Throwback Thursday: Remembering IMSA GTO Races at Long Beach
Thursday, March 28, 2019

Try this lineup on for size, longtime IMSA fans.

The starting grid for the one-hour IMSA GTO race at Long Beach on April 13, 1991 featured Jeremy Dale on pole in the No. 76 Nissan 300ZX, with Pete Halsmer second in the No. 62 Mazda RX-7, Steve Millen third in the No. 75 Nissan, Robby Gordon fourth in the No. 9 Roush Racing Ford Mustang, Price Cobb fifth in the No. 63 Mazda RX-7 and Dorsey Schroeder sixth in the other Roush Mustang.

“Good lineup, huh?” says Dale, who now fields the three-car JDX Racing team that will kick off the 2019 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season with a doubleheader of racing on April 5-6 at Barber Motorsports Park. JDX is the reigning team champion in that series.

“It was great, man,” Dale continues. “It was so awesome. It really was. It was an amazing time.”

Fans attending the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach this year will get a chance to relive those days via a 20-minute, Historic IMSA GTO Challenge race on Saturday, April 13. The race starts at 5 p.m. PT, shortly after the third round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – the BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach – takes the checkered flag.

The race is Long Beach’s tribute to the 50th Anniversary of IMSA season-long celebration and will be sanctioned by the Historic Motor Sports Association (HMSA). It’s already sent us back down memory lane.

IMSA racing has been a fixture at Long Beach since a GRAND-AM Daytona Prototype race back in 2006 and subsequent American Le Mans Series and WeatherTech Championship races ever since. But the first IMSA-sanctioned race to be held on the venerable street circuit was held back in 1990 and featured GTO cars – GT cars with engine displacement over 2.5 liters – and GTU cars with engines under 2.5 liters.

It was won by Schroeder, in the No. 6 Mercury Cougar XR7 prepared by Roush Racing. Incidentally, that No. 6 Cougar is expected to be part of the Historic GTO Challenge.

“That race you’re talking about in ’90, that was the year I won the (IMSA GTO) championship after coming out of Trans-Am with that championship,” Schroeder recalls. “It’s one of the top races that I remember.

“The race itself was phenomenal. I got bogged down in traffic and Pete (Halsmer) got by me somewhere midrace. I’d led everything to the midway point and then Pete got by and we ran a good race. I mean, Robby (Gordon) was right there behind me for quite a while and I think he ended up getting caught out in a wreck and flattening a tire or something, so he dropped out of contention.

“It got down to the end and it was just me and Halsmer. He had the lead and then we got bottlenecked in traffic and I snuck by him and got by him again, but then I got into some sort of a skirmish with two or three cars. I got involved in somebody else’s wreck, basically, and it broke the fastener on the hood. I had to back up on course and get going again, so Pete was by again.

“So, now I’m running along and the car wasn’t too bad until I lost the hood. The whole hood went flying up in the air and so when it did that, I lost pretty much significant downforce. I remember the only really scary part was the front straightaway. You know, the curve right at the start-finish line, you’re going through that curve flat in fifth gear. Without the added downforce, I had to alter my line to get through there because I had so much understeer, but it was still fast.

“Somehow, we got the thing hooked together and Pete and I banged off each other a couple times. My radiator and the whole front support was dragging on the racetrack. I could see the sparks coming out from behind the front tire and it’s like a little welder down there. I called to (crew chief) Lee White and said, ‘Hey, this whole radiator and everything is down.’ He’s like, ‘I can see it.’ He goes, ‘Don’t come in.’

“I said, ‘No, I wasn’t coming in and I wasn’t bitching. I was just letting you know.’ I ended up winning the race. It was a hell of a race.”

Another participant in that race and the year following was a young Southern Californian by the name of Bill Auberlen. He drove the No. 7 Auberlen Racing Mazda RX-7 to a third-place finish in the GTU class in 1990.

“I had been to Long Beach as a kid every year since 1975 when it started,” said the 58-time IMSA race-winner and current driver of the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 in the WeatherTech Championship GT Daytona (GTD                ) class. “Then, to be on that track in our own race car was a total honor and it was kind of surreal.

“It was my own car, my own team, my own everything when I was a kid with my dad. We were competing against a lot of factory cars, so to be on the podium there was good. We were quick and we came out with the podium. Since then, I’ve had a lot of podiums, but GTU was the start of my career.”

Auberlen and Dale both pointed out that in those days, there was a tire war going on between Yokohama and Goodyear. Both Auberlen’s Mazda and Dale’s Nissan were riding on Yokohama tires, which were especially strong in qualifying, as Yokohama built specific tires for use in qualifying.

“At a place like Long Beach, they’d be good for two laps,” Dale remembered. “At Road America, they’d be good for one lap. Yokohama made a really, really good qualifying tire for Nissan and they worked really hard at it. I’m guessing that most of my pole position was down to their fantastic qualifying tires, now that I’m sitting here thinking about it. I’m guessing they produced a great qualifying tire and that’s why I was able to take the pole in ’91.”

That was a different era. Not only were there tire wars, there also were also wildly different race cars. Schroeder noted that both the Mercury Cougar he ran in 1990 and the Ford Mustang he drove in 1991 had two different engines that would be swapped out depending on the racetrack.

“We had the ability to run a naturally aspirated V8 injected, or we could run the turbo four-cylinder,” he said. “We would always run the V8 at Daytona. At the long-distance races, it was a better package. And then the sprint races, the four-cylinder was lighter and made as much if now more horsepower.”

And it was A TON of horsepower. Schroeder quoted figures north of 1,000. Dale said the Nissan had over 800 hp with 800 foot-pounds of torque. In GT cars.

“It was like riding a bull,” said Dale of trying to drive GTO cars on a street circuit. “I mean, it was crazy. It was just absolutely crazy driving that thing in those types of conditions. You were so rarely full throttle, ‘cause the thing just had so much power and it was so unruly.

“Race cars now are just so much more sophisticated than this was. It was a trip. I mean, it was an experience to wrestle that car around a place like Long Beach. You almost can’t describe how intense that was.”

Next up for the WeatherTech Championship is the 100-minute BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach on Saturday, April 13. The race features only the DPi and GT Le Mans (GTLM) classes as part of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach event weekend. Tickets are available now on GPLB.com.

NBCSN will have live, flag-to-flag coverage of the race beginning at 5 p.m. ET. IMSA Radio also will cover the action live on IMSA.com, RadioLeMans.com and SiriusXM Radio.

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