Sunday March 15th, 2009
When Audi announced that the new R15 TDI would only race at Sebring and Le Mans – that made up my mind, I was going to Sebring. I e-mailed Andy Sattler at Audi Motorsports Experience and asked if Audi was having a hospitality tent at Sebring. It turns out they were and I made sure I got a ticket. Making airline and hotel reservations were done in a heartbeat – I was going.
My dreams of attending Sebring 09 were becoming a reality when I was able to schedule two weeks off work in March. It was even more exciting when the news hit that Audi would bring the R-15 to Sebring after a short testing in Italy. On Saturday, March 14th, I headed south out of Wisconsin on a cold winter day. I was driving a Ford that needed to be returned to a relative in Florida. Despite the ,well, lousy ride of the Ford, I made great time and arrived in Clarksville, TN, checked into a Comfort Suites, ate dinner and hit the sack.
Ahh, warm weather driving through Tennessee. As I headed into Atlanta, a bad rain storm hit. Everything came to a halt. Roads were getting deep with water and car wrecks were all over. After a 2.5 hr wait in traffic, it began to move again, this s__! Now I was behind. I realized I would not make Valdosa, GA by my 6 pm target, so I stopped at another Comfort Suites in Cordele, GA. (This was a good decision as I was able to grab a bite to eat with a favorite beer cooler and later watch the Alan McNish interview about the R-15.)
Monday, March 16th, 2009
I woke to a rain storm and headed out at 7:45 am with Audi, Sebring and Florida weather on my mind. I made good time and hit the Floida border by noon. I stopped at a famous Cuban restaurant for a Cuban sandwich, yucca fries and a side of plantains-great food! With sunny skies and 75 degrees, I was cruising into Gainesville, Fla. when I heard about a mile or so ahead of me, a huge explosion. A large plume of smoke with debris came rising into the air. A semi tanker was completely destroyed and there were several burning cars strewn over the road. A med flight and at least 8 ambulances were enlisted. I later discovered after listening to the radio that a gas tanker jackknifed and the explosion took out 6 cars, yikes!! I felt lucky to be back on track and was heading south on 75.
I arrived 15 miles from Lakeland, stopped for fuel, got back into the car and—no start. The Ford turned over, but it would not start-great! I figured it was fuel pump related and tried to tap the back tank with the gas station’s rubber hammer. I turned the key, and-it started! I put it into gear and then, it died. I called my relatives and they sent out local towing. I arrived in Lakeland in a tow truck and 80 degrees outside -hey it’s better than Wisconsin weather in March, now isn't it?
I met my relatives at the garage, unloaded my travel gear and all my Audi items to be autographed. After a wonderful dinner at their home, we watched the local news of Florida—the Gainsville wreck I drove through earlier. I turned in, what a day!
Job requirements in Saginaw, Michigan prohibited trip until weekend before . Got cheap round trip flight from Flint and checked on Audi A4 Cab rental @ Hertz…..$179/day….I reserved a midsize. Comfort Suites Saginaw stay gives me enough points for free room for 2 days in Orlando…nice!
Tuesday March 17, 2009
I don’t leave for Florida until Thursday morning and I’m second guessing whether I should have made travel plans to leave on Wednesday instead. This would have given me all day Thursday at the track and the opportunity to see Thursday’s night practice. I’m starting to get organized; I just got a new battery for my ancient scanner and am charging it. I decided to make a list of what to bring so I don’t forget anything.
I have spent the last couple weeks trying to rent an Audi out of the Tampa area. Both Audi dealers are out of cars, Hertz is out of cars and the only thing available is a TT out of Miami. So, I make a back-up reservation for a SUV suitable for a catnap Saturday when I hit the wall.
