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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Red, White and Brew

Red, White and Brew: 
Memorial Weekend Racing at Lime Rock Speedway
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Lakeville, NY – Soft easy curves. Nice long straightaways. Dips in all the right places. Sounds like a girl you might like to meet. But these were the roadways leading to Lime Rock Park Speedway, my destination this overcast Memorial Day Weekend.

In my wide sedan with its powerful V-8, I cruised these roadways, getting myself into the right mind frame for a full day of racing. Qualifying had occurred yesterday for today’s major events: the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Street Tuner (ST) and Grand Sport (GT) races.

I collected my credentials, stowed my land yacht in a grassy stable and sidled over to Magnus Racing’s hospitality area. Flipping French toast and peeling apart strips of bacon were Jessica Bregy, Donald Shipwash and Team Logistics and Hospitality Director Lorie Bedell. They were a bubbly and busy bunch while their racing team made last minute engine tweaks under a large canopy.

Bedell served up some background on the team, notably that it had only been formed last November in a whirlwind, six-week make-ready process. Team owner John Potter, a mere 28, spearheaded the effort, and assembled a “dream team of top mechanics.” She added, “They call us ‘The Team in Green’”, referring to the color of their outfits and the trim on the cars. There are three they maintain, all Porsches. The one running today was a 2009 Cayman S, direct fuel injection, flat 6-cylinder, 325 h.p.

“Someone asked if were Waste Management,” mused Bedell, after the person noted their green threads. “But don’t tell the owner!”

“That just means you’ll clean up on the track!” I shot back.

As we chatted, the first race of the day, the Skip Barber National Series presented by Mazda, got under way. The sweet sound of whirring engines filled the air as the cars circled the track while we stood in the paddock area, where all the racing teams house their cars.

In the Turner Motorsports area, which had three BMWs – two M3’s and a 328xi hybrid – Car Chief Lucas Griffin was overseeing prep. “We’re on pole with the 328 and have high hopes for today’s ST race,” he said. “He was actually whistling ‘High Hopes’ all last night. I couldn’t get him to stop,” joked mechanic Paul. Then Griffin asked Paul, “Got fuel?”  The reply: “Yep, and ice, water and whisky.” I imagined they engaged in this playful banter regularly.

Over at Capaldi Racing, Team Owner Leo Capaldi out of Chesterfield, Michigan, was overseeing work on his cars, all baby blue 4.6-Liter GT Mustangs with aftermarket enhancements. “The #22 and #34 Mustangs are entered in the Mustang Challenge (a 1:30 race prior to the GS race) and the #19 is in the GS. We’ve had one of the fastest cars in recent races and are hoping for two podiums.”

As a 20-minute Spec Racer event began, the sun and clouds above us played tug-o-war, with the gray clouds sending down some rain droplets. I asked a passing spectator if I was truly feeling rain but he assertively and optimistically said, “Nope. No rain. No rain at all. Uh-uh.”

I-Moto Racing out of Raleigh, NC was racing two cars – 2010 Mazda Speed 3’s, 4-cylinder turbos. These were built by Speed Source in Florida and owned by Glenn Bochinno.

I-Moto Mechanic Steve Edwards, 32, from Virginia, said they were low down on the totem pole in terms of qualifying results but he was hopeful they’d made the necessary adjustments. “It’s a rough track. We’re looking for our first win. It probably won’t happen but we’re optimistic. We’ve had tranny issues. We had to rebuild two already just this weekend.”

Strolling along the paddock way was Ashley Evdokimo, 19, a Nevada-born lass now White Plains, NY situated. A car enthusiast, she’d been hired by Grand-Am to snap photos. “I love old school muscle cars and Trans Am’s. I was born and raised rebuilding muscle car engines. I’m here to work and enjoy the cars.”

Orlando, FL-based RSR Motorsports Team Manager/Driver Owen Trinkler, 34, had a positive outlook for the day. His cars – all supercharged 4-cylinder Mini’s, had performed fairly well in practice. “We’re going to try and win it. We’ve got the speed… we need some luck.” This was Trinkler’s 24th year racing. He started off in Karts and joined RSR four years ago, under owner Randy Smalley. As we spoke, he donned helmet and firesuit to head out for the ST Race.

