Sports Car Insider's 2009 Special Recognition Awards

As the year winds down, I thought it would be a great time to look back at 2008 and give a nod to those in the American Le Mans that contributed to another great year of sports car racing’s legacy. As the old saying goes, these are the good old days. And while there are hundreds of stories and moments that made up the year, I thought these were a few items worth special recognition.

Driver of the Year: When you win the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series LMP1 Championship, both in the same year you’re SCi’s Driver of the Year. When you conduct yourself with grace under fire and you let your actions do your talking… when you do it all with the utmost professionalism and display the humility of “just doing your job,” you’re SCi’s Driver of the Year. When you’re David Brabham, you’re the 2009 Sports Car Insider Driver of the Year.

Owner of the Year: Duncan Dayton has literally worked his way up through the American Le Mans Series ranks.  From gentleman racer to team owner, he has quietly etched his mark in the series. Three years ago, Highcroft Racing was the unlikely choice in Acura’s team selection for that company’s foray into endurance sports car racing. Positioned between two well established iconic motorsports teams, Fernadez Racing and Andretti Green, everyone quietly assumed Highcroft would be the test mule paving the way for someone else to collect the notoriety.

Duncan Dayton had other ideas.

Ultimately, it was Duncon Dayton’s Highcroft Racing that delivered key milestones for Acura and HPD - recording the first overall American Le Mans Series win, the first LMP1 victory and now, the first LMP1 championship in the American Le Mans Series for the marque.

Test mule? I guess Duncan didn’t get the memo. Duncan Dayton easily earns Sports Car Insider’s 2009 Team Owner of the Year.

Team of the Year: That they were the top performing Acura squad in each of the past three seasons is only the tip of the iceberg. In that period, Patrón Highcroft Racing has grabbed seven class victories, four overall wins and six class pole positions. Still not enough? Well, then there was the time they built a brand new car… not just any car mind you… but a state-of-the-art full blown American Le Mans Series LMP1 race car, and had it back on track in full race livery in less than 24 hours.

To quote SCi contributor Rick Dole, “The Highcroft crew brings their expertise from Sweden, Switzerland, England, Australia, and the United States. Their experience spans Formula 1 to Indy Car to Historic Racing, resulting in multiple championships and decades of knowledge. The term ‘professional’ correctly defines every single member of the Highcroft team. It is that simple. A long, drawn out explanation is unnecessary.”

Patron Highcroft Racing is Sports Car Insider’s Team of the Year

Heartbreak of the Year: Formed in the fall of 2000 by Adrian Fernandez and motorsports veteran Tom Anderson, Fernandez Racing partnered with Lowe’s (the second largest home improvement retailer in the world) to form Lowe’s Fernandez Racing in 2006. It was announced they were one of three original Acura teams announced in July 2006.

Yet while the team came to the American Le Mans Series with strong pedigree, Acura backing and Lowes funding, they never let it go to their heads. They worked hard, raced hard and always played fair. Their presence was always professional, always prepared and always in it to win.

And win they did. With team owner/driver Adrian Fernandez and fellow countryman Luis Diaz handling the driving duties, Lowes Fernandez Racing claimed five podium finishes and 10 top-five results in 23 starts together. They had second-place drives at Sebring in 2007 and Mosport in 2008.

On their way to the 2009 LMP2 Driver’s Championship, Fernandez and Diaz claimed eight class wins. They won at Sebring, St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Salt Lake City, Mid-Ohio, Road America, Mosport and Laguna Seca tying the American Le Mans Series record for most LMP2 wins in a season set by Penske Racing in 2007.

In 33 ALMS career starts, Fernandez and Diaz have claimed seven pole positions and 15 podium finishes.

Not enough?

In addition to the LMP2 driver championship, LMP2 Team championship honors, and the Michelin GREEN X Challenge title, Lowe’s Fernandez Racing’s Tony Leith was recognized as Crew Chief of the Year in P2 competition. And if that’s still not enough, Louis Diaz earned the coveted Most Popular Driver Award voted on by fans worldwide of the ALMS.

Lowe’s Fernandez Racing took their last checkered flag in the final race of the season at Laguna Seca and will not return to compete in 2010. Lowe’s Fernandez Racing is Sports Car Insider’s 2009 Heartbreak of the Year.

Car of the Year: Heroics are almost an everyday occurrence in this business. That’s probably why we love it. The players that show up on race day… and I mean all of them… in the car, over-the-wall and behind the wall, are all capable of things that leave us mere mortals with our chins dangling loosely around our knees. It’s why we watch.

Winners of the last eight American Le Mans Series GT1 team and manufacturer championships, Corvette Racing has posted 75 class wins worldwide – including a record 69 ALMS victories. Corvette Racing drivers have won a total of 13 ALMS class championships since 2002. Since its debut in 2005, the Corvette C6.R has won 38 races, the most of any GT1 car and second all-time in ALMS history regardless of class.

On April 18, Corvette Racing marked the end of an era with the final U.S. appearance by the Corvette C6.Rs in the GT1 category.

On August 8th, Corvette Racing began a new era with its entry into the highly competitive GT2 category. While Corvette officially “billed” the remainder of the 2009 season as a test session for the GT2 cars, once again, it seems someone didn’t get the memo. The car logged a 2nd place finish in its debut at Mid-Ohio, 3rd at Road America and in its third outing, commemorating driver Johnny O’Connell’s 100th ALMS start, the #3 Corvette GT2 car won its class at Mosport. At Petit Le Mans, when the red flag abbreviated the event due to rain, Corvette was running in 4th. At the final race of the season, Jan Magnussen, on the last lap, drag raced Joerg Bergmeister to the flag and a rather messy 2nd place.

