a fuel stop that takes about 35 seconds.

"Originally, the idea was to invite all the different kinds of cars so that there would be enough cars on the racetrack to make it interesting," said driver Frank Biela, who drives an Audi that will be competing against Kristensen. "It wouldn't be much fun to watch 10 cars in one class run a race all by themselves."

And, so, they all come together - the big Prototype 900 class with the Audi, Panoz, Riley & Scott, Lola and Ascari cars; the smaller (by weight) LMP 675 class with the AER MG, Ford, Nissan, Mazda and Volkswagen entries; the GTS (Grand Touring Sport) class featuring the cars produced by Chevrolet, Saleen, Dodge and Ferrari; and the GT (Grand Touring) class with entries from Porsche, Ferrari and Spyker.

"Traffic is a big problem," said Biela. "When you drive a 900, like we do, you are complaining about the other cars. They are always in your way. On the other hand, they are doing their own race as they are supposed to."

It is difficult to pin these drivers down on just how fast the cars in each class go. The speeds differ from racetrack to racetrack. At a really long course like Le Mans, the big prototypes can reach an average of 220 mph. On midsize tracks like the one in Sebring, Fla., the average is more like 180 or 190 mph. At smaller tracks, like the one in Washington, the top speeds may be closer to 160 or 170.

And at each of those tracks, the slowest cars in the GT class will usually run 30 to 40 mph slower than the prototypes. But when braking into a corner, that difference can be 80 mph.

"Years ago, people drove their sports cars tenderly, because they wanted to finish the races," said LMP 675 driver Joe Blacker of Ellicott City. "Now, these races are nearly three hours, and they're like Sprint races."

And on a racetrack like this new road course, there is one preferred line of travel. Everyone wants to be on it. If your car is fast and you come up on the back of someone slower who is already in that line, it is your job to find a way to make the pass.

"It definitely adds a different dimension," said Baltimore's Marc Bunting, who will compete with Team America Viper in the GTS class. "Like anything else, when you do it a while, it doesn't seem like a big deal. But you have to be alert and keep an eye in the mirror."

Bunting, 33, competes as a privateer. That means his team does not have factory backing from the car's manufacturer. But he is tied for fifth place in the GTS class in his first year in the ALMS. He describes the competitors he has faced as "quality, professional" drivers. And he said he is delighted that, for the first time in his lifetime, area fans are being offered a chance to see what this kind of racing is about.

"The key on the racetrack is to hold your racing line when someone comes up on you to make a pass," he said. "You want to be consistent. If you hold your line, the [faster] car usually gets by without a problem. And they're usually somewhat considerate. Most won't cut you off."

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