Thursday
Mar292007

TEAM NEWS: ACURA SPORTS CAR TEAMS LOOK TO REPEAT SEBRING DEBUT IN ST. PETERSBURG STREETS SATURDAY

Photo by John Thawley Standing in victory lane at one of the toughest races in the world, John Mendel and Robert Clarke smiled from ear to ear with winning drivers Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan after the 12 Hours of Sebring a week and a half ago.

The two executives of the new Acura road racing program were ecstatic that their car had just won at Sebring International Raceway in the marque's debut in the American Le Mans Series.

Some of the greatest racing drivers and teams had never won at Sebring in years and even decades of trying. Now the Acura officials were celebrating with the Andretti Green Racing team after scoring victory with the No. 26 XM Satellite Radio Acura ARX-01a in the LMP2 class and second overall to the more-powerful Audi machine in Acura's initial road racing effort.

"I can't put it into words," said Clarke, president, Honda Performance Development (HPD). "I would rate it as one of the highest emotional experiences I've had. So much work went into this program. We won on multiple levels. I couldn't have imagined it would finish this way. It's been a long road, not just for HPD but for Acura, our teams, drivers and everyone involved in the program."

Acura had made a historic decision last year.

That decision reflects Acura's position as a leader in automotive performance and technology. "As Acura marks its 20-year anniversary, I can't think of a better racing series to showcase our technology and performance than the American Le Mans Series," said Mendel, senior vice president, auto sales, American Honda Motor Co.

Andretti Green Racing and Highcroft Racing fielded the new Acura ARX-01a machines with Lowe's Fernandez Racing entering an Acura-powered Lola B05/40 that made a spectacular debut at Sebring.

In their first Series race, all three Acura teams, which campaign Michelin competition tires, finished first, second and fourth in the LMP2 division and second, third and sixth overall.

Only small difficulties hurt the Fernandez team's chances of winning at Sebring with drivers Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz placing third behind the overall-winning Audi and the AGR Acura. The Highcroft effort, with drivers David Brabham, Stefan Johansson and team owner Duncan Dayton, ran wheel to wheel with AGR until the halfway point before an electrical problem relegated them to fourth in class and sixth overall.

It was a sensational display by the three new Acura teams in their debut but the biggest surprise at Sebring may not have been the power of the Acura engine. It was the first event for the all-new ARX-01a chassis, the mastermind of former Formula One engineer Nick Wirth and his staff at Wirth Research in England along with the HPD engineers. The ARX-01a chassis proved to withstand the rough surface of the Sebring airport track and now competes in the tight street circuit in Saturday's Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg.

Marino Franchitti will join Herta at St. Petersburg in the No. 26 XM Satellite AGR Acura ARX-01a team.

ACURA QUOTES:

BRYAN HERTA (#26 XM Satellite Radio AGR Acura ARX-01a): "We are still very excited from the Sebring win. But we are going from a grueling race on an airport circuit to a sprint race on a street course. That is quite a contrast. I expect a lot of bumping and shoving on the tighter street course at St. Petersburg. I have had some good runs on the St. Pete track in the Indy cars including winning the pole two years ago. I have two fourth places there so I think we know the track. But driving an Indy car and a prototype car at St. Pete will be much different. We'll have to get different braking points and the gearing will be different. In an Indy car, you would set up people to pass at certain corners. In the Acura prototype car, you have to pass any place at any time. With the four separate classes, speeds are drastically different. I don't expect the bodywork on the cars to look the same from the start to the finish. But it will be an exciting event for the fans. I think the new chassis — the ARX-01a — could be very competitive on the tight circuit. It would be fantastic to win the Acura race with an Acura."

MARIO FRANCHITTI (#26 XM Satellite Radio AGR Acura ARX-01a): "I'm delighted to be racing the XM Satellite Radio Acura in St. Petersburg. I'm very proud of the job that Andretti Green Racing and Acura have done producing a car that was capable of winning the Sebring 12 Hours, I thought Bryan (Herta) and my other teammates drove a fantastic race. Testing the car has been fun and educational, especially in Sebring, and now I'm ready to go racing in St. Petersburg. It looks like an amazing race track and hopefully we'll be able to earn a second victory for Acura."

ADRIAN FERNANDEZ (#15 Lowe's Fernandez Acura Lola): "I am very happy for everyone at Acura with their strong results at Sebring. This is a good start to the season for our great partners at Lowe's and Acura, and a nice reward to everyone on the team for all of their hard work. The Sebring race was confusing for our team because we are not reaching the speeds we were doing before, so we have some homework to do before St. Petersburg. I have only raced on the St. Petersburg circuit once, and that was in the inaugural race there back in 2003 in Champ Cars. I qualified third, but was hit from behind in the race and wasn't able to finish. St. Petersburg provides the perfect backdrop for a race with beautiful scenery and a great atmosphere for the fans. The circuit itself is nice and challenging. It's tight but fast too, and traffic will definitely make things interesting for qualifying and the race."

LUIS DIAZ (#15 Lowe's Fernandez Acura Lola): "Sebring was a very good result for us. It was a great learning process and a good result at the same time. This is so different from the sports car racing that I have done and I am very happy to start like this. The biggest challenge for me was dealing with the traffic. You really have to time the traffic different than what I am used to and you have to take care of the car. Also, you are dealing with drivers that you haven't raced with before. I learned a lot at Sebring and it is going to be a big help for the future. If we can keep doing the job that we did today and keep making podiums, I think we can contend for the championship."

DUNCAN DAYTON (#9 Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-01a): "We were really thrilled that all three Acura teams finished at Sebring. We congratulate AGR and Fernandez for getting on the podium. It's too bad we had one electrical problem. I really think we had the pace to race for the lead. It's a great first step for our young team."

DAVID BRABHAM (#9 Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-01a): "I was pleased with the performance of our Acura car. I got into a rhythm and was able to stay with the leaders. Overall, we ran slightly more competitively than I had anticipated, so that's good. The car had a good balance and I look forward to racing on the streets at St. Petersburg."

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