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PRUETT: Sports car racing's come a long way at Long Beach
Bryan Herta was still a driver, three years away from becoming an Indy 500-winning team owner. Pat Long was a Porsche prototype driver for Roger Penske. Flying Lizard Motorsports fielded three GT2 Porsches. Lucas Luhr was a factory Audi pilot and his teammates Frank Biela and Marco Werner had yet to retire. Corvette Racing was well-versed in racing among themselves in GT1. Team owner Greg Loles had yet to be arrested, sentenced or convicted.
We've come a long way since the 2008 American Le Mans Series race at Long Beach, Round 3 during a season that many rank as the pinnacle of ALMS competition. With the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship set to hold its first event at the site of America's most successful street race, it's worth looking back at the event that delivered one of the most exciting finishes since sports car joined the bill with Indy cars on Shoreline Drive.
The 2007 season was nothing short of brilliant, but it was a tweak to the P1 rules for 2008 which led to a reduction in speed and allowed factory P2 efforts from Acura and Porsche to beat the brutish Audi diesels at numerous tracks. What had been two clearly separated classes became one big pile of prototypes at most rounds. Only the tracks with long straights that allowed the P1 cars to stretch their legs could keep the P2 cars from nipping at their heels.
The German's V12-powered R10s were the class of the P1 field at most circuits, but on Long Beach's tight and twisting layout, Audi's dragsters were seriously challenged the superior braking and cornering offered by Acura's ARX-01bs and Porsche's RS Spyders.
Audi's Lucas Luhr and Marco Werner would lead home a 1-2 for the Four Rings, just four seconds ahead of the top P2 car. The Audis put on a great show, but the real excitement came in the P2 class as David Brabham pulled off a paint-and-bodywork-shedding pass on the penultimate lap to claim Acura's first victory. Brabs' win for Highcroft Racing came at the expense of Penske Racing's Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas, yet with Honda Performance Development located less than an hour away from Long Beach, the roughhouse tactic were quickly forgotten as HPD celebrated the home win.
Tafel Racing pulled off surprising back-to-back wins to open the season thanks to an incredible drive by Dirk Muller, Dominik Farnbacher, and a gutsy strategy call by team manager/strategist Tony Dowe. Muller's drag race to lead Flying Lizard Motorsports' Wolf Henzler over the line by 0.102sec seems just as unfathomable today as it did six years ago.
Despite racing at Long Beach since the 1980s, Johnny O'Connell scored his first victory in 2008 while partnered with Jan Magnussen at Corvette Racing, and with the ALMS' three-class structure, 28 cars took the start and 26 finished.
Amazing cars, amazing drives and a memorable event for all who witnessed the ALMS put on a whale of a show. Sadly, due to the economy turning sour late in 2008, the volume of manufacturers diminished for 2009, as did the number of entries. The addition of the GTC and PC classes would help the ALMS to rebound, but the damage done by the recession is clear when we run through the sobering list of teams from the 2008 event that have withdrawn from sports car racing or shut down altogether.
Andretti-Green Racing, Autocon Motorsports, B-K Racing, Champion Racing (Audi Sport), Corsa Motorsports, Farnbacher Loles Racing, Fernandez Racing, Highcroft Racing, Intersport Racing, LG Motorsports, Penske Racing, Primetime Race Group, PTG, Robertson Racing, Tafel Racing and VICI Racing are no longer in existence or have shifted their focus elsewhere.
In fact, of those who competed in the 2008 ALMS event at Long Beach, only three teams – Corvette Racing, Flying Lizard Motorsports and Risi Competizione – will line up for this weekend's Tequila Patrón Sports Car Showcase.
A similar number of defunct teams can be cited from Grand-Am's lone run at Long Beach in 2006, and the count of three teams – Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates Racing, Michael Shank Racing and Spirit of Daytona – is identical for those who raced Daytona Prototypes eight years ago and will take part in Saturday's 100-minute event.
Hopefully, the TUDOR Championship writes a positive first chapter for itself this weekend in Southern California.
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