SEBRING, Fla., March 3 - Fans are already lining their motorhomes up on the roads leading into Sebring International Raceway in order to get a good spot for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on Saturday, March 19, even though the gates don't open until 7 a.m. on Wednesday, March 16.
Jonathan Klein, Robbie Pecorari, Graham Rahal and Pablo Donoso aren't waiting in that line but they're just as excited about the 53rd annual Sebring event. They'll drive Andersen Walko Racing entries in a companion race to the American Le Mans Series season opener that weekend, as the Star Mazda series presented by Goodyear will also open its 2005 season at Sebring with a race on Friday afternoon, March 18.
Racing in front of well over 100,000 fans at America's oldest and best-attended sports car race is thrilling for any race car driver, but it's especially exciting for ones so young. Klein and Pecorari are 17; Rahal just turned 16 and Donoso is 20.
"The adrenaline rush that you have is unexplainable when you as a driver know that over 100,000 people are at the track watching you," Pecorari said.
Although the drivers may have some butterflies, the team has done its homework over the winter. Andersen Walko Racing tested at four different tracks during the off-season, including two days on Sebring's 3.7-mile long course. During that test all four of the AWR drivers ran times that would have put them at the front of the grid in qualifying for the Star Mazda race last year, which makes everyone on the team very optimistic.
Klein, who hails from Long Grove, Ill., was the Star Mazda series' most improved driver for 2004. He is part of the family which owns Klein Tools, the official hand tool of the ALMS series and a sponsor of Dan Wheldon's Andretti Green Racing entry in the Indy Racing League IndyCar series. Klein will be in the black and white No. 26 Star Mazda car.
Pecorari, who lives in Aston, Pa., has impressed just about everybody who has ever watched him race. He'll be in the black No. 23 at Sebring. He raced a Skip Barber car at Sebring last year, finishing second and fourth in a doubleheader in only his second and third open-wheel starts.
Rahal, of New Albany, Ohio, is the son of the legendary Bobby Rahal, who won the Twelve Hours of Sebring himself in 1987 in a Porsche 962 with Jochen Mass as his co-driver. That family of course is also deeply involved in IndyCar Racing, as Rahal Letterman Racing is the defending Indy 500 winner and fields Indy cars for Buddy Rice, Vitor Meiria and Danica Patrick. Rahal will be in the No. 12, which is painted McLaren orange and blue.
Donoso has an IndyCar connection too, as he's the protégé of fellow Chilean Eliseo Salazar, whom Americans know best for his IndyCar drives. Donoso hails from Santiago, Chile. He has the same sponsor that Salazar had in Indy cars, Cristal Beer. His car is yellow and green and carries the number 22.
"Sebring International Raceway is an excellent track," Klein said. "It's bumpy, flat and aging, but I always enjoy driving it."
"Success at Sebring comes by keeping your nose clean and saving your tires," he explained. "If I can do those two things well during the race, the result should be fantastic."
Klein added that he has a set of grandparents in nearby Orlando. "I hope they come out to cheer my teammates and me on," he added.
Klein, whose nickname is "Jono," is sponsored by Kalfact Plastics; Fettes, Love and Sieben; Nexus Distribution Corp.; Midwest Steel & Services; Ironclad and ProStar.
"The race at Sebring will be very exciting," predicted Pecorari, who is sponsored by SAI Hydraulics. "Last year the top runners at the season opener were the top runners all year long. The track has a great layout but it's a little bumpy due to the cement surface."
Sebring was originally built as a World War II B-17 training base.
"The Sebring track is the ultimate," Rahal pronounced. "It is fast, momentous and exciting. The history behind it brings excitement to your body as you drive around it, and you just think of all the other great drivers who have driven there."
"I've never raced at Sebring before; this will be the first time for me," Donoso said. "The course is very demanding. It's fast and technical at the same time."
"My teammates will help me as much as they can," Donoso added. "I'm also going to depend on the guidance of Eliseo Salazar. He has won many races in many different series, and his knowledge will help me a lot."
Star Mazda practice is the first thing on the weekend card, as a half-hour session is slated for 8 a.m. Wednesday, March 16, while those fans with their motorhomes will still be setting up. Another half-hour session will be held at 3:15 p.m. that afternoon.
On Thursday, March 17 there is practice from 8:45 a.m. until 9:15 a.m. prior to qualifying from 1:05 p.m. until 1:50 p.m. that day. Then all that will be left will be to run the 45-minute race, which is slated to get the green flag at 2:40 p.m. on Friday, March 18. The schedule is subject to change, but that's the latest as of press time.
All of the Star Mazda races are televised on a tape-delayed basis on SPEED.
Here you can find out about our developments and experiences in coaching and engineering