Sebring Fall Classic, September 19, 1998
Downing/Atlanta NEC Racing Report
#63 Mazda-Kudzu DLM 3-rotor
 

NEC Mazda Kudzu 3-rotor

Images copyright Amy Fuller and Michael J. Fuller
Text copyright Michael J. Fuller

Well, as far as races go this was a squishy one.  Mother nature let loose just 10 minutes into the race and that sealed the day for everyone.  There was less than 45 minutes of green flag racing with the difference being taken up by yellow, and even red flag, conditions.

Jim Downing and Rich Grupp were the drivers for the #63 Mazda-Kudzu DLM 3-rotor.  Where’s the DLM-4 4-rotor car you ask?  Well, the Downing shops are currently busy designing a new 4-rotor chassis.  The DLM-4 has been put aside in favor of a new chassis to carry the 4-rotor Mazda motor, the DLY.  The DLY should debut at the Petit Le Mans race being held at Road Atlanta in early October.

morning warm-upThe DLM ran flawlessly through practice and qualifying ending up in 9th position for the start.  But of course not everything runs flawlessly all the time, and when we came in from the morning warm-up, Scott and Rich (not only does Rich drive the car he works on it too!) noticed that the front right bleed valve on the brake caliper had been broken off.  So that necessitated a caliper swap.  Well, for whatever reason, that took longer than anticipated, and when the five minute warning to engine start came, we were still sitting in the paddock with the body work off the car!  So the two minute warning came and went, by now the engine start order had been given and the field was under way for its first pace lap.  Suffice to say Rich got the car out of the paddock (blasting out of paddock at near racing speed!) and onto the pace lap if not in our correct start position.

The start was pretty much uneventful (I was still in the paddock gathering up tools to run to the pits and generally battening down the hatches for the impending rain).  By the end of the first few laps we were up to near our start position.  And then the rain came.  At first we weren’t sure about the intensity and duration of the rain and sent Rich around for another lap.  At this point Wayne Taylor came in for rain tires.  We should have followed suit, for by the time we came in for tires and fuel, the track was pretty much drenched .  In the process of our stop we somehow lost a lap, a lap that we would never be able to recover, and then insult of insults, the course went yellow.

So in the course of only ten laps we found ourselves way down in the order (sixteenth), a lap down, and unable to improve our position because of the full course yellow.  And then nearly as fast, Sports Car red flagged the race.  So the cars were parked on the front straight to wait.  During the yellow Rich had commented on the standing water on the front and back straight (not to mention floating around in the tub of the car).  There was no question about red flagging the race.  The black clouds had been forming all morning and let loose with a pretty fierce deluge that was slow at first but building in intensity.  Now we had standing water in the pit lane as well.  What do bored crew do during a red flag?  Well, don’t touch the car because that is a no-no, but find the materials and build a sail boat to float down the river in pit lane!

We ran a umbrella out to Rich in hopes to keep the driver (he was drenched all ready) and the car dry.  Rich eventually got out of the car, as did most of the other drivers,  when he realized it was going to be a long delay. It must have been during the rain delay that antenna fell over because when we were getting ready to go back racing an hour later we found ourselves unable to communicate with Rich.  The antenna is located in paddock with our trailer and is hooked into the radio repeater.  No one thought to check on that because it was assumed that the radio was wet from the rain and that was the reason it wasn’t working any longer.  In the course of trouble shooting the radio difficulty the minutes before the field pulling away, I ran out to the car on the straight to tell Rich to turn to channel two to see if that helped.  I can tell you that even after an hour delay and attempts at accelerating the drainage, there was still standing water on the right side of the front straight.

Taylor's Ferrari, image courtesy of Amy FullerWe didn’t got back green immediately, the pace car stayed out a few laps so that the drivers could feel out the track and find the areas to avoid (like the right side of the front straight).  The track went green and the field approached the start-finish line in a massive plume of spray.  The  #4 Panoz led and was followed by the #16 Dyson Ford.  Anyone behind the first three or four cars was surely driving blind.  Rich was fifth or sixth in line behind Wayne Taylor in his Ferrari 333 SP and a pack of GT3 BMWs.  Taylor went to the right side of the front straight to pass the BMWs and found trouble.  The first I saw was a Ferrari hugging the inside of the front straight wall starting to go side ways.  Taylor hit the water on the right side, over corrected, and his car went across the track to the opposite side.  Rich, coming out of the spray and on the left side of the track staying out of everyone’s way, found a  Ferrari parked rear first into the wall and in his way.  Afterwards Rich joked saying, “When I saw Taylor’s car in front of me all I could think of was, ‘well, I’ve never hit a Ferrari before’!”.  Rich slid right just narrowly missing the front of Taylor’s car.  He didn’t even loose the auxiliary airfoils that stick out at the front of the car.  I thought for sure those bits were goners!  The track immediately went yellow. Taylor was out on the spot.

During the extended yellow period to remove Wayne’s car, we brought Rich in for a driver change and to top off the fuel.  Jim got in and resumed behind the yellow.  At this point during the caution the order re-shuffled do to pit stops and the pace car was letting cars back on the lead lap while trying to find the leader.  For whatever reason our car wasn’t let by.  Hence we were eventually led to the checker by a group of slower GT2 and GT3 cars that were on the lead lap.

The Kudzu was again 5th in line for the restart, behind the leading #16 Riley & Scott, #5 Panoz GTR, #20 Riley & Scott, and the many laps down #5 Panoz.  The lead two cars rocketed away as they were still fighting for position.  But they were followed by their counterpart sister cars.  But the amazing thing is that Jim pulled away too.  The R&Ss and Panozs pulled from him, but the Kudzu pulled away from the rest of the pack led by the #8 Schubot/Camferdam Ford R&S.  It's too bad we were a lap down!   I didn’t have a watch to put on Jim, but his lap times were slightly slower than the Panozs and R&Ss, but faster than the rest of the field.

Despite Jim’s speed and our car’s advantage in the rain, we still only finished twelfth.  If the rain had continued and the race had longer periods of green racing we would have been able to stretch our advantage of only one stop for tires as we would have only had to stop for fuel from there on out.  The light Kudzu being easy on tires in the rain.

So a GT1 car finally won overall.  Considering the conditions and the circumstances of the race I bet the Panoz camp is grateful to have the win, but also wanting to prove more than ever that they can win under normal circumstances.  Next stop Petit Le Mans.

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