The point here is not so much the performance or the win. The point is the rhythm and the finesse. In the transition from GT1 to GT2 Corvette Racing never missed a beat. Oh, and did we mention the GT1 win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans?

Test session or not, the Corvette GT gets Sports Car Insider’s 2009 Car of the Year.

Smooth Move of the Year: In a progressive step designed to keep ahead of the rest of the industry, the ALMS announced the overhaul of its four-class structure beginning with the 2010 season. The four classes will be Le Mans Prototype (LMP), Le Mans Prototype Challenge (LMPC), Grand Touring (GT) and Grand Touring Challenge (GTC).

LMP Challenge car was introduced through the collaborative efforts between the ACO and ORECA/DPPI. The ORECA-Courage FLM09 that comprises the class has a minimum weight of 900 kilograms similar to its LMP brethren, but its 450 hp is considerably less than the LMP cars, which range from 500-700 hp. The LMP Challenge car is a true Le Mans prototype, representing an affordable entry to Le Mans prototype racing. It is a very sophisticated race car with a full carbon fiber chassis, carbon brakes, and an Xtrac sequential gearbox with paddle shifting. The class will race on single-supply Michelin tires.

They saying goes, “success has many fathers while failure is always an orphan.” We don’t know who in the ALMS gets credit for making the call adding the new Prototype Challenge class, but its Sports Car Insider’s 2009 Smooth Move of the Year.

2009 Historic Event of the Year: One driver and one team individually reached significant milestones during the 2009 season of the American Le Mans Series. When the Series dropped the green flag on this year’s race at Mosport, Corvette Racing veteran, Johnny O’Connell made his 100th Series start. And in short order, picked up his 38th win. Wait. Back up. Think about that. Every time this guy gets in the car there’s a 38% chance he’s going to win? That hardly seems fair to the others.  Wow.

When we got to Laguna Seca for the season finale, it was announced from the grid that the occasion marked the 100th start for the Series quintessential privateer, Intersport Racing.

As one of the founding teams of the American Le Mans Series, Intersport Racing has taken on the mightiest of factory prototype teams. The small Dublin, Ohio-based team has in recent seasons posted noteworthy class victories including an LMP1 triumph at Detroit in 2008 and 2006 at Sebring. Team owner Clint Field won the 2005 P2 class championship just three years after his father Jon accomplished the same feat. Clint is also the youngest prototype champion in Series and IMSA history.

Without a doubt, Intersport Racing has established itself as one of the premier independent teams in sports car racing.

100 Career Starts by Johnny O’Connell and Intersport Racing gets Sports Car Insider’s 2009 Historic Event of the Year

2009 Upset of the Year: Oddly enough, we’re giving the upset of the year award to Petit Le Mans. There’s no one to blame. Everyone did everything they could do. After approximately 4.5 hours of racing Petit Le Mans 2009 was red flagged due to unsafe conditions caused by rain. No one was happy. I don’t even think race winner Peugeot was happy. It had to be a shallow victory.

Before the rains there were strategies being played and battles shaping up. But it would all be for naught. So, as Allan McNish so succinctly put it to me, “we [Audi] view Petit Le Mans as, to be continued.”

Fair enough. Petit Le Mans was Sports Car Insider’s 2009 Upset of the Year.

ALMS Staffer of the Year: When you spend a year as part of a traveling circus, you develop relationships, both business and personal. Some become close relationships while others, not-so-much. But one thing is for sure, you get to know the players. You see who get’s it done and who’s just phoning it in.

It’s no secret we’re all seeing tough economic times and we’re all working with tighter budgets and less resources than we’d like to. No one has it easy these days and the American Le Mans Series hasn’t escaped the crunch either. Less entry fees, tighter travel budgets and reduced staff are all factors putting an extra burden on those that work to keep the wheels on the wagon.

So, we’d just like to give a tip of the cap to one of the Series’ unsung heroes, Vice President Public Relations/Media Service, Bob Dickinson.

Bob’s the kind of guy that’s there flipping on the lights when you arrive at the media center and shutting them off when you leave. I’m not quite sure where he comes from or where he goes when it’s all over but what I do know is he’s always there. If you have a question, Bob’s got the answer. If he doesn’t have the answer he’ll get it for you. He asks. He listens. He want’s to make things work. With Bob, it’s not just about his job, it’s about helping you do yours.

This year’s Sports Car Insider’s ALMS Staffer of the Year award goes to Bob Dickinson

Race Official of the Year: The choice in this category could have easily won the Heartbreak of the Year.

Dick Martin has controlled pit lane at IMSA for over 19 years. Certainly not a household name among casual fans of the sport, but to those that know him, his participation was immeasurable. Dick is a guy you feel fortunate to have met and to have known. He’s easy with a smile, fair in his judgement and honest in his opinion. And if Dick lays down the law, you can be sure it’s for reasons that are in everyone’s best interest.

Dick announced at Petit Le Mans that Laguna Seca would be his last race. Acknowledging that “it’s gotta end sometime,” he and his wife decided they had too many things they still want to do and it was time to enjoy the rest of their life on their own terms.

Fair enough, Dick. You’ll get no argument from us.

I don’t think there are enough thank-yous to go around for Dick’s commitment to sports car racing, so we’ll simply have to settle naming him  Sports Car Insider’s 2009 Race Official of the Year.

« Sports Car Insider - Five Questions With Allan McNish. | Main | Objects of Desire ~ SCi Plays Santa's Helper »