In what was one of the more dominant overall wins in recent years in the American Le Mans Series, Muscle Milk Pickett Racing led the entirety of the third round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr took the team's HPD ARX-03a to its second win of 2012 and first at its home race, as the team is based in nearby Benicia, Calif., about two hours north of the track.
One of the keys, Graf said, was maintaining a two-driver lineup for the six-hour race rather than adopting a third and trying to integrate one into the rotation. Additionally, with its remaining P1 class rival Dyson Racing incurring several issues throughout the race, it could have been easy to lose focus instead of maintain the rhythm.
The only real issue came when Chris Dyson appeared to jump the initial start, and Graf didn't have the opportunity to pace the field from the outset. He re-passed him a couple corners later, but explained the start was one of the bigger issues.
“It was a pretty ugly start,” Graf said. “Last time I looked I was the pole leader and I set the pace, I think he jumped the start, race control probably thought he let me through at (Turn) 3 but that really wasn't it, so I had to take it.”
Luhr, who drove the middle double stint, left immediately after the race to head to the airport to take a red-eye flight to New Jersey for Sunday's Rolex Series race. The Muscle Milk team ran three sets of Michelin's street softs for the entirety of qualifying and the race, so each stint was a double stint and for a total of 249 laps (242 race, 7 qualifying), the same as they ran in Long Beach.
GT also had a great battle – per usual – between several different manufacturers. In the end, Corvette Racing took its second straight win with the combination of Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner after overcoming several slower pit stops.
Much of the race was spent recovering that time after fueling problems and at least one stop where the team had an issue securing the left rear tire. Still, Gavin and Milner were relentless to fight back. Gavin passed Wolf Henzler, who was on a different strategy for the Team Falken Tire Porsche squad, to secure the lead and take the victory.
“It was so tight in our class, you could never let off and think ‘I'm alright now,'” Gavin said. “I had a few close calls in the pit box, and maybe a P2 in the blend line coming out of pit lane. And then Wolf passing me for the lead, he was hard but fair, he gave me just enough room to get by. I managed to sneak by a lot of people, but we managed to catch all the breaks.”
Milner – whose lone disappointment of the day was the fact his Washington Capitals NHL squad lost a Game 7 to the New York Rangers – has now doubled his career ALMS win total with his second in as many races.
“The car really was one of the best race cars I've ever had,” he said. “I knew it would be tough to make it back to the front there. From first on back to 6th the cars were so competitive. Passing is pretty difficult and I knew I had to bide my time, be careful in many situations. I had a few close calls and a little contact, but beyond that we got up to third or fourth and gave it over to Oliver and he took it to the finish.”
It was a one-two finish with the sister Corvette of Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia behind, then the two BMW Team RLL M3s led by the No. 55 of Jorg Muller and Bill Auberlen.
Magnussen made two sets of stellar moves, the first coming when he followed Muller through after they'd both passed the fading Henzler at Turn 11, and then moving to the outside down the front straight to secure the move. Later, after falling behind Auberlen, Magnussen followed a P2 car through to make the move into Turn 2.
The sister BMW, the No. 56 of Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller, finished fourth after losing its rear bumper during the race. Hand said afterwards the car lost a lot of aero, and he struggled to hold the rest of the GT field at bay as a result. Extreme Speed's No. 01 Ferrari finished fifth ahead of two Porsches, the No. 45 Flying Lizard car and Falken car.
While the GT race ran to its usual illustrious standards, the best finish came from PC. Colin Braun made a three-wide pass to the outside of Bruno Junqueira and a GTC Porsche at Turn 10 to score CORE autosport's third win in as many races this year.
“I was racing Bruno, and I knew I had to push really hard,” said Braun. “I knew I had to set him up in traffic and that was going to be the only way I could get by. He went one way, and I went the other and it turned out right for me. I knew I was going to find a way around Bruno, somehow.”
The win was the first for Braun and co-driver and team principal Jon Bennett in their respective ALMS driving careers. Junqueira recorded RSR Racing's first podium finish in class along with co-drivers Tomy Drissi and Roberto Gonzalez, with the sister CORE car driven by Alex Popow and Tom Kimber-Smith third in class. A rather chaotic finish left Kyle Marcelli, who had led late in the going for Merchant Services Racing, and Butch Leitzinger, who had been tapped by another PC car earlier in the race, both stranded in the gravel and taken out of contention despite strong races.
Level 5 Motorsports took the P2 win with Scott Tucker, Luis Diaz and Franck Montagny and finished second overall as the No. 95 HPD ARX-03b was the only car in class to not encounter some type of issue. Still, the day wasn't completely clean as Montagny's attempt to thread the needle in passing the JDX Racing GTC Porsche ended with contact between the two cars at pit in. Montagny, at the time, was driving the sister No. 055 Level 5 entry which Tucker had been nominated to score points in.
“To be honest, in the 055 car, I didn't see it coming,” Montagny said. “I was just following Scott, I overtook a beautiful gold car and he hit me in the rear, then I was in the wall, and I was not so happy. Especially for a team like this, you don't feel good when things like that happen.”
Montagny had still engaged in a good battle with Conquest Racing's Morgan Nissan, fortunate to even make the start after a freak break on a suspension part on Friday. Both cars had penalties but were the class of the field. Dempsey Racing's quest for a P2 podium on debut ended P4 after a late off, and Patrick Dempsey's ALMS driving debut included a spin at the Corkscrew but was otherwise uneventful.
GTC ended with The Racers' Group capturing its first win of 2012, with drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen, Emilio di Guida and Bret Curtis. Bleekemolen's prior ALMS wins had all come with Black Swan Racing.
The series has its annual summer break from now until Lime Rock Park in July, although several teams will make the voyage to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.