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Road Atlanta 2009 TransAm Debut

Ever since Atlanta's R.E. Tere Pulliam “informed me” six months ago that Atlanta Region would be hosting the opening event of the (resurrected) 2009 Muscle Milk SCCA TransAm Series, I’ve had a number of questions running through my head:

  1. Could we develop a schedule that would accommodate all parties?
  2. Would the weather here in March cooperate? 
  3. Would the National drivers accept having to share the weekend?
  4. Could we manage the event logistically? 
  5. Could we work effectively with the National Club Racing and SCCA Pro staffs to make this happen?
  6. Does the TransAm name still draw spectators to the track?
  7. Will enough T/A cars attend to put on a good show?

 As I write this two days after the event, I’m exhausted but extremely happy to know the answers to those questions (in order) are: 

  1. Yes
  2. Yes
  3. Yes
  4. Yes
  5. Yes
  6. Yes
  7. Most definitely YES!!! <g>

And now the longer story:

1. Could we develop a schedule that would accommodate all parties?

It really didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to agree that our March National was the perfect place to kick off the series that was announced at the PRI show in December. The T/A organizers specifically requested they run as the last race on Sunday to not impact the National drivers, plus all they wanted were two short sessions for practice and qualifying prior to the race. Since we’ve traditionally run two Pro-IT races in conjunction with our first National each year, it didn’t take me long to come up with a schedule that would satisfy the GCR requirements for the National racers (45 minutes of practice/qualifying plus an 18 lap race) and still accommodate the desires of the Trans-Am drivers. That was the easy part.

2. Would the weather here in March cooperate? 

Although it HAS snowed here in March in the past (anyone remember the blizzard of 1993 that wiped out the NASCAR race at AMS?), I had confidence that Al Gore is right and we’d have decent weather for the weekend. Yes it was chilly in the mornings (38 degrees), but the sun shone all three days and the highs were in the 60’s each afternoon. There’s nothing I could do about the weather anyway, but it IS nice that the (racing gods / weather steward / Chamber of Commerce / global warming / all of the above) came through for us.

3. Would the National drivers accept having to share the weekend?

When it was initially announced that Trans-Am would run in conjunction with selected National weekends throughout the country, the various forums immediately filled with drivers outraged that they would have to give up even one precious iota of track time, paddock space, racing room, whatever. I don’t know what other regions will do, but I sent out a message explaining that we would (a) still be running six run groups as we have for the last six years (so they’d still be racing with the same folks they’ve always run with at our events), (b) still offer a total of fifty minutes of track time prior to the race (five minutes more than is mandated in the GCR), and (c) paddock the T/A cars in the Pro Paddock (so we’d have even more room than normal in the Club Paddock). Granted we’d implement “seamless” qualifying like we do for our regional events and they’d have two twenty minute qualifiers on Saturday instead of a twenty-five and a twenty, but that seemed to mollify the dissenters. I did get a call from one guy expressing that he used EVERY minute of each session and would not come to our event if we insisted on adding the T/A cars, but since it was a done deal at that point I told him I respected his position and we sure would miss him. I later found out he hadn’t run ANY of our events the past two years and hadn’t raced anywhere (Regional or National) in SEDIV in 2008! With apologies to Randy Travis, “Since my phone still ain’t ringing, I assume it still ain’t you.”

Bottom line – even with the down economy we ended up with 166 National cars compared to 168 in 2008, so there couldn’t have been TOO many people staying home in protest. <g>

4. Could we manage the event logistically? 

I’m sure that every Competition Director in the country believes her/his team is the absolute best in the SCCA, but I have the advantage of KNOWING ours is truly #1. <g> The biggest logistical challenge was running a weekend out of two paddocks (and Grid and Impound) instead of one, but our folks made that adjustment without batting an eye. The weekend went off without a hitch, the competitors were impressed with the professionalism displayed, and I’ll repeat what I’ve said about our team in the past: I’m honored you folks allow me to work with you.

