April's Long Beach Grand Prix marked the second time in as many years that the American Le Mans Series unloaded its high-powered racing show on the streets of the SoCal port city. For the Corvette contingent, the most notable development was the absence of the C6.Rs' only competition, the Aston Martin DBR9 of Bell Motorsports. The Aston had a major run-in with a GT2 Dodge Viper at the St. Pete race two weeks earlier and suffered significant damage to its lone chassis-damage that could not be repaired in time for the LBGP. This left the C6.Rs to once again battle it out amongst themselves for GT1 bragging rights.
The no. 3 vette had a minor setback during practice, experiencing a broken halfshaft. The break was especially disconcerting, as it was identical to the failure suffered by the car's stablemate at sebring a month earlier. Considering that the no. 4 car was eliminated from last year's 24 hours of le mans with a broken driveshaft, it was clear that a thorough driveline analysis of both cars would be required prior to the race at la sarthe.
Qualifying, by contrast, went well for both Corvettes. Jan Magnussen was on a tear, shattering the class qualifying record by almost 0.5 second and taking the pole position in 1:17 (about a half-second quicker than the No. 4 car.) The LMP2 Porsche Spyders of Penske Racing, meanwhile, landed the overall pole and took the first five positions on the starting grid. In GT2, the Flying Lizard Porsche 911s grabbed the front row, relegating the Risi Competizione Ferrari 430GT to third.
Race day would prove a long one for the competitors, with the ALMS program not scheduled to get underway until 4:00 p.m. When the green flag finally did drop, the LMP2 Porsches drag-raced to the first corner and dived into first and second positions. Establishing a lead early is critical at Long Beach, since the street course offers precious little room for passing. The only question was whether the more powerful Audi R10 TDIs would have enough extra grunt to run down the yellow-and-red, DHL-liveried Penske cars and slip past them before the checkered flag fell.
Lucas Luhr was the first Audi pilot to claw his way up through the order, eventually putting a wicked pass on one of the Penske Porsches going into Turn 1. Horsepower and light weight had served the Porsches well in qualifying, but the immense torque of the Audi diesels was proving to be an invaluable trait on the tight Long Beach layout. The R10s eventually took over first and second positions, a formation they would hold to the finish of the 100-minute timed race.
With no class competition to worry about, the Corvette Racing crews looked upon the pit stop as one place to establish team bragging rights. When both cars entered pit lane at the same time, the contest was on. Unfortunately, an ALMS official found himself directly in Magnussen's entry path. He managed to jump out of the way, slightly clipping the No. 3 car's right front, but landed right in front of Ollie Gavin in the No. 4 car. Gavin had to stop short, delaying the start of his pit session. Magnussen, too, had to get on the binders early to avoid mowing down the official. Despite the challenge, both crews flew into action and quickly had the cars ready to roll. Johnny O'Connell got out just ahead of Olivier Beretta, and off went the two cars in the same order as they had entered. The rest of the race passed without incident, with No. 3 and No. 4 taking First and Second in class, respectively.
The LMP2 class turned out to be a real barn-burner, with the Acura of David Brabham catching up to the Penske Porsches late in the race. With a banzai dive under Romain Dumas' Spyder in the waning minutes, Brabs took First Place in class and Third overall. GT2 was equally thrilling, as the upstart Tafel Ferrari team took advantage of a Risi pit-stop miscue (the car would not restart) to take its second class victory in a row. Driver Dirk Mueller just squeezed past the Flying Lizard Porsches in what was the closest finish in ALMS GT2 history.
Corvette Racing's next test would come at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah-the last stop on the ALMS schedule before the ultimate showdown at Le Mans in June.
Corvette Racing Profile:
Steve "Pickle" LonghiSteve Longhi is one of the truck drivers who maneuvers Corvette Racing's 18-wheeled behemoths down the highway every time the team needs to travel. There are 12 ALMS races during the year augmented by frequent trips for testing the tires, the suspension, engine reliability, and other parameters. While most of the team travels by air, the three transport drivers do it the old-fashioned way, departing a day or two early to ensure that everything is set up in plenty of time before the race. With one driver sleeping in the back and the other driving, the trucks motor straight through, stopping only for refueling and driver changes. That means getting from Pratt & Miller headquarters in New Hudson, Michigan, to the Long Beach race in just 40 hours.
Once Longhi arrives at the racetrack, he and his fellow drivers are in charge of setting up the paddock compound as well as the surveillance complex at trackside in the hot pit lane. Corvette Racing has one of the most advanced, complex pit operations in the series, and setup typically takes at least a day.
When he's not driving or setting up, Longhi pulls double duty as the "tire guy." Mentored by retired tire-wrangler Chuck Miller, Longhi has served up the shoes for the racing Corvettes for the past five years. The ALMS allows each race car five sets of tires to get through practice, qualifying, and the opening stint of the race. Longhi takes the proprietary team wheels over to Michelin to have the tires mounted, selecting the compound specified by the Corvette Racing engineers. Once these wheels are mounted, certified, and marked by IMSA/ALMS, they can't be altered or adjusted.
After the race has started, the teams are allowed to replace the tires as many times as they wish, and this usually means about once per hour. Team engineers will also frequently alter tire pressures to suit changing track conditions. Longhi is charged with making sure the specified pressures have been dialed into each fresh set of tires.
Whenever the tires come off, Longhi assesses their condition and records their hot pressure readings. He then makes a trip to the Michelin compound to have the worn race tires exchanged for new ones. In short races such as Long Beach, there may be only one pit stop, obviating the need to make multiple remounting trips. But in endurance races such as Sebring, Le Mans, and Petit Le Mans, Longhi is in constant motion between the pits and the Michelin tent.
Handling tires is a tough, dirty job. The wheels come off the cars blazing hot and covered with brake dust that must be cleaned before the rollers are reinstalled on the car. Longhi's reward for manhandling the wheels and tires all weekend is to break down the pit and paddock compounds, load them back into the race transporters, hop in the truck cab, and settle in for the nonstop 40-hour trip back to Michigan.