Where the Wild Things Are...?
Sebring 12 hours 1998
Downing/Atlanta NEC Racing Report
#63 Mazda-Kudzu DLM 3-rotor

Text & images copyright Michael J. Fuller

So I was regulated to roving reporter/observer/free loading bum this Sebring when it was decided that the Downing/Atlanta effort was to be a muted affair consisting solely of the venerable 3-rotor Mazda-Kudzu.  There are some new developments going on in the shops and most of the race personnel were busy utilizing their time towards those efforts. Nonetheless I headed down to Sebring Friday to hang out with the crew, help out where I could, dodge rain, hail, lightning, falling nitrogen bottles, etc., etc.

The only new developments/changes on the 3-rotor Kudzu DLM consisted of new intake trumpets. 
explanation sketchActually, they weren't new per se, they were the original machined metal intake trumpets that had since been replaced by lighter weight carbon fiber replicas.  The original intake system was reinstalled when it was suspected that the carbon fiber intakes were matching the harmonic frequency of the engine, vibrating at speed, and effectively changing the shape and reducing the size of the intakes.  The result of this was a black hole in the power band around 7700 RPM.  With the old system installed the hole disappeared and it improved the driveability somewhat if not simply improving the power band in general.

With the Wednesday afternoon qualifying shake up we found our selves starting in 8th, outside on row 4.  I was a bit surprised that the Panozs were allowed to race in light of the allegations that the airbox cockup was apparently not a simple miscue.  And in fact I am a bit disappointed that they were allowed to participate if this was in fact the situation.  I seem to recall that when the Toyota Team Europe Group A  World Rally Championship team was caught cheating in 1995 (they developed a clever little device that increased the diameter of the turbo restrictor) they were stripped of all their points and banned from racing for a year setting modern precedent for cheating in motor sports.

To take this a little further and comment on the rules changes for Sebring in general, the main differences being that now GT1 cars are able to pursue overall race victories, not just class victories.  I really found it ironic how Tony Dowe (team manager for Panoz Motor Sports) summed up the rule changes,  “That (referring to the rules) was what was very sad about the Daytona 24 Hour, that you had a few people with self serving interest trying to set it up for their own benefit.”  Hmmm, as I seem to recall Tony, there were only 3 cars, I repeat, 3 cars that have benefited from these recent Sebring rules changes.  Guys like Jack Baldwin in the tube frame Aurora Chevy GT1 car haven’t gotten anything out of them.  In fact, they have lost out to these new rules.  It is sad when rule are changed simply to placate a minority.  That is what self serving is Tony. *exit soap box left*

It was interesting to observe the Panoz team frantically trying to be sure that the cars were legal literally minutes before the race.  I watched them remove  the airbox and replace the silicon sealant on the #4 machine.  The mechanics then started the car and covered the airbox holes with their hands to starve the motor.  I can officially tell you that the cars passed the airbox integrity test.

But onward to the race!  Amazingly this year there isn’t much to talk about!  Why you say?  Well it goes like this.  The little #63 Mazda Kudzu was flying around the 3.758 mile Sebring track, coming upon the 2 hour mark, when low and behold, the engine lets go!  What you say?!?  The engine?!?  Yes say I!  The sound of jaws dropping was deafening!

I’ve been with the team only two years, but in that time we have always finished. Granted, we have had some low finishes, but we have always gotten the car put back together and gone back out.  That is the reason we are there, to race.  The #63 was really flying.  She ran as high as third, never out of the top ten (even in the face of such Brutes as the Panoz!), and was still on the lead lap when the little engine that could couldn’t any longer.  The team contemplated fixing it and going back out, but it was the #2 rotor that failed (middle of the three), and that fact compounded the time and difficulty of getting back out on the track so the day was shelved.

So there were ten hours of racing yet to go and no Mazda Kudzu to talk about!  Well, when in Rome...Green Park is an, well, interesting place.  Located near the Hairpin, it is the “hive of retched scum and villainy” to quote Star Wars.  Most of the spectators are either drunk or high or both, sitting back, muddy(bou cou rain all week makes for black nasty mud in the infield at Sebring), watching the cars go round.  Now I’ve heard about the “Bog” at Watkins Glen (he he, before my time--its legend has been passed down by word of mouth by the old scribes in my tribe), and I imagine that this is a near as the Bog as Sebring has to offer.  My recommendation:  when at Sebring, you must experience Green Park.

So the day transitioned to night. My feet and legs got sore from traversing back and forth across the track watching each corner.  One impressive thing about the Panoz was the almost lackadaisical way they cornered.  With such a broad power band from the 6.0 liter V8, they glide in, brakes on fire, and putz on out at decievingly fast rates.

The best part about Sebring is the night.  The race takes a different image.  The stars come out and the cars begin to glow.  The  turbo Porsches grant insight into what gives them motivation from the glowing orange turbos.  The energy that propels the cars is turned into heat to slow them down.  The sparks from the rub strips try to become stars.

But such meditation is invariably distracted.  And now it is time to give the award for  the most spectacular fire of the race.  You would think it would go to the Acura NSX that burned to the ground around the seven o’clock hour, but alas no, it was beaten fairly but squarely by the impromptu blaze provided by the Green Park Gang.  It seems some poor shulbs vehicle was “requisitioned” and promptly turned over and burned causing extensive damage to two other vehicles. In past years I have seen couches and furniture consumed in toxic flames, but this was a first.  It was utter mayhem.  The poor Highlands County Sheriff’s officers were in the middle of this drunken crowd trying to keep some semblance of order.  Granted, people get drunk at football and basketball games, but they don’t go out into the parking lot and start burning cars!

So with that the race came to an end.  Moretti comes out on top for the 36 hours of Florida.  And where does he go from here?  Victory at Le Mans?  I think in the face of a full field of strong GT1 and WSC contenders his odds are slim to try and do what no one has ever done in one year, win the 60 Hours of the World (Daytona + Sebring + Le Mans).  Interestingly enough the type of competition that Moretti is likely to face at Le Mans never materialized here in the US.  Rules that were changed in order to swell fields and improve the quality of competition did just the opposite.  It intimidated the stalwart US teams and bored the Europeans. Though Moretti’s feat was no easy trick mind you, he had to first tame the tracks!

And with that another endurance season is over with.  Where will we be next year?  Who knows.  There are some interesting developments to come out of the Downing/Atlanta shops soon.  We’ll keep you informed!

ęCopyright 1998-2019, Michael J. Fuller
"Its marvelous to go so very fast!"