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  • Writer's pictureR. Villeneuve

Homestead/Miami Grand Prix 2009

As of October 2nd, I was prepared to watch the last race of the Grand-Am Rolex Series for Homestead Speedway on SPEED Channel from the comfort of my couch! I wasn’t happy about it but we were doing everything we could to get a deal done but it just wasn’t coming together. Then Friday afternoon I received a call from TRG team owner Kevin Buckler saying, “pack your gear, your racing in Miami”. I was so pleased to hear that as it meant so many things had to go right to get us there and it finally looked as if it was going to happen. No offense to the great guys at SPEED Channel but I was happy to watch this one from the drivers seat of the Polizei 144P TRG Porsche GT3 with the steering wheel in my hand rather than the TV remote. I traveled to Miami on Tuesday to acclimate myself to the time change and the weather. I checked and the forecast was calling for record heat and humidity! I spent Wednesday outside sweating no matter whether I was running, walking or just standing around. It was worth it in the end as the record heat and humidity made things tough on everyone, not just the drivers. The crew, support staff and even the fans were feeling the heat! Thursday practice was quite long and it was a good thing, as I had never run the track configuration that included the banking at Homestead. The difference between this track and say, Daytona was the entry into the banking. At Daytona, you come down the back straight out of NASCAR 2 into the “Bus Stop” chicane, which is very quick but it still means your entry into NASCAR 3 is done as you accelerate through the gears. At Homestead, the infield section puts you out on the back straight just after NASCAR 2 giving a full blast on acceleration into 6th gear flat on the throttle as you turn into NASCAR 3. I am not sure but I think our entry speed was something like 145mph! I never wanted to drive NASCAR or Indy Cars as oval racing never appealed to me but the necessity of a flat out turn in made me wish I had done an oval race somewhere, at some point! It took me time to get used to it but eventually it came to me. I actually had a conversation with my friend Bert Friselle, driver of the #61 AIM Motorsport Daytona Prototype. He told me, “I turn in flat until I’m terrified then I lift just enough to settle the car, then right back to full throttle.”

Our new co-driver for this event was Peter Ludwig who had won the KONI Challenge race at the track earlier in the year. Peter did a great job and was up to speed quite easily. We decided on Thursday afternoon Peter should qualify the car. Friday afternoon Peter had a mere 15 minutes to find a gap a put in a “flier” and what a job he did! A lap at 1.20.936! Good enough for 9th on the grid.

Regular Team Polizei 144 co-driver, Henri Richard was making his way from Europe on Friday and wasn’t going to get in any seat time in the car prior to the race. This left Henri in the precarious position of having to get up to speed during his stint in the race which he did with relative ease, proving his abilities and talent thoroughly!

Saturday’s weather was consistent with the rest of the week, hot and humid! We knew it would be tough on everyone so having 3 drivers looked like the right thing to do as even some of the top teams were making 2 driver changes to keep their guys fresh. We went to the pre-grid for the fan walk at 12:15pm and the fan response was tremendous! There were so many kids and fans of all ages. We handed out every “Hero” card we had and I think I signed more than 100 of them. I also found it funny that the Penske Team had a huge promotion that weekend, they gave away hundreds of Team Penske hats. I think I signed more of those hats that day Helio Castroneves did all weekend! It just goes to prove that Team Polizei 144 is a fan favorite and that’s a great thing for us!

As the race started with Peter in the car, our strategy was to split the driving duties as evenly as we could despite the potential caution periods. As the green flag waved Peter got the Polizei 144P up as high as 8th until a battle for position under braking for the hairpin forced him to get on the brakes later than usual and unfortunately he flat spotted a tire, which forced us to pit on lap 3. This put us a lap down but it didn’t deter anyone especially Peter who worked hard to get the car back up to 10th. He handed to car over to Henri 34 laps in and it was now up to Henri to get up to speed while under fire. In only 7 laps, he was up to competitive lap times. Henri did a great job keeping the car in 10th as he battled for position with the #69 Mazda and the #71 Porsche. His only issue being that his cool suit wasn’t working making it difficult to keep up the intensity in the car, as cockpit temps were as high as 120 degrees! On lap 63, with about 53 minutes remaining he came in and it was time for me to get in. The stop was good but as I drove out of pit lane, I had an engine temp alarm going off, which is common when these cars sit in the pits for a few minutes. The problem with this is, when you get an alarm on the Motec dash, it only gives that information so I wasn’t sure if the pit lane speed limiter was on. So I drove out of pit lane trying reset the dash alarm while trying not to speed in pit lane just in case the limiter wasn’t on! As I got on track I also noticed I had been pulling on the wrong tab and my shoulder belts weren’t tight, also my left side mirror had been knocked. So as I was dealing with the race and championship leading Daytona Prototypes bearing down on me, I was trying to situate myself as well as stay out of the way! The last thing I wanted was to be the series championship decider by taking out a DP contending for the win! After settling in, I made good use of my new tires and put in a good lap to get on pace. Now it was matter of getting the car to the end while battling with the #69 and #71 cars for position. The race stayed green for about 13 laps then the safety car came out for debris on the front straight. After a short caution period, we went green. I was again caught in the middle of the DP fight for the lead and the championship.  And again I did my best to stay out of their way while trying maintain position. These laps of green flag racing brought out a fight for 10th with the #71 Porsche. I kept him behind me quite easily but with about 7 minutes to go I came through turn 3 to see an orange DP sideways across the track, in a plume of smoke.

I stayed left, then WAM! I saw the #70 Mazda explode with parts, smoke and pieces of car everywhere as he plowed right into the orange DP. I had to take to the grass and soon realized just how slippery the grass was. I was following another car onto the grass and was worried about him losing it and crashing into him or the wall. I came back on the track just before turn 4, but again, had to take to the grass, driver’s left to avoid another car that had been damaged in the incident. I “apexed” turn 4 completely on the grass and got back on track, luckily with no damage! From there, we knew the race was going to finish behind the safety car as there was debris all around the track from cars shedding parts as they tried to limp back to the pits. It was actually a relief to finish under yellow as my tires were gone at this point and I knew if we had gone green for the last lap it would have been chaos! After the race the fanfare continued as the fans kept coming around the car and asking for photos and autographs, which I thoroughly love because I don’t think there is enough accessibility for the fans to the cars and drivers. I think it makes the difference for them and they really appreciate it. I remember being a boy at the races and it was the drivers who were willing to take the time to say hi that really made my day! It is just a chance for me give a little back. I am sure there were plenty of photos fans took of me red faced, with beads of sweat rolling down my face non-stop! It was a great weekend and my compliments to Kevin Buckler and the guys at TRG for their hard work. Also many thanks to Liz Moses, “the executioner” and team founder Alex Roy for being there making this happen! As for my co-drivers, Peter Ludwig and Henri Richard, I say, “well done and I could not have two better teammates!”

For all the Team Polizei fans out there, I hope you enjoyed our debut year in the Grand-Am Rolex Series.  Watch for Team Polizei’s all out “Assault on the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona” at the end of January 2010 and THANK YOU for all your support! We love our fans!!!!!! See you at the track!!!

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