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18684The weekend of Saturday 23 August marked the last of two Grand Am Rolex Series races where the Daytona Prototypes had the track all to themselves, without having to race alongside the slower Grand Touring cars. The event was the Armed Forces 250 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.

The normally uneventful first practice session, on Thursday 21 August, turned out to be anything but that for the #3 Southard Motorsports Lexus/Riley. With Bill Lester at the helm, the rear end of the car unexpectedly snapped around at Turn 10, with the spin launching him off the track into a tire barrier. The impact destroyed much of the bodywork including nose and front splitter, cracked all four wheels and broke the transmission casing, among other issues. Nevertheless, the team pulled together a valiant all-nighter and had the car fixed and ready for the Friday 4:30 PM qualifying session. Qualifying saw the pole-winning #61 AIM Autosport Ford/Riley and the fourth-placed #76 Krohn Racing Pontiac/Lola pushed to the back of the starting grid, for being too wide and too low, respectively. This meant that the #01 TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Félix Sabatés Lexus/Riley would start from fifth position on the grid, and the Southard Lexus would start from tenth position.

The first lap saw the Southard Lexus, driven by Shane Lewis spin at Turn 6, but Lewis recovered and continued. That lap also saw Memo Rojas, in the TELMEX Lexus, gain one position, to fourth. Rojas dropped back to fifth position on Lap 16, however, after being passed by Bill Auberlen in the #23 Alex Job Racing Porsche/Riley. Seven laps later, Rojas entered the pits and handed over the car to co-driver Scott Pruett. Lap 35 saw the start of an intense duel between Pruett, the elder statesman of Grand Am Daytona Prototype racing, and one of the series' youngest drivers, Ricky Taylor in the #47 Doran Racing Ford/Dallara. At times separated by less than .3 seconds, the battle wasn't resolved until Lap 37, when Pruett emerged the victor with fifth place in hand.

Then, on Lap 58, the #3 Southard Motorsports Lexus/Riley sputtered to a heartbreaking halt, the victim of a broken axle. This marked the team's first mechanical failure of this season, and, after the season opener at Daytona, only the second time this year they failed to finish a race. Removing the Southard Lexus from the track led to the race's only full-course yellow flag caution period.

No sooner did the green flag fly and racing resume, on Lap 64, that Scott Pruett in the #01 TELMEX Lexus and Darren Law in the #58 Brumos Porsche/Riley made contact that was barely visible on the race telecast but sent Law careening off-course, losing two positions. In an echo of <A HREF="">the 2007 Grand-Am season finale in Utah,</A> Pruett was served with a stop-and-go penalty for avoidable contact. Unlike the histrionics that followed in Utah, however, Pruett promptly served his penalty.

Lap 84 saw a heated battle between #77 Memo Gidley in the Doran Racing Ford/Dallara, #23 Joey Hand in the Alex Job Racing Porsche/Riley and #01 Scott Pruett in the TELMEX Lexus for seventh through ninth positions, with Gidley being the ultimate loser. And the race's ultimate winner? The #10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac/Dallara co-driven by Max Angelelli and Michael Valiante. Theirs was an inspirational victory, given all the adversity they've recently been through, starting with <A HREF="">a fire in their transporter back in May that destroyed their primary racing car plus equipment and spares.</A>

The commentators of the race's SPEED TV telecast informed us that the #47 Doran Racing Ford/Dallara co-driven by Ricky Taylor and Burt Frisselle would be sitting out the two remaining races of the 2008 Grand Am Daytona Prototype season because they had simply run out of money. After all, most Grand Am Daytona Prototype teams aren't blessed with the relatively deep pockets the Chip Ganassi Racing with Félix Sabatés organization enjoys. And the current economic downturn has affected even the Ganassi folks, with their recent decision to shut down Dario Franchitti's NASCAR team. These tough economic tidings are specially ominous for Grand-Am teams like Southard Motorsports that lack a major title sponsor. Nonetheless, the feisty and hard-working Southard family is down but by no means out, and they are still entered in the penultimate race of the 2008 Grand Am season: the Supercar Life 250 in Milville, New Jersey on Sunday 31 August.

