Bunker & Marks
ALMS Support Package Breeds Sportscar Talent

A support package performs several functions but perhaps one of the most important, as far as front-ranking sportscar racing is concerned, is to expose teams, backers and drivers to the main event.

The 2006 ALMS runs alongside a number of series, including the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge for Porsche 996 and 997 GT3 Cup cars - which put on a stunning 44 car show at the opening round of the season at Sebring - and, at Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio, Road America and Petit Le Mans, the new IMSA Lites series for ‘baby’ sportscars.

Together with the newcomer series, there has also been a successful link-up with a number of other championships, which have drawn talent towards the ALMS.

The Star Mazdas have proved to be an effective nursery for a huge number of aspiring racing talent, including Marco Andretti, Scott Speed and Graham Rahal. The 2006 12 Hours of Sebring saw Rahal make his ALMS debut aboard the Alex Job Porsche, with fellow Star Mazda graduates Guy Cosmo (2002 Champion) and Jamie Bach joined aboard the B-K Motorsport Courage C65 Mazda LMP2 car by 2005 Champion Raphael Matos, the young Brazilian winning his Sebring drive as part of an impressive prize package for winning the Championship.

17 year old Rob Bunker is typical of the current breed of Star Mazda drivers, or is he?

After starting in karts at nine years of age, “It was scary at first,” the Bridgwater NJ, youngster was on a fast track (in more ways than one) to a motorsport career.

“I only got my road car driver’s licence about three months ago and by then I’d been driving Formula cars for the last three years. “

An ever present throughout the Formula racing part of Rob’s career has been the guiding hand of a driver coach.

"Without coaching, I don't know where I would be. I think it's a critical component in just about every sport," he said (at Sebring). "Everyone imagines driving a car – I do that every day, I now drive my car to work every day. But it's not really the same. I like to have every opportunity I can to be the most efficient driver on and off the track."

After karts the next step was Formula TR Pro racing, a proper single seater car with a 1600 Renault engine.

“During that season (2004) I tried the new Formula BMW car and chose to go that way in 2005. I learned a lot in both series.” Legend has it that Rob prepared for the Formula BMW standing starts by watching his hero John Force drag-racing on television!

“I had a good year in the BMW and many of my contemporaries went on to either Star Mazda or Toyota Atlantic

Rob chose the Mazda route, and the link with the ALMS package was a major factor: “The ALMS is my dream, it’s great being on the bill with them, I want to make a career in endurance racing and I want to get into a prototype as soon as I possibly can. It’s great to talk to teams here that are already aware of what I’ve been doing so far.”

If he wins the Championship this year, there is every possibility that the Mazda-engined LMP2 car will give him that opportunity early in 2007.

“The Star Mazda car was a real step up, night and day away from the BMW.”

So how do you stay focused, how does a 17 year old approach, literally, that first turn in a race, particularly one as challenging, and as potentially busy as turn one at Sebring?

“It’s about trying to remain an individual. It would be real easy to let the adrenaline take over. I’m not interested in being high and mighty about it, just in getting through the turn in the best shape I possibly can. The best way to do that is to stay focused and to be aware of what is going on around me.”

That’s an extraordinarily insightful answer from, let’s face it, a teenager. But this is where the coaching comes in. Rob now uses Speed Secrets coaching to get the best out of himself and his race performance.

Speed Secrets founder and head coach, ex-Champcar racer Ross Bentley, believes racing is more than apices and braking zones: "We don't just focus on the physical technique of driving. A bigger piece is working on getting the driver's brain switched on so they perform at their peak on a more consistent basis. There is no magic formula that works for every single driver, so everything we do is custom-designed for the driver."

That's the essence of coaching.

"The car itself is able to work at 100 per cent efficiency right out of the box. All it needs is to warm up the engine, the tires and things like that," continues Rob Bunker. “Coaching can help me with every single part of my performance and I’ve been a bit like a sponge. I like to assume that some of it is natural though!

"Humans usually start off a bit slower. The idea is to get me warmed up at the same pace that the car is getting warmed up. There are certain techniques we use at Speed Secrets to increase the amount the mind is working, increase heart rate and keep my vision up and out."

“That’s one area where I really have made progress. I can now focus further away and my constant peripheral vision is vastly improved.”

In reality that means that Mr. Bunker can look both at where he’s going and at whoever it is that might be attempting to get there before him.

“Technically that means I have 20:10 vision – better than ideal! I can pick a line to the exit of a turn and still be aware visually of anything else I have to deal with.”

Ross Bentley is glowing on the subject of Rob’s abilities and potential: "Rob is very, very gifted. You can tell that he's played a lot of sports all his life because he picks things up really quickly. If I tell him to brake two per cent lighter in a corner, he'll do it. And it won't take him 30 laps – he'll have it nailed by the second lap."

