Lester and Lewis Fight Back from the Brink but Take First Mechanical DNF of Season
The Armed Forces 250 at Infineon Raceway got off to a difficult start for Southard Motorsports. Despite the team's gallant effort it ended the same. In the first practice session for the 250-mile Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype (DP) race, the No. 3 Southard Motorsports Lexus-Riley left the track in Turn 10 while Bill Lester (Atlanta) fought a loose race car.
The damage was substantial forcing the Powell, Ohio-based team to rebuild the car almost from the ground up in a matter of hours. The Steve and Martha Southard (Powell, Ohio) owned team rallied with a remarkable qualifying effort allowing Shane Lewis (Jupiter, Fla.) to start within the top-10. However, the effort would go unrewarded when, on lap 56, the car suffered its first mechanical failure of the season with a broken axle. The red, white and blue prototype would take 17th, missing the checkered flag for the first time since the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona where an accident ended their effort early.
The struggles of the weekend began on Thursday for the team and its two drivers - both of which started their early careers at Infineon Raceway, then named Sears Point. In the first official practice of the weekend the rear-end of the car unexpectedly snapped-around on NASCAR veteran Lester. The spin launched him off the track into a tire barrier.
The impact destroyed much of the bodywork including nose and front splitter, cracked all four wheels and broke the transmission casing among other issues. The Rich Howe (Powell, Ohio) led crew flew to work in an effort to get the car back on track in time for the event. Through a herculean effort and the support of many of the other Daytona Prototype teams, the small but professional workforce readied the car in time for Friday afternoon's qualifying session. Showing his utmost faith in the team, Lewis went out and qualified the car 12th. When two other DPs were dropped to the back of the grid for technical violations, the Southard machine moved to 10th for the drop of the green flag.
The good news would not last, however, as immediately the car began to show uncharacteristic traits in the race; behavior different even than those faced in the earlier warm-up. Lewis struggled with the car through much of the first part of the race. Through strategy and persistence, the No. 3 marched near the top-five but fell back down as the handling deteriorated even more over the course of the race. Despite being a replaced part, the car would eventually succumb near the race's midpoint with the broken axle.
The trials of the weekend are made even more taxing by the grueling schedule that awaits the team. The car will arrive for next Sunday's Supercar Life 250 at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, NJ on Wednesday. The Southard effort will then repair and prepare the car for the 250 mile or two hour and 45- minute (whichever comes first) race scheduled for August 31.
Television coverage of the Armed Forces 250 can be seen, tape-delayed, on SPEED beginning at Noon (ET) on August 24.
Steve Southard, Owner: "This was a tough weekend from a lot of perspectives. But, a few things really standout when you have struggles like we did in Sonoma. Primarily, what a great job the crew did in getting the car back together. It was an unfortunate weekend when things happen. The crew spent long hours to get the car back together. They stepped-up never complained and did everything asked of them. That is the silver lining in this cloud. Another is how so many other teams offered help and assistance. It makes you proud to be in that kind of paddock. The car was different in warm-up than in qualifying and we're not sure why. The further we ran the worse the car got. Unlike most events, the car just never came back to us. Even the changes at the first pit stop didn't make any difference. When the axle failed it was the end of two really tough weekends but the crew hung tough and did a great job! We'll do everything we can to reward that effort in these final two races with better results."
Shane Lewis, Driver: "Sonoma is either really good to us or really bad. I've won a lot of races here but times like this weekend or two years ago when we almost burnt the car to the ground make you wonder which track fate is going to throw at you? We knew we had a problem in the warm-up. The car was entirely different than it was in qualifying. We worked on it and hoped we had it right for the race but it was still off. As the race went on we kept tuning it but never got it back. This was a tough one from the start but the guys never gave-up. Richie and the crew kept stepping-up to the plate no matter what was thrown at them. That is the kind of thing you can't explain when someone asks you why you love this sport even when weekends like this happen. It is the faith those guys have in you. You want to give that back anyway you can. We didn't quite make that happen this weekend but we have two more races to put these guys back on the podium where they deserve to be."