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THE AGONY OF VICTORY

 

AN AMATEUR TEAM GOES TO THE TWENTY FOUR HOURS OF DAYTONA

By Sam Low

European Car Magazine May 1996

All Photos by Sam Low

 

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THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 1ST.

 

09:00 : day one of practice for the Daytona 24 hour endurance race. I have joined "the Great American Dream Team," two amateur drivers, two professionals and a supporting cast of about a dozen who will crew car 03, a GTS-2 Porsche 3.8 RS that only a six weeks ago was parked in a snow bank in upper New York State . The inner machinations of the story are too complex to tell, the outline is this: Alan Friedman, a Porsche club driver, purchased the car, ostensibly to go PCA racing in the Spring. The machine has a distinguished lineage. Built by Bob Holcombe and driven by Mark Mehelic, it finished first overall at the three hour night Tribute To LeMans race last year. Jim McCarthy, a club driving instructor, learned about the Porsche and called Alan to chat about it. By then, Alan had raised his sights a little, "Do you want to go racing at Daytona?" he asked Jim. "It's the chance of a lifetime!" And so it would turn out to be.

 

Meeting Alan and Jim at Daytona on this Thursday morning are: Kelly Collins (Corona del Mar, California) and Dirk Layer (Vail, Colorado) both professional drivers; Larry Galbo (Tulsa, Oklahoma) amateur driver; Dodge Whipple, (Allentown, Pennsylvania) sponsor; Sal Barbagalo (Deluth, Georgia) crew chief and car preparer; Bill Pfister (Boston, Massachusetts) mechanic and chassis tuner; and the rest of the team - Bill Maroun (Allentown), Phil Casey (Vera Cruz, Pennsylvania), Jack Harris (Salem, Virginia), John Chriswell (Atlanta), J.J. Johnson (Atlanta) and Marc Forrester (Boston). Most of us have never been on a race team or even been to Daytona. And we are here to take on the big boys. I ask Dodge Whipple, team sponsor and Porsche Club member, why he's here. "I wanted to show what a few guys from the Porsche club could do in a professional event. Some club instructors have more seat time than many of the pros. In club events we learn to be smooth, not to abuse the car, and that's the kind of skill you need in a 24 hour race."

 

At 10:00 , the sun breaks through a layer of puffy fair weather cumulus. The asphalt paddock absorbs the heat and kicks it back ten fold. Everyone sweats. Bill Pfister and Jack Harris are working on alignment using a stick of wood and tape measure to quickly check toe. There is time for no more. Car owner Alan Friedman is inundated with decisions. His personality, normally strung at high C, seems now to glow with intensity. He is gentled by Sal, the experienced center of the team, the man who prepped this car in a miraculous three weeks, who has seen it all before. The crew, disoriented at first, begin to jell under the goad of the ticking clock. Practice: 12:30 to 14:00 . I begin to jot down what I see in my race diary. The engine sputters after 5500 RPM. Is the fuel injection too lean? The car feels stiff. The rear view mirror jiggles so much that the driver's can't see anything - dangerous with World Sports Car Ferraris and Riley/Scott cars doing 220 miles an hour and closing at 80!

 

"I can't see shit directly behind me under any kind of acceleration or braking," says Dirk, "when I go into an apex I'm praying." Turning to the other drivers, he says, "the WSC and GTS1 guys are wound up, they will take a low percentage move on you in a turn, just expect that. Be wary.

 

"How does the car feel?" asks Sal.

 

"It feels like it should be a little softer overall, maybe 200 pounds less on the springs."

 

"When you come off the banking, how's the transition?"

 

"That's where it does this," says Dirk, moving his hand from side to side to show that the car feels a little unstable.

 

14:15 - 16:00 : back to the garage. Softer springs are mounted. Bob Holcombe, the engine builder, confers with Sal and Alan. Is the misfire caused by a faulty computer program? Should they reprogram? If they do, they'll lose the old settings. Perhaps it's a mechanical problem, something to do with an injector? They decide to chance it and try a new program. While the engine is being diagnosed, Bill and Jack wait patiently to complete corner weighting the car. With five minutes to go before qualifying, they finish. Most of the GTS-2 cars have now left the garage for the track. The World Sports Car team to the right of us, their qualifying stint complete, is relaxing. One of them wears a tee shirt, its message is blunt: "It's a speed thing. You wouldn't understand." Finally the car is as ready as it will ever be - still not totally aligned, with duct tape to steady the mirror. Dirk gets in and goes out.

 

16:00 - 16:20 . First qualifying attempt. The misfire puts us way back in the pack. If we can't solve it we may not even make the field.

