By James Edmonds. Photos by Thomas Murray and James Edmonds
Au Revoir…but Not Goodbye
Audi R8-607 is heading off to Europe after eleven years here in the USA where she was born. There were a total of 16 R8s built, of which 13 raced. Every one of them won at least one race. Pretty impressive. The last works-built chassis was R8-605 and then two more were built from factory parts with the help of Audi Sport, Brad Kettler and others from Champion Racing/Audi Sport North America.
Perhaps the most iconic of all the R8s, certainly for those in the USA, was the Champion Racing version. Maybe it was the unique livery, maybe the fact that it was small private team, or maybe that it was the first American team to win Le Mans for almost 40 years.
I had the chance to see 607 just a day before she was shipped off to her new home and chat to her caretaker, Bobby Green about this car and his memories of the R8 program. Most will not have heard of Bobby, but his name and number is in the contact list of anyone and everyone who is connected to R8s or prototype race cars. He has as much experience building and running these cars as pretty much anyone. He was there at the factory when the first one was built and almost single handedly has built and rebuilt more of these legendary cars than just about anyone else.
We are in the small but well-equipped shop where the car lives, sharing space with its sisters: an original Lotus 11 and Group 44 Jaguar XJR7 #001. I ask Bobby to tell me about how 607 came to be.
…Mister Maraj says, “If I can’t beat you, I might as well hire you!”
– Bobby Green
“The car was commissioned by Jim Rogers and Dave Maraj and built in 2009. This tub was a spare that was left over in the United States during the R8 campaign. The car was built from that tub and all the spares that were left over at the end of the campaign in 2005. The engine is the 2005 Sebring winning engine, number R8-512, and the gearbox, number 702, was the Le Mans winning gearbox from 2005. The tub itself doesn’t have much history but the parts that the car was assembled with have significant history.
“Jim Rogers wanted the car in Champion livery. Since he owned chassis 405 as well, his plan was to put 405 back in the Joest colors of silver and yellow and to have this one in Champion livery which we did.” (405 came second at Le Mans in 2000 with Joest and was later campaigned by Champion Racing in 2001).
Having been involved with 607 from the get-go, Bobby holds a lot of affection for this car.
“I kinda like to say that I birthed this car. It was assembled with all the tricks, everything. The latest and greatest updates that the R8 ever had, this car has. It was personal. Not only just to build a car but to build a car that I knew I’d be looking after. I didn’t know I’d be looking after it for eleven years but it’s definitely a part of me – this whole Champion thing. Where my success came from was Dave Maraj and the whole Champion organization.”
Like many who travel with the racing circus, Bobby was closing one door when another opened. Little did he know it would be a change that would impact his life so dramatically. He tells of how he got involved with Dave MaraJ and Champion.
“I raced against him! 1997. Brad (Kettler) and I raced against Dave Maraj with Rohr Motorsports – they were 911 GT1s at that point. In ’98 we competed against each other again in the GT1s.”
My next question seemed obvious and BG laughs when I ask if his team beat Champion.
“Hell yeah we did, and Mister Maraj says, ‘If I can’t beat you, I might as well hire you!’. So, he hired Brad earlier on and I joined in 1998. The Rohr team had closed their doors after Sebring in ’98 so we were all looking for something to do. I wasn’t even really looking for another race job as I was a street car mechanic, but Brad called and said, ‘I could use you, come to Mid Ohio.’, so I did and I fit in right away with everyone and had a great time. It was only a small crew then. It wasn’t even full time – it was the mechanics that came from the dealership. The rest is history.
It’s no secret if you follow endurance racing, that the Audi R8 is widely regarded as perhaps one of the greatest racing cars of any era. Bobby explains why.
“The R8 was so well thought out from its conception – it wasn’t just CAD drawings on computers. This car had a lot of input from the mechanics. The first evolution – the R8R – they had teething problems with that car and for this car to come out that very next year, just set the world on fire. Every piece, every part of this car is just so well thought out. Audi’s commitment to their testing, to make sure that the car was able to do everything it was supposed to do, they set a benchmark which I think, to this day hasn’t been attained.
“Look at the lifespan of the R8. No modern prototype is ever going to have that. In my opinion, no other car will ever equal what this car did. Look what it’s still doing in vintage racing! This almost twenty-year-old car can still do 1:37.9 around Daytona. That’s pretty respectable.”
For comparison, the 2019 lap record was set by ex-Audi Sport driver Oliver Jarvis at 1:33.7 in qualifying for the Rolex 24. That was racing at full capacity with a works team. Bobby and his drivers have been using a customer map for reliability’s sake. This gives a lot less power than they would like, as well as using less than optimal tires, making that lap time even more amazing.
“…we took the bodywork off another car, and it just fit. Latched, locked, body lines – everything was right. That’s not normal.”
– Bobby Green
I am always amazed that race engineers have the uncanny ability to recall lap times, gearbox change times, fuel fill times etc from every important race. Talk to Bobby, Brad Kettler, H…any of the pro’s and they all do it as if it happened yesterday.
Bobby was the number one mechanic when he was with Champion and had previously – as mentioned earlier – worked on road cars. Technicians working on modern cars are frequently frustrated by the engineering which does not allow for ease of service or repair. I asked Bobby what it was about the R8 that stood out and gained it the reputation for being an easy car to work on.
“It’s how it was generally thought out. Everything is componentized. I’ve worked on prototypes where you had to massage every piece you put on it. This car came with a big instruction manual. It told you what the part was, what part number, where it went, how tight to tighten it…and it fit. Every time. Every part fit every time. I’ve worked on Lolas where we had brand new parts…looked like the old part…but it wouldn’t fit! This car – and what really struck us – was when we first built the first one in Ingolstadt, we took the bodywork off another car to go test, and it just fit. Latched, locked, body lines…everything was right. That’s not normal.”
