A Celebration of Winners…Passed and Present
Photos by Thomas Murray, James Edmonds and Regis Lefebre
One might be lucky to see a handful of real vintage race cars pitted against a veritable plethora of Miatas, new 911s, Mustangs or race cars that were current only last season at anything other than the biggest national events in the US. Again, trying to examine the reasons, I realize that it is not the fault of the organizers, it is just that the USA is a huge place and to gather cars from all over takes some serious spending on the part of the participants. Getting cars to congregate in Europe is not that tough. Doing the same here is a much bigger proposition once you figure in the distances and then add to that the months of preparation, transportation to and from, the crew, lodgings, feeding and watering not to mention the cost of running the car. And that’s just the small teams. So I apologize if my disappointment in the class structure has left me wanting more.
With my race mates Dave Lobou and Tom Murray raring to go, we left West Palm Beach at 4am in order to arrive at the track before breakfast. We were welcomed by perfect Florida fall weather and the sights and sounds to gladden the hearts of even the most cynical fans. Myself included. I’ve never been to Goodwood, which by all accounts is the granddaddy of all vintage race weekends, but even it had to start somewhere. This was an auspicious start to what will hopefully develop into something as impressive and uniquely ours here in the States.
With cars grouped according to the era in which they ran in true competition, each group was unique and made for a much more authentic experience for the fans as well as the drivers. Commentary was supplied by Joe Bradley of Radio Le Mans fame and the irrepressible Andrew Marriot who added a certain familiarity to the proceedings. All of us there who have come to know and love these guys found it rather heartwarming to be on steady ground with old friends. The format I have to say was a brilliant stroke of genius. With the cars in and out regularly, you were able to see just enough of one class and shoot some great photo’s before the next group came out and got you excited all over again. The cadence of the well adhered to schedule made for a truly exciting time as things never got stagnant, repetitive or boring. Walking the paddock was a throwback to a different era and to see these beautifully prepared machines and be able to talk to the owners and crew members in an atmosphere that was relaxed and enjoyable in a way that modern racing often isn’t was a breath of race-fuel-laced air. And the sounds. The smells. The smiles. I could go on and on.
Sunday afternoon Dave realized that he had lost his media vest. We walked back to where we had just enjoyed a frosty beverage, and there it was – right there on an adjacent table. I lost a WEC credential once at Sebring. Gone within moments. Those kind of things are like gold to the lucky and dishonest appropriator and it added to the time-warp feel of the event that someone had not blatantly blagged the vest, but had left it there to be claimed by its rightful custodian.
Another Chequered Flag for the R8 and a Salute to Keith
One of the undoubted stars of the event was the Champion Racing liveried Audi R8 and certainly my favorite having worked for Dave Maraj for many years. The car now owned by Jim Rogers of Packers of Indian River – a Florida fruit grower – has been campaigned in HSR for many years now and thanks to him thousands of fans are still able to see this iconic
modern day classic, widely regarded as the best sports car ever to have raced. (He also runs one of the V12 Group 44 Inc. Jaguars). Its regular lucky driver is Doug Smith Jr. who is often teamed with sports racing car legend Andy Wallace as was the case at Daytona – Wallace of course one of the early R8 drivers with Champion.
As amazing as the car is, what is even more amazing is that the crew working on the car this weekend were none other than members of the original Champion team: Crew Chief Bobby Green directs operations and maintains the car as a full time employee of Jim Rogers; Rick Clifton takes care of transportation and tires just like the old days and Jerome Freeman handles the fuel and general assistance. The most important team member however was there in spirit only, none other than the larger-than-life Keith Bransford
Keith, affectionately known to his friends as Kato or Big Kahuna was the very first full-time member of Champion Racing and one of those rare types who was roundly liked, admired and respected by all those who met him. That he had just lost his long battle with cancer at a young age made winning this race a mission for the team and in his honor, Bobby put Keith’s name on the side of the car above Doug and Andy’s.
Keith was a gearbox man and was rightly regarded as the best in the business. His stories were many, but one of the most memorable was one which gained him immortality when it was put down in the pages of Car & Driver last year and more recently in the excellent book, Champion Racing: A little Bit of Magic. The recalcitrant Porsche-Lola was being tested by Keith on the road around the industrial park where the race shop was located. Treated as a test track, the car needed a quick shake down prior to being shipped to Daytona for testing before the 24, but hard transport tires and a lot of turbo boost conspired to spin the car which bounced off a curb and landed fully in what became known as Lake Lola – the large lake in the center of the complex. To Keith’s eternal credit, he was able to use his huge strength to literally man handle the car back to shore single handedly. As you can imagine, horror mixed with disbelief were the overriding emotions from the on looking team members, but thankfully that has given way to humor in the ensuing years as the episode has turned to legend.
|Keith & JJ help Marco Werner. Photo: Regis Lefebure
Among the front runners in the R8’s Class E were last year’s 8Star Coyote Corvette DP being driven by Enzo Potolicchio and the Pescarolo-Judd of David Porter, this being the chief rival to the R8. It will be remembered that at Le Mans 2005 – the swansong year for Champion – it was the factory Pesca team that was touted to win, being faster by some margin, due to the Audi being saddled with BoP, aero and weight penalties. These were severe enough to warrant a quip from JJ Lehto that the R8 felt “as if it was tied to a post”. The Audi now has to run a map which leaves it with about the same power that it ran with in ’05 (much to Bobby’s dismay) so the old rivals took up the fight where they left off with the Pescarolo being faster by more than a wee bit.
|Rivalry renewed with Pescarolo
Race one of the four hour-long aggregated heats saw Doug Smith starting from second and duking it out early in the proceedings with the pole sitting Pesca. Before long Smith forced Porter into a mistake as he went off causing some minor damage which took 4 laps to repair. The Audi drivers then had to fend off the charge from Potolicchio and we all breathed a sigh of relief when the R8 as always, ran like a clockwork train. As each heat ended, we counted off another win, and at the end of the four heats Potolicchio wound up second overall by less than 40 seconds, although it was the French car that they wanted to beat more than anything.
|Bobby with Andy Wallace
|Keith hoists a jubilant Allan McNish. Photo: Regis Lefebure
For me, I used to go to the big races but watched every one of the others on TV and loved discussing the weekend’s events – usually a win – with the team members during the week. My abiding memory of Keith will be that gentle giant wearing a huge toothy smile and a winning driver hoisted on his shoulders in celebration after a race.
Bill Adam, another driver from Champion’s early days also has fond memories. Like Keith, he was one of the first to be there at the dawn of a team which went from humble beginnings – an easy up and pallets for flooring – to the envy of every team on the pit lane to the point that they were the ‘works’ team for Audi here in the USA from 2006-2008. Bill, as a broadcaster is eloquent as always. “Keith always had this low key and very quiet charm about him,” he tells me, “I liked him tremendously and watched him work for so many years on our Porsche right up to the R8. His work was beyond compare…you couldn’t say, ‘Yeah he’s good but I’d like to have so and so’, he was theguy that you wanted and I always felt so lucky that we had him.
|Andy Wallace celebrates with Doug Smith
As we said our goodbyes to our old friends and walked back to the car, we noticed how the event had barely finished and yet the car parks were already almost empty. Before the advent of global shrinkage where a happening of any kind is packed to the gunwales and where ingress and egress take up more of your time than said event, Tom made the observation that this perhaps is what it would have been like back in the sixties. No huge lines, honking and blaring, pushing and shoving, yelling and screaming. Just a great weekend away with some likeminded people who are out for a good old fashioned celebration at the races. It may or may not have been but I like think to think that maybe it was.