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Long Beach Notebook: Track Evolution Bears Watching

Derani Leads Opening WeatherTech Championship Practice but What Does It Mean?

By Mark Robinson and John Oreovicz

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Pipo Derani led the opening IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, but some competitors say not to put much stock in the results Friday morning.

The nature of the 1.968-mile temporary street course and the busy on-track schedule featuring multiple series and tire suppliers means that the surface will evolve greatly by the time Saturday’s 100-minute race takes the green flag at 5 p.m. ET (live on USA Network, Peacock, IMSA Radio).

Friday morning’s practice started at 9:15 a.m. local time and was preceded only by a Porsche Carrera Cup North America practice. By the time WeatherTech Championship qualifying takes place at 5:15 p.m. PT, six more on-track sessions involving five series will have changed the complexion of the circuit completely. Then it’s four more on-track sessions in three series before Saturday’s race.

“We turn up for the first practice at 9 o’clock in the morning (Friday) and it’s kind of a meaningless session,” said Richard Westbrook, co-driver of the No. 5 JDC Miller MotorSports Cadillac DPi-V.R, “because you’re just cleaning the circuit and the track just evolves, evolves and it’s a completely different circuit come race day. I remember that race day is normally quicker (lap times) than qualifying because the track just continues to evolve.

“You have to be ready for that,” Westbrook added. “You sort of have to adapt yourself. You can’t go into each session with the mindset that ‘I need to improve in that corner, maybe I’ll try that.’ The track next session is completely different, so you have to be open-minded in how you set out to work.”

Derani’s lap of 1 minute, 12.387 seconds (97.873 mph) in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R set the overall and Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class pace in Practice 1. Bill Auberlen led the GT Daytona (GTD) class with a top lap of 1:19.891 (88.680 mph) in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT3. Ross Gunn was fastest in GTD PRO at 1:20.401 (88.118 mph) in the No. 23 Heart of Racing Team Aston Martin Vantage GT3.

Following a second WeatherTech Championship practice Friday afternoon, qualifying streams live on IMSA.com/TVLive at 8:15 p.m. ET. With the constantly shifting conditions and a condensed schedule, avoiding mishaps is vital.

“It’s so easy to make a mistake on a street track,” said Matt Campbell, co-driver of the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the GTD PRO class. “It’s a very compact weekend with three sessions in one day (Friday), and if anything goes wrong, it can really affect our weekend and starting position. And at a street circuit, starting position is going to be absolutely critical.”

Mears Honored for Road Racing Skills

He’s most famous for his four Indianapolis 500 victories, but Rick Mears explored other options early in his racing career that included IMSA competition.

Mears was honored Thursday night in Long Beach by the Road Racing Drivers Club (RRDC). Fittingly, the spotlight shone on the California native’s exploits away from the oval tracks where he made his reputation. Eight of Mears’ 29 IndyCar wins came on road courses, and he was regarded as a highly skilled road racer, especially before the devastating crash at Sanair Speedway in 1984 that shattered both of his feet.

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Mears also made a handful of starts in the IMSA GT Championship, a predecessor of today’s WeatherTech Championship. He finished third in the 1979 Rolex 24 At Daytona, sharing a Porsche 934.5 with Bruce Canepa, then followed that a few weeks later by taking fourth place in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts when he teamed with Dick Barber in another Porsche.

Mears also notched top-five finishes in IMSA races at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

“I hadn’t done much road racing before IndyCars – just a few races in Super Vee and a test in a Formula 5000 car,” Mears said. “I knew I had to improve my road racing skills, and driving that Porsche taught me that I had to be more animated at the wheel, especially in the slow corners – I had to throw the car around to find the lap time. That carried over to the IndyCar.”

Canepa, who raced sports cars through the end of the 1980s, now operates one of America’s top sports car restoration and sales facilities in Scotts Valley, California. The Porsche he co-drove at Sebring with Mears and Monte Shelton was on display during the cocktail reception at the RRDC function.

Back to the Brickyard for Porsche Carrera Cup

Porsche will return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend to celebrate its long history of performance road and race cars with the German marque’s Sports Car Together Fest. The second annual event will highlight Porsche’s highest performance models and include a doubleheader race round of the Porsche Carrera Cup North America Presented by the Cayman Islands series sanctioned by IMSA on the Indianapolis road course.

The Sept. 2-4 event is expected to be the world’s largest gathering of Porsche GT cars and will spotlight the 50th anniversary of the RS model. Short for “Rennsport,” the German word for racing, the first RS model, the 1972 Porsche 911 Carrera RS, celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022. Then, as now, the Porsche race car was directly based on the production road car. Porsche will have several displays to highlight this five-decade tradition at Indianapolis.

“Porsche at its heart is about community and passion. Coming together to celebrate some of our highest performing cars in action is like a family reunion for us,” said Kjell Gruner, President and CEO of Porsche Cars North America. “We look forward to welcoming enthusiasts, fans and just the curious to share the thrill of the track, the heights of sports car engineering in the real and virtual worlds, and the spirit of Porsche heritage.”