 

1700: Garage: one hour left before practice - driving lights are mounted, new tires arrive, the car is properly aligned, a new rear view mirror is attached. Everybody pitches in to help - anything - wiping windshields, lugging stuff.

 

18:00 - 20:00 . Night Practice. The car is in and out of the pits. The engine continues to sputter above 5500 RPM, maybe it's a fuel starvation problem. "If we don't fix this we won't be able to race," says Larry Galbo. "We'll run the engine too lean and it will blow up." Jim McCarthy goes out and runs a few laps. The lights are not working properly. "Coming off three I couldn't even see the breaking points," he tells me. Not a good way to learn the track, I think, and he has had only five laps at the wheel.

 

20:39 : Garage: two of Bob Holcombe's crew arrive to help out. We find that one of the six fuel pumps is malfunctioning. That's problem, but it's probably not the problem.

 

**************

 

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 2ND.

The Garage: 09:00 - 11:00 . Dirk Layer, a professional driver, is unused to last minute preparations of this magnitude. "Time is short and I'm concerned that we'll get everything done," he tells me. I ask Bill Pfister for a progress report. "I went back to the hotel last night and sorted it all out in my head," he says. "I got to the track at seven A.M. and installed a fuel pump gauge so we can find out if there really is a fuel problem under load."

 

Jim: "We've got a good crew and a lot of cooperation from other people. The car feels really good and that's because of Bill Pfister. Bob Holcombe, from Motor Sport Design, who built most of the car is throwing in his effort to get the skip out of the motor. Peter Dawe, Andial's first employee, is going to work on the car. Joe Cogbill, a great driver, will be sorting the car out for us. We've got the best talent available. I think it's comraderie that does it. Even though we're competing against each other, it's one racer helping another."

 

10:20 : Alan Friedman is under the car. Phil Casey and Jack are huddled around the front, replacing the faulty fuel pump and checking every one of the fuel fittings. I count ten people swarming over the Porsche. Alan has decided not to drive. He has too much to do as overall team manager. Sal: "How're we doing? Are all the fuel fittings ready and tightened up? Let's get this baby ready to go out!"

 

10:50 : hot shot Porsche driver Joe Cogbill, a friend of Sal's, has arrived to help sort out the car. He straps in and she is fired up.

 

On the straight - Daytona - Sam Low Photo

11:05 : The car goes by the pits. Everyone strains to listen to the engine's song. "It sounds a lot better," someone shouts. Alan hugs Sal and pats Bill on the back. Cogbill turns a warm-up lap at 2:13:23 , then 2:09.02. Gogbill pits and gets out of the car. Amidst the screams of racing engines I catch a few bits of conversation, "It handles real good but the brakes are so tight that you can't modulate them at all." There is even worse news. The engine still has a misfire at above 5500 RPM. Bill Pfister: "Maybe it's the crankshaft sensor. Maybe an individual coil is breaking down. The tach drops off when its happening. The tach tells all. I think its a problem with the ignition." Dodge: "It's probably something stupid like a loose wire." Bill goes under the car and moves the reference mark sensor a little closer to the flywheel.

 

11:39 : Cogbill goes out again, makes one lap and comes in. Sal jumps the wall and confers with him. "Get the jack stands, we went the wrong way. It altered the engine big time." Within three minutes the car is out again.

 

11:47 : the Porsche goes by, sounding better. Cogbill stays out. His laps come down - 2:09.8... 2:07.48... 2:06.7. I have not seen Sal smile yet, but now he allows his mouth to pucker in a slight quiver of pleasure. 12:01 : checker. Alan Friedman comes back after a short conference with Cogbill. "He says its handling beautifully, the setup is perfect." Alan embraces Bill Pfister. I go over to chat with Cogbill and find the final verdict on the engine is sobering: "It's not really any better. It's still skipping. You've got to sort out the engine for the race." And, I think, none of the other team drivers has had an opportunity to practice. Sal: "The first thing we need to get sorted out is this misfire. But when we get that done we'll still be behind. We've got to practice our pit stops. We've got to get everybody and all the equipment together in this next session so everyone knows what to do. Remember that this is basically the Indianapolis 500 of IMSA races. It's been a real tough effort to just get here and sort out the car, and I've really not had time to find out what everyone is good at. I need to sort out the team. But we'll get to that. Everybody has just got to be patient."

 

13:00 : Garage: Brian Smyth, who helped build the engine, checks the car's computer with an electronic gizmo. Sal tests the air jacks - finds they don't lift the rear of the car all the way up. Jack slips a piece of 2x4 under the jacks and the car comes off the ground. It's Rube Goldberg, but it will have to do. There's no time to sort out the jacks.

