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Twelve Hours of Sebring in three acts

Thursday, May 22, 2014

By Lizett Bond
Photos courtesy Lizett Bond, JDX Racing, and Damon Lowney

“Beware the Ides of March,” Julius Caesar was warned in the days before the Roman ruler’s assassination on March 15, 44 B.C., as dramatized in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Since that fateful day, the date has been associated with ushering in change, from weather to wartime occupation. Perhaps appropriately, March 15, 2014 was the day of the 62nd Mobile One 12 Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida Race, the first under the banner of the Tudor Championship Series.

The merging of Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series to form the Tudor United SportsCar Championship has resulted in a diverse field of competitors, though some teams took a “wait and see” position by sitting a year out or seeking alternative series. JDX Racing is one team that opted to transition to the Porsche-only USCC GT3 Cup Challenge.

“There is no shortage of enthusiasm for the merger between Grand-Am, ALMS, and the Tudor Championship, but also no shortage of question marks and a bit of uncertainty as to how it will come together,” says Jeremy Dale, co-owner of JDX Racing.

Act One: The Main Event

Fans poured into “The City on the Circle” for the venerable sports car endurance race, the oldest in the United States. A 64-car lineup stood primed to rumble and roar its way around 3.74 miles of rough, primordial track.

“The Tudor race is so different because there are so many cars. The different classes of cars and drivers creates a lot of passing because you have the very fast prototype cars all the way down to the GT3 cars,” says Dale. “So there is a differential in speed and you do have pro-am driver lineups.”

With Patrick Long, Michael Christensen, and Jörg Bergmeister at the wheel of the #912 Porsche 911 RSR, the Porsche North America factory team took the win in the GT Le Mans class, after escaping an 80-second penalty early in the race. It was the team’s second class win in as many races, though it was the #911 RSR that took top honors at the Daytona 24.

The #911 RSR didn’t make the podium at Sebring, crossing the finish line in 9th place. Team Falken Tire fared better with a 5th-place finish in its new #17 911 RSR, which did not compete at the Daytona 24.

In the GT Daytona class, Magnus Racing celebrated a win in its #44 Porsche 911 GT America.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ford Daytona Prototype took home the overall victory trophy with Marino Franchitti, Scott Pruett, and Memo Rojas at the wheel of the EcoBoost-powered racer. This was the first win for the veteran Chip Ganassi outfit with the new Ford power plant.

Act Two: Rule Call

From its start, the race seemed a comedy of errors, offering official calls running the gamut from questionable to downright erroneous. The overall leader of the race frequently appeared to be the pace car, as 11 yellow flags resulted in nearly six hours of delay during the 12-hour race.  

To further impede the momentum, each yellow resulted in a five-lap cautionary period under new rules. Apparently, IMSA will be reviewing the five-lap rule.

One of the more spectacular incidents occurred early on at Turn 1 as Risi Ferrari driver Matteo Malucelli spun his #62 Ferrari 458 Italia into the barriers and blasted back into traffic, taking out a GTLM-class BMW and a Porsche GTD car in the process. Malucelli walked away from the tempest and was subsequently place on probation by IMSA. 

“There was a fair bit of controversy, and it’s still sort of rumbling out there on the Internet regarding the quality of driving,” Dale adds. 

“But I’ll say, while there may have been a couple of instances where the amateurs didn’t really do themselves any favors, there were some pro drivers that made some really questionable decisions and were equally responsible for nearly half the race being under yellow,” says Dale.

But does it boil down to too many cars in too many classes and too many skill levels on one challenging track?

“It’s what all the teams and drivers are used to. It really is. It’s not that it was just invented at Sebring. That is the challenge you run into,” says Dale. “What I will say, and these are fair evaluations, if you look at the history of ALMS and Grand-Am, the Sebring 12 Hour has, since 1998, been an ALMS race, not a Grand-Am race.”

“For most [former] Grand-Am teams, and many of the drivers, this was their first Sebring 12 Hour. And the fact is, Daytona is a much more open racetrack. It’s wider, and with all that time up on the banking, the cars are effectively going straight on the big, banked turns at Daytona,” Dale continues.

“Sebring is narrower, tighter, and there are more turns with a greater variation in speed than at Daytona,” he says. “When it gets dark at Daytona, the place is essentially lit. When it gets dark at Sebring, it’s dark.”

“It’s a different dynamic, and I think some of the first-time drivers and teams struggled with that,” Dale adds. “It was an adjustment, and I think that the amount of yellow flag running at Sebring is partially a reflection of that.”

Yellows aside, in the world of IMSA, if you’ve seen one white Porsche, you’ve seen them all. Perhaps the most disappointing moment of the race may have been the call against Alex Job Racing’s #22 Porsche 911. Identified in error, the real offender happened to be #912 Porsche 911, a Porsche factory entry. However, the misidentification was not confirmed until after #22 had served the 80-second penalty early in the race. 

Upon discovering the error, IMSA officials released an apology, issuing no take backs and no do-overs. Those 80 seconds most likely cost Job the win in the GTD class. The real offender, factory Porsche, #912, went on to take the win in their GTLM class by 5.296 seconds. Of the officiating blunder, IMSA Vice President Scott Elkins pointed to a rule outlining the inability to retract penalties once served, but added that the process would also come under review.

Act Three: Teams, Sponsors, and Recognition

Scene One: Porsche Motorsports North America

The new Porsche North America race team fielded two cars at the Sebring 12, the #911 RSR with Richard Lietz, Nick Tandy, and Patrick Pilet driving, and the #912 RSR, which won the race with Patrick Long, Michael Christensen, and Jörg Bergmeister at the wheel.