A rarity on the circuit, both because of her gender and age, was Trinkler’s teammate Sarah Cattaneo, 24. This was her fourth season racing. “We qualified 6th… hopefully we can keep at the top and get podium.” She added that her dad did club racing when she was young. “I like the speed, the adrenaline, the atmosphere. I rode horses for 13 years, went to college then got into racing.”

Unfortunately, the rain droplets became heavy and, now, bystanders who had been footing it around the flats here were seeking shelter. Continental Tire’s massive yellow tent, beneath which six technicians worked mounting new tires on rims and removing worn ones from others, was a good destination for this. The tire company offers ultra-high performance passenger and light truck tires, is the 4th largest tire company worldwide and is the best-selling tire in Germany. With roots dating back to 1871, the company employs 134,500 people in 46 countries.

Renea Topp, 26, Director of Marketing and PR at Lime Rock, was creating her own shelter. The slim blonde had a black umbrella overhead and stood by the entry area to the track. Entrants for the ST Race streamed by her on the way to Pit Lane. They hoped, as did we all, that the rain would hold off and the track would be dry for the start of the 2.5-hour race.

Orlando, FL-based Rum Bum Racing, with its colorful cars and a wall of palm trees dividing their maintenance area in two, was thinking warm thoughts. Co-driver Matt Plumb, 35, out of Newport, RI, said the team was running one car, a 2010 E-92 BMW M3. The V-8 toting beast does a reported 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds. “We were decent in qualifying…21st, a second off pole.”

Rum Bum is owned by the Bacardi family, founders of the famous rum brand. Plumb’s co-driver, Gian Bacardi, 20, is in fact the great great great grandson of the brand’s founder Facundo Luis Bacardi. Gian’s dad, Luis, now owns the team.
Said Plumb, “It’s Gian’s first time in the car, there are some hard places to pass and there are other drivers that deserve to win as much… but the car can win the race.”

“When my dad was younger, he loved to go fast,” said Gian about his racing roots. “But then he got in a bad car accident and couldn’t race anymore. Back in ’08, he sponsored a Daytona prototype… and got the bug… then I got the bug. I always wanted to race. The track here is pretty fast. You don’t get any breaks. And it might be a little more challenging in the rain.”

The Powers That Be gave us respite, the heavens held back their buckets, and the cars – in hues of blue, orange, black, white and red – lurched forward off the start line, a spray of watery mist shooting up from their back tires.

From the media tower, one could observe both the starting grid and Pit Lane but also the crew teams, yellow-outfitted firemen with extinguishers by their feet and folks strolling by the semis in the Paddock area. Flapping in the breeze were BMW, American and Connecticut State flags.

Observing the scene with wife Marty was Marv Weidner, at 60 the most senior racer here, a Mustang driver from Austin, TX. In 2004, Marty bought Mark’s first driving experience on a track, which he conducted with a street car. He was hooked, and just two years later, he participated in his first sanctioned race. This year is his first year in Grand-Am. “It’s a great competition series, with close races, good people and a friendly paddock.” Out of 23 career starts, Weidner had 16 podiums and 7 firsts. In qualifying the day before, he’d placed 12th.

“I’m really getting into race mode for the first time with this car, putting myself in a tense race situation. My goal is to improve positions throughout the race and be competitive,” he asserted. I reminded him of the late Actor/Driver Paul Newman, another senior racing enthusiast. “Paul Newman is my hero.”

The roar of the cars was thunderous and made it impossible to speak as the pack whizzed down the straightaway, averaging about 115 mph. But the promotion team under Grand-Am’s red tent at the end of the paddock area was oblivious. They were busy pushing sun tan lotion and earplug samples and offering an opportunity to win a Mazda RX8 prototype.

Around the corner from them, Sara Slavin, 29, Product Specialist for Subaru’s Road Racing Team, was selling multi-colored t-shirts, hats and posters. She said the team only had one car in the race today, in the GS Challenge, and that it was the only 4-cylinder car in that class, racing against 6’s and 8’s. “This is my first time at this track. I’m just excited to be at Lime Rock.”

Standing along a rail at a wicked s-curve, watching passing cars, was Crystal Mueller, 36, from Miami. Casually dressed in sneakers, jeans, a loose top and DG sunglasses, Mueller was a friend of the owner of the Bimmerworld team, based in Dublin, VA. The team, which sells high-performance parts for BMWs, was running two E-90 328i “Bimmers” today. As we were speaking, a car spun out then another blew an engine, sending up a big plume of blue smoke. “I flew in last night, just to watch the race, and fly home later today.”