 

By 14:00 , the Blondes have arrived along with the car nuts and tourists. Television cameras are pointed at svelte young men in brightly colored drivers suits while grease smudged mechanics swarm over the cars unnoticed. The collective tension in the garage ratchets up 300 percent. Every one of the golf carts here yesterday has sprouted off-spring, producing golf car grid-lock. The Hooters girls parade by. Car body parts are everywhere, as if there had been a catastrophic explosion in each garage. The weather is now unsettled. Ragged cumulus clouds skid overhead under a wan blue sky, stringy with higher cirrus clouds. Banners flutter in the stiffening breeze - Ferrari, Doyle Racing, Momo, Team Viper. Seventy dollars buys a pass that gets you into the garage sanctum for four days and it seems like everyone at Daytona understands how good a deal this is. In the midst of these swarming non-combatants, million dollar World Sports Car machines move cautiously out to the track for qualifying, engines screaming to part the milling crowd. In just an hour it will be our turn.

 

14:04 : Bill Maroun is checking electrical connections with an ohmeter and soldering all the grounds. Bill Pfister is under the car pulling and checking each plug. Dodge: "it's starting to become a real team. That's as much fun to watch as the racing, maybe even more so." Sal and Brian turn the engine over by hand to insure that all the crankshaft sensors are set exactly right. Jack and John Chriswell are coiling hose for the air jacks.

 

15:00 : The car pulls out, right on time for the final 20 minute qualifying run. The team is now deep into reading the musical scale of the car's engine as the car goes by. Under the red visor of his Riesentoter Porsche club instructor's hat, Dodge's eyes are creased in concentration, his mustache drooping over compressed lips. Whhhrrrrrraaaaaaammmmm, the car flashes by the start-finish line. Dodge thinks that maybe it sounds better, but without radio communication with the driver no-one knows for sure. Later, we learn that the engine still has a consistent missfire at high revs. We have qualified in 74th place out of 79 cars on the final grid. In the afternoon, Dirk makes up a list of items that will be needed for the race: Course maps with reference points clearly marked so a driver can tell the pit where he is if he has to stop on the track; a radio scanner to monitor the corner workers; a sleeping area prepared in the trailer for the drivers; spare wheels for rain tires; a small flashlight and tools in the car in case the driver has to work on it; two more driving lights installed; sleeping bags; food and drink - the list goes on and on. By 17:00 , billious clouds scud overhead. The bright colors of team uniforms, especially blues and purples, seem to vibrate in the queer light of dusk. The weather is becoming even more unsettled as the bar of low pressure, just fifty miles to the north, begins to move down toward Daytona.

 

That night, I drive back to my hotel, thinking of the team as they methodically seek the source of the car's mysterious misfire. Our chances of competing, and of even running the race, hinge on finding the problem. On the corner of Speedway Avenue and the main drag along the beach, I see two girls reporting to work as exotic dancers at the Shark Lounge. The Belly-Up Bar is filling with regulars celebrating the arrival of Race Weekend. At the Speedway Cycle shop, they are wheeling Harleys under cover. Thirty members of the Boston Porsche Club are now in the air after being delayed at Logan Airport by the massive storm system that has inserted itself across the country from Texas to New York . By the time I arrive at the Holiday Inn, it has begun to blow hard. Rain falls in diagonal sheets. The road is littered with palm fronds. I have returned to the hotel early to begin writing this article, or at least that's what I tell the team, but it's really because after only ten hours at the track, blasted by 120 decibel exhausts and baked by the sun, I'm exhausted and in serious need of quiet time. And a beer. The team will be working until they are kicked out of the track at ten. I'm glad that I'm not Alan, having to worry about the race details, the car, the team - and now, the weather.

 

*************

SATURDAY - RACE DAY

I show up at the garage at about nine A.M. to find a general frenzy of activity. An exaggerated gentility settles over the team as the clock starts to tick down to race start. "Excuse me please." Thankyou." "I'm sorry, you'll have to move." I find Dodge and ask him about the engine. "Bill Pfister and Bill Maroun worked on the fuel and ignition systems until they were kicked out of the garage and they finally got it licked," he says. "Sal is being a great crew chief. I'm smiling today." By 11:00 , the ceiling drops ominously and the sky turns lead grey. Puddles mirror back team members bending over their tasks. In spite of the milling crowds of onlookers, the atmosphere in our garage is calm. Everyone pitches in now to accomplish the little tasks that will smooth things during the race. Laura Mars shows up to take on the job of supplying food. Mark Forrester and I have purchased gallons of water and Gator Aid along with four coolers and ice. We clean out the "driver's lounge" where the racers will sleep after stints at the wheel. Spare parts are rounded up and taken to the pits along with jacks, tool boxes, tires... We all change into fire proof suits. Under the darkening sky, the colors are subdued - as is the crowd. At 10:37 the cold front begins to move in and the temperate drops ten degrees in half an hour.