Heading into the race after #911’s victory at the Daytona 24, Hertz Corporation announced a its sponsorship of Porsche North America, with Hertz decals adorning the two RSRs front to rear.

Scene Two: Alex Job Racing

Twenty-five years ago Alex and Holly Job took a leap of faith, launching Alex Job Racing in the garage of their home. Working together, the Jobs’ careers as owners of a championship team included victories at the Rolex 24 Hour, with GT Class wins in 2013 and 1999, as well as 2003 and 2005 24-Hour of Le Mans triumphs. AJR’s success includes 52 pole positions since 1999 and 131 podiums finishes. 

Alex Job Racing has been a presence at Sebring, with numerous triumphs before the start of the 62nd race. A victory in 2014 would have marked the 10th Sebring 12-Hour win for the team.

“In 1995, which was my first Sebring 12 Hour win, I did everything myself; I ran with a car that I built using a tube chassis. The engine program at the time was my own, not Porsche’s. For me, that’s probably my sweetest win because it was my first. More importantly, IMSA had a set of rules and you could build a car to those rules, and whoever interpreted them the best, won” says Job.

“Let’s go back in Porsche’s history, and the master of interpreting those rules was Norbert Singer. Through the years, he built legacy cars because he was the best. Those days are gone,” Job continues.

“Today, the rules and the structure don’t allow for that, and that’s the most disappointing aspect of where we are today,” he says. “Basically, your reward for being better than the competition is to be penalized for the sake of making close racing, particularly in the last lap.

“In my view that closeness just comes down to entertainment,” Job adds. “It’s no longer about technology or about being the best, it’s about the show. In essence, we have always been in show business because we are doing something for the entertainment consumption of the consumer. Sports car racing, however, is about technology, and it’s about what will become the technology of the future.

“A perfect example is diesel technology, and now we are into hybrid racing. Look at Le Mans and the hybrid technology, and we have road cars like the Toyota Prius. The cars developed from the race car today wind up in road cars of the future. I think that’s what sports car fans come to see — the technology and the competition within the technology. 

“NASCAR is a different type of racing; it’s not about technology. They may be called a Ford or a Chevy but the reality is they are all the same. And that’s show business. I don’t think sportscar racing is as much show business as stock car racing or NASCAR, but in my view, we have taken the wrong turn in sports car racing because we are no longer allowed to win based on technology. The technology is adjusted by Balance of Performance,” says Job.

The 2014 race saw two Job cars on the field, the defending GTC race champions in the #22 WeatherTech Racing Porsche and the #23 Team Seattle Porsche. The mistaken penalty call took the #22 car out of the hunt.

“Obviously, I’m not happy about what happened at Sebring, but in the meantime the series has made their decision,” says Job.  “I can’t say I agree, but I have no choice but to put that aside and move forward.”

Scene Three: JDX Racing

JDX will compete this year in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama Series. The team has plenty of experience, with three previous seasons in the GTC class of the ALMS. 

JDX returned to Sebring for 2014 with a new driver, Sloan Urry, and a new Porsche 991 GT3 Cup Car. Urry qualified the #20 JDX Racing/Hertz Porsche second for both 45-minute sprint races, finishing sixth in the first race on Thursday afternoon. Race number two on Friday morning placed Team JDX on its first podium for the season.

“Sloan had a good race on Thursday, but not a perfect race, which was more our fault than his. He had a very good race on Friday, and we came out of there in third place in points. We are very happy with that result,” says Dale.

Dale sums up the essence of the business of being a race team owner:

“We have to do our best to read the tea leaves and take everything into account. That includes what sort of manufacturer involvement exists in a particular series, what paddock, what sort of television coverage, what does the schedule look like, how big will the crowds be, can I sell that to a sponsor, are they going to be drawn in to what I can offer here in terms of visibility and quality? 

“That’s our business; it’s what we do.”

 

A new kind of driver’s seat
By Lizett Bond

When 22-year-old entrepreneur Walter L. Jacobs opened his car rental agency in 1918, he repaired and repainted his fleet of Model T Fords. His vision was broad, but foresight may not have included sports car racing. John Hertz purchased the enterprise in 1923 and, as one of the oldest car rental companies in the world, Hertz Corporation has remained at the front of the innovative pack.

The 62nd Mobile One 12 Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida Race was the platform for the official announcement by Hertz of the sponsorship of the Porsche Motorsports Factory Team and continued partnership with JDX Racing Team. Beyond racing collaborations, the recent launch of the Hertz Dream Car program was also on the docket. 

“Porsche owners, particularly 911 owners, are crazy about their cars, and they are all beautiful cars. JDX and Porsche offer Hertz a means to tap into that enthusiasm in a very legitimate way. Sports car fans, specifically, are educated car people and are also influencers amongst their peers. Fans will support Hertz because Hertz supports what they love,” says Jeremy Dale, co-owner of JDX Racing.

The Hertz Dream Car rental program, featuring a fleet of Porsche models, awaits the discriminating traveler at 35 airport locations across the United States. Choices include the 911, Boxter, Cayenne, Cayman, and Panamera. Customers partaking in this distinctive offering will enjoy concierge check-in, as well as hotel delivery and pick-up if desired.

“There is a “wow” factor of stepping off the airport shuttle bus and seeing a Porsche parked outside the rental counter. The fact is, when you rent any one of these cars, it’s a very high level of service and there are customers that want to be part of that,” says Dale.

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