I woke up to perfect weather, breakfast, and a day to do whatever. My relatives took me around Lakeland-beautiful! Orange trees full and palm trees galore. We stopped at the famous Silver Spoon for lunch and I devoured my favorite ‘Cuban sandwich’-yum! I spent the remainder of the day lounging around their pool and planned my daily back and forth drive from Lakeland to Sebring- this might get tough if I end up there late, but all for a good time and another hopeful Audi win! I turned in at 10.30.
Wednesday March 18, 2009
Hit the road at 6:30. The trip would take about an hour from Lakeland with the sun coming up- just awesome. Arriving at the track about 8 am, I went to the roll call booth and got my credentials. Wow, I cannot believe it-I am finally here! I immediately headed to the Audi paddock and then on to the Audi R-15 headquarters.
What a set up with team Joest. With very few people around that early, I got to go back with Dindo Capello for a mini tour. This place is spotless. There was the R-15! I met Marco Werner, Mike Rockenfeller, and Lucas Luer! Woww!! What nice people-they treat you like family! I even got my rare R-10 book signed and shot the breeze with Dindo and Lucas for a while. I wondered where were Alan Mcnish and Tom Kristensen? After touring the grounds for an hour plus, it was now around 10:30. I watched the practice of the speed world challenge and then the touring class.
By noon was the first combined practice-wow what a start-like its official! That R-15 is cool, I thought, and fast. But that Peugeot is no slouch! Yikes, does Audi have what it takes with this new car? Hmmm.. I was invited back to the Audi paddock when I ran into Andy Sattler, head of the Audi experience event tent. There I saw Alan and Tom, but I knew this was no time for talking or autographs. Wow, was this cool and talk about tech stuff! I did talk to my friend, Ralf Juttner. This guy’s a genius! I also talked to Urich Baretkzy, head of engine management. This guy is no dope! Wow, thank you Andy for another mini tour, how cool!!
Audi did well, but some fine tuning was needed. Late afternoon I met Tom K and Alan near the car. We talked for 15 mins, got autographs, and I took another tour around the grounds. This place was overwhelming. This was the day to come as things were not as busy and you could meet the drivers, etc. I returned to Lakeland around 7 and was bushed from a full day of excitement and activity. I ate, watched a little TV and turned in to get much needed rest for another big day.
I’m still looking for an Audi to rent and I leave tomorrow morning, no luck the sales manager at my home Audi dealer drops me an e-mail that he has struck out as well.
Thursday March 19, 2009
I’ve used airline miles for the tickets and the only thing available is through Miami. So, I spend the day traveling. My flight from Miami to Tampa is a few hours late so I miss Thursday night practice. I know I should have left Wednesday instead. Make a note for 2010. I arrive at my hotel in Lakeland about 7PM, Hyatt Place Hotel and get my room and go get dinner. The hotel people suggest Harry’s Bar and Grill in the historic section of downtown Lakeland. A great spot with a New Orleans theme, good food and good prices. If you’ve not stayed at Hyatt Places give them a try, great rooms, free WiFi, business oriented, and at a good price.
I awoke to another great weather day and headed to Sebring arriving again at 8.00 and walked the entire grounds. It’s getting busier. I met my home town Porsche team, Kelly Moss Motorsports. They have done well with their 4 cars. Watched Audi repair the R-15 and test it under the canopy-wow, all the buzz around their trailer. They must think I am a groupie, I call it being a dedicated fan and a walking shrine to the 4 rings.
I saw a gathering near the Porsche trailer and ran over to see. There was Hans Stuck! Luckily I brought my poster of the old orig quattro rally car. He signed it, how cool. As I watched the practice I could see Peugeot having problems, as well as Audi. Well, better now than on Saturday.
I was really waiting for the night practice-this was going to be awesome. After a full day of walking, I took a rest and had a bite to eat. The vendor food here has a lot to be desired. Night practice was soon to start. Storm clouds and sunset were combined. After about 2 laps, major rain hit. This was cool- they did not slow up! A ton of water came down before it stopped after about 25 mins. Man, night practice is great-I will never miss this! After another full day, I arrived home and went right to sleep!