 

13:00 : The start. Car 03 begins the race at the back of the pack, but after only one lap Dirk has put eleven cars behind him in a magnificent display of cautiously aggressive driving. 13:24 : Dirk radios that the car has picked up a slight push. "His tires are coming down," says Sal, "but stay out there, that's the key." We have started on tires that have gone through a number of heat cycles, and they are already beginning to go away. In spite of failing traction, Dirk's times drop. He passes the pits doing sevens and eights. A few laps later he is down into the sixes, settling in, running well. The first of many fifty gallon drums of racing fuel arrives. Gas is pumped into the fueling station, ready for the first pit stop.

 

14:21 : we are 17th in class. I go up to the photo tower across from the start-finish line to watch our car. It flashes down the straight and disappears behind the Winston scoreboard into the infield. I catch a glimpse of it between parked recreation vehicles and then again as Dirk enters a tight switchback. His tail lights flash as he trail brakes into the corner. Soon he is up on the bank of NASCAR Two and I follow him as he accelerates and disappears behind a forest of flags, then along the last banked turn and finally down the long main straight where he brakes to turn into the infield. I decide to stay in the tower to watch the first pit stop, a tense moment because we have had zero time for training. Everyone will be doing their jobs for the first time under race conditions. Bill Maroun, assigned to the rear tires, has never changed a tire in anger before. John Chriswell will man the fire extinguisher. Jack will Fuel. Dodge will handle the deadman valve in the pits. Sal, as crew chief, will debrief the driver. Bill Pfister is on the front tires. At 14:16 , the car zooms down pit lane and stops on her marks. The team swarms over the wall - tires are changed, fuel dumped in, the windscreen is wiped off and the car is away - all in about three and a half minutes. A gentle mist begins to fall, blurring my view of the cars on the far backstraight. By 15:00 , the mist turns nasty, near rain, and a bone chilling cold sweeps over the Speedway . Jim McCarthy, the next driver scheduled, ascends the tower to survey the track. He stands, hands in pockets, watching Dirk dive into the infield.

 

"It's high anxiety time," he tells me, "I really don't know this track."

 

Jim follows Dirk for many laps, trying to memorize the layout of the race course from the tower. I wonder how I would feel in his position. He has had only five practice laps. With Dirk doing well, the car is now lying 11th in class, and Jim wants to be sure not to make a stupid mistake.

"I really don't like driving in the wet very much," he confides. As we watch, one of the GTS-1 cars spins at the exit to the infield, pauses to let a few cars go by, and regains the track.

 

16:13 : Pit stop. The car lies 11th in class, 32nd overall. Jim straps in. I notice a nasty black scuff mark running along the left side of the Porsche. Driver Larry Galbo apologizes to Alan. "The left mirror wasn't adjusted," he explains, "and I couldn't see anything so I came down on a car. It's my fault, I should have made sure it was right before I went out."

 

"Don't worry about it," says Alan.

 

Jim's first lap is a reasonable 2:15 . He begins to come down steadily, 2:13 , 2:11 and then settles in for consistent laps at 2:14 . "My tires are going away," he radios to the pits.

 

16:48 : Yellow flag - Jim comes in to change tires and is replaced by Kelly Collins. Jim: "There is an intimidation factor out there for sure. I did about four laps under yellow and then with the restart I had the WSC cars going by real fast. You try to give them a lot of room. These are world class drivers, the best that God can make, and its just incredible to drive with them. One guy came by me with an inch to spare. That really woke me up! About four cars went off in the infield and I did a loop-de-loop there, too. But it was a blast. I've never experienced anything like it."

 

17:42 : The car, running 31st overall and 10th in class, pits to replace a CV joint. Bill Pfister changes the entire right rear axle in 6 minutes.

 

18:00 : The pit stop has set us back to 43rd overall and 20th in class.

 

20:00 : The rain continues to fall obliquely across the quartz lamps illuminating the pits. Small pools of spectators move out the entrances. Only diehards remain. Jim McCarthy heads back to the transporter to sleep on a hard bench; his next stint will begin at about 1 P.M. Car 03 has moved up in class from 20th place to 15th. Bill Maroun is joking with Dodge about his misadventures as pit crew: "On the first pit stop, the extension to my air gun broke. The next time, the socket spun off under the car and I had to fish it out while everyone was waiting. On the third, I finally got the hang of it. I've never done this before, but I'm okay now." "You really learn about people when the chips are down," Says Dodge.

