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18465Just as it does with its separate short <A HREF="">(Rolex 24 at Daytona)</A> and long <A HREF="">(Brumos Porsche 250)</A> races at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, the Grand Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototypes pay two separate visits to New York's fabled Watkins Glen racetrack in upstate New York: the <A HREF="">Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen</A> in early June and the shorter Crown Royal 200 at the Glen, which took place on Friday 8 August at 6:30 PM.

One of the reasons this is a generally well-liked event is because it is one of only two races on the 2008 schedule (the upcoming Saturday 23 August's Armed Forces 250 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California being the other one) where the Daytona Prototypes have the race and track all to themselves, without having to worry about lapping pesky, slower GT traffic. It must be noted, however, that the Crown Royal 200 is run on Watkins Glen's 2.45-mile, 11-turn configuration known as the "Short Course", as opposed to the "Long Course" which covers 3.4-miles in its 11 turns and is used for the Six Hours of The Glen Grand Am race. No fears, though, for Guy Cosmo, driver of the #09 Spirit of Daytona Racing Porsche/Coyote describes the "Short Course" as a total high-speed bullring that is very fast and provides the platform for some truly exciting racing. Cosmo then goes on to provide this VERY colo(u)rful description of what it's like to drive this course:

"When you pull out of one of the many pit boxes down pit lane, you feel like you're leaving the place and heading for Lake Seneca, which you can just about see in the incredible view from the top of this mountain. The end of pit lane drops downhill and turns right inside of Turn 1 and you're surrounded by guardrail. As you blend onto the track you look up ahead at Turn 2 and immediately realize you're about to experience something you don't experience at many other tracks, and you better have brought you're A-Game - because cars are FLYING by you with HUGE exit speed from Turn 1, and Turn 2 is not for sissies.

A lap getting the brakes, tires and drive train warmed up and you're ready to rip, so let's start the lap with some BIG exit speed from the final corner heading onto the front straight and crossing the start finish line. As we head towards Turn 1 we approach at roughly 150 mph in 5th gear and feel like you're driving out of the facility, as the brake zone is downhill, a little bumpy, and if you look up, your view let's you see for miles. BIG brake pressure in the brake zone and quickly downshift to 2nd gear, release the brake and the car is a bit light as turn-in to apex is still downhill, with some banking, a compression at the apex, and then back uphill slightly as you let the car carry back out to the exit curb. Run over the apex curb - all of it - and get back to throttle as early as you can because the sooner you do, the faster you'll be as you approach the Bus Stop - that is, IF you do Turn 2 and 3 - the Esses - flat out, and let me tell you, you better bone-up, take a deep breath and hang on, because it is FAST and there is NO room for error. (Not sure if you noticed, but you're surrounded by guardrail the whole way). Our minimum speed at the apex of Turn 1 is about 80 mph, and by the time we reach turn-in for Turn 2, we're doing 120 mph, and by the time we get to the apex of Turn 2, we're doing 140 mph. Needless to say, we're accelerating pretty quickly in a very short distance, as we drop roughly 20 feet in elevation.

Turning into Turn 2 flat-out is a bit of a leap of faith for a driver, and you can't help but wonder if your crew guys tightened all the nuts and bolts as you reach the apex, as the lateral G-Forces reach about 2.2 G's in the compression at the bottom of the hill and you're doing a Buck-40. Shift into 4th gear and attack the turn in with an aggressive steering input down to the apex. Hold the line tight to the curbing on the right, heading uphill, and hold it for a split second longer, to setup for the turn in to Turn 3 - the next Leap of Faith!

A distance of turning in one foot too early or too late for Turn 3 can get UGLY, and make you cry for your Momma. With the high G-load the acceleration rate slows, but you're still hauling the mail, and doing about 145 mph at the apex of Turn 3. As you track out from Turn 3 the car gets very light as we crest the hill and the car is absolutely sucked towards the guardrail on the right. If you target fixate on that guardrail you WILL hit it! IF the car slides or moves on you and you have to correct, your hands have to be lightening-quick to catch the car before disaster strikes. Oh yeah, somewhere in there take you're your right hand off the steering wheel and shift into 5th gear, just for fun...We've now climbed 90 feet in elevation and are doing 150 mph as we bend right leading onto the back straight. Remember to breathe, and check your shorts!

This back straight is WIDE and allows us to go oh, too-many cars wide and have a close little party as we shuffle for position into the Bus Stop, or Inner Loop. Our top speed reaches nearly 170 mph before we GRENADE the brake pedal at almost 1000psi of pedal pressure to slow the car to about 105 mph for our turn-in speed, all the while downshifting to 3rd gear. Fairly aggressive steering input and get back to just a touch of throttle to maintain your speed and clobber the apex curb on the right. Touch the brake or just lift off the gas and point the car to the left. At this point we go from 1.8 lateral G's to the left to 1.8 G's to the right in less than one second, so this is the track's quickest and biggest ‘Transition', or direction change - and our minimum speed is roughly 95 mph. As soon as you get the car pointed to the left, you're back to throttle as aggressively as you can, clobbering the exit curb on the right as you track out from the center, then drift out about ¾ of the way to the left on the approach for the Outer Loop.

