The Lone Star Grand Prix of Houston is the American Le Mans Series' follow-up to the traditional season opener in Sebring. This year's event was unique in that it was presented as a joint venture between the open-wheel Champ Car World Series and the ALMS, with the sports-car race scheduled for Friday night and the Champ Car race following on Saturday night.
Houston has hosted ALMS/IMSA events in the past, but this year the race was relocated from downtown to the Reliant Center complex. The move allowed promoters to set up a road course that was far more interesting than the one dictated by the regimented layout of the typical downtown grid pattern.
Unfortunately, the course was extremely bumpy, and cars in all classes, especially the prototypes, had a difficult time keeping the rubber planted on the road. The circuit was murderous on everything mechanical, and many of the teams had problems dealing with it. The Corvette drivers commented that their fingers and thumbs were unusually sore from steering the rapid lefts and rights demanded by the busy 1.7-mile circuit.
The C6.Rs immediately got down to business with an out-of-the-box suspension setup that gave them a good head start on their eventual race-day settings. The Pratt & Miller crew employ a computer program that allows them to predict suspension settings based on a simulation of the racecourse. This technology helped the Vettes to the top of the field in the GT1 class, with Ron Fellows taking a hard-fought pole position after only one practice run.
The British Prodrive team, in the Aston Martin DBR9s, provided the race's closest competition. While the Astons were given a weight-reduction benefit over the Corvettes after this year's Sebring race, they continued to have trouble getting optimum performance from their Pirelli tires in the hot daytime weather. But Friday's race was programmed to start at 8 p.m., and the cooler night temperatures promised that the Pirellis would be back in form. Konrad Racing, with its Saleen S7R, made up the remainder of the GT1 grid.
The race started out with Olivier Beretta, in the No. 4 C6.R, jumping into the GT1 lead ahead of Fellows, in the No. 3 car. With Ron hot on Olivier's heels, it took him only 35 minutes to pass No. 4 and gain the lead in class. The group then settled into race pace with the Astons in swift pursuit.
The Corvettes relinquished the lead at about 75 minutes into the race, when pit stops forced them off the track to refuel, change tires, and swap drivers-Johnny O'Connell subbing for Ron, and Oliver Gavin stepping in for Olivier. Soon after, the Astons pitted, leaving the two Corvettes to reestablish their lead. O'Connell kept the lead for the next 111/42 hours, despite big pressure from the sister No. 4 car. The Aston team didn't give in, either, with Stephane Sarrazin in the No. 009 car constantly nipping at the Corvettes' heels.
The Pratt & Miller team knew the cars would require a splash of fuel to finish the race. The only question was whether the crew would take the time to install new tires as well. Then came the answer. In the heat of action, the third-place Aston lost it and spun off course, its tires having obviously gone away under the abuse of trying to catch the C6.Rs. The Corvette team immediately made preparations to pit the cars for both fuel and tires.
The No. 4 car pitted first and was out with a very quick stop. The No. 3 car stayed out for two more laps, giving Johnny a chance to take advantage of the lack of traffic and perhaps build on his lead. But just as Johnny came in for his pit stop, one of Porsche's new LMP2 cars lost power on course, forcing the ALMS safety crews to throw a full-course yellow. The exchange of pit-stop duties and the intrusion of the yellow flag conspired to put Johnny behind the No. 4 car exiting the pits.
With only 15 minutes left in the race, there was no time to regain the lead. The Corvettes finished 1-2 in class, with Oliver taking First in the No. 4 car and Johnny, having led for 111/42 hours, taking a disappointing Second in No. 3.
While the No. 3 crew may have felt cheated at the end, the overall results for the Corvette Racing team were tremendous. The C6.Rs were not only First and Second in class, they managed to capture Second and Third overall. The Astons, meanwhile, came in Fourth and Fifth overall, just behind the Corvettes. This was the highest overall finish by GT1 competitors in ALMS history. Oliver Gavin has now racked up 17 ALMS class wins, while Olivier Beretta now holds the record for the most wins in ALMS history, with 26.
With the Mid-Ohio ALMS race scheduled for the week after Houston, and pre-qualifying for Le Mans set to kick off the week after that, the team won't have much time to savor the victory. Indeed, team members will leave for Le Mans right after the Mid-Ohio event and spend the next three weeks in France going through pre-qual, qualifying, and, finally, the 2006 edition of the Heures du Mans extravaganza. Pratt & Miller and Corvette Racing are a busy bunch, flying the American flag in pursuit of Corvette perfection.