 

20:00 - 24:00 : Boredom. The car runs smoothly and the drivers improve our position from 28th overall and 10th in class to 18th and 7th.

 

00:15 : Dirk comes in and reports that the gearbox feels tender. This is worrisome because the team knows the transmission is the weak link. With only a few weeks to rebuild it, a few questionable parts had to be used. Jim goes out and comes back in at 00:43 with locking brakes. The pads are replaced in about 9 minutes. Some of the crew have never done the job before. The front pads are totally worn out but the rear have some life left in them. "That's real bad in a 911," says Dodge, "you can't build any confidence when the rear brakes are locking up." The car goes out. After the long pit stop, we have dropped to 23rd o/all and 10th in class.

 

02:00 : the car moves back up in the field - 19th overall, 9th in class. She is running like a top. The crew is now thinking about a top five finish. We drink lots of coffee. At 3 A.M. I decide to go to the hotel for a catnap.

 

SUNDAY - THE LAST DAY. At 06:00 , I return to the track, nervous. I go right away to the press room and pick up the IMSA hourly reports to find that the car is still running, now in 17th place overall and 7th in class, a steady improvement during the night.When I arrive in the pits, Larry is getting out of the car. He reports to Dodge: "It's really slippery out there, especially in the infield, I spun there."

 

"You went right round and got out of it Okay?" Dodge asks him.

 

"Yeah, there's really no slip in the differential and so it's even harder to control. I hate this kind of shit. It's hard to judge the traction on the track. I like it to either rain cats and dogs or be dry."

 

During the night, Larry has put in a best time in the upper 04s. In spite of his pessimism about the weather, he is ebullient. He began racing only ten months ago. Now he's at Daytona! Dodge is sitting in his deck chair with his feet up on the fueling stand: "I love this shit," he says.

 

09:00 - 10:45 : We maintain 14th overall and 7th in class.

 

11:06 : Dirk reports losing power over the radio, the car has fallen back to 15th overall and 8th in class. Bill Pfister: "During a previous pit stop we heard combustion pressure leaking out. It's serious, could be a broken stud or a head gasket which could cause a burnt valve or worse - a holed piston." Dirk slows to 2:17s . Tension - should they keep going and risk blowing up a $40,000 motor? Dodge: "It's Alan's nickle. It's his call at this point." Alan goes over to Alex Job racing to consult a computer that keeps track of IMSA scoring. "If we can nurse it along we can still finish 10th in class. Let's keep going," he says.Now the goal is just finishing, but that seems eminently possible. Sal is already thinking about the future: "We've got to come back here next year with our act together," he jokes with Alan.Dirk passes the pits and radios to Sal: "I've got to pee." Sal keys his mike: "That's too bad, buddy, cause you're staying out there. You'll just have to pee in your pants." In spite of his swollen bladder and the tender engine, Dirk is now turning steady 2:15 laps. Everyone is remarkably calm. The pit crew is asleep.Larry: "I will kiss that dirty front bumper if that car just crosses the line." Sal: " Ill give you something dirty to kiss."

 

12:03 : the car comes in for a routine fuel stop. It sounds extraordinarily rough to me. The car goes out.

 

12:05 : Dirk on radio, "The cockpit is filling with fumes. I'm coming in."

 

12:06 : Dirk hits the marks and bails out. Smoke is pouring from the cockpit and engine compartment. The team swarms. Oil hemorrhages from beneath the rear wheel wells. An IMSA monitor comes over, shakes his head, and threatens to put the car over the wall. Sal is under the Porsche cleaning the engine to find the leak. Jim is in the cockpit as relief driver. Sal now peers into the engine compartment. Using a flashlight, he finds a jagged hole in the case.

 

12:23 : number 03 is pronounced dead. The team rushes the car to the garage to preserve her dignity to the last. Alan arrives. In the pits, he joked with the team, thanked them for their effort. "It's alright, we did a great job," he told them. Now he walks up to his battered car and bends over it. He weeps. I join him. For me, too, the Porsche has become a living thing. I realize that she is wounded, but not dead. She will race again. I feel better. At 14:00 , I go over to the IMSA truck to get the final results - Car 03 finished 17th overall and 10th in class. A team who had never worked together before, one made up of dedicated amateurs supported by a few professionals, has acquitted itself well. Extremely well. It's a victory, but one mixed with agony.


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