First night race to hit Laguna Seca

Updated: October 15, 2004, 6:45 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Monterey, Calif. -- Imagine sitting trackside at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, enveloped in darkness, when suddenly the unmistakeable roar of a wide-open-throttle Audi R8 fills your ears with music.

Then you see headlights, glowing red brake discs and neon-bright signage stickers plastered all over a group of cars as they zip past your perch.

Sound too good to be true? It's reality this Saturday night when the American Le Mans Series stages the Audi Sports Car Championships, a timed event of four hours that will start at 4 p.m. PT and will be the first night race ever at Laguna Seca.

At least 90 minutes of the race will be in total darkness, drivers surpassing 180 mph around the 2.238-mile road course with headlights and tail lights their only saviors.

"Racing around Laguna Seca in darkness on Saturday night will be awesome," said JJ Lehto, driver of the ADT Champion Racing Audi R8 and the driver with the most overall race wins in ALMS history.

"The surrounding countryside looked beautiful this evening during practice," Lehto said after a one-hour practice on Thursday. "The sunset spectacularly lit up the hills before dusk and then into full darkness which is what we'll get in the closing stages of the race. Darkness will add more excitement for the race fans -- and the drivers for that matter -- and I'm certain it will make for an interesting spectacle."

Although ALMS drivers run in darkness in other events such as the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, as well as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, none of the seasoned pros had ever driven the Laguna Seca circuit in darkness before Thursday.

"Driving in the dark here is spectacular," said Sascha Maassen, the most winning ALMS driver of all time and driver of the YES Network Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. "It's like driving around the Nordschleife of the Nürburgring [in Germany]. It will be even more spectacular when we have spectators camping next to the track or we see some lights [on either side of the track] and we go between them. I'm really looking forward to Saturday night racing at Laguna. Lighting was not a problem, absolutely not a problem. We have big lights on our Porsche!"

Others are still trying to get their lighting sorted out, making for some hair-raising runs.

"It's pretty daunting," said Jamie Campbell-Walter, co-driver of the Creation Autosportif DBA-Zytek that was fastest overall in the night session. "Actually, once we sort out our lights I think we'll be fine. Places like the Corkscrew are OK as they are quite well lit up, that's not a problem, but it's at the 'normal' places like turn 1, 2, 3 and 4 -- the flat ones -- where you haven't got any reference points.

"The Corkscrew is hilly so once you've gone into it the lights are shining up quite well but it's the dead flat ones where you can't see a long way ahead that are more of a problem," he said. "Our lights aren't elevated enough basically so it was quite difficult, but I enjoyed it. I like driving in the dark."

As far as Lehto is concerned, Saturday night's season-finale for the ALMS is perfectly cast under the cloak of darkness.

"Sports car endurance racing needs to retain this element and to start and now finish the ALMS calendar with races that include night time driving is good," said Lehto. "At home in Finland during the winter, it stays dark late into the morning and then gets dark early in the afternoon so perhaps I'll have an advantage."

Lap times for Prototype cars were approximately one second slower in the night practice than in Thursday afternoon's test sessions, while GTS and GT cars were faster at night.

Leading the LMP1 Prototype class was the Creation Autosportif DBA-Zytek of Nicolas Minassian and Jamie Campbell-Walter at 1:17.570, followed by Lehto and Marco Werner at 1:17.608 in the ADT Champion Racing Audi R8.

The Miracle Motorsports Courage C65-AER of Ian James, James Gue and John Macaluso led the LMP2 class for smaller Prototypes with a time of 1:22.821, followed by the Intersport Racing Lola B2K/40-Judd of Clint Field, Robin Liddell and Rick Sutherland at 1:23.459.

The two cars of the factory Chevrolet Corvette team were separated by only .022 in the night session, with the No. 4 Corvette C5-R of Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta fastest at 1:22.910. The No.3 car of Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell turned a best time of 1:22.932.

In the GT class, the Alex Job Racing Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister was fastest at 1:26.627, followed by the 1:27.297 time of Craig Stanton and David Murry in the Petersen Motorsports/White Lightning Porsche.

The American Le Mans Series Radio Network will have live coverage that can be heard online at www.americanlemans.com.

In North America, NBC will have coverage of the event on a one-day tape delay beginning at 2 p.m. ET on Sunday, Oct. 17.