Torrance CA - Just days ago, the Scion road racing team headed by team owner and driver, Dan Gardner, added another highlight to their 2009 season with yet another championship. The six-hour win at Thunderhill clinched the season championship for the Western Endurance Racing Championship (WERC) series. The team won every race, save one, en route to the E1 class victory, for a near perfect record…impressive, especially in an endurance format series. The team also accrued more points (585) than any other team in any class in the series. The Scion tC race car was completely bulletproof even with the engine spinning 5,000 to 7,500 rpm for three to six hours straight. The win adds to the highlight season for the team as they also end the season having won the national championship in Performance Touring as well as bringing Scion home their first pro win with the victory at Laguna Seca in World Challenge.
Regular team co-driver Scott Webb was unable to make the season finale, but experienced racer Jeff Lepper filled-in to help the team bring home the race and the series victory. "Scott and I were both disappointed that he couldn’t make the final round," said Gardner. "Scott has been a great teammate all year long, but Jeff stepped up and did a great job during his stint." Going into the race Gardner had planned for each driver to take two shifts, but after further thought the call was made to try to ironman it by doing only one driver change during the six hour race. The team was determined to gain every advantage possible. And with a crew that consisted of Sean Morris, John McNulty, Shawn Meze, and David Fredrickson, pit stops would be hammered out in lightening speed fashion. During Practice, Gardner had run the fastest time in the E1 class, for both cars competing in the six hour as well as those registered for the 25 hour. Things were looking great. Qualifying took an unexpected turn, as teams were required to qualify during darkness. The four, big Pilot Automotive HID driving lamps were fitted to the front bumper, and Lepper went out and ripped off a 2:03.1 fast lap. It was fast enough to be on pole for the six hour and also put the team in the third starting spot for the E1 class overall.
Said Lepper, "The car was one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars I've ever driven. Kudos to the team for all the development they've put into making the car turn. It was quite dark during Qualifying, but the Pilot HIDs were so bright I could see God if I wanted to." During the two test days, the team did various things to help prepare for the big show, including calculating fuel economy, and figuring out the stop intervals. The decision was also made to have Gardner start the race and see if he could help Lepper by running over the three hour mark. Both drivers had agreed to the one driver change strategy, though neither knew how the long shifts would weigh on them. It was also a frigid weekend, with temps routinely below freezing. Just before the race started a wicked wind picked up, adding an additional chill factor. During the start, Gardner found the leaders accelerating long before the green flag flew, and so he too was forced to stay in the gas. The spotter called out the green, but the cars were mostly all away by that point.
Shockingly, all 75 cars made it through Turn 1 without much incident, and Gardner found himself battling with one of his fiercest competitors, Dennis Holloway in the Mazda RX-8. The two went back and forth, and Gardner eventually let the Mazda go, as it was to be a long race, and battling early wasn’t a strategy the team wanted to employ. "This team's been smart all year at staying out of trouble, and playing to the strengths of the car," said Gary Boler, TRD business operations manager. "I'm confident that our TRD supercharger and big brake kit really help the car in the power and braking department. It's awesome to see how they handle the endurance race format abuse." During the first hour of the race, Gardner got settled in. Keeping the car on the track and not getting crashed out are two of the most important rules of the endurance racing game. All was going well until a Miata hit the Scion hard two times between Turn 3 and 4. Gardner’s tC slid sideways, and he caught the car just as he was being hit again. After straightening out, Gardner assessed the damage, and concluded that the car felt fine for the most part.
During the first fuel stop, however, the team would find a partially destroyed right rear wheel that was digging into the sidewall of the tire. The crew finished fueling the car, and then made quick work of the wheel and tire change. Rules stipulate that you can only change one tire at a time. Gardner went back out and got on the radio to say that the car was instantly going sideways under braking and left hand turns. It took a solid two laps for the tire to come up to temp and even things out. Radio contact was solid for the entire race courtesy of the Sampson Racing Communications radios, which performed flawlessly during the whole show. Radio communication is one of the most important tools for the driver and team in endurance racing. Indeed Shawn Meze and John McNulty were able to communicate a wide array of information to the drivers during the event, helping to make up-to-the-minute decisions, and communicate race control chatter to Gardner and Lepper.
"Shawn Sampson at SRC is a first-rate guy, selling first-rate products," said Webb. "I was actually supposed to drive with Shawn in an event or two this year, but when he heard we had a chance to make a run at the championship, he graciously gave me an out…helping to make this whole thing possible." Gardner was getting in a rhythm, banging off lap after lap. Fuel stops were going smoothly and quickly, and the Nitto NT-01 tires were looking great, hour after hour. The team was unsure the front tires would make it three hours, but the wear was looking perfect. Sometime in the middle of the race another Miata would mildly sideswipe Gardner, and later an Acura would chop down hard on the Scion down a straightaway, forcing Gardner to take to the dirt. The track was busy with traffic at almost every turn of every lap. Clean laps weren’t something that would happen often. Gardner remained determined to take care of the car, and make sure to make things last his entire shift. He got on the radio to advise that the gearbox was feeling a bit "crunchy" going into third and forth gear. Slowing down the upshifts and making even more deliberate downshifts seemed to help, and the crew relayed the information to Lepper, who would be getting in the car soon.
Gardner managed what would be more than a triple shift, running the car for three and a half hours straight and nearly 300 race miles. At that point, the team executed a flawless driver change as they dumped the routine 10 gallons in the car. The Nittos were still looking great, and Lepper took off as soon as he was belted in. Lepper was staying out of trouble, keeping the car together, and trying to make both the tires and brake pads last for the remainder of the race. At the next stop one front tire was changed, and at the next the other front. The rears were looking great, and didn’t need to be touched. At the five hour mark, the team was leading the class in the six-hour, and was fourth overall in E1, having moved the car up to 25th from 32nd.
Around the five and a half hour mark, Lepper got on the radio and said there were basically no more brakes. The team asked if he thought he could make it, or limp it in, as a pad change would prove very costly. Lepper confirmed that he would try. Indeed, as the car took the checkered, the backing plates of the pads were on the rotors and the pistons had popped out of the calipers, but the car made it back to the pits for another great win. "We certainly do things differently here at Scion, and Gardner and this team are no exception," said Steve Hatanaka, Scion auto shows and special events manager. "This is truly a highlight season, something for the record books. I'm proud of everything this team accomplished this year in both the sprint and endurance format. It’s not every day you get to bring home two championships in one season."