The American Le Mans series pitched its tent alongside the Champ Car contingent earlier this year to participate for the first time in the annual star-studded bacchanal that is the Long Beach Grand Prix. This year's grand marshals included filmmaker George Lucas and Playboy impresario Hugh Hefner, but the unofficial stars were alcohol and the merriment it invariably induces.
Toyota, the lead sponsor of the race, has long understood the PR value in having its name associated with Southern California's largest sporting event. (Attendance this year topped 175,000 on each of the race's three days.) By joining in the fun for '07, the ALMS hoped to garner more of the public exposure it needs to build its own series.
The LBGP started in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race, served as the West Coast home of the Formula 1 series from 1976-1983, and, since 1984, has played host to the Indy Car/CART/CHAMP car series. The race is played out on 1.968 miles of surface streets in downtown Long Beach. For 2007, the LBGP enticed 25 ALMS entries to test their mettle on the tricky road course.
Unfortunately, the ALMS teams were afforded precious little time to get acquainted with the unique problems posed by the street circuit. Setup was scheduled for the Thursday before the race, with no track time allotted. Friday provided a 40-minute practice in the morning and a 40-minute qualifying session in the afternoon, splitting the entries into two groups given 20 minutes each to make their best time for grid position. That left only a 20-minute warm-up Saturday morning, with the 100-minute race scheduled for 4:00 in the afternoon.
Severe wind conditions, coupled with an ever-shifting layer of dirt and sand that had blown onto the track surface Friday, made for tricky handling at race time. Getting even slightly off-line produced severe understeer, and the teams were forced to scramble to stay abreast of the changing conditions.
Nonetheless, the race got off to a clean start, and all escaped the opening Turn 1 melee that typifies Long Beach. There is a huge straight before this turn, and speeds are at a maximum coming in. It is not uncommon for one or more racers to overestimate their cars' stopping ability in an attempt to establish an early lead.
Corvette Racing had no competition in its class at Long Beach, as the lone Aston team from Sebring decided to sit out the series and wait for Le Mans. Aston Martin itself had recently been sold to a Dubai-based group fronted by David Richards of Britain's Prodrive. (As of this writing, the new company had just taken over full control of the automaker, prompting speculation that the factory-backed DBR9s would rejoin the ALMS series full time at some point after June's 24 Hours of Le Mans.)
Lacking GT1 competition, Corvette Racing team members used the LBGP to hone their driving, pit-stop, and car-prep skills in preparation for Le Mans. But with the Long Beach course offering no runoff, and hard concrete walls standing sentinel at the track's edge, drivers were forced to play the difficult game of pushing the cars to their limits-without surpassing them. Having to replace a fully-developed C6.R so soon before Le Mans could have spelled disaster.
Within 30 minutes of the start, there was an accident that brought out a long, full-course yellow. Many of the teams embroiled in battles for prominence within their respective classes were forced to make pit-stop decisions and strategy adjustments. Corvette Racing, with its focus on team development, rather than blistering race times, kept its drivers out to complete their planned full stints behind the wheel.
The race eventually completed its required time allotment in uneventful fashion. The final standings found the P2 Porsches of Penske racing dealing the dominant, diesel-powered P1 Audi R10s their first overall defeat. Corvette Racing, meanwhile, grabbed uncontested First and Second Places in class.
With Long Beach in the books, Corvette Racing looked forward to two more "tune-up" races-Houston and Salt Lake-leading up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Given the heavy Aston presence expected in Sarthe, the C6.R contingent would need to make the most of both of them.