Crash.Net Grand AM News
Diaz the hero in Mexico
5 March 2006
In front of a raucous Mexico City crowd, hometown favourite Luis Diaz and his Chip Ganassi Racing co-driver Scott Pruett turned in a dominating performance en route to victory in Saturday's Grand Am Rolex Series Mexico City 250 at the historic Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez circuit.
Driving the pole winning #01 Telmex backed Riley-Lexus, Pruett moved immediately into the lead after starting from the pole position and never put a wheel wrong during his driving stint, building an advantage of more than 20 seconds at one point.
The 2004 Daytona Prototype co-champion brought the #01 machine onto pit lane under the race's first full-course caution on lap 47, caused when the #60 Michael Shank entry of Oswaldo Negri and Mark Patterson slid into the turn six gravel, and turned the car over to Diaz without giving up the race lead.
Diaz picked up right where Pruett left off and maintained a comfortable lead. With each passing lap, the Mexico City fans grew louder and louder, cheering their countryman to a 2.84-second victory over the #76 Krohn Racing Riley-Ford of rising star Colin Braun and German ace Jörg Bergmeister.
Diaz became the first Mexican driver in more than 30 years to earn a victory in a major international motor race in Mexico. It was just the third time that a Mexican driver has won an international event in Mexico City, following a victory by Hector Rebaque, Memo Rojas and Freddy Van Buren in the 1974 IMSA 1000km of Mexico and Moises Soloma, who won a 1968 USRRC event.
“It's a total team effort first,” Diaz said. “I have to thank everyone involved from Telmex to (team owner) Chip (Ganassi) to Carlos Slim to the whole Ganassi team. We owed this win to the Mexican people after what happened last year. I have to thank Lexus as well, as they came a long way for us from last year in terms of fuel mileage.
“Scott did an awesome job for the team today too. It was a flawless performance. This is the biggest win of my career and I couldn't be happier knowing it came with Chip Ganassi Racing in front of my family and friends.”
Pruett and Diaz's flag-to-flag victory was the first in Rolex Series competition since James Weaver and Butch Leitzinger led every lap in a pair of sprint races at Lime Rock Park in May 2001. It was also the first time that the pole-sitting car went on to win the same race since Pruett and Max Papis clinched their 2004 Daytona Prototype title with a win after starting from the pole in the 2004 season finale at California Speedway.
“This win is so exciting to be a part of,” Pruett said. “With all the team's ties to Mexico, this is just on another scale in terms of a big win. The car was perfect all day, and for this team it's very, very special to win here. I couldn't be happier for Luis. It's one thing to win big races, but another to win big races in your backyard, and he did that today. I couldn't be more proud of him.”
It was a banner day for Braun, Bergmeister and the Krohn Racing operation. The 17-year-old Braun started the #76 machine from fifth on the grid and raced with the front-runners throughout his stint before Bergmeister took over to finish the race. The team's second-place finish came in the team's first outing after switching to Ford power, and was a career-best Rolex Series performance for Braun.
“It's an honour and a pleasure to be up here with guys like Scott Pruett and Paul Tracy and this group of guys,” Braun said. “They've helped me so much in my early career. Also, this opportunity at Krohn Racing is fantastic. I've been trying to learn as much as possible from my teammates and the crew, and I think we have a chance to do good things here.”
It was Bergmeister's best result since a victory at Phoenix International Raceway last September. Saturday's second-place run coupled with a fifth-place outing in the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona moved Braun and Bergmeister atop the Daytona Prototype point standings. They hold an eight-point advantage, 58-50, over #77 Doran Racing co-drivers Terry Borcheller and Harrison Brix with two of 14 events in the books.
“I'm really happy with the car and the new engine,” said Bergmeister. “It has a lot of torque and is pretty fast. To have a fifth-place finish at Daytona and a second-place finish in the second race of the year, is not too bad.”
Finishing third were Mike Borkowski and 2003 Champ Car World Series champion Paul Tracy in the #6 Graydon Elliott Fusion Racing with MSR Riley-Lexus. After Borkowski started only 13th, he and Tracy charged their way to the front of the pack for Tracy's first-ever Rolex Series podium result and was Borkowski's best run since finishing third at Barber Motorsports Park last year.
The third-place run highlighted a tough weekend for Michael Shank's organisation, as Tracy crashed the #6 machine during Thursday's practice sessions and Negri Jr. badly crashed the team's #60 Riley in Friday practice.
“It's great to get a finish under our belt and start working our way back up in the points after not being able to finish Daytona,” said Borkowski. “It also feels good to get Graydon Elliott on the podium. We were really focused on getting a finish here this weekend for those guys, and it's even better to get them up on the podium. The car was much better today than it had been all weekend, and Paul did a great job with the restarts to get us some key positions late in the race. This has been a tough weekend all around, so to make it up to third at the finish is really encouraging for us looking forward to the rest of the season.”
“I really had a blast out there racing with Max (Angelelli), he's pretty much as crazy as I am, and we had a really great fight out there, running door handle to door handle all the way down the front stretch,” added Tracy. “No matter if we had been fighting over 14th place, it was a great battle and that's the kind of racing you get up for in the morning.
