Mowlem’s Petit Le Mans 2004
Frustrating Fourth

dailysportscar.comThe tone of Johnny Mowlem’s voice (on the telephone) summed up his mood upon returning to Europe from Road Atlanta – frustration, disappointment – but reminding him that the last time we spoke (Sunday evening, six days before the race) he didn’t have a car to race cheered him up a little.

“Yes, you’re right, thanks to Jeff (Giangrande) and the team, we had a car ready to go for Wednesday’s test session. It’s was perfect timing really: they managed to get the spare all together an hour before that session. And throughout the rest of the meeting, we had a chassis that ran solidly, that gave us no chassis issues at all – no problems with the suspension, the drivetrain, nothing mechanical at all. That’s a testament to how well the team responded to the problem. They all worked incredibly long hours and went without sleep, but you wouldn’t have known it to look at them!“Unfortunately, it was the niggly things that jumped out and grabbed us: nothing that happened in the race was ever going to be a terminal problem, they were just silly little things, that unfortunately had a sizeable impact on our performance.”

The incident on the afternoon of September 19, the last day of pre-event testing, that caused all the team’s dramas was described to the web-world by Terry Borcheller, towards the end of the race (interviewed by Joe Bradley). New man to the team Joao Barbosa had been lapping quickly, and was nearing the end of a long stint, when the left/front stub axle broke – at Turn 12. The Portuguese hit the wall very hard, and that chassis was out of action for the foreseeable future.

dailysportscar.comJeff Giangrande (right) flew the team’s truckie and another team member to Michigan straight away, and they loaded up the spare chassis, and set off for Atlanta. The spare was at the track at 10am on Monday morning, and the team then worked their socks off until Wednesday morning to build up the spare into the race car. The last time this chassis ran was at Sebring, in testing before the 12 Hours.

“This meant that we had to virtually start from scratch on Wednesday, and what with doing tyre evaluation runs, we found that it wasn’t until the Thursday night session that we had time to really knuckle down and get the car set-up sorted out.

"As a result, up until then we hadn’t looked particularly impressive in speed terms, but from then on we were back closer to where we belonged.”

That meant they were fastest in Friday morning’s final session before qualifying, all be it without the Corvettes running that session, and then a good solid third in qualifying, comfortably ahead of the Viper and the two Lamborghinis.

“Terry had a great opening lap to get the jump on both the ‘Vettes at the first corner. We all knew it was going to be short lived but it was still nice to lead, even if only for a lap! From an outsider’s point of view, it looked to me like the Corvettes had the perfect race. Their car has been so well sorted over the last four years and their team and drivers didn’t put a foot wrong. For us to even keep them within spitting distance, we needed to run a perfect race too. But that wasn’t to be.“Very early in my first stint I had the excitement of the cool box full of ice coming loose. It came across the car into Turn 1 and attacked me! That made for a pretty hairy moment I can tell you, as that corner’s not exactly slow!! I radioed in to say that I had to pit, but then to make things worse, the coolbox started rolling around in the passenger footwell, and it knocked the master switch off! I managed to realise this within a few seconds and feel around behind me to turn it back on, but what I didn’t realise at the time was that because the whole electrics of the car had been off, I needed to turn the radio repeater back on too. As a result I was driving towards the pits, holding the coolbox steady with my right arm and telling everyone I was pitting, and they couldn’t hear me! You’d never have known though, because they had the coolbox out of the car, fuelled me, and had me on my way again within seconds.

“To add to the drama, I’d felt a very slight hesitation from my first lap out of the pits. This gradually worsened throughout my 58 lap stint, which meant that I had to try different things to try and keep our lap times good and try and make up for some of the ground we’d lost with the coolbox issue. By the end of my stint it was bad enough to be losing us at least 7 or 8 mph on the straights. Joao then had to pit a few times – including going behind the wall - while the team traced the problem to a faulty map sensor, and then we were off and running again. In terms of race pace then, we were bang on it. I could tell from being around the Corvettes that at that time, they weren’t lapping much quicker than us. In fact, our fastest lap was only eight tenths off the #3 Vette’s fastest, which finished only 10 seconds behind their winning team mates after 10 hours!”

The three ACEMCO drivers gelled very well as a team, and all three banged in impressive lap times: Joao Barbosa had the worst of the luck with the map sensor problem, but the Saleen – still the most modern-looking of GTS cars – was putting in the times throughout: it was just those delays, those infuriating delays…“Yes, I think we all worked very well together. Terry was really pushing and Joao drove beautifully in a difficult set of circumstances. I spent quite a lot of time with “Joe”, (as we called him!), and we really hit it off. He’s a lovely guy and very laidback! I was very pleased with how we all went. Obviously once things started going wrong we were all pretty fired up to try and make up some of the time we’d lost, and it looked like we were going to manage to sneak third at the end from the Viper, something like we did when we caught Brabs in the Lamborghini at Mid-Ohio. But then we developed a problem with our low pressure fuel pumps - the collector wasn’t being re-filled quickly enough - so we had to stop for fuel half way through every stint for the last two hours. This cost us a last shot at the podium, but we made it to the end and in terms of pace we were running very strongly.”

The ACEMCO Saleen was one and a half laps adrift of third place at the flag, after a frustrating race. All that hard work earlier in the week, but the team just couldn’t grab the podium place that they undoubtedly deserved – although Tom Weickardt could rightly argue that after the season he’s had, he deserved that place too.

The team has worked extremely hard to chisel away at the margin to the C5-Rs, and considerable progress has been made. ACEMCO has also turned its Saleen(s) into the most reliable of the breed – but it was those silly little problems that held them back at Petit Le Mans.

The last chance this year will be at Laguna Seca, a track where the S7-R made its race debut – and a track that historically hasn’t favoured the Corvettes at all. ACEMCO is sure to come bouncing back. It’s tough taking on the best in the business, but that’s the challenge that waits ACEMCO every time they go racing. Six podium finishes so far in this ALMS season is a record to be proud of.


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