5. Could we work effectively with the National Club Racing and SCCA Pro staffs to make this happen?

No problems whatsoever. VP of Club Racing Terry Ozment and/or Series Manager Randy Hembrey responded quickly to any questions or concerns I expressed prior to the weekend, then Randy and the Tech Team of Eric and Bonnie Hiltner worked with our people to make things happen at the track. Our stewards were very complimentary of their professionalism and ability to work with us to make quick decisions. PR Director Eric Prill came in after being at Sebring for the World Challenge races to post timely updates of the weekend’s results, and new SCCA President Jeff Dahnert arrived on Saturday morning as well. Their focus was exactly the same as ours – let’s make the execution of this first event as good as we possibly can and then work on things from there. As I wrote to them on Monday, “It was great working with you guys even if you ARE a bunch of Yankees.” (Those of you north of the Mason-Dixon have no idea what I’m talking about, but the folks down here know exactly what I mean. <g>)

6. Does the TransAm name still draw spectators to the track?

I don’t have final ticket counts yet, but I’d estimate we had double the crowd we normally attract for our March National weekend (all our Atlanta Region events are spectator events). It wasn’t Petit LeMans numbers (I could still navigate through the infield in my dually on Sunday), but a number of the drivers were impressed by the number of people watching from the hill at Turn Five. We posted fliers at local businesses, posted on multiple forums, and did word-of-mouth advertising, so obviously there is still some identification with the name among the motorsports crowd. I expect we’ll continue to build attendance by making this a regular event on the Road Atlanta / Atlanta Region SCCA schedule.

7. Will enough T/A cars attend to put on a good show?

I’ll grant you that I might be biased since I’ve raced V-8 powered ground-pounders for almost thirty years, but the show our nineteen Muscle Milk TransAm cars and drivers put on was nothing short of spectacular! The entire field had a best lap under 1:30 (102 mph average speed), we had three different leaders, and five laps from the end the top five were separated by less than eight seconds. Add in Michael Skeen’s charge from the back of the pack to finish second (and turn fast lap of the race), and the crowd was on their feet the entire race.

I helped grid the cars and planned to watch just start of the race from the end of the front straight, but the action was so compelling I chose not to move lest I miss some of the action. Tony Ave had qualified on the pole with a 1:20.950 lap (112.959 mph), then proceeded to build about a six second lead early in the race. I had a clock on him as the leader and I also was monitoring the interval back to Michael Skeen, and noticed the red #70 was cutting into the margin even though he was having to deal with traffic. Those of us on the pit wall (I was joined by most of our Pit/Grid staff) thought maybe Ave had run his tires off with his early pace, but it ends up he had lost the front brakes entirely about lap seven. He was slowing the car (from 175 mph) with the rear brakes and by downshifting, yet he was still running laps in the 1:23-1:24 range! He was eventually passed by R.J. Lopez on lap 19 (of 36) yet still maintained second place over Tomy Drissi, Gregg Pickett, and Michael Skeen for another five laps before first Pickett and then Drissi got by, then he fought off Skeen for another two laps.  Skeen then got by Drissi for third so with five laps to go it was Lopez, Pickett, Skeen, Drissi, and Ave all covered by 7.2 seconds. As they started lap 32, however, Ave got into Turn One a bit too hot, looped the car and “christened” (his word) the brand new chassis against the concrete wall on drivers’ right at Turn Two. We saw the local yellow and the debris flag from where we were watching, then the double yellows and the Pace Car came out forty seconds later for a full-course caution. We thought it was for Tony’s wreck, but it ends up leader R.J. Lopez had grenaded an engine at Turn Eight and eventually got the car stopped at Turn Ten. Since Mobil-1 is a great lubricant but not much for traction and given the cars carry 175 mph into the downhill braking zone at that point, the decision was made to end the race behind the Pace Car. Even though they were under caution Drissi suffered a “fuel delivery problem” (i.e. – he ran out of gas) at Turn Three so he ended up fifth behind Gregg Pickett, Michael Skeen, Amy Ruman, and John Schaller. Drissi, Daniel Ramoutarsingh, and Jon Leavy were one lap down followed by Bob Monette and Glen Jung two laps back, then Denny Lamers was the last car running in eleventh and four laps down.

I was somewhat disappointed to see a great race end under yellow, but the drivers had discussed such a scenario earlier in the day and voted to NOT take a chance on having a crash-fest to end the race. It was a fantastic race, I don’t think anyone went home feeling cheated, and I’m already thinking about how we can make it an even better show in 2010.

The next event in the 2009 Muscle Milk SCCA TransAm Series is with North Carolina Region’s Double National at VIR (near Danville, VA) the weekend of April 17-19. Even though it’s a seven-hour drive home and the TransAm cars will run last thing on Sunday, I definitely plan to stick around and see how things turn out.  The TransAm Series is BACK!!!

See y’all at the track…