Friday March 20, 2009
I leave early from my hotel in Lakeland and arrive at Sebring International Raceway about 8:30 AM. I get my will-call Audi credentials and my Sebring ticket. Since I don’t have an Audi, I park in the Audi overflow parking – other than having a non-Audi product, it’s perfect parking. The Audi tent is a great home base. Two flat screen TVs and a direct feed from Speed TV including timing and scoring.
About 1:30 Brad Kettler comes by to discuss the race and the new R15 and the challenges the car will face tomorrow. Brad also tells us his primary Sebring duty was to observe and prepare to manage an R15 for Audi Sport North America at Le Mans. However, the Joest Racing manager for #2 R15 fell ill and was on his back. SO, Brad got the nod to run the race for the #2 Team Joest (www.joestracing.com) R15.
Perfect weather again, and off to Sebring. Arrived around 8 but there was a line to get in! I finally headed to the Audi club tent for check in. They had it all set up and organized-well done!! Got my R-15 lanyard and other gizmos. Met Andy again. He said, “Nick, you’re a walking Audi crazy guy" in a good way, laughing! “I have something for you to add to your rare book collection.” Now I was curious. He hands me a hard cover large book ‘Audi 123 Le Mans’. “Rare, rare, rare,” he said, “not many printed-under 50.” “What! Andy I cannot thank you enough.” He replied, “no Nick, you’ve been to a lot of events. You deserve it!” This tent’s got it all-tvs, food, drink and above all, Audi fans from all over. You feel like you’re in a dream!
Personal cars outside the tent and great friendly people to talk to. Hats off to Audi club of Florida! After lunch and reviewing the schedule of Audi tent happenings, tonight would be the debut of “Truth in 24”. We can watch from the tent, awesome! I put my empty plate away and saw Tom. I took a double take! Huh! “Tom,” I said, “I thought I was the only guy here from the Badger chapter.” He laughed, “I couldn’t miss this.”
We had a great time getting caught up on the past year since Road America 08, on the competition and the new Audi R-15. I said to myself Tom is one of the greatest people I’ve ever met and he’s so knowledgeable on auto racing. Wow this day was like, unexplainable and was meant to be! That day I must have walked the grounds many times, maybe 10 miles! I talked to the Peugeot drivers, and had a gut feeling that they had plans to nail Audi down. I worry too much I guess. A voice told me, “Nick, look in the night sky, you will see the 4 rings of victory!” I must be losing it.
Tired, I headed back to the hospitality tent. It was packed with drivers there for autographs-awesome- more to sign my new book! I stayed an hour into the movie and called it a night. (I was taping it at home.) I hit the road and arrived home at 10. It felt like I was in the 24 hrs of Le Mans for the whole race-tired, tired!
Missed 6 AM flight by 5 minutes …..rebooked next available & arrive in Orlando 4PM. Go to Hertz hoping to find leftover Audi to rent ….Q7 only available. I asked if there were any reasonable upgrades out there and landed a Yellow Corvette (perfect for Sebring) for $230 for the weekend….nice! Running late so I called Andy Sattler and found out if I hurry I can pick up credentials tonight. Got to track about halfway through “Truth in 24” showing….was able to get late dinner @ hospitality tent. About 1.25 hr drive back to Orlando Comfort Suites ….(but remember, it’s free……nice!)
Saturday March 21, 2009
The big day!! I had slept well and headed to Sebring on another great weather day. Got to the track at 8.00, not many at the tent? Had breakfast. The track was busy with practice rounds of various categories. I saw Tom around 8:30. We talked and looked at the members’ cars, as they prepared for the Audi club judging on detailing etc. I went back into the tent-my nerves were going crazy. I said to myself, “Audi must win today!” As I sat in the tent to read the days’ events, I looked toward the front opening and saw John-we met last year at Road America.