As the noon hour approached and sun returned, Marilyn Navarro, 28, brightened up on post at the Federal Enforcement Homeland Security Foundation table. The group was raising funds for a college scholarship program for children of Federal Law Enforcement officials whose parents have passed away in the line of duty or have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Navarro was selling hats and tees and said that 100% of the profits go to the fund. She steered me to Scott Panzer, standing nearby, one of four board members and also driving a #11 Mustang for CMA Motorsports. The hood of the car features the Foundation’s logo on it.

“The goal is to raise $50,000 this year. We have $25,000 so far and five more races to go.”

Down the way, SoutherLee Motor Racing was conducting a practice pit stop, with a full fueling, tire change and even driver change, mastering the process with a timing of 50 seconds. It was an impressive sight, like some mad fire drill.

Back at Magnus Racing, lunch was being hatched: pork, pasta, rice, steamed broccoli, roasted peppers with teriyaki glaze… and Starburst, colorful tabs of which filled square white bowls on black-draped tables. Gracing the tables were also vases of red, white and blue carnations, each with a small American flag, a nod to the holiday. Cars continued to whip down the track in this ST race, which had just hit its halfway point.

“It’s a new year and we’ve got new gear,” the race announcer rhymed over the Park P.A. system. Indeed, the “Store” onsite, which was full of official branded hats, tees, seats and other racing bric-a-brac, was attracting a crowd.

Behind the shop and up on a grassy knoll were gathered dozens of race fans, now starting to broil in the sun, but committed to catching all the action on the challenging track stretch before them.

In the media tent, photographers, writers and cameramen were taking ten and having a spot of buffet lunch. A “shooter” tried, unsuccessfully, to get a cell signal. A cameraman nearby inquired about his service – Verizon. Explained the cameraman, “ATT’s got a tower here, so you’re better off with that service. About 20 years back, someone had a good idea to put up a tower. That was when phones were the size of military radios.”

There was also mention of returning poor weather. “Rain is pegged for 3pm the National Weather Service is forecasting,” the shooter noted.

Up on the knoll, bubbly blondes, Vanessa, 30, and Jamie, 32, from Boston, MA, were blissfully unaware of any impending storm and sitting at the forefront of the crowd. We dubbed their patch Bunker Hill due to their Beantown home. “It took us an hour and a half to come down, maybe a little more due to the holiday traffic.” It was the Amesbury, MA-based Turner Motorsports that brought them here, and they were surrounded by fellow “cheerleaders”. Jamie’s boyfriend, Don Salama, handles strategy for the team. Asked to characterize their racing morning thus far, Vanessa joked, “Sweaty. The sunblock’s on. We’re here for the long haul.”

Mother/daughter team Michelle and Kristi Kavula were manning Fast Track Catering’s snack shop and tending to the thirsty crowd. “We’re seeing a lot of Cokes, Diet Cokes, blue Powerade and water getting bought up.” Two lines with a dozen people in each waited at the counter.

A makeshift “Harpoon Tavern” was also doing brisk business. A patron approached the counter and was welcomed, “How are you?” He replied, “I’m still vertical I’m glad to report.”

For the Under 12 set, the heat of midday was no issue. Several dozen hula hooped and moonbounced near the Harpoon tent. Keeping the junior set occupied, too, were Go Karts that one could maneuver around a course defined by tires.

Jungle Juice Smoothies was another beverage purveyor onsite. Mixing the fruity libations were Danielle and Emily. A dead ringer for Actor Joe Pesce, a guy at the service counter said, “Put alcohol in mine.” Indeed, these were being offered with mixers like rum and vodka.

Joining the Smoothies stand along this “Vendor Row” was Skip Barber Racing School, Grand-Am equipment doing “special ed” sessions, Speed-TV with interactive racing, Superwrench Tools and even Good Humor. Tire companies, auto artwork, Bargain News, mini cars and Green Mountain Motorbooks rounded out the set – something for everyone.

Stretching beyond was row upon row of privately-owned cars that were parked and clustered by make/model. There were Porsches, Mustangs, Mini’s, Ferrari’s, BMWs, etc. Separating from the herd at that moment was a pack of Mazdas and VWs – up to 50 of each type, the owners of which had signed up on a first-come, first-serve basis to take a loop around the track. It was a unique opportunity, falling between the conclusion of the ST Race and start of the Mustang Challenge at 1:30.

