With this old racer, the biggest rush comes on a long straight. Photo: Pirate Racing.
Lime Rock, a week later: redemption after the disastrous fire the year before. Cooper qualified fourth and finished second. Mid-Ohio the next weekend: reliability once again ate the Pirate's lunch. On start-up, before the first practice, a valve lifter broke. The only lifters for LT5s come from GM, and they have a history of reliability problems. The Pirates thrashed to get their spare motor, a 40,000-mile modified streeter out of Van Dorn's hot rod, installed. Down 75hp compared to the first engine, Bill Cooper stunned observers when he qualified second. In the race, he kept the Stanford car in the top five for 21 laps. On lap 22 he passed Bobby Archer's Viper for second and one of the secondary cam chains came apart, destroying the motor. The Pirates DNF'ed in 21st place and Cooper went from second to fourth in points. That had to hurt.
Six weeks later, the World Challenge moved to Road Atlanta near Braselton Georgia, one of the fastest tracks on the circuit. The "Southern Dash Weekend" was a GT class double-header with two qualifying races on Saturday morning, a race on Saturday afternoon, and a second on Sunday. Pirate Racing kicked ass that weekend. Coop qualified on the Saturday pole and second for the Sunday race. He finished second on Saturday and third on Sunday. The team's best race weekend since Topeka in '98 ended with Bill Cooper regaining second place in points.
If the Pirates were heroes in Hotlanta, they were near-zeros back in Canada a week later. During practice at Trois-Rivieres, their only engine, which had already run four races at Atlanta, broke (what else?) its cam chain. Desperate for points and refusing to give up, the Team "modified" the engine to run on five cylinders. Posting no qualifying time, they started 16th. The engine barely ran and Cooper finished next to last. He took a points hit again, ending up back in fourth.
In an interview last winter, we asked Jim Van Dorn about the team's engine program. He answered, "Yeah, we had troubles with the LT5. Some think it's inherently unreliable, but that's not the full story. Last year, World Challenge officials allowed Dodge and Porsche engines to be more powerful compared to the Corvettes. We had to do a wild motor to be competitive. We had go with way-high compression, wild cams, and a rev limit right at the edge of the cam chains' reliability. We qualified in the top four in all but one race last year. With two poles and two outside poles in just the first five races, I think the LT5 is one heck of an engine. We just were asking more than the cam chains could deliver sometimes."
A footnote to the above: some observers of the '99 World Challenge believe SCCA's Technical Administrator for the series, Mitch Wright, was biased in his decisions as to power output of various engines used in competition. It has been rumored that SCCA felt the out-of-production C4 body style was a threat to win when run with an LT5. For that reason, Wright was easy on Dodge and Porsche engine configurations, but was tough on C4s.
After Trois-Rivieres, #75 was mothballed when the first of the team's two C5s finally debuted at Grand Rapids. The most successful ZR-1 in road racing would appear in competition one final time at Monterey, California. It was the last race of '99 and the only time that year the Pirates fielded two cars: Bill Cooper in the C5 and Rupert Bragg-Smith in the veteran ZR-1, with a freshly overhauled engine detuned with production camshafts rather than the radical, full-race grinds run previously. Bragg-Smith, running with 520 hp rather than the usual 580, managed the 16th qualifying spot and finished 14th.