Rob Bunker had cause to put theory into practice at Round 1 of the Championship at Sebring: starting back in 35th place after a steering failure in qualifying, he stormed through the field to post a top ten finish in his first ever Star Mazda start.

There is perhaps a more obvious road across to one of the other mainstays of the ALMS support package. The Speed GT Championship provides some stunning and close fought, GT3 level, sprint action to warm up the crowds before the big boys take to the track.

There has always been considerable crossover between the two series, with Johnny Mowlem and Andy Pilgrim amongst a gaggle of ALMS talent taking to the Speed GT grid, and a host of drivers have crossed over in the opposite direction over the past few years.

Among them is 25 year old Justin Marks, who drove for PTG Technology at Sebring, at the start of what is due to be a full season’s attack on the GT2 class of the ALMS

Tom Milner’s PTG Technology squad of course makes a welcome return, and more welcome still is the fact that the team is bringing a squad of young talent, to join old hands Bill Auberlen and Ian James.

Justin Marks was something of late starter to the motorsport game, as a driver at least:

“I’ve been a fan forever but when our high school career counsellers asked what it was I wanted to do, there was really only one answer. I wanted to be a professional racing driver.”

Justin hails from Sacramento, California, but is about to move to North Carolina and, like so many pumped up teenagers, he focused on his new mission completely:

“I got into it racing late model stock cars first and that was great, but things really took off when I met Johannes van Overbeek, who started to mentor me. Once Johannes had taken me under his wing, I started to have much more direction to my efforts and I started to learn very fast indeed.”

The move over to road racing first involved a most unlikely weapon of choice.

“I did a full season of SCCA racing in a Datsun 510: my first ever road race was in February 2000 and by the November I was testing a Racers Group / Team Seattle Porsche ahead of the Rolex 24.”

That meant that the youngster had completed just a dozen or so road races in total before taking to the grid of a twice round the clock endurance classic. It lit the flame for sportscar racing, and the following season saw the first of what would become a four year spell in the SPEED World GT Challenge, initially in a Porsche 911 and then in a Turner Motorsports BMW M3.

The results began to come quite quickly, a second place in his rookie year, 10th in the overall points standings, a start on the outside of the front row in Portland and then, in the second season the podium finishes began to come.

By 2004 the programme had grown to include PTG’s Grand Am programme, as well as World Challenge. With the decision to bring PTG back into the ALMS for the first time since the fabulous M3 GTRs ran in 2001, and also the decision to give Justin a season-long seat, it gives the youngster an ideal opportunity to compare the ‘opposition’ with his new home in the ALMS.

“It’s a different kind of racing really. Grand Am really doesn’t place the emphasis on technology: for the best example of that just look at the differences between the headline classes - the Daytona Prototypes and the LMP1s. In Grand Am the emphasis is on the racing and not the cars. In ALMS though the racing is still unbelievably close and that’s as much a tribute to the rules package equalizing radically different approaches to the same problems, as it is to the professionalism of the manufacturers and teams. For BMW it just makes way more sense to be here, competing on the track against the manufacturers they compete against in the marketplace.”

Mission established then for BMW. What about for PTG and the 2006 12 Hours of Sebring and beyond for the remainder of the season?

“Here our priority is to get to the finish,” said Justin, before the start of the 12 Hours of Sebring. “I’ve seen before what it can do to a championship campaign to stumble early, leaving a huge points hole to dig yourselves out from. If things go our way here the package we have can be competitive for a podium and that would be a great way to mark PTG and BMW’s return to the Series.”

Sadly for PTG though that wasn’t to be. Both cars retired from a grueling 12 Hours of Sebring after showing fine pace, particularly from the #21 car.

There will now be an anxious wait for three of PTG’s Sebring driving squad.

“As for the rest of the season, Bill (Auberlen), Joey (Hands) and myself are confirmed for the season and the other three guys are pretty well aware that the decision on who will take the other full season seat might depend on how well they do here this weekend.”

Beyond that, and the possibility of a new BMW joining the team later this season, where does Justin see himself, and BMW looking to for the future?

“Well I am really enjoying this programme and I love the endurance racing scene. The simple fact is that without the Le Mans 24 Hours, this series wouldn’t exist. That’s a race that all of us want to take part in and all of us want to win it too. As for BMW, well it’s not my place to say!”

Two very different drivers, two very different career paths, but both with similar ambitions. Next time you’re trackside at an ALMS race keep an eye on the guys in the support package, you just might be watching a future ALMS champions amongst them.

With thanks to Sylvia Proudfoot and Shane Mahoney.
GG

 

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