Being a Grand Tourer racer is not for the faint of heart. Your ordinary sports car has been retrofitted under the hood to exist as a speed-demon. Pedal to the floor, maneuvering around a track at speeds up to 200 miles an hour causes different states of gravity to be experienced by the driver’s body.
With g-forces coming at you from unusual angles, making hairpin turns at high speeds causes the steering wheel to often weigh twice as much as normal. Oxygen becomes a precious commodity in the suddenly-cramped driver’s seat. Air becomes so thin that often the driver needs to wear a breathing apparatus, or else focus carefully on his breathing, or he will lose consciousness at the wheel. Coming to the end of a 50-minute round, the driver’s concentration can flag and his body can tire easily.
And, of course, overshooting a turn, losing control of the vehicle and colliding with other cars going the same speed are constant dangers and reminders of the fine balance between life and death.
So it is this racer’s internal drama, culled from young racers’ experiences, and the excitement that GT racing provides to audiences watching the high-speed spectacle, that speeds into Lime Rock Park at 60 White Hollow Road in Lakeville on Memorial Day weekend.
For the expected 12,000 racing fans not content to watch the festivities on CBS Sports broadcast, they can follow in a New England setting the current Pirelli World Challenge GT defending champion Cadillac racer Johnny O’Connell continue to ward off contender Porsche racer Patrick Long and other up-and-comers.
Muscle cars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis zoom will roar into the park’s season opener featuring the Pirelli World Challenge, SCCA Pro Racing Formula 4, and the Sunday Royals Car Show occurring May 27 through 29. The Royals Show benefits the Lakeville Hose Co., Lakeville’s fire department.
Rick Roso of Lime Rock Park described the upcoming Pirelli event as “colorful and fun.”
“It is racing that is more sprinting than a marathon,” Roso added, referring to more traditional hours-long racing matches.
Grand Tourer, or GT, is a racing class wherein luxury sports cars, like Porsches and Cadillacs, have been specially refurbished within certain guidelines in order to hit high speeds in short times. At the Pirelli World Challenge, set up to celebrate these cars, Roso said about 25 vendors in multicolored tents along Lime Rock Park’s midway will sell everything from banners to car memorabilia.
“Everything at the park is compressed into two days,” said Roso. “We have the racing, the autograph sessions, the food vendors, the Harpoon Tavern (bar & restaurant tent) – all of it only 50 feet away from the spectators’ area.”
Tom Blattler of the Pirelli World Challenge organization said the Lime Rock Track Pirelli series will feature 30 “muscle cars “and consist of four classes of vehicles: Grand Touring (GT), which includes Porches, Aston Martins (the class also includes GT3 cars, which must be based on production road car models in mass production); GTA (the amateur class); GT Cup (since 2015, for Porsche 991 Cup cars only); and GTS, which includes Camaros, Mustangs and other stock cars.
Blattler said two stars of the race each year are returning drivers Johnny O’Connell and Patrick Long.
“Johnny O’Connell is a legend in sports car racing,” said Blattler. “He has won the Challenge four times consecutively.”
O’Connell survived an early mishap at a race in Long Beach, California, as well a big fire at Barber Motorsports Park. The racer also collected double wins at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Miller Motorsport Park after combating one of the most diverse GT divisions in the history of the Pirelli World Challenge.
During a break from Challenge racing in Long Beach, O’Connell, 53, spoke by phone about the competition. “So far it’s been a good start to the season,” O’Connell said. “Despite a loss to Porsche, my objective is to get a win and to get the manufacturer’s championship.”
O’Connell, who described in the past GT competition as “some of the toughest racing on the planet,” said he has been pleasantly surprised at the performances this year. O’Connell drives his Cadillac ATS-VR GT3 sedan.
“Every year the sanctioning body has stepped up the game,” O’Connell said. “And this year is one of the biggest challenges. We have a Cadillac with the same performance as, say, an Audi. All the years haven’t seen the stop of progress.” This is O’Connell sixth year with Cadillac.
O’Connell, who grew up in Riverside, Connecticut, said he looks forward to racing again at Lime Rock Park. “Lime Rock was my first car track in 1967,” he said. “The track hasn’t changed at all: it is very fast and very challenging.”
On the upcoming races, O’Connell stated, “Lime Rock will be a chaotic weekend. Friday and Saturday are very busy. But the future is looking really, really good.”
O’Connell’s main challenger to a fifth consecutive Championship win is Patrick Long, who drives a Porsche 911 GT3-R and who became the Pirelli World Challenge GT Driver’s Champion in 2011. In addition to his serious challenge to O’Connell’s top-dog status, Long was a three-time ALMS GT2 Driver’s Champion; a Class 12 Winner in the 2013 SCORE Baja 1000 and the 2014 winner of the Patrón Endurance Cup Driver’s Championship.
Long, 34, who spoke by phone from Long Beach, said, “I think it’s a great rich quality of car and talent this year. The globalization of GT3 racing justifies the investment of car companies.”
Long’s own car, which has a manufacturer’s investment of several hundred-thousands of dollars, will return to Lime Rock Park with him driving it this summer. “The track is amazing,” Long said. “It is one of my favorite tracks. It has a rich heritage. The first time I was there was in 2004. I had always heard about its history with Paul Newman.” Newman, an actor known for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Cool Hand Luke,” was an avid racer at Lime Rock Park from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
Long said he always enjoyed being involved in racing, even as a child who competed in go-karting. “I remember as a 6-year-old in California, I made a deal with dad that if I got good grades and didn’t talk back to mom, I could race.”
Long went on to capture several state and national titles and raced in Belgium. A move to England enabled Long to compete in the British Formula Ford Zetec series in 2000. Later he raced as the lead driver of the Van Diemen team in Formula Ford, taking second in the championship.
Eventually, Long worked his way up the racing ranks to enjoy the top honors. “I consider myself one of the lucky ones,” he said. “I like that I am able to race with bookends of endurance racing and sprint racing.”
The 2016 Pirelli World Challenge is the 27th running of the Sports Car Club of America's World Challenge series. From March 3 to Oct. 9, the challenge will have raced in cities from Austin, Texas, to Bowmanville, Ontario, to Monterey, California. The end of May brings the series finally to Lime Rock. The Pirelli series hasn’t been held at the Lime Rock’s 1.5-mile long, classic-configuration track with seven turns since 2013. Races are only held at the track on Fridays and Saturdays..
Once all the Pirelli World Challenge races are through, there will be more appreciation of cars. The Royals Car Show on the 29th will feature vehicles from deluxe Lamborghinis to classic motorcycles to restored pick-up trucks.
“There is something for every car girl or guy,” Roso said, adding that the event typically attracts about 500 cars. “The show is expected to raise anywhere from $6,000 to $9,000 for the Lakeville Hose Company this year.”
Weekend tickets (for three days) cost $60 in advance; Saturday-only tickets are $35 in advance; the Royals Sunday Car Show costs $5 ($10 on day of show). Youths 16 and under admitted free (General Admission) with at least one accompanying adult. More details are available at www.limerock.com and at 860-435-5000.