ROCK HILL — The evidence of hard racing is stacked away in out-of-the-way places at CORE Autosports off Lakeshore Parkway in Rock Hill.
In a back storage room are stacks of Michelin race tires. Asphalt chips from the track, as well as labels from water bottles and other trash, are fused into the rubber.
Composite body parts are stacked in bins, some showing more damage than others. The nose from one of the teams two cars sits upright in a rack, still greasy from 12 hours of racing at the Road Atlanta track.
Across the shop floor in a conference room there is a haphazard array of happiness trophies, ribbons and photos of successes from the 2011 and 2012 American LeMans endurance racing season.
In between these points is CORE Autosports impeccably clean shop where crew members tear each of the two cars down to their carbon fiber skeleton. They check everything, repairing or replacing parts as needed, and then rebuild them in about a four-day span for the next race complete with a spit-shine wax job. The race-ready ORECA FLM09 cars look like they could have just come off a showroom floor.
Then theyre back on the track where the drivers push them to the limit on road course tracks that not only twist and turn but also change in elevation. The tracks are also filled with faster and slower cars as five classes race at one time everything from the sleekest, fastest prototypes to almost off-the-shelf Corvettes, Porsches and Aston Martins.
This year the 1-2-3 combination of hard driving, the pursuit of mechanical perfection and luck produced what team owner and driver Jon Bennett of Fort Mill calls a great season by accident.
Perhaps he should say, great season without accident, as CORE Autosports pushed its two cars to and sometimes beyond the limit to a dominating season. CORE Autosports finished in the top three 17 times over 10 races to win the team championship, as well as winningest driver in its class, the second-best driver and the rookie of the year honors. It was the second straight year of championship success, but unlike 2011, the team and drivers titles were won before the last race.
There was much elation, a lot of sprayed champagne and bittersweet moments too, Bennett said.
The bittersweet followed Bennetts first trip to the podium for a first-place finish. Teaming with Colin Brown who has NASCAR experience Bennett won the LMP Challenge class at a six-hour race over the Laguna Seca course in Monterey, Calif.
Winning the first time is beyond words, he said. It was great and a little depressing. There is joy in chasing an unobtainable goal. After winning, You have to pick the next goal and start the cycle all over again.
The next race across the country at the Lime Rock track in Connecticut Bennett and Brown again finished first in their class.
Bennett and Brown tied for second in drivers points. Teammate Alex Popow of Venezuela, a veteran of endurance racing, won the drivers title, as well as rookie of the year honors for the LMP class. (Popow did equally as well in the GrandAm race series, finishing fifth the Daytona Prototype class. His CORE co-driver Ryan Daiziel was third in the Daytona class.)
Keeping everything together was team manager Morgan Brady.
Brady said the new shop adjacent to Composite Resources, which is owned by Bennett had impacts on and off the track. First, the fully stocked shop was a great place to work. Outwardly, he said, it sends a signal to who we are, where we are going.
Bennett admits he doesnt know everything thats done at the shop. But he knows everything needed and beyond is done. Perfectionist is not a word to describe Brady, he said. They check everything all the time.
They also practice all the time, perfecting their pit crew skills. Pits stops are every pit as important in American LeMans series racing as NASCAR, but with a couple of exceptions. Cars must be turned off when they stop for fuel, and fueling must be done before any tire is changed.
Fueling should take about 24 seconds and changing all four tires can be done in 12 to 13 seconds with four guys, Brady said.
A good stop, like the ones they had at Leguna Seca, gives drivers an advantage, Brady said. At Laguna Seca we pitted second and third and left first and third.
Knowing the car has been soundly mechanically prepared means Bennett and his drivers can slip in between what he calls heaven and squirrels on the track.
Heaven, said Bennett, are the drivers who come to the American LeMans series with NASCAR, Indy or Formula 1 experience. The squirrels are those drivers who bring big wallets to teams but not necessary the best driving skills. Guess wrong trying to pass a squirrel and you can find yourself out of race, Bennett said.
Compounding the problem is some teams have both heavens and squirrels driving the same car, so you have to try to read body English while racing at speeds that can reach 160 mph, Bennett said.
Bennett admits that part of his teams success is being a big fish in a small pond.
But the big fish is starting to get noticed out of its pond. ABC Sports televised several of the American LeMans series races, and CORE drivers were among the winning drivers interviewed.
The team is also using social media to tout its successes.
The trickle of people interested in CORE racing is growing, Bennett said and apparently becoming more vocal.
After the 12-hour, Petit LeMans at Road Atlanta, Bennett was making his way to the paddock area to celebrate and spray champagne. A group of fans spied him and started to chant, Rock Hill, Rock Hill, Rock Hill.
A little hometown cheering section, yelling from the darkness. Not too shabby for Bennett, who, just a few years ago, was learning how to race on the parking lot at Knights Stadium.
Don Worthington 803-329-4066 firstname.lastname@example.org