A long weekend in the middle of nowhere (part one)


Ben Kritz

CONTRARY to popular perceptions, the US state of Florida does not all look like Miami Beach or Disney World; most of it is flat, dull, infested with mosquitoes, and populated by the sort of people who were born to be cast as extras in movies like Deliverance, or any show featuring zombies.

That, at least, is the impression one gets if one spends much time in the thoroughly forgettable central Florida town of Sebring, which has a population of about 10,000 people and is, geographically speaking, about half water. The only thing Sebring has going for it is that it is the home of the Sebring International Raceway, a famous location in the racing world, which is actually an old air base on the edge of town.

I have spent more time in Sebring than I actually care to think about; most of it for test-driving exercises (which is not as exciting as it sounds), and three times for Sebring’s premier event, the 12-hour endurance race held in March every year. The 2001 event was the last for me, and the most memorable, although not entirely in good way.

On the calendar, the race was the second round of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS, the first had been in Texas a month earlier) and the first round of the European Le Mans Series, and looking back, it seems the entire weekend – which, in endurance racing, actually begins on Wednesday or Thursday – had an air of doom about it. For one thing, the race took place exactly one month after the death of racing legend Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500; many of the people involved in the various ALMS teams knew Earnhardt personally, and were still gloomy about his untimely passing. And before the race even started, tragedy struck: The popular French driver Bob Wollek, who had been scheduled to drive a Porsche for Petersen Racing, was bicycling back to his hotel from the track after Friday practice when he was hit by an elderly driver and killed. The team withdrew from the event, and a moment of silence in his memory was held before the start of the race next morning. Sadly, Wollek (who was 57 then) had just announced Sebring would be his last race; he intended to be an ambassador for Porsche Motorsport.

And although we obviously didn’t know it then, in just a little more than a month eventual race winner and Formula One veteran Michele Alboreto, who was piloting one of the awesome Audi R8 LMP cars, would be killed testing a sister car at the Lausitzring in Germany.

In terms of the actual racing, BMW had high hopes for the season. The V12 LMR that had dominated a couple seasons of endurance racing had been forced into retirement by the appearance of the R8, but we had a new weapon: An E46 M3 fitted with a 4.0-liter V8, the same engine as the larger 540i sedan. The two factory-supported teams, the BMW Motorsport team operating directly out of Munich, and the North American team handled by the Virginia-based Prototype Technology Group (PTG, where my office was located at the time), each had one V8 M3 and one of the “regular” M3 models equipped with the 3.2-liter 6-cylinder. The justification the factory used to shove the V8 version through homologation (the setup, which first appeared at Daytona in the hands of Tom Bell’s team, was instantly and aggressively protested by absolutely everyone, even teams not running GT-class cars) was that the requirement that GT cars be based on a production chassis and engine was met, since the M3 was a production car, and the 4.0-liter V8 was a production engine; the rules didn’t necessarily specify they had to be produced in the same package. That was something that was quickly corrected for the next season, legislating the hybrids out of existence, but for the moment, the monster M3 could blow the doors off anything in its class.

If we could get it work properly.

The cars were, shall we say, a bit delicate, and from the moment the teams rolled them off the transporters on Wednesday evening, they were nothing but trouble. And that meant nothing but trouble for me, as I had the important but completely thankless task of managing logistics for the two teams.

In this respect, my factory colleagues from Germany were not much of a problem; with typical Teutonic efficiency, they had prepared every item they could possibly need – they actually had enough material that they could have built two complete vehicles at the track, if they had to – all I needed to do was help them get it there. The North American team, on the other hand, was a scattered mess. The vehicles’ construction had fallen behind schedule due to problems with electrical and engine parts, and they were shoved into the trucks and driven all night from Virginia to Florida at the last possible moment, leaving without some critical spares. The problems started on Thursday afternoon when, about an hour before the very first warm-up session, the engine in the V8 blew itself apart.

Back in Virginia, where my only company in the shop was the body fabricator and the team owner’s friendly dog, the phone rang. “We need an engine,” the crew chief said matter-of-factly.

“Well, I need a vacation,” I said. “But neither one of us is going to get what we need, because neither of those things exist.”

The chief laughed. “Yeah, I know. We give up. We’re switching to the back-up car, so we need the spare V6.”

It took me about an hour to arrange for FedEx to pick up the engine – which was fortunately already packed for transport – and ship it by the fastest available service to Florida. No sooner was that done, then the phone rang again, this time with PTG’s hyperactive team principal on the other end of the line. I could hear the roar of racing engines in the background, and he was shouting, not because it was particularly noisy where he was, but because that’s how he usually talked.

“We need a driver’s side door!” he barked. Driver Bill Auberlen had crashed with a Porsche on the track, and shattered the door.

Now I was getting annoyed. A basic function of my job, as the factory rep to the motor sports operation, was to make sure the several million dollars a year BMW was giving this outfit was spent wisely, and I was starting to see some issues with that. “Oh, come on,” I said wearily. “What happened now? You don’t have a spare door? Go borrow one from Schnitzer [the German team].”

“We tried, it doesn’t fit. Clayton was working on one, is it done yet?” he asked. I promised to call him back in a few minutes and wandered back to the body shop to check. Clayton, the carbon fiber wizard, rolled his eyes.

“Yes, it’s done. Barely,” he said. “It’s got no paint on it, and the adhesive is all of an hour old, so if it goes in cargo, it’ll probably get knocked apart.” Great.

I explained all this to the team boss a moment later. “Fine, even if it’s just the pieces, we can do something with it here. Get it down to us.”

“At this time of the day [it was nearly 6 p.m. at this point], the only way that’s going to happen is if I bring it to you,” I said.

I could almost hear him thinking in the moment of quiet that followed. “Get to the airport,” he said finally. “I’ll have Megan book you a flight and call you with the details while you’re on the way.”

Part two next week


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