"The Hardest Place We Go"
Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty were crowned Rolex Series Champions at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2009. The team looks to rebound after a tough start at Daytona (photo courtesy: Sam Greenwood, Getty Images Sport)
Teams in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series are coming off the longest event on the schedule, the Rolex 24 At Daytona. Now, they're preparing for what many feel is the toughest track on the circuit, Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of the Grand Prix of Miami on Saturday, March 5.
"It's the hardest place we go to," said Terry Wilbert, team manager for the No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Chevrolet/Riley driven by 2007 and 2009 Daytona Prototype champions Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty.
"It's a horsepower track, because you're on the gas so long running wide open on the oval," Wilbert said. "There are no real handling issues with the infield, but the banking there is different. It really loads the car."
Gurney and Fogarty struggled with brake issues at the Rolex 24, when they shared the iconic Red Dragon with five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. They finished 12th in the DP rundown, once again denied a victory in America's premier endurance race.
After the race, the car was returned to the team headquarters in Lewisville, Texas. The team completely stripped the car down to the bare frame to get ready for the Grand Prix of Miami March 5.
"Getting a car ready after the Rolex 24 is a three-week process with the guys we have working in the shop," Wilbert said. "We replaced the aluminum floor, rebuilt the motor and went through the gear box. We cleaned the suspension, gearing and steering, and put it through a crack test. The car was basically rebuilt from the ground up."
Wilbert said that the teams have solved one problem that was unique to Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"The steering was locking up in the banking because of the high force loads and the heat," Wilbert explained. "The drivers would bring the car in and want to fix it but by then it was working again. We finally figured out what was happening and now we have a special blower on the power steering box to keep it cool."
Another challenge at Homestead-Miami Speedway is the tropical climate.
"The heat on the drivers is a key element of the race that has to be managed, especially because of the noon start," Wilbert said. "Both drivers will be wearing cool suits and using helmet blowers. Jon sometimes doesn't wear one, but he definitely will have one on at Homestead.
"Key to setting up the car at this race is the track is it will get more and more slippery as the race goes on, so the car will be set up tighter in the beginning of the race so that it will still handle at the end," Wilbert added. "This will slow down speeds on the oval part of the track at the beginning of the race but that trade off has to be made. Otherwise, at the end the car will be so loose it becomes un-drivable."
Wilbert has been a member of the team since it debuted in 2005, and was promoted to crew chief the following year and team manager in 2007. A 30-year veteran of working in motorsports, he has participated in five Indianapolis 500s, nearly winning the race in 1998 with John Paul Jr.
Homestead-Miami Speedway has always posed a challenge to the GAINSCO team. Since Fogarty and Gurney began driving together midway through the 2006 campaign, they have improved each year on the 2.3-mile circuit. The pair finished 11th in 2007, then eighth in 2008, fourth in 2009 and third in last year's event.
"It's definitely been our worst track but we did make a podium last year," Wilbert said. "That gives the team more confidence coming here than in years past. We'd like to go down there and win, but we definitely want to finish on the podium again and make up some points."
Regardless of what happens in the Grand Prix of Miami, the team will have reason to smile after the race.
"The two races after that are two of our best -- VIR and Barber," Wilbert said. "It would be great if we could make up some ground at Homestead to help us in the championship."
The “Grand Prix of Miami” will feature more than six hours of racing on South Florida’s 2.3-mile road course. The “Grand Prix” will feature the Daytona Prototypes and Grand Touring classes in Race 2 of the 2011 GRAND-AM campaign. Tickets start at $25 and are available by calling (866) 409-RACE or by clicking here. Parking is FREE, and fans are welcome to bring in their own food and drink in a 14x14x14 cooler, with unlimited re-entry to the Speedway to allow for restocking from tailgates.