We got caught up on the year-our usual Audi tech talk on racing and personal cars. I decided to walk the track and met Dr. Ullrich. He had signed my photo with him from 2008. This was a dream! I chatted with Dindo pre race and told him, ”You’re going to do it!” I gave him thumbs up and did the same to Alan as I saw him heading to the paddock. The start was now in 15 minutes and I secured a close spot.
It began and Audi was off to a great start! I walked the track to gain good vantage points. I made my way back to the Audi club tent with a little Audi gear of my own, tees, patches etc. and had lunch with my eyes glued on the tv’s race coverage. Man, it was neck and neck with Audi, Peugeot, and yes Acura! Wow, what a fight! Dindo, Tom and Lucas really laying it down on Acura.
Late afternoon still a battle and Peugeot gaining laps and looking real strong. Come on, Audi! John, Tom, and I got a great group photo near the bridge over the track as a memoire. We talked and had dinner. John took us over to see his new ride. I said, “John, where is the Audi?” He said laughing, “Nick, it’s a rental vette!” Evening was setting in. We walked back to the tent. I had a beer or 2 or 5 or 8 settling my worries. John said, “Don’t worry, this is not over.”
Audi had ground to make up and Acura was out of the equation. Full dark and an hour to go, Alan had this race down and made up ground over Peugeot big time! We were down to 1 lap and Audi had it done! Victory! Yes, yes! John, Tom and I headed to the grid for trophy time! I got there and Alan handed me a half finished orange juice! Well, John said keep it. So I did. (By the way, it’s in my secondary freezer.) What a great night we had. After a great Audi win, we said our goodbyes. I won’t forget it.
Got to track early…. Pulled into Audi parking and was told “Audi only” (left A6 2.7T @ home)….overflow parking across the street…Yellow Corvette rental very fashionable here. Didn’t expect to see anyone familiar here, but Nick comes up to me and says “Weren’t you at Road America?” Then I run into Tom and remember his A8 from Road America. We watch the race and are pleased with the outcome, of course. McNish hands Nick a 2/3 empty OJ bottle as he walks to the podium. Nick said “what can I do with this…I can’t just throw it away. ” I said, “put it on e-bay!” I shook Dr. Ulrich’s hand in congratulations and asked if we could buy an R15 Audi Certified now. He said we have to win Le Mans first. Nice drive back to Orlando…Corvette guys wave and honk and I acknowledge by waving Audi flag through Corvette roof!
Race day, I’m up about 6:00 AM to get an early start to the track. I’ve located a Starbucks on the south side of Lakeland and it’s my first stop. With a Starbucks in the cup holder I’m ready. I arrive at the track about 8:30 AM and the weather looks great, although the weather man here says there is a chance of rain. Interesting, in Wisconsin this would be considered mostly sunny with a small chance of rain. In Florida it’s considered partly cloudy and a chance of rain. Go, figure.
I’m looking around for Nick and he’s already at the Audi tent. I get another cup of coffee at the Audi tent and sit to shoot the breeze with Nick. We’re both concerned with the Peugeots and the Acuras. The Acuras have great corner speed and the Peugeots are just plain fast. We know the R15s are pretty much bullet proof but believe they need to go full out for 12 hours to get the checker. After watching ‘Truth in 24’ last night we now are talking about Truth in 12.
The race is over and the R15s are victorious. It’s been a great race, a long day and running to the podium and cheering the teams was an experience never to be forgotten. Someday Le Mans.
Sunday March 22, 2009
Drove through countryside before going home and had a realization. I just smelled an orange grove for the first time and I’m 57 yrs. old! There sure are a lot of things yet to experience in my life ….time to assemble a ‘bucket list’.
Back to reality (work).
Sunday I kicked back, drove around Lakeland, and planned my travels home with one of the cars my relatives wanted me to drive back north. Tuesday I headed north, followed the same route and arrived home safe and sound. Brrr...Wisconsin.