Jason George, 22, from Little Falls, NY, graciously allowed me to hop into his ’05 VW Jetta GLI for a ride-along. Also tagging along was Marc Boerma, 33, a Netherlander who had been living and working in the U.S. for the past 10 years with Connecticut Autocross and Rally Team, Inc. Our ride around was conducted at a snail’s pace but it was still a thrill to be on the track.

Marc’s employer had a tent nearby and his group was offering free track days once a month here through the summer. There was no need to twist my arm for that opp and I eagerly signed up.

Sitting in sports chairs and in royal splendor atop their massive, 45-foot long Monaco Signature Series RV was Jack and Maureen Leyden, from West Greenwich, RI. They had an ideal view of the back side of the track, were watching the cars whiz by and enjoying a beer. “This is our second time at Lime Rock. We came for the Nascar series last year and had such a great time, we decided to come back.”

Their RV was one of dozens of other RVs, campers, vans and sleeper trucks in a sea of vehicles and tents that had put down for the weekend. Hibachis, grills and other elaborate tailgate set-ups accessorized most vehicles.

Relaxing in lounge-like style back behind the snack bar was a fun group that had come up from the Newark, NJ area. “We came up during the night, arriving at 4:30 this morning,” said Ana “Ren” Azevedo, 37. Sitting with her were Christine “Flower Child” Goncalves, 25, and Keri “Stimpy” Valdez, 26. They were joined by their male counterparts Eddie Valdez, 26 (Keri’s husband), Richie Maia, 25 (Christine’s boyfriend) and Jeremy Gormann, 35 (Ana’s significant other). They had a full set-up of entertainment: two grills, a movie projector, PS3, Mac computer, movies, speakers, generator, firepit, three tents and Ferrari flags. This crew had virtually moved into the park.

Summing up the day, while putting down Coronas and hot dogs, they found a few choice words: “Togetherness. Burnt rubber. Awesomeness.” These were good times.

Down in the Winner’s Circle, trophies were being awarded to the top three finishers of the Mustang Challenge: #1 Tony Buffamonte, Capaldi Racing; #2 Kyle Gimple of Icy Racing; and #3 Jason von Kluge of JVK Motorsports. Gimple, just 18, standing with his trophy beside his beaming, proud parents, seemed amazed at his feat. “It was a really hard track,” he gushed.

There followed a brief “Pit Walk” wherein racing day attendees could access and walk the starting grid, to see the cars lined up for and meet the drivers of the upcoming GS race. Amid the crowd was Carmen Chiari and her 4-year-old son Rodrigo Alejandro. Of Spanish, Italian and Chinese descent, the Panamanian-born woman, who currently works as an Internal Audit Manager for BMW Group in New Jersey, was excited by the whole experience. “It’s really fun! And this is my first time in Connecticut. Alejandro may be a driver some day. We don’t get to see these cars in Panama. I love cars. My son, too, he has everything related to cars.”

Mother Nature made herself known again as the afternoon crept on, dropping water pellets on the populace and causing umbrellas to sprout everywhere. The Harpoon tent took on new appeal as a haven… with beer as a bonus.

The roar of engines filled the park once again as the much-anticipated GS Race, another 2.5-hour event, got under way. By this point, the track was dirty, wet, debris spattered and a harder drive than the earlier racers had had. It soon became a battle, with drivers bumping, shoving, nudging, drafting and passing each other, clawing for the front of the pack. It was the Turner car (#96) in the lead… then Turner’s #97, with a #61 Mustang following closely. Then #97 got out in front, with #61 behind and #48 pulling up to #61’s bumper. The latter is how the finishers would “track” out. Mike Marsal and co-driver Joey Hand took 1st place honors for Turner; Billy Johnson and partner Jack Roush Jr. nabbed second for Roush Performance; and Charles Putnam and Charles Espenlaub scored third for Fall-Line Motorsports.

In the winner’s presentation area, shining silver trophies and six green-colored bottles of Ariel champagne glinted in the sun, which had returned for the race wrap. Looking haggard, sweaty and worn – but elated – the top drivers marched in. Marsal best summed up the experience and the spirit of the day, “It was an absolute dog fight. Great racing since they repaved the track. Just awesome.”

More information about Lime Rock Park, driver bios, race results and upcoming race schedules can be found at