Petit Le Mans 2011 was enough of a barn burner to begin with. It wrapped the 2011 American Le Mans Series season while also playing host to the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, and understandably, it could be difficult to focus on all the aspects that made the race fascinating.
The LMP Challenge category featured battles for the class win as well as the class championship, a waging bout between Gunnar Jeannette and Ricardo Gonzalez of CORE autosport and Eric Lux at Genoa Racing. Myriad situations played out before the checkered flag flew and the two teams were still tied. Every conceivable tiebreaker had played out and after nine rounds, nothing separated the two driving squads.
To say that ending in a tie for the drivers' title was viewed as a disappointment at the time for CORE autosport proves just how successful its debut season in ALMS was. And with the hindsight of time, the result made the year that much sweeter.
Less than a year earlier, CORE was only announcing its intention to move up to ALMS from the IMSA Prototype Lites, where team principal and co-driver Jon Bennett had honed his craft.
“From an ego perspective, we were always in the back of the paddock, and we weren't really ‘the show,'” Bennett explains. “I really wanted to jump into ALMS, and the question was where did we go in class. I was always a fan of prototypes, and (team manager) Morgan Brady was convinced LMPC was great way to gain experience and learn endurance racing. The budget for an LMPC effort stays in proportion for what makes sense financially.”
Bennett caught the racing bug at a young age, but had to temper his enthusiasm because the finances weren't there to make it happen directly. Therefore, he made the decision to get the finances together first in putting his mechanical engineering degree to use in starting his business, Composite Resources. The CORE name is a portmanteau of Composite (CO) and Resources (RE), based on his interests in composites, composite material and prior aerospace work.
On the racing side, Brady became available following the demise of the ill-fated USF1 effort. Brady was faced with about as wide a gap in organizations as could happen when given the opportunity to join CORE.
“We were very lucky to find Morgan Brady when we did, as he was an engineer with USF1,” Bennett says. “I caught him right between the end of that and an offer he had to work with Roger Penske. Luckily for me, he elected to be a big fish in my small organization, as opposed to a small fish in a huge one.”
Brady oversees the team at race weekends, leaving Bennett to focus on the dream job: driving one of the team's LMPC entries. The team procured the ex-Level 5 Motorsports ORECA FLM09s, which won the 2010 LMPC class championship.
The others added to the program in 2011 from the driving side included Jeannette, Gonzalez and Frankie Montecalvo (Bennett's co-driver). As Jeannette explains, there were a lot of talented leftover parts and pieces from the 2010 LMPC season which didn't have a home as Level 5 moved up and his colleague in Green Earth Team Gunnar moved on for 2011.
“We knew Christian (Zugel) was going to Genoa from Petit 2010,” Jeannette says. “We had a number of people who wanted to keep working together, shop around and figure out our best option. That was myself, Frankie, some mechanics and Mark Schomann, our engineer. Speaking to Ricardo, we wanted to do something and had this group that wanted somewhere to go. We heard about what CORE was doing, and sent Morgan an e-mail in mid-to-late December to start talking. After visiting, everyone got more and more psyched.”
Gonzalez ran the second half of 2010 in LMPC after starting in GTC, and served as a perfect counterpart to Jeannette (ABOVE). He had been out of racing for seven years before.
“For me, it was getting to know the car and the limits of the LMPC car,” he says. “The GTC cars have very low downforce. It was a matter of getting used to it again because I was used to driving high downforce (formula) cars.”
Ryan Dalziel and Rudy Junco Jr. joined the team as third drivers at the 12 Hours of Sebring. While many of the pieces in place at CORE had prior sports car experience, as a cohesive unit, it featured some initial growing pains as they worked in unison for the first time.
Only Bennett, of the team's six drivers at Sebring, was making his ALMS debut. “Morgan told me, ‘Your job the next four months is going from being in shape, to becoming an athlete!'
“I didn't want to create an international incident!” Bennett jokes about Sebring. “I had to take a measured approach, and that kept us out of trouble and moved us up. When evening came, I felt more comfortable. At Sebring, you learn quick what it's like to have an Audi or Peugeot go by under a bridge, and work from there.”
