Sunday, February 2, 2003

Tight battle up front in Daytona

By Mike Harris
The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - A Porsche GTS RS was out front in a tight five-car battle at the halfway point of the Rolex 24 sports car endurance race.

Timo Bernhard of Germany regained the lead minutes before halfway when a Porsche-powered Fabcar Daytona Prototype driven by Scott Goodyear of Canada slowed and pitted with a flat tire, losing two laps.

Goodyear had chased down Kevin Buckler, the owner of the Porsche, shortly after midnight Saturday to knock that car out of the lead after 51/2 hours.

The flat tire stop also allowed the Porsche GTS RS of driven by David Murray to slip into second, two laps behind the leader on the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course that includes about two-thirds of the 21/2-mile NASCAR oval.

The leaders had completed 350 laps and the top five cars were separated by only seven laps at the halfway point in the unusually tight endurance event.

"Things are going pretty well right now," Buckler said after giving up the cockpit to Bernhard. "We just have to focus and keep our heads down. Things can happen in a hurry here and we have a couple of good cars racing us."

The leader after 12 hours, with Jorg Bergmeister of Germany and Michael Schrom also driving, started 16th in the 44-car field, but moved into contention within four hours of the 1 p.m. EST start on Saturday.

The runner-up Porsche was co-driven by Johannes Van Overbeck, Richard Steranka, Dave Standridge and Murray, while Goodyear shared the driving chores in the Brumos Racing Fabcar with IRL star Scott Sharp, six-time Rolex 24 winner Hurley Haywood and J.C. France, the son of Jim France of NASCAR's founding family.

The Brumos team's sister car also was at or near the front before a blown engine sidelined the other Fabcar Prototype during the sixth hour.

"It made a bunch of noise and then it just stopped running," said David Donohue, at the wheel of the Fabcar when the car went out.

The Porsche-powered Fabcars were two of six entries in the Grand American Racing Series' new Daytona Prototype class. The new cars are different from last year's now-defunct SportsRacing Prototype class in that the Daytona Prototypes do not used turbocharged engines.

Two other Prototypes also were in the top five at halfway.

The car that started from the pole, a Ford Focus shared by Scott Maxwell, David Brabham and David Empringham, was fourth despite losing considerable time with tire problems and a loose battery connection in the early going and falling to 14th.

The fifth-place car was a Toyota-powered Fabcar driven by Darius Grala, Joshua Rehm, Oswaldo Negri Jr. and Guy Cosmo.

Empringham made up two laps on the leaders during a one-hour stint shortly after darkness fell.

"That was the result of strategy and a little bit of luck with the way the cautions fell," the Canadian driver said. "The motor is pulling well again, so it's just bang, bang, bang - really nice to drive right now."

An SRP Dallara, driven by Max Papis, Mauro Baldi, Didier Theys and Fredy Lienhard, won last year's 24-hour race from the pole, the first entry to accomplish the feat in more than a decade.

The big question mark hovering over the Daytona Prototypes was their reliability over the long haul in the twice-round-the-clock event.

"So far, so good," Brabham said. "The idea is to stay on the track and stay out of the pits as much as possible. Hopefully, our worst moments are behind us now."

Papis, driving a Ferrari GT entry running eighth at halfway, said, "All you try to do is get to Sunday morning. If you're running when the sun comes up, then you can think about racing."

That didn't happen for the Fabcar shared by Donohue, Mike Borkowski, Chris Bye and Randy Pobst.

A number of drivers were complaining of slippery conditions.

After an early driving stint, Haywood said, "It's so slippery I thought I had a flat tire. It's hard to keep the car under control."

Asked where the track was slippery, Haywood replied: "Everywhere."

Proving his point, there were a number of off-course excursions, spins and collisions in the early going.

Porsches or Porsche-powered cars have won 19 of the 40 previous 24-hour events here. The next biggest winner is Ferrari with five.

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