Consider the wild cards in the 2011 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the teams with no plans to chase the Grand-Am Rolex Series title or contest more than a handful of races (if that). Inevitably, they arrive at Daytona International Speedway with a pretty thin notebook of car setups and tire data, not to mention staff who are light on experience at working together around the clock – at least compared to veteran heavyweights like two-time series champions Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing.
At least that's usually the case. Now consider Flying Lizard Motorsports. A team steeped in history, with championships in the American Le Mans Series, a trio of top-six finishes at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and a podium in the Rolex 24…but all in GT competition. Imagine the Lizards making their Daytona Prototype debut in the Rolex 24. Now imagine making that debut from pole position…implausible, yes, but not impossible, as Riley-Porsche No. 45 proved.
Part of the secret lies in the fact that Flying Lizard's boss Seth Neiman worked a deal with Grand-Am boss Jim France to acquire the Riley-Porsche that won the 2009 Rolex 24 in the hands of Brumos Racing. Some guidance from designer Bob Riley certainly helped Lizard's chief engineer Craig Watkins, whose experience was also augmented by new arrival, Steve Conover. His résumé includes an extensive number of prototype entries.
And don't forget a driver lineup featuring Jorg Bergmeister (ABOVE), Patrick Long, Johannes van Overbeek and Neiman. That would be the Bergmeister who won the 2006 Rolex Series title in Krohn Racing's Riley-Ford (and so the last DP champion not cashing checks autographed by Ganassi or Stallings). That would be the Long who drove the Alex Job Crawford-Porsche to several wins – some while paired with Bergmeister – in '06 and '07.
The combination of engineering smarts, driving ability and experience, seasoned with a welcome dose of mechanical reliability, saw the Lizards go from strength to strength at Daytona.
After an encouraging test in early January, the FLM's Riley-Porsche turned a 1:40.778sec in prequalifying practice, third quickest. But the Lizards were just getting started, as Bergmeister lopped a staggering 0.7sec off that time to pip the SunTrust Dallara-Chevrolet to pole.
“Patrick and I have a lot of Daytona Prototype experience,” says Bergmeister. “We've been mainly driving GT cars the past few years, but it only takes a few laps to get reacquainted with the prototype. And we know what these cars need to feel like. The team had a steep learning curve but they did a great job. We kept improving the car more and more. It was really good on the brakes. Then for qualifying we improved again.”
And didn't stop. Any thoughts the opposition may have entertained about Bergmeister's qualifying run being a one-lap wonder were zapped within moments of the green flag. The German timed the start to perfection, handily led the field around the first lap and then checked out.
“It was so fast!” enthuses Bergmeister. “Very good on the brakes, yes, but also we were really getting off the corners well. Later, I could see other cars struggling to put the power down out of the hairpins. We were running taller gears, I think, so we put the power down without too much wheelspin. That helped on the long runs. We all set some of our fastest laps at the end of the stints.”
Indeed. Bergmeister stopped the clocks at 1:40.417 on lap 22, while enjoying a 15sec lead on the SunTrust entry. Although most teams double-stinted their drivers in the opening hours, the Lizards did not. So even after the order cycled through following Bergmeister's lap 28 hand-off to Long, the Riley-Porsche found itself in traffic. Lapping in the high 41s and low 42s, the American clawed his way back to second place before yielding to Neiman on lap 54.