ACEMCO’s Laguna Seca
What Do You Have To Do To Earn Some Good Fortune?

dailysportscar.comThis became the most remarkable story of ill-fortune for the ACEMCO team – but one that demonstrated the team’s grit and fight, and speed, which should, even with all the bad luck, have produced a third place finish in GT1 in California – should have, because a few minutes from the end, the final blow was administered.
During the race, despite extra stops and furious work from the pit crew, Terry Borcheller and Johnny Mowlem wrestled the Saleen for nearly four hours without power steering. Somewhat remarkably though the pair were more than able to keep up with the leading GT1 drivers.
This is a terrific racing story, and the ACEMCO drivers received a round of applause for their efforts from everyone present at the ALMS banquet on Sunday night. Everyone would rather have had that third place – even better, that elusive win…

Over to Johnny Mowlem…

The ACEMCO Saleen was reasonably quick straight away in testing at Laguna Seca. When we put on a new set of Michelins, it was a bit of struggle to get the fronts to come in, but even on Thursday night, on a dirty track, we knew we had the makings of a very good racecar.

The engineers made some changes ahead of Friday. We had two, one hour sessions before qualifying, and as Terry was due to qualify, I drove the car throughout the whole of the hour in the morning and Terry had the car for the one hour session just prior to qualifying, so that he could practice a “dummy” qualifying.

During the morning session we made some small changes, and the car got better and better – even on Thursday night’s used tyres. We set a 1:22.0, with 60 lap old fronts and 40 lap old rears. We were only seven tenths off the fastest Corvette, and well ahead of the two Astons and the Maserati, and that with three-quarters of a tank of fuel and old tyres. The balance of the car was fantastic and we knew that with new tyres, the car was going to be very, very fast.

Before the afternoon session (and qualifying), Terry and I discussed our likely qualifying pace. We estimated that taking the fuel out, leaving say 20 litres, should give us four or five tenths, then new tyres are normally worth at least a second – and unusually for California, the ambient temperature was actually cooling off rather than warming up, so there would be no drop off in track performance for qualifying. So going from my lap in the morning, we worked out that a 1m20.5 should be achievable.

Jim Bell actually reckoned that it should be under a 1m20.5 on an all out qualifying lap and bet Terry a gourmet meal that it would be! Now you have to take into account here that Terry should have been born Scottish, as he allegedly suffers from short arms and deep pockets!! So when Terry went out and did a 1m20.3s, I’m not sure whether Jim was more pleased at getting pole, or winning the bet!

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We were actually a little fortunate that a red flag came out, although we didn’t realise it at the time. When you put on new rubber, the grip is there as soon as the tyres are up to temperature, in say two or three laps, but the balance isn’t quite there… after two or three more laps, you lose a touch of grip, but then balance is perfect. Anyway, when Terry had to pit for the red flag, the guys adjusted the tyre pressures, and out he went with a perfect balance.

The Corvettes didn’t go out again: Johnny O’Connell said that he’d been on a much faster lap when the red flag came out, so maybe he could have gone quicker: who knows? We were very happy though, because we knew ultimately we had a great car for the race.

We were running a different front tyre at Laguna Seca, one which gave a bit more front grip. Because the Saleen is mid/rear engined, it’s easier on its fronts than a front engined car, so we’re in a position to run a softer front than say the Corvettes.

The Michelins are very, very good tyres – and with the balance just right, we felt we were getting the maximum from the tyres, and were lapping a massive three seconds faster than at this track last year. The G forces were so much greater – and perhaps that was the problem we’d stumbled into….

What we couldn’t be sure of was why the power steering belt had popped off at Petit Le Mans, and then why the replacement spare had run perfectly for over nine hours. The guys tie-wrapped a spare down there, so they can crank the engine and roll the spare on quickly if necessary.

That problem was going to haunt us, and had reared its ugly head in Turn 9 already: we were getting some cavitation in the p/steering pump through there, and we could feel the steering loading up. But we made a few changes and it seemed better, and we never had the belt break during the whole build up to the race.

Therefore pre-race, we felt we had a perfectly balanced car, although in the warm up on full tanks and worn tyres, Terry wasn’t completely comfortable. I drove too, and we had a bit too much understeer, but we were still second quickest after just a handful of laps, so we were still confident for the race.

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Terry made a good start, but Ron Fellows stayed right with him – and then the belt broke at Turn 9 on lap 3, and pitched Terry off the track, although he managed to haul it back onto the tarmac in second. With no p/steering, the Astons and the other Corvette caught him, but an early Safety Car allowed him to dive into the pits.

The team did a phenomenal job to pop the spare belt on at his first visit, then sent him back out whilst still under full course yellow to catch the pack back up, and then pit him again for tyres, so that we wouldn’t lose a lap or miss the wave-by. This kept us on the lead lap, albeit a minute back from the GT1 leaders, so after all that drama, we hadn’t lost out significantly.

dailysportscar.comThen the spare belt broke, and we were doomed to spend the rest of the race “wrestling an alligator”, as Terry brilliantly described it!

