This race was very much anticipated by everyone in the sports car community. The political situation in sports car racing has reached laughable proportions, and the Petit Le Mans is perhaps the start of something in the right direction. Everyone has grown weary of the whole situation and finally there is a break from the monotony.
Unbeknownst to most, but Jim Downing had been spending the last three months prior to the Petit Le Mans designing and building a new 4-rotor Mazda powered Kudzu. The previous 4-rotor, the DLM-4 had been deemed to be too much trouble to try and sort out, suffering from a myriad of chassis problems. The problems being well documented in the slow lap times (slower than even the 3-rotor which has nearly a 120+ horse power deficit compared to the 4-rotor) and average finishes. Ultimately though, Jim had never been too happy with the DLM-4. The new car has been designated the DLY (Downing-Lynn-Yawn) and is a departure for the Downing/Atlanta group. For starters, there is a direct effort to make as much downforce as is possible and then live with the consequence later. Another interesting feature about the DLY is that it is smaller than the DLM-4, but not quite as small as the DLM. The DLY has been designed with Le Mans Prototype rules in mind as that is the eventual goal with this car. So that means carbon brakes and periscope air restrictors (which starve the motor of some 70+ hp). The car can easily be converted back to WSC configuration (swap carbons for iron, periscopes for proper air boxes). It is important to understand that this a completely new machine, not a modification of the DLM-4. The only bits to carry over are the engine, gearbox, and the uprights. This new car was designed and built in around three months. Another record thrash for the Downing/Atlanta group.
The DLY had its first shake down run on Monday at Road Atlanta. The only incident being a failure of the nose box, which Dave Lynn, the car’s designer, felt was poorly designed to start with.
The Petit Le Mans weekend started with scrutineering which was held at Lennox Square near Buckhead. For those of you unaware of what scrutineering is and its significance, it is the official “check in” for the race, where the inspectors poke and prod the cars, put them up on lifts and look at the undersides. It is the time where your car is deemed eligible or not. The Downing guys weren't too surprised when the inspectors found some problems with the car (it being new and this its first run past the inspector's gauntlet). For starters there weren't any lights on the car. There just hadn't been time and it was first on the list to be corrected. The only other really notable issues was one concerning the rear exhaust pipe (all mechanical components of the car must be covered by body work--solution: make a valence plate that covers the exhaust pipe in plan) and a slight discrepancy regarding the rear wheel vents. After another all night thrash (holes for the lights were crudely cut and light pots installed and then covered over with Lexan, nose box was substantially reinforced, etc.) the car finally showed up at the track missing the morning practice session.
For the afternoon session the goal was to give Yojiro seat time as he had never been to Road Atlanta previously. The night session was a little more interesting. It was discovered that the lighting was inadequate and a solution was needed. The light pots had been set too far back into the nose and only were emitting light straight ahead, not out at the apexes of the turns. No problem, purchase a set of lights and install them in the excess space of the brake duct. Of course don't forget to angle them out appropriately to illuminate the corners.
Through out the course of the weekend not much chassis tuning was going on. The goal seemed to be to give seat time to the drivers in this new car. The ride height had been raised after the Monday testing failure of the nose box and was eventually lowered back down to a more reasonable level. During qualifying Howard came in and suggested that we could get away with dropping the wing down one notch to claw back some straight line speed. Howard ended up putting the car in 14th position on the grid with a time of 1:22.190.
The Carbone Industries technicians had been diligent in their monitoring of our brakes and had developed a concern. For our carbon brakes to fit into the wheel assemble, a portion of material had to be machined off near the hat section. Carbon Industries was concerned that this could lead to a failure in the race. They couldn't guarantee 100% performance out of the brakes and were worried about even the slight possibility of a catastrophic failure during the race. The decision was made late Friday afternoon to then switch back to iron brakes, but it was soon discovered that the spare brake rotors that we had at the track were for the 3-rotor DLM. It was late enough in the day that it was decided to do the brake change after the morning warm-up. Saturday morning was definitely busy!
The change to iron brakes was completed at nearly the last minute. We got the car rolled out onto the grid just about the time the race officials were sweeping the flags off the cars set up on the Le Mans style grid. In an awkward exchange, the officials finally got the appropriate flag draped over our car (after first draping it with a Japanese flag, then a French flag [someone thought it was an American flag], finally substituting it for the correct American flag) and just as quickly yanked it off in response to the festivities.
The engine start came, everyone was kicked off the grid, and we were nearly ready to go racing. The green flag was delayed a few laps because a car on the grid had dumped a good amount of oil that needed to be cleaned up. Once that was done we were on our way. I held my breath as the field ran into turn one, the oil dry that had been put on to surface of the front straight was kicked up into a cloud and the group had to cinch down going into one. Everyone got through OK. Howard lost a few positions at the start, but by the beginning of lap two had picked them off and was running in 14th.
After the first hour the Banana Joe Riley & Scotts had fallen behind and the Kudzu was up into 11th place overall. Our first stop was flawless if technically illegal. Le Mans pit stop rules state that only the incoming driver can help the out going driver out of the car, and vice versa. We had a crew member dedicated to helping the drivers in and out. The Sports Car Officials missed our first stop, but caught us on the second and held us for a 10 second stop and go. After sitting down with the rules and having the Sports Car official explain them we caught something else. The fire bottle operator (me) was supposed to be garbed with a balaclava, helmet, and gloves. Well seems we had forgotten that at the first two stops. But after finding the proper equipment, we were set up for the rest of the race.
The race was very straight forward. Mechanically the car ran perfectly. The only problem we ran into was in the later hours the power steering pump ran intermittently, and then stopped all together. The problem wasn't really traceable (thought to be the wiring in the dash not the pump itself) and the car could run with out it. It took a lot out of the drivers, and Howard more so than the others.
Howard had been running the car very hard, his fastest lap was 2 seconds quicker than the car qualified. But his effort was really draining him. He had difficulty getting out of the car after his second stint. While nearing the end of his third stint, we noticed his lap times drop off drastically and the next thing we knew he was heading down pit lane. Howard collapsed as he extricated himself and as a precaution Sports Car called the mobile EMTs. The heat combined with the failed power steering took its toll. You've got to remember, not everyone can drive these things!
Overall the race was a blast to be apart of (the fire works as Taylor’s Ferrari crossed the line were spectacular). There also was the satisfaction of a good result (6th overall) in the face of some of the strongest sports car competition that North America has seen all year. This new DLY Kudzu is really just scratching the surface too. The DLY ran nearly 4 seconds quicker than the DLM-4 did at Road Atlanta in June (1:24.230 vs. 1:20.). I'm looking forward to seeing how well the DLY will do in WSC trim, full airbox and all. We shall see this weekend at Laguna.