We are now at the track's highest elevation, at 1575' above Sea Level. As you approach the Outer Loop you get that feeling again - suck it up, because this is going to be fast! Start ¾ to the left and drive into the corner as deep as you can, stretching 3rd gear, with the approach of doing the corner flat-out, before one end of the car loses grip - rear, front - they never do it at the same time - and you have to lift and just brush the brake as light as possible to get some weight on the front tires to help the car turn in to the apex. This is where you test the strength of your neck muscles. The Outer Loop at Watkins Glen is one of the longest duration lateral loads we experience on the Grand-Am circuit. 1.5+ G's for a duration of 8 seconds from turn in to exit, with a minimum speed of 105 mph. Elevation drop is 15' from turn in, through the apex to the exit. Get the car down to the apex curb and hold it there until it's time to free it up and use up ALL the road on the exit - and you are definitely HAULING the mail when you exit given the radius of the corner. Just as you track out to the left you up shift to 4th gear, and head down the long straight to what is normally called turn 10.

NOW, the final section completing our lap and heading towards start/finish! This last section of Turn 10 & 11 is a very flowing, rhythm section where you need to carry great momentum - over slowing on entry to either of these will be speed lost that horsepower can't make up for - and your speed out of Turn 11 carries you all the way down the front straight and finishes your MEGA lap time.

Turn 10. A fast, flowing 90 degree left hander with an approach of 150 mph in 5th gear, Turn 10 requires a light brush on the brake and huge momentum into and through the apex with just a quick downshift to 4th gear - and as soon as you brake you're immediately building back up to full throttle. Minimum speed here is almost 110 mph and you are cruising! Very rewarding corner and the exit really gets your attention as you track out all the way to the right. Leave that steering angle in to get the car back to the left side as you prepare for your approach to the last and final turn, Turn 11.

The elevation up to, through and out of Turn 10 is all level, but at Turn 11 the turn in point is JUST after the road goes downhill a bit, making it very tough to ‘nail' this corner properly. A light, early brush of the brake will help you begin a slow, early steering input so that you're turning in and getting some direction change and lateral load in the car before the road drops away from you down to the apex. Some downshift to 3rd gear, some leave it in 4th - whichever you fancy, but the most important part is to carry BIG speed through this apex and pray to the big man upstairs that you won't wind up a pancake against the wall on the exit. When you get it right, you're carried all the way out to, and generally over the exit curb and hanging on like you're riding a Bull. You then basically cheer the car all the way towards the Finish Line in hopes of a lap that will put the rest of them to shame."

Memo Rojas qualified the Chip Ganassi Racing with Félix Sabatés team's #01 TELMEX Lexus/Riley in fifth position from the starting grid, marking just the fourth time the team has qualified outside the front two rows this season. Meanwhile, Shane Lewis qualified 11th in the #3 Southard Motorsports Lexus/Riley to round out the two-car Lexus effort. As the race start approached, with conditions described as "a rainy day with a current temperature of 61.8 degrees Fahrenheit and track conditions are wet but drying", the $64,000 question became whether to start with rain tires or dry weather slicks, as Grand Am doesn't offer the option (as other racing series such as Formula 1 do) of intermediate tires.

18466Rojas' decision to start with rain tires appeared to pay off at first, as he quickly moved up to third on the first lap and then claimed the second position for a short stint early as the race started in wet conditions. No sooner had Rojas accomplished this, however, that the race's first full-course caution was brought on by a crash between Ricky Taylor in the #47 Doran Racing Ford/Dallara and Jim Matthews in the #91 Riley-Matthews Motorsports Pontiac/Riley. As the track quickly dried out and the caution period ended on Lap 5, Rojas found himself losing three positions on that lap alone, and, on Lap 7, found himself back in eleventh place. In spite of rain falling on Turn 1 during Lap 8, Rojas decided he'd had enough and, during Lap 11 entered the pits for a change to slicks, as the rain has subsided and track conditions are damp. The tire change saw Rojas lose a lap and fall back to 18th-place. Things took an even greater turn for the worse at that point, as the rain began to resume on the first lap after the team exited the pits. Rojas regained a number of positions up to 14th, but eventually spun, losing a second lap. Shortly afterward, on Lap 24, Rojas in the #01 TELMEX Lexus/Riley pitted just past the 30-minute mark of the race with teammate Scott Pruett assuming the driving duties in 18th-place now three laps down. The veteran eventually made up one lap, but could gain just five positions through the remainder of the event to place an unlucky 13th - the team's worst showing in more than two years.