“I want to thank Graydon Elliott and Mike Shank for making this opportunity possible, and also really thank Kenny Wilden for stepping out of the car and letting me run this race this weekend. Without all these guys, it just wouldn't have happened. I kind of got us behind early in the weekend with my crash on Thursday, but the team worked hard and we had a strong racecar today. Restarts are pretty much my specialty, and the car was really good under braking so I was able to move up several spots each time.”
Butch Leitzinger and Andy Wallace earned their first top-four performance of the season with a fourth-place outing in the #4 Howard-Boss Crawford-Ford. It was Wallace's best Rolex Series run since finishing second in the penultimate race of 2005 season at Virginia International Raceway, and was the best performance for Leitzinger since a third-place outing at Phoenix last September.
Brix and Borcheller completed the top five in the #77 Doran, taking the championship lead in the process after Oswaldo Negri and Mark Patterson, who came into the race as the leading series regulars, could only finish 19th in a car loaned from rival outfit Tuttle Team SAMAX. Fifth was a career-best result for Brix, and was Borcheller's best run since he finished fourth in the September, 2005 event at Watkins Glen International.
Similar to the dominating performance by Pruett and Diaz in the Daytona Prototype category, the GT pole sitting car also went on to claim the class win in the 100-lap race, as Kelly Collins and Paul Edwards returned Kevin Buckler's #64 TRG Pontiac GTO.R to victory lane, repeating that particular car's Mexican victory last November.
Collins started the machine on the GT pole, and kept the car near the front of the class pack throughout his stint. Despite losing several positions at the start of the race, Collins rebounded and benefited from the lap 46 caution period to turn in a quick pit stop that propelled his teammate Edwards back to the front of the class for good.
“We played the strategy great today,” said Collins. “The guys in the pits kept us out during the yellow until we got the 'wave by' which was lucky for us as I really thought we only had a second or third place car today. There was a lot of craziness in traffic and the track got really greasy early on, but it is nice to get my first in the Pontiac with TRG and iRise.”
When the caution flag came out, the #64 machine was between the pace car and the overall race leader. By rule, each car between the pace car and the lead car is given a “wave by,” in which cars positioned ahead of the race leader are allowed the pass the pace car and join the tail end of the field. As a result, the #64 Pontiac put a lap on its competitors, one it would give back during a later caution flag.
Collins handed the car over to Edwards during the caution, and Edwards, who shared last year's Mexico City win with Jan Magnussen, stayed in front for the remainder of the race, winning by a 12.564-second margin over the #80 Shoes for Crews Porsche GT3.
“I got the car in the lead and was able to run good laps and bring it home,” said Edwards. “The car was falling off a little, as we were struggling to keep pace during the race. The strategy gave us track position and we were able to win.”
The #80 Synergy Racing machine, co-driven by Leh Keen and David Murry, started fourth on the class grid, and was the only GT machine to finish on the same lap as the #64 car. The runner-up result erases a disappointing 22nd-place class finish in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, and puts the duo in good shape in the GT championship standings heading into round three at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Finishing third was the #65 TRG/F1 Air Pontiac GTO.R, which was qualified fifth by Marc Bunting and finished by Andy Lally. In La Gran Final de la Serie Rolex Sports Car, the 2005 season finale at the Mexico City circuit, Murry passed Lally on the final lap to clinch the GT championship for then-teammate Craig Stanton, by a one-point margin over the #65 car teammates. However, this year's third-place run puts Bunting and Lally atop the 2006 GT driver standings, holding a nine-point advantage over Collins, Edwards, Robin Liddell, Wolf Henzler and Spencer Pumpelly.
Liddell and Henzler, sharing the #72 Tafel Racing Porsche GT3 finished fourth. Liddell started the car alongside Collins and took the lead into turn one on the first lap, building a four-second lead over the #64 Pontiac by lap 14. The car lost the class lead during the first caution period and never challenged for the lead again.
Tafel Racing complemented its fourth-place finish with a fifth-place result by team owner/co-driver Jim Tafel and Andrew Davis in the #73 Porsche GT3. Davis qualified the car third and Tafel finished slightly more than 12 seconds behind Henzler.
Pumpelly, who co-drove to the Rolex 24 At Daytona GT class win with Michael Levitas, Ian Baas and Randy Pobst, was the only entered driver in the #81 Synergy Racing Porsche GT3, and completed only three laps before going behind the wall. For his effort, he was rewarded with 13th-place class points, and is still in the middle in the GT championship mix.
In the midst of a race slowed by just three caution periods, the last of which set up a frantic four lap dash to the finish, a lap 74 crash involving Chris Bingham in the #40 Derhaag Motorsports Riley-Pontiac and JC France in the #59 Brumos Racing Fabcar turned into a physical altercation between the two drivers. As a result, both drivers have been suspended from the upcoming Rolex Series event at Homestead Miami Speedway and have been placed on open-ended probation. Additional sanctions against the drivers are likely.
Mexican racing hero Adrian Fernandez and his co-driver Mario Haberfeld made it to the finish of a Grand Am race for the first time in the new Fernandez Racing Riley-Pontiac as did Fernandez's fellow Indycar Series team owner Eddie Cheever in his Porsche powered Crawford shared with Christian Fittipaldi. In the battle between the single seater quartet, Cheever and Fittipaldi edged it by three seconds over Fernandez and Haberfeld to take sixth and seventh places respectively.