18685The #01 TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Félix Sabatés Lexus/Riley finished the Armed Forces 250 at Infineon race in sixth place. Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas' lead in the Drivers' Championship standings is currently 42 points over Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney, and the Ganassi drivers need to place just 17th in the next two races to clinch the title. Unfortunately, Pontiac's lead over Lexus in the Engine Manufacturers' standings has stretched to 14 points.

Post-Race Quotes:

Scott Pruett, #01 TELMEX Lexus: "Obviously, we're disappointed with the outcome, but at the same time we're still fighting for the championship. We only lost a few points to the No. 99 car, which is important. The Lexus engine was good, the car ran flawlessly. We received a stop-and-go penalty that I wouldn't necessarily agree with, but Grand-Am decided they wanted to do that and that's that. There's nothing we can do about that. We just go to New Jersey next week and keep doing what we're doing. I thought we might have had a shot for the podium before the penalty, but it was so difficult to pass here."

Memo Rojas, #01 TELMEX Lexus: "We had a good start and were able to pass the No. 23 early. We then battled with them for a bit, but they were running a little bit quicker than us and we decided to let them go rather than risk an incident there. The car was good, but we lacked a little bit of grip. We're just running on the conservative side. If we can't get the win, we'll just run for the most points we can get. But with our lead in the points (49 points entering the race), the most important thing is we need to finish."

Bill Lester, #3 Southard Motorsports Lexus: "Sears Point surely didn't go as planned. At the very least, I expected to take my turn in the race and get us to the checkered flag. I thought that was a given since that's the way it's been all year. Oddly though, we suffered a mechanical failure. A half-shaft broke in the right rear of the car causing it to lose all drive and putting us out on the spot.

Unfortunately for me, this situation occurred while Shane Lewis was driving. I had yet to get in the car and we were only five or so laps away from calling him in for our driver change. Instead he radioed us about our problem. How bitterly disappointing. But things like that can happen in racing. After all, cars are mechanical and mechanical parts and pieces can fail when pushed to the limit.

It probably didn't help that the car had already suffered some trauma that weekend. During practice I lost it coming out of the fastest corner of the track, Turn 10. We had been fighting a handling issue and the adjustment we made wound up biting me. The crew did a phenomenal job of getting the car back together for the race but my "off" definitely didn't help matters. It really irked me because I had never crashed at Sears Point before."

Shane Lewis, #3 Southard Motorsports Lexus: "Sonoma is either really good to us or really bad. I've won a lot of races here but times like this weekend or two years ago when we almost burnt the car to the ground make you wonder which track fate is going to throw at you? We knew we had a problem in the warm-up. The car was entirely different than it was in qualifying. We worked on it and hoped we had it right for the race but it was still off. As the race went on we kept tuning it but never got it back. This was a tough one from the start but the guys never gave-up. Richie and the crew kept stepping-up to the plate no matter what was thrown at them. That is the kind of thing you can't explain when someone asks you why you love this sport even when weekends like this happen. It is the faith those guys have in you. You want to give that back anyway you can. We didn't quite make that happen this weekend but we have two more races to put these guys back on the podium where they deserve to be."

Steve Southard, Team Owner: "This was a tough weekend from a lot of perspectives. But, a few things really standout when you have struggles like we did in Sonoma. Primarily, what a great job the crew did in getting the car back together. It was an unfortunate weekend when things happen. The crew spent long hours to get the car back together. They stepped-up never complained and did everything asked of them. That is the silver lining in this cloud. Another is how so many other teams offered help and assistance. It makes you proud to be in that kind of paddock. The car was different in warm-up than in qualifying and we're not sure why. The further we ran the worse the car got. Unlike most events, the car just never came back to us. Even the changes at the first pit stop didn't make any difference. When the axle failed it was the end of two really tough weekends but the crew hung tough and did a great job! We'll do everything we can to reward that effort in these final two races with better results."

Our thanks to <A HREF="">the official Grand-Am racing website</A>, <A HREF="">the Southard Motorsports website</A>, <A HREF="">Travis Braun of AutoWeek</A> and John Procida for Lexus/Toyota Motorsports for this information.


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