The rainy conditions were no more favorable for the No. 3 Southard Motorsports Lexus Riley driven by Shane Lewis and Bill Lester. The announcers on SPEED TV's telecast of the race made much of the Ganassi/Sabatés team's decision to start the race on rain tires while claiming that everyone else was on slicks, yet the Southard team also opted to start on rain tires. Lewis made early progress despite no new precipitation falling. When a downpour struck on lap two, the daring call seemed to be perfect. In an effort to get ahead of the field, as they did at the Montréal event last week, the red, white and blue prototype pitted under the first caution brought on by the showers. Returning to the track with fuel only, the cascade of unfortunate timing began as the rains stopped again. By lap five, the track was too dry for wet weather rubber and the tires began to blister. Losing time and positions to those who opted to risk the start on dry tires, the #3 was called in for slicks. As improbable as it seemed, with the next lap the rain returned again. A quick stop for the rain tires would put the Southard machine back further in the field but kept the car safely on course until the rain stopped again, this time for good. A final change to slicks and to put Lester into the car would leave the Southard Lexus-Riley five laps down to the leaders. Lester would recapture one lap on his way to crossing the now completely dry finish line in 15th place.

Despite the disappointing finish, Pruett and Rojas and the #01 TELMEX Lexus continue to hold a commanding point lead - now at 49 points over Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty. They need only to place 12th or better in each of their last three races to win the 2008 Rolex Sports Car Series driver and team championships - ironically one spot back from the 11th they needed prior to Friday's race. Unfortunately, Lexus has dropped back to second place in the Engine Manufacturers' standings behind Pontiac, albeit by a scant 4 points (343 for Pontiac versus 339 for Lexus).

Post-Race Quotes:

Bill Lester, #3 Southard Motorsports Lexus: "I guess we've got to do a better job of predicting the weather, or talking to Mother Nature, or something. At the beginning of the Watkins Glen race we were never on the right tire at the right time and man did that hurt our race.

Once the race started, we pretty much knew we were in trouble. The rain held off so long that we blistered our tires and had to come in for slicks. But almost no sooner than we did, the rain came and caught us out again! Shane pitted again for another set of rains, which further dropped us down the running order, but we had no choice. Shane did a great job of toughing it out under horrendous conditions and I certainly didn't envy him being out there.

When it was my turn behind the wheel, I was much more fortunate. The rain had finally stopped for good and the track was drying so the team bolted on a set of slicks for me. I initially tip-toed around the track - in the quickly-drying conditions - gaining temperature in the tires. I was soon able to run totally unhindered and had a drama-free stint. I just felt bad for our team and for Shane especially, because he was never on the right tires at the right time. I guess we'll just chalk this race down as another chapter in what has become a character-building season."

Shane Lewis, #3 Southard Motorsports Lexus: "The whole race for us was decided at the start. It all came down to tires. We never seemed to be on the right type. We had a pretty good qualifying run and high hopes for the event. The track was pretty wet and the sky was pretty dark so we made the call to start on the rain tires. We had to stop when the rains [rain tires] started to blister. As soon as we did the skies just opened up and the car was everywhere on the slicks. Another stop and we were done for. The 'short course' at Watkins Glen is just too quick. Once you go down a lap you are done. There is almost no way to make it up. The tough part is we had a pretty good car. It just wasn't our day again but we were in pretty good company in the call."

Steve Southard, Team Owner: "We were one of three cars that started the race on rain tires [the others being the numbers 01 and 10]. The weather radar looked green all over, the track was wet but it wasn't raining at the start. Two laps in it started to rain and two cars came together in Turn One bringing out a caution. We decided that an early stop might be the smart thing to do to get the mandatory stop out of the way. Five laps later it stopped raining and dried out. We stopped for slicks when Shane told us that the rain tires were going away. One lap later it started to rain again. Slicks are OK in damp conditions if you can first build some heat in them but it was wet enough that we could not build any heat in the slicks. It was again time for wets. We made another pit stop for rains and, of course, it stopped raining. This time for good. We put Bill in the car and finished the race on slicks. I hope we never have to race in those kinds of conditions again. I would prefer to have it either rain or, better yet, go away and not have to deal with changing wet conditions."

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.

The next race for the Grand-Am Rolex Series, as stated at the top of this article, will be the Daytona Prototype-only Armed Forces 250 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California on Saturday 23 August at 3 PM Pacific Time, but will be televised on a tape-delayed basis by SPEED TV on Sunday 24 August at 9 AM Pacific Time / 10 AM Mountain Time / 11 AM Central Time / 12 Noon Eastern Time.


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