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.And that's when it all went wrong. In midfield (again) after changing drivers, Neiman was caught up in a classic restart concertina, dodging a slowing GT car only to be collected from behind by David Tucker's Riley-BMW. The consequent stop for bodywork repair dropped the Lizards off the lead lap…and worse was to come barely 10 laps later. Neiman speared off the road at the infield kink – and again it was a close encounter of the GT kind that was to blame.
“Three cars spun right in front of me,” he explains. “One went to the right, one went to the left and one was in the middle of the track. The only way to avoid them was to go into the infield.”
Then, as Neiman returned to the conventional racing surface, the Riley's nose caught the lip of the pavement, damaging its splitter and radiator.
Some 35 agonizing minutes and 18 laps later, the Lizards were flying again. With realistic hopes of victory gone, the new goal was to make up as much of their deficit as possible in a bid to finish in the top 10.
At least the team's task was greatly simplified. The drivers had to go as fast as was practical, while the team took every opportunity to regain those lost laps. But still, it was anything but a carefree romp.
“It's tough going down that many laps so early,” explains Long. “We still had a really fast car, and we were trying to get our laps back and, maybe get into the top 10. At the same time, though, we had to be disciplined, not abuse the car and also respect the cars still running for the win.”
“When you're running up front, your decisions are based on, ‘How do I keep this lead?' and ‘How do I stay on the lead lap?'” says Thomas Bam, team strategist. “Once we were 19 or 20 laps down, it's, ‘How many laps can we get back?' We were never under any illusions about getting them all back, but for a while we were on a pretty good roll. By hour six or seven we'd made up four or five of the laps. We needed a ton of cautions, which we were getting. But as always happens in long-distance races, everybody settles down at some point.”
One caution the Lizards could have done without was the endless full course yellow for fog around dawn, which effectively turned the race into the Rolex 21 at Daytona. The Riley-Porsche's speed undiminished following the restart, Bergmeister turned successive laps at 1min40.9sec and 1min40.8sec around 10 p.m., van Overbeek produced a 40.5 in the wee hours of the morning and Long a 40.9 after the fog lifted; this in a race where only one other car dipped below 1min41sec. That was the victorious Ganassi Riley-BMW of Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, Graham Rahal and Joey Hand, which only accomplished the feat twice – and neither time did it beat FLM's fastest.
In the end, even a finish eluded the Flying Lizards. An oil fire erupted two hours shy of the checkered flag while the car was lying 11th and Bergmeister parked the fastest car in the race in the infield.
“We were a real wild card – a new team to the class, without years of experience with this chassis,” Long says, “but we believe in this team and I think we held our own against teams with lots more DP experience. It was fun to be there and we can hold our heads high.”
“Not the result we wanted,” said Bergmeister, “No new Rolex watches! Still, we made a good showing, I think.”
Who could honestly disagree?
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the March 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.