The gearbox swap was a big source of excitement. When it was first shown publicly during the live Le Mans broadcast, it made the commentators sound like excited schoolboys as they watched the Joest team change out the entire rear of the car in a time that seemed impossible.
“We knew about the infamous gearbox change when we first got the car. Now, I’ve worked on a lot of race cars and this was a joy. They really listened to the mechanics when they built this car. Everything just flows, fits, its all lines up. It does everything it’s supposed to. It goes even further than that though. These cars when they were first built, you could put ‘em on the flat pad, align ‘em, take ‘em out testing, do alignment changes with a caliper by their (Audi Sport’s) notes, bring it back, put it on the alignment machine and it was almost exactly where it was. Every little piece was just that perfect that you could do that. I can remember a race in 2002 with 505 and Johnny Herbert. We had to do a gearbox change at Mid Ohio and that gearbox had never been on the car. Had never been aligned that weekend. I made adjustments with the caliper and set the shims like the other one. We put it on, and it turned the fastest lap of the race. No problems. So from that point of view, for this car, everything is just so repeatable and that’s what makes this car so enjoyable to work on.”
Bobby tells me that in the heat of battle, he and his Champion teammates did a gearbox change at Le Mans practice in 3:29 but didn’t have to do it in the race itself. I happen to know that Bobby can also do a change on his own faster than you or I can change the brakes on our road cars…
While making the R8 ready for collection, Bobby has also been rebuilding the Jag next to it for the upcoming season. The cars are both prototypes but from different eras.
“I have a lot respect and praise for the guys that ran these cars back in the day because they worked their tails off to keep ‘em going. It’s a lot of work. A lot of it’s just how things were back then and how things were put together. Today we have the luxury of live lock fasteners, Wiggins clamps, all kinds of modern technology they didn’t have. The R8 was built to be repaired fast.
One of the highlights of 607’s career came in 2016 before the 12 Hours of Sebring started. Turn 3 at the track was being named after Tom Kristensen who was on hand to do a couple of laps in the car just prior to the race. Bobby, with help from some other alumni, was able to round up several other ex-Champion crew members to come and watch. Despite them all being otherwise engaged with different teams for a race about to start, they all came to be a part of the celebration. This car has that magical quality.
Bobby worked with some of the best drivers out there. Names that are rock stars to many. JJ Lehto was one of his favorites and he has great memories of their time on the team. “Any time JJ got in the car, he was quite the character and he did things with it that were just amazing. Not just JJ. Marco (Werner), Johnny (Herbert), Andy (Wallace), TK. I am truly blessed is all I can say. To have worked with some of the people that I’ve been able to work with…when this car leaves, a part of me leaves too.”
“We are a bit melancholy because the R8 is a long-time friend but it’s on to bigger and better things. We had our run. We’re good. We’re going to find another spaceship.”
– Doug Smith
Ex-Champion Racing team driver Bill Adam drove 607 when it was first built and won many races, but Doug Smith likely has the most seat time in 607. He has driven it to victory in three of the five Daytona Classic 24 events, and has been paired over the years with Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger and most recently, James Gue. Doug joined Rogers Motorsport and originally drove the aforementioned Jaguar XJR7 and The Yellow Car – R8 405. Bobby remembers joking with Doug about driving the car.
“The standing joke was that if we let him clean the car and pump the fuel out of it, he got to race it on Sunday morning. That’s how it started. After his first few laps in the car, he showed real maturity. He came in and said he wanted to talk to Andy (Wallace) about his braking points and Andy was an absolute mentor. Those two fit together so well.
“Now the car is going to Europe to a new owner. I’m not quite sure what their intentions are but it appears that they’re gonna run it. Sounds like maybe Le Mans Classic 2021 will be its first outing. I wouldn’t be surprised if they strip it and refinish it though.
Asked about the possibility of continuing his relationship with the car, Bobby is hopeful. “The opportunity is there. If we can start traveling and racing healthy again, then I’ll be up for it.”
Doug Smith’s full-time job is as one of Porsche’s professional instructors and he had several memorable drives in 607. Besides wins at Road America 2010, Homestead 2010, the Mitty 2012, and Watkins Glen 2012, it has won Sebring multiple times plus of course the Daytona Classic races. Doug’s drives in 607 didn’t hurt his resume and maybe in part, through this affiliation he was able to land his drive at the Rolex 24 with the 50 Plus team founded by AC/DC front-man, Brian Johnson.
Doug reflects on his time with the car, but as a driver he is much more analytical.
“The interesting comparison is between 405 and 607. They were different series of cars and had different bodywork, so the aero was different. The engines were different – 405 was plenum injection and 607 was FSI so was more evolved and more responsive. We are a bit melancholy because the R8 is a long-time friend but it’s on to bigger and better things. We had our run. We’re good. We’re going to find another spaceship. The best thing that car did was it kept people together that shouldn’t have been together. It was the bridge to camaraderie. It was a phenomenal race car and I was part of the lucky boy’s club who got to sit in that thing.”
In parting, Bobby sums up. “I am a bit sad, but at the same time relieved in the sense of what we accomplished with a car that should never have been, if you know what I mean. I’ll miss her dearly but take comfort in not having to worry any more. Not just about the car but what that car meant to many of us. I never realized the weight I carried until it was lifted.”
Footnote. The good news for some of us, is that as one piece of Audi history leaves, another is coming back. Audi just announced its return to front line endurance racing with a new LMDh car to contest IMSA and WEC for 2023.