He fought the car for nearly an hour, then I drove for something similar, somehow passing Brabs in the 57 Aston Martin along the way, which was really encouraging. After 55 minutes there was another full course yellow and we pitted, which was perfectly timed as my arms felt like they belonged to somebody else by this time! Terry took over from me and heroically kept it going, and then I was in for the last stint.

This series of images graphically depict how the #63 Saleen was mixing it with the other GT1 cars, despite the problems the two drivers faced almost throughout the race.

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The car was still very, very quick – but when you haven’t got the p/steering, you can’t feel the level of grip. You end up actually fighting the pump all the time, manually forcing the fluid through – so it’s worse than a car that isn’t fitted with power steering. If you can’t feel the grip – because the whole system is so heavy and so dead – you inevitably end up killing the front tyres… and remember that was one area where we should have been very good.

You can’t turn the car in gradually, feeling the grip – instead you have to turn in aggressively, and then hold it there. But your arms get so tired, especially as every bump tries to wrench the wheel out of your hands.

It was worst in T9, and with arms like lumps of lead, I had to use my knee to help hold the wheel on lock through there. It’s not the quickest way to go racing….

Another problem is that when you need opposite lock, you can’t apply it fast enough – because you just can’t, because you haven’t got the strength or feeling in your arms.

The misfortunes piled up in other ways – the Maserati dumped its water, Terry was the next car along, right at the end of his second stint, and the Saleen flew off the track, ripping the front floor half off in the process.

I know Terry suggested that the loss of front downforce should make the steering less heavy, but it didn’t feel any less heavy to me!

So with this extra front damage, when I got in for the final hour and five minutes, we had more understeer – so I needed to use more lock, which was killing the front tyres even more.

While I was fighting the car, I was thinking all the time how best to deal with it. With about 15 minutes to go, when I could feel that the fronts were destroyed, I turned the traction control off, so that when I got understeer, I could now boot the throttle and try and steer it on the power, which did help the fronts a little bit – as well as my arms.

This is actually brake dust....

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Through the start of that last stint, I was between the two DBR9s, but we knew the 57 car ahead still had to pit – so it was only Pedro Lamy in the 58 I had to worry about. I actually pulled away from him to start with: 23 seconds became 28, and I was lapping consistently quicker … but think what that could have been without the damage and the p/steering problem.

But I was still killing the left front, and now that was hurting me under brakes! I flat-spotted the left front at Turn 2 twice, so now with a bad vibration too, I had to brake earlier, and Lamy started catching me. Then I had traffic, and I had a car which was very difficult off-line – and on the line… for example; if I went up the inside at the Corkscrew, I needed more lock, and I couldn’t cope with more lock! So I lost a chunk of time in traffic – and it came down to six seconds between us, with six laps to go, and he was catching at more than a second a lap.

He would have found it very difficult to get by me though – after all we’d been through, I was going to move heaven and earth to hang onto the podium spot. This was for the whole team – we deserved it!

Then the 78 Porsche moved over on me before the Corkscrew: I was almost past and clear of him… if he’d waited just half a second… but he knocked me onto the dirt, so by the time I sorted that out and got back on the track, I was approaching the turn way too fast. I got it into the corner somehow, but the car took off and cleared the gravel trap, and landed very heavily, which broke the left front shock… I still didn’t pit straight away, just in case I could make it to the end, as I knew there were only a few minutes left, but smoke was pouring off the left front, and then the Aston passed me at Turn10. I pitted…and after an inspection, the voice over the radio told me it was all over.

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I was distraught. I’d been fighting with everything the car and I had left – and then that happened. When you’re driving, even if it’s not your fault, you feel kind of responsible when the car gets damaged, of course you do – but the team was great. They understood what had happened, and, still sitting in the car, I looked across at Jeff and he just shrugged... I felt so sorry for all of the team and I told them.
All I wanted to do was go and collect my thoughts – it was heartbreaking.

We could have won that race.

Jeff, the perfect gentleman, asked everyone to give us that round of applause at the banquet, which was a very nice touch. He was disappointed of course – he wanted to see us beat the Corvettes in a straight fight. The GM guys want nothing more than a good scrap, and although it was a fantastic race, I believe it could have been even better.

After all the hard work over two seasons, Jeff knows he has a potential Corvette beater. Since Mosport we had three chances to go out and beat them, as we had the speed on the track to do it. We beat them on the track at Mosport, and lost it with the refuelling. Petit Le Mans was all those niggles, but we still got a good podium. At Laguna Seca we managed to somehow hold off the Astons and hold onto the Corvettes coat tails, even with all the problems, but again, it should have been more than that.

I’m sure that if we’d more chances to beat them, we would have done. ACEMCO has come so far, especially in the second half of this year. We may not have made it to the top step this year, but we sure as hell went down fighting, and I’m very proud to be a part that. The true fighting spirit of independent motorsport competition is certainly alive and well at ACEMCO Motorsports!! GM, Aston Martin and Maserati will vouch for that.

With thanks to Johnny Mowlem for all his input on dsc this year - and to all at ACEMCO, for putting up such a great fight, race after race. Regis Lefebure's photographs have added so much to this and other 63 tales. Ed.

 

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