In First Day Of Practice For Inaugural Supercar Life 250 at New Jersey's Thunderbolt Raceway
Gurney, Fogarty and GAINSCO Careful but Quick after Pruett's Thursday Practice Crash
GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing and drivers Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty were cautious but quick in the official opening day of Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series competition on the new Thunderbolt Raceway at the debuting New Jersey Motorsports Park (NJMP) where the No. 99 GAINSCO Auto Insurance Pontiac Riley was fourth fastest in both of Friday's practice sessions for Sunday's Supercar Life 250.
Rolex Series teams and drivers took to a 2.25-mile Thunderbolt road course that received extensive overnight safety modifications after championship co-leader Scott Pruett escaped uninjured from a horrifying accident in unofficial practice on Thursday. Pruett slid sideways after encountering slower GT traffic and crashed heavily into the edge of the guardrail safety barrier at pit-in. The t-bone impact broke the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Lexus Riley in half and sent parts and debris sailing down the track and into the pits, where several Rolex Series teams quickly came to Pruett's aid. He was transferred to a local hospital but was released hours later on Thursday with no apparent injuries, and returned to the track.
Competitors arrived Friday morning at NJMP to find an extensively modified pit-in area, which now includes about 100 feet of additional guardrail and an energy-absorbing barrier. Overnight rains also helped control some of the major dust clouds that occur when competitors put even one wheel off the race track. It will be next spring before grass has a chance to grow around the new Garden State facility.
"It's still a work in progress but they have definitely dramatically improved the pit-entry situation and the pit-exit situation," said Gurney, who paced both practices and set GAINSCO's fastest lap of the day in the morning session with a time of 1:12.175 (112.227 mph). "Now we have to leave the pit-lane speed limiter on for longer when we leave the pits and that seems to have solved the problem of sliding out on to the track. At pit-in, they extended the guardrail so much that you can really see it's a lot better. I drove through there in the morning at full speed and thought, 'oh, that's where Scott hit,' and then I realized what they had added. It's a lot better."
Fogarty drove only in Friday's afternoon practice and believes he and his Rolex Series competitors can do as much as anybody to solve the issues with Thunderbolt by simply keeping their race cars on the track.
"The dust is an issue, but drivers shouldn't be driving off the track," Fogarty said. "There are two sides to the equation because people do make mistakes on occasion and they do go off the track, but the visibility is really creating a danger. The series needs to work on the drivers and inform that going off of the track excessively is going to result in a penalty. I don't know how else they will get through to the guys, and a lot of cars are going off the track. That is really the issue: visibility issues created by the dust by drivers driving off of the track."
In addition to his quick morning-session lap, Gurney also turned GAINSCO's fastest lap in the afternoon session with a time of 1:12.877 (111.146 mph). It was one of the few times this season that a race track has not become faster as the weekend goes along, but hotter afternoon temperatures and the ample dust may have been the factors.
"They still have a dust problem, which I know they are going to work on for the next two days," Gurney said. "When the GT cars drive over the curbs they bring out a bunch of dust and it's hard to see through dust clouds. It was okay this morning because of the rain but they are trying to come up with a solution for that. It is a fun track and I really like it, but some bigger curbs would keep the guys on the racing surface."
The No. 99 GAINSCO Auto Insurance Pontiac Riley is currently second in Rolex Series Team Championship with 322 points. The same number of points has Gurney and Fogarty second in the Rolex Series Driver Championship. GAINSCO and its drivers trail only the No. 01 Ganassi team of Pruett and Memo Rojas, who lead both championships with 364 points. The Ganassi team and drivers are expected to compete in Sunday's race with a back-up race car that is currently being prepared in its Indianapolis shop.
Saturday's schedule includes final practice and qualifying for the Supercar Life 250 at 1:50 p.m. ET. The next-to-last round of the 14-race 2008 Rolex Series, the Supercar Life 250 caps three-full days of holiday weekend racing action at Thunderbolt on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (Live on SPEED). The race is scheduled for 112 laps, with a 2-¾ hour time limit, and is the final Rolex Series sprint of the season.