Johnny Mowlem’s Road America
Petersen / White Lightning's First In The ALMS
Just occasionally, a race will almost fall into a driver’s lap. That was what happened to Johnny Mowlem at the Road America 500, in the Petersen Motorsports / White Lightning Porsche, but on Friday’s Test Day you’d have had trouble convincing him that he was going to be a winner this particular weekend…..

Friday was a nightmare, probably the worst start to a race weekend I’ve ever had with Petersen, which is rather ironic. The car was very difficult to drive, it was very nervous, and we had a lack of all round grip. We were really struggling. With the ‘old’ car, we had a good base set-up and could make minor adjustments from there, but having missed the Canadian races, we still don’t really know this new car.

We were seventh quickest on Friday, which was embarrassing…we were about four seconds off the pace. We had to make radical changes from there, so we changed the springs, I persuaded the team we should use the diff. we’d used with Bob (Wollek) all that time ago, we changed the ride height – fundamental things. The team worked absolutely flat out, and as ever did a superb job. We definitely have one of the best-prepared cars out there.

Instantly, on Saturday morning, the Porsche was markedly better. We gradually adjusted it from there, so that in the last session before Qualifying I set a low 2:12, on used tyres, a full three seconds quicker than the day before. That was pretty good: the way things are at the moment, I don’t expect to be quicker than AJR.

Qualifying then turned out to be a disappointment: you need to bring the tyres in slowly, getting the temperatures and pressures up before you go for a quick one. But straight away I felt a slight vibration, and despite being very careful, it gradually got worse. It turned out that the bead of the tyre had come out of the left rear wheel. When I pitted, the team rushed off to get the tyre re-fitted, and in such a short session, by the time I went back out again, I had time for one flying lap. I had no choice but to go for it. I did an 11.7 on my first and only flying lap – and that was it! More than any other track this year, Road America needs you to do at least two or three laps in order to get the tyres right for a really quick time. A mid 10 was definitely possible, but we still ended up fifth, so in the circumstances, that wasn’t too bad. But I knew we had a much better race car than we had shown in qualifying.

Craig started the race, and he kept coming on the radio saying “The car’s fantastic!”, which sounded promising! He did a really great job: Robin (Liddell) had a go at him, then Andy Lally did too, but Peter Baron in the Orbit car was dropping away, and then Craig managed to get some breathing space between him and those immediately behind.

Craig then caught and passed Ralf Kelleners in the Risi Ferrari, and we were up to second, about forty seconds behind Lucas in the AJR Porsche.

Then suddenly Robin was on a mission, catching Craig at two seconds per lap: he was only six seconds behind – at which point Orbit and PK pitted. The race then went to a full course yellow, and I thought we were buggered! Both Craig and Lucas came in under the yellow, and as I rejoined, I was really confused about where we were. In the queue, with other cars mixed in with us, the order was Sascha in #23, then Marc Lieb, then the PK car and then me.

When the race went green, I caught and passed Alex Davison, then was catching Marc Lieb…when his engine let go. I was now P2, and a lap up on PK, because it turned out that they’d lost out at the first stops, having pitted under green.

I set about trying to deal with Sascha, but he was pulling away a little, and then we both got caught in traffic. The gap between us was about four seconds – and then he suddenly slowed and I was through. He was stuck in fifth.

I had clear air behind me, and the instruction over the radio was to cruise, so I backed off, and was really only worried about keeping my concentration. Timo (Bernhard) was going very quickly, making up time, but I was in a lonely race from then on. Any number of drivers could have done that job, the only problem being a return of the vibration. Road America is such a power circuit that no one could get through on one fuel stop, so when I pitted with 20 minutes to go, we put on fresh tyres, and then I had a bigger vibration!

The problem is that the tyre unseats itself and spins on the rim, but it can only happen when the tyre is cool.

But we had such a big lead that I could take it gently to the flag. Dale White then came on the radio to remind me about the revised podium ceremony. We’d been told about this at the Drivers’ Briefing: the winning drivers were to stop on the start-finish line, so that the class winners could all gather for a winners’ podium for TV, then we’d have the regular podium ceremony afterwards. I didn’t think for a minute, then, that it would affect me….

Anyway, Dale wanted me to get as close to the pit wall as I could as I crossed the line and took the flag – for the benefit of the team. You climb the hill on the start-finish straight, and then suddenly pop into view – so there I was, right up against the pit wall, actually scraping the mirror along it, with dust and muck flying everywhere. All the crews on the pit wall scattered – except our crew: I must have absolutely covered them! No one seemed to mind though, least of all Mike Petersen (whom I'm hugging, below).

When I completed the slowing down lap, Martin Haven pulled me out of the car, and Andrew Marriott was there to interview me for SPEED TV – which was a nice moment, as he’s been very supportive over the years. And when I got up to the podium to join the others, all my mates were there – Johnny Herbert, Andy Wallace and David Brabham! We then went though the regular podium ceremony.

It was an odd feeling, having such an easy race from a driver’s perspective and yet winning it. I’m more used to winning after a real battle. At Sebring this year, I was fighting AJR for all I was worth, exchanging the lead with them for nearly the whole race and that gave me an awful lot of personal satisfaction, having driven my heart out to live with them. I was gutted to finish second, but knew that I’d driven at my absolute limit, and gone as hard as I possibly could have done. Yet here I was winning the race at Road America, and I hadn’t done any of that! I tried sneaking up on the quick lap times, but every time I got within a second of a good time, the team would come on the radio and tell me to slow down. It was the right thing to do, but that didn’t make it any easier to carry out!!

My other ALMS win was at Laguna Seca, with David Murry in ‘99, when we beat the new GT3-R, with the RSR. That was a really satisfying win, because having qualified second, I chased Dirk Muller, passed him, pulled out 15 seconds, and then David carried on and won the race from Cort Wagner. That was a really satisfying one. And it’s Laguna Seca next!

All in all I’m obviously delighted to get the win, but I’m even more pleased for the whole team, from Mike Petersen and Dale White down. They have had some great results at Daytona and Le Mans, but this is their first ALMS win and I’m proud that I could be a part of that. They are the hardest working bunch I have ever had the good fortune to drive for, and they thoroughly deserve this win. After all, we’ve come so close before only to have it taken away, like last year at Mid-Ohio when I led the first half of the race from Sascha Maassen and Timo Bernhard, only for Lucas Luhr to take Randy Pobst out of the lead with only 20 minutes to go! So this win is payback for all that bad luck!

I leave for California on Sunday, because we’ve got some filming lined up with NBC on Monday: Mike Petersen, Craig and myself are going up in a bi-plane, flown by one of the Petersen guys, Harry Haggard. That should be fun. Then it’s promotional work for the ALMS on Wednesday.


Contents Copyright © All Rights Reserved.