Drivers baking, but praise rains down

Course, organization for Grand Prix event in D.C. draw accolades

July 20, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The schedule for the Cadillac Grand Prix said the newly built racetrack would open for practice at 9 a.m. yesterday, but hardly anyone believed the brightly painted sports cars that make up this weekend's race field would really roll onto the track on time.

But they did. And it was the first of many questions that were answered as the blazing sun beat down on the asphalt.

"We've done a lot of first-time races building this series," said Ron Fellows, who drives a Corvette in the GTS class of the American Le Mans Series. "This has never happened before. To start on time reflects the professionalism that they've had here.

"They've built a world-class street circuit. When you look around and you see the grandstands, the suites, the JumboTron screens, you see the quality and I've got to believe no one could do a better job than this."

They were the first of many kind words teams had for this 1.7-mile road course that has been constructed in the parking lots of RFK Stadium for this weekend's Grand Prix that will feature the ALM, Trans Am, World Challenge and Star Mazda Series.

Even crusty, veteran sportswriter Chris Economaci, who has covered all forms of motor- sports for 60 years, said: "It must be some kind of record for this venue to open on time. First-time street races never do."

Another prevailing question was whether the track would hold up in the heat under the pounding it took during the practice and qualifying sessions for the heavier Trans Am cars.

The answer to that was also a relieved yes. Formulated with polymers, a very expensive additive, the track asphalt is supposed to maintain its integrity under extreme conditions, like those seen here.

"We're just going to keep our fingers crossed," said Scott Atherton, president of the Panoz Motor Sports Group that operates the American Le Mans Series.

Sitting in a comfortable lawn chair under an awning, Fellows, 42, was absorbing the stifling heat, acclimating himself to the city's climate. He wasn't doing it because he necessarily wanted to, but because it was necessary.

Unlike drivers competing in the LMP 900 and 675 classes, the car Fellows drives has a roof and an engine in the front of the car producing 600-plus horsepower and all the heat you would imagine that kind of power generates.

That heat tends to radiate right into the area of the car where Fellows sits.

"Our guys work hard to insulate the area," he said. "They insulate the fire wall, the driver's compartment and the header system, and we have a cool-box system to try to force cool air into the helmet.

"But this course is surrounded by concrete walls, so very little air gets in and the surface is jet black. Even if it is relatively pleasant, in the 80s, on race day, it still will be uncomfortable in the car. I think dealing with the heat is the biggest concern I have."

Fellows said his cockpit temperature yesterday rose to about 140 degrees.

"Thank goodness, I don't have a roof," said Johnny Herbert, who drives the third car in the Audi stable and turned the fastest lap during practice at 92.981 mph. "It gets to about 120 in my car and that's hot enough."

Herbert's face was still bright red when he left the media center after talking about his lap.

"This is the best start we've ever had," he said. "But it's how fast we go tomorrow [today] during qualifying that counts."

Herbert and the other two Audi cars led both the morning and afternoon sessions, running one, two, three. Frank Biela and his partner, Emanuele Pirro, were the fastest in the morning with a lap at 92.224 mph and second fastest in the afternoon at 92.665 mph.

Biela noted that while other track developers had done less than perfect jobs building temporary road courses, "There are no compromises here. This is a very good, very professional racetrack."

The Corvette of Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins led the morning practice in the GTS class at 84.095 mph. Later in the day, Fellows and his co-driver, Johnny O'Connell, were edged, 84.865 to 84.681, by Franz Konrad and Terry Borcheller in a Saleen S7R.

Fellows sees his main competition coming from Pilgrim and Collins, though he said even before Konrad and Borcheller outhustled him around the track that the Saleen team has worked hard to become a major factor.

"It is the same in most forms of racing," said Fellows, a multitalented driver who competes in everything from the Winston Cup Series to the Craftsman Truck Series on his off weekends. "There are usually three, four or five cars that pretty much duke it out on a weekly basis. It's no different here."

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