15 December 2010

THE WALL COMES TUMBLING DOWN

 

Between flights and ready for work on the next piece in an abridged look at one of modern sports car racing’s most prolific designers, Bob Riley of Riley Technologies, this’ll perhaps occupy the reader’s time for awhile.

New Orleans Grand Prix du Mardi Gras winner Wayne Taylor and his Jim Miller-owned, Gary Pratt-built, Bob Riley designed and Chevrolet-powered No. 64 Intrepid RM-1 had just produced the 1991 IMSA GTP season’s slowest average race speed at 60.126 mph (96.763 kph).

But, bottom line, everyone else failed to drive faster.

“A win is kind of a funny thing,” Riley said. “It’s a validation of what you work for and a thrill, of course, but it’s also an albatross because one win soon isn’t worth much unless you can do it again and again. The thrill of a win really doesn’t last as long as it should, it seems.”

The schedule’s next stop, Watkins Glen International, typically produced lap speeds about twice that recorded in 1991 at New Orleans, evidenced by 1990 Camel Continental winners Chip Robinson and Bob Earl’s Nissan NPT-90 averaging 114.995 mph (185.067 kph) on the 3.377-mile (5.4-km) course.

Reigning three-time GTP champ and Nissan driver Geoff Brabham arrived for the June 30, 1991 Watkins Glen hunting an unprecedented fourth GTP driving crown but was embroiled in a pitched championship battle with Nissan No. 84 NPT-90 teammate Chip Robinson.

Principal Jaguar adversary Davy Jones (Raul Boesel, his teammate) had thus far won four races to Brabham’s one, but two relatively poor finishes – a 30th in Daytona and 12th in Miami – had dealt Jones too great of a blow to overcome Brabham’s steady, if not relatively boring, race-finish pace.

Through nine of 1991 season’s 14 GTP races and heading into The Glen 500 km race, Jones’ 8.2 average finish was nearly double that of Brabham and Robinson’s 4.2.

If Brabham were to assure his claim to that fourth-straight driving title, he’d need to at least maintain if not pick up his pace, especially when racing fortunes are known to suddenly reverse with bottom-of-barrel race finishes often furnished by the hand of others (ask Sylvain Tremblay about his 2010 Mid-Ohio race).

Neither Kendall nor Taylor had a realistic chance of winning the ‘91 championship but they could have an impact as spoilers – and perhaps help sell some cars, too.

Independent car builders had already long been a mainstay of racing, whatever its nature, but it was about the time talk of the Intrepid arose when Riley and Miller began to understand they, too, could do what Gordon Spice had done.

“I know it’s a cliché but Jim (Miller) really could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo,” Riley said. “Gary (Pratt) was, still is gifted with his ability to put stuff together. All I needed to do was my part,” Riley understated.

Racers being racers, each knows that in order to win and win big he or she need only acquire the newest, better mousetrap and, by most observations, the Intrepid was on its way to being exactly that.

It just needed to pass a high-speed test at the 1991 Camel Continental VIII.

The Intrepid’s first victory two weeks earlier at New Orleans – achieved from the fourth row by Taylor, who drove around a front-row Brabham – hadn’t negatively impacted Brabham’s championship-title hope, especially given Robinson’s 11th-place and Jones’ 13th-place finishes in that Grand Prix du Mardi Gras.

On the car-selling side, though, Taylor and his No. 64 Intrepid were able to showcase that which Riley’s mind conceived, Pratt built and Miller enabled.

As the radical Intrepid passed each race test – from natural terrain to temporary street circuits – also growing were the prospects of other teams fielding Intrepids in 1992. Passing another yet another test at The Glen almost assuredly would make such likely.

With over half its 2.45-mile (3.92 km) course comprised of three straights and 12 flowing curves that serve more to connect and maintain a general clockwise traffic pattern than otherwise impede speed, Watkins Glen International regularly produces among the fastest average lap times recorded on U.S. tracks.

As a driver turns from the front straight and exits through Turn 1, he begins a 3,200-ft. stretch of track after which undertaken is a petal-to-metal, gear-throwing climb from The Glen’s next-lowest elevation to its highest – roughly the equivalent of a 12-story building.

In 1991, at the end of that climb a GTP driver’s first stab of the brakes came for a looming Turn 5 (aka, ‘Outer Loop’) – into which the more talented and braver will brake late and deep, especially with overtaking on the mind.

In the race’s 61st lap and with all the viewing world – whether at the track or on TV – knowing Kendall was setting up the leading No. 83 Nissan for a pass, Brabham lead a fast-closing Kendall deep into the roughly 180-degree, swooping carnival-ride, right-hand turn when the No. 65 Intrepid’s rear suddenly and nervously shifted.

Kendall’s Intrepid, experiencing downforce loads estimated to be something just a tad shy of unbelievably immense suffered a catastrophic left-rear hub failure.

As the left rear wheel-well’s bodywork door peeled away, flitting in the air as if a loose-blown leaf, the wheel, at it’s hub, was rolling well clear of the car and anyone watching just had to figure, “This one’s gonna hurt,” only it was worse than would be imagined. Kendall’s No. 64 plowed deeply into an awaiting tire barrier and the nearly immovable blue-hued metal barrier beyond. (See it at YouTube.)

(Note: Some immediately tend to use or say “ARMCO” as a generic reference for a form of broad, horizontal steel fencing made by a variety of companies. Given that the ARMCO name is trademarked and this writer has yet to establish if the barrier really was that manufactured by ARMCO . . .)

When the tires, dust and car settled, it was clear Kendall’s Intrepid hit the perimeter barriers - all but precisely head-on.

Though the Intrepid had been built to the same safety standards as that which transformed the Porsche 956 into the Porsche 962 – for one, a driver’s feet had to be located behind an imaginary straight line extending through the car’s front wheel-hub centers – Kendall’s impact speed had been so great that the damning energy inevitably shot beyond even that point and into his legs.

“I looked at my legs and puked,” Kendall said afterward.

In a literally sickening blink of an eye, cemented were the paths Kendall, the RM-1 and even Taylor would abruptly take.

And, of course, we’ll take that up in the next posting.

Later,

DC

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