The team recorded a double podium finish in second and third on debut, and while Schomann left to pursue another opportunity at Risi Ferrari, CORE netted its first win a race later on the streets of Long Beach with Jeannette and Gonzalez.
“We were just on that weekend,” Jeannette says. “Quickest in practice, on pole and won with fastest race lap – my first grand slam. For whatever reason, everything worked.”
There were more changes in the two-plus months downtime between Long Beach and the second half of the season. Tom Brown joined Burke Harrison on the engineering side and the team tested two days at Road America to set itself up for the seven-race stretch run. A win at Lime Rock eluded them before the team's first 1-2 finish, Jeannette and Gonzalez ahead, at Mosport in July.
“Mosport we dominated, with me starting...I did and left it in a nice position for Gunnar; I was very happy with my performance there,” Gonzalez says of what he considered his best drive of 2011.
Bennett largely agrees: “Winning as an owner, and standing on the podium as second step as a driver, was great but with a twist of jealousy! I had great teammates – but you obviously want to win. Still, I was happy during the year we never had to make any artificial changes, we just let the results fall naturally.”
They fell naturally, but they also fell statistically as the summer months progressed. Jeannette notes the single specification of tires Michelin provides for the class, while still durable, weren't able to run as far on stints in 2011 as in 2010. Additionally, several mechanical issues saw the team not win a race the rest of the year, with potential victories go begging on several occasions.
A power steering issue cost the 06 car 12 laps at Sebring, and the car made up six of them to finish third. A throttle position sensor went off at Baltimore, and finally the twists and turns struck at Petit with an early off-course excursion for Gonzalez and later an accessory belt in the engine that broke when Jeannette was driving. His recovery to make it back to the pit lane was rather miraculous.
“We finished the others in limp mode, and the crew on the 06 car handled everything thrown at them absolutely awesome,” Jeannette says. “Particularly at Petit. The Katech engine guy was there, and they all said there was no way to change without the belt off. But we said, ‘Screw it, we're getting this thing off!' We were only down 25 minutes.
“When Ricardo got shoved off, honestly it did not faze me at all. I knew we had plenty of time to make it up. And it was same when I was in the car and the belt went, literally right through Turn 11. Right past start/finish I shut it off as the way to get back in going down pit out. It took some quick thinking. Those things made the difference in the championship; if we finished sixth instead of third, they would have ended up winning.”
So it ended with the No. 06 Jeannette/Gonzalez car and Lux, who co-drove with Elton Julian most of the year in the No. 63 Genoa car, square on 156 points with the exact same results in nine races. That left the Bennett/Montecalvo car second in the drivers' standings and CORE winners in the team championship by a single point.
Come 2012, the team moves into its all-new, purpose-built 30,000 square-foot facility by the end of this month, just next door to the Composite Resources parent company in Rock Hill, S.C.
A two-car LMPC program continues with Bennett, unsurprisingly, confirming himself for one seat and hinting the driver lineup should be fairly similar. Jeannette says his intention is to return with CORE, while Gonzalez says he is “exploring all options” but doesn't have any motivation to leave the team. The championship-winning pairing had good chemistry and would look to continue it.
“Considering in mid-December none of us had anything, Jon told us they could have had a real tough year without our guys,” Jeannette says. “Being able to put our strengths together as a focused effort made it awesome and fun.”
Bennett continues the program throughout the off-season to keep continuity and the team's staff of 15 full-time employees at work.
“We've always looked at the program as a 12-months-a-year operation and funded it that way,” he says. “Guys who were full-time in August are in December and January, too. That was a thing I couldn't believe about the business of racing, is that a lot of teams send everyone home for three or four months. They don't make a lot to start with then have to come back after temp stuff. Fortunately for me, there's a couple I could bring into the manufacturing business. No one likes to have their paycheck pulled for three or four months.”
CORE's title defense begins next March at Sebring as the team looks to add a win in the 12 Hours of Sebring to its already stout résumé.