It's the Petit Le Mans 10-hour race weekend at Road Atlanta. Now in its 17th running, the event has established itself as one of the major endurance races in North America. At this final meet of the inaugural Tudor United Sports Car Championship (TUSCC), titles are at stake in every class.
Canadian-based AIM Autosport compete in the GT Daytona class and are locked in a three-way battle with Turner BMW's Z4 and Alex Job Racing's 911 for top team, manufacturer and driver. AIM's Ferrari 458 Italia GT Grand Am has netted them championships in the Rolex Grand Am series for the last two years (manufacturer, driver, and team in 2012, manufacturer in 2013). With the driver pairing of Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler, AIM are currently third after 12 races and have within their grasp the "championship within a championship"—the Patron North America Endurance Cup—which goes to the highest points-scorer in the season's four long-haul competitions. For this weekend, the teams take on a third driver; AIM have chosen Formula Drift star and Ferrari clientele coach, Conrad Grunewald.
The cars take to the track for their first practice session on a warm, humid Thursday morning. A new visitor to Road Atlanta may be surprised by a lack of attendance at the three wooden bleachers lining the main straight, an uncharacteristic sight at most other tracks. But many people are camping along the perimeter. Others have their chairs staked out at Spectator Hill, catching a superb view of the Esses, which is a prime spot for overtaking.
At the end of the session, AIM are in 13th position, 0.7 of a second down on eighth-place Turner BMW, the current championship leader. Top spot is a position AIM have held for most of this season and are now fighting to regain.
"This is not normal for us," says co-owner Andrew Bordin as his techs sweat over the No. 555 Revo-branded 458. "We've never worked so hard just to get into the top 10. We're used to winning races and championships."
This reversal of fortune has come about because of something called the Balance of Performance (BoP), a rule intended to prevent any one team and/or manufacturer dominating a season. An International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) committee allows either enhancements such as more downforce and greater revs, or imposes extra ballast and aerodynamic restrictions. Ferrari chose more power at Daytona and that—combined with subsequent good fortune regarding pit strategies and consistency in long races—has obliged the Italian marque to swallow the lower downforce/extra weight medicine as the season winds up. While the results could be attributed more to brain than brawn, the BoP changes remain.
The difference is clearly visible when the Ferrari is parked near any one of the six Porsches that have qualified higher. The Stuttgart machines deploy much larger rear wings, plus large front dive planes and splitters. BMW and Aston Martin also carry similar BoP advantages over the Ferrari.
As far as the difference in how the car now behaves compared with the beginning of the season, Bill Sweedler is candid. "Out of control," he says. "That's the only way to describe it." However, he admits that "endurance is an equalizer. We have to focus on teamwork, like AIM have always done. To have a shot at this championship, we need to excel in the pits and driver changes, and with other strategy calls."
Endurance races are where AIM Autosport seem to shine the most. They won their class at the opening race of the season in the 24 Hours of Daytona and finished second in the last two races, the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Six Hours of Watkins Glen.
"We tend to do pretty well in long races," Bell says. "But we can't ignore the fact that, in the last few races, our relative performance to other manufacturers has gone in the wrong direction. There's no way for us to out-drive or out-strategize that fundamental reality. It'd be nice to go into battle knife to knife. As opposed to hand to knife."
Road Atlanta provides its own particular endurance challenges. "This track probably puts a greater premium on rear tire wear than any place we've been all season," Bell says. "Talk to any team up and down the paddock in our class (and) rear tire wear is key."
Rubber is one aspect the cars have had to deal with from the get-go. In addition to providing the spec tire for all TUSCC classes (except for GTLM), Continental Tire had a specific target in the GTD class and endurance races: compounds that satisfy every team and every participating manufacturer. The company has created three: one for the wet, one especially for Daytona (to compensate for the high banking), and one for all the other circuits.
While some manufacturers are easier on rear tires (like Audi and Ferrari), Continental has achieved its goal of making one that works well in terms of performance and safety, including the rear-engine Porsches that tend to be harder on their back boots. Another endurance challenge is that the tire has to work just as well during the heat of the day as the cold of the night. Again, Continental found a solution.
During the weekend, Continental's techs check tire wear. First they scrape off any rubber pickup, then measure the remaining tread. They also take the most worn to the least worn and record the temperatures—allowing them to get a feel for how a car's overall balance affects wear—and report their findings back to the teams' engineers. If they see an excess of temperature in one position of the car, they are able to give pointers for gains in tire performance and longevity.
Saturday morning. The humidity and heat have turned to bitter cold after a rainstorm on Friday. Sixty minutes before the 10-hour race begins, the grid is opened to the public. People stream onto the track to get up close to the 51 cars. A variety of accents are heard, from Southern to German to indistinguishable. A collection of mostly overweight middle-aged men wait their turn to flash boyish grins with the Continental Tire girls. At 10:45, the fans leave the grid and Bell arrives at his car. Fifteen minutes later, he swaps his old-fashioned driver's cap for a helmet just as the announcer orders drivers to their cars. Ten minutes later, the race kicks off, accompanied by a burst of fireworks that contribute mostly smoke and more noise to the general air of excitement.
AIM start well, with Bell moving up to first during his initial stint. When Sweedler takes over, things begin to unravel. He's hit twice, both times invoking a string of expletives from the normally cool-headed driver. The second hit is especially unfortunate: a deflating rear tire at the start of a lap. A disconnected drinking hose makes Grunewald's drive unbearable. He does the shortest spell out of the three before handing it back to Bell for the night's finale.
Drama remains an unwelcome guest right up to the last lap as a 911 spins directly in front of Bell. Sweedler, now on radio duties, warns Bell to stay to the left of the imminent danger. Bell narrowly avoids the Porsche to come home in seventh. The Turner BMW finishes fourth. While AIM have finished the season in fourth (an overall win by Paul Miller's Audi R8 team forced their way into the fray), the team scored the most endurance race points, winning the Patron North American Endurance Cup for team and driver. Still, Bordin is fuming. "I thought we at least had second locked up," he says as he walks from the podium where he stood only minutes before accepting a trophy and a custom guitar.
Ultimately, the team is grudgingly satisfied after a difficult end to the season. "I don't like to moan about it," says Bordin after offering his thoughts on how BoP could be enhanced. "We've been on both sides of the coin (AIM has benefitted from BoP in previous years). Everything will be re-evaluated before next season."