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RML drivers retire from Daytona 24 Hours
Issued January 29th

Daytona Disappointment for RML AD Drivers

It was a frustrating trip to Florida for Mike Newton and Thomas Erdos, with hopes of a strong showing in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona coming to a premature and fiery end after just 45 laps.

Co-driving the #51 Cheever racing Coyote-Pontiac with Tom Kimber-Smith, Brent Sherman and Scott Mayer, there had always been some expectation that the debut for the Coyote might be eventful, but a genuine “baptism of fire” had not been among the list of new-car gremlins the team had expected to face.

Any car, fresh from the factory and with as many new elements as the Coyote, goes through a stage of development when minor niggles have to be addressed and corrected before reliability and performance reach their optimum. In the case of the #51 Coyote, those trials had to be exorcised on the track, at Daytona, in full public view and on a crowded circuit. It was not ideal, but Cheever Racing, their dedicated crew, and the squad of five drivers did their best to make things happen, and in many ways, there are positive elements to be drawn from the experience. Thomas Erdos, who effectively became the number one driver in the car, certainly thought so:

“We had a tough time,” he readily admitted, “but our relationship with Eddie Cheever is so very good that, despite having such a difficult race, it is still possible to draw positive conclusions, certainly from our own point of view.” Neither of the team’s two cars made it far into the twenty-four hour race, but while the #16 car lasted a few hours longer than the #51, it was not a great deal quicker - this despite what appear on paper to have been advantages. “Ours was a tall order - to get the car into a position where we could race it after the initial shakedown in January. We’d had so little running on the test day earlier in the month (which had been the car’s first ever run) that we arrived at Daytona with hardly any mileage on the car at all. That made the task even greater when we came to preparing for the race. The car had done so little! We still had so many other issues to address, that we weren’t in a position to work on set-up or strategy at all, yet when it came to qualifying, we ran strongly.”

The sister car had enjoyed a less troubled test at the start of January and had completed many more miles of running, so arrived for the race with the prospects of making full use of all the practice time available. The #16 squad had also moved ahead to using the new high-specification Pontiac engine, while the #51 retained the previous and slightly less powerful unit throughout the pre-race period.

Having to rectify a succession of minor technical issues meant that practice was seriously curtailed for the #51 car. Aside from Tommy, who had been chosen to assist in trying to establish a preliminary set-up for the car, the other four drivers were unable to benefit from much track-time in the car. The squad went into qualifying knowing that there remained a great deal still to do.

As it turned out, Thomas Erdos achieved a time of 1:43.709 for the 3.56 mile course that, although sufficient for 22nd overall, was just nine one-hundredths slower than Matteo Bobbi’s time in the #16. The two cars would start the race side-by-side on the grid. “Having had a lot less time to get the car set up, and using the older-spec engine, to get to within a tenth was great for us. I think we’d done a good job to make up so much ground and it was a significant effort,” suggested Erdos.

Even so, the first fifteen-minute qualifying session on Thursday afternoon had not run smoothly, and with a damaged clutch the day’s evening practice was curtailed, leaving only time enough for one more short run in the second qualifying session on Friday. With the first 30 places already set by the first session, there was no means of improving on Tommy’s time, but under GrandAm rules, the driver taking the second session (if the car runs) also has to start the race. Aside from Tommy, few of the squad’s other drivers had been able to enjoy much time in the car, but with Mike Newton one lap short of his required minimum in order to be qualified to race, it was decided to allow him the honour of Friday's quarter-hour session. Understandably, most cars elected to miss it completely, but it did at least give the CEO of AD Group a further taste of the Coyote.

Raceday on Saturday saw the Coyote, with Mike Newton at the wheel, lining up for the 1:30pm start with a brand new, higher-spec Pontiac engine nestling under the rear cowl. Being twenty-second out of sixty-eight starters placed the #51 in the first third of the grid, right in the middle of some of the toughest jostling, but Mike took the rolling start without a hitch. “That first stint was just like an extended test,” said Thomas Erdos. “We were still working on set-up, and Mike encountered a few fresh problems with the set-up and braking.” He pressed on nevertheless, and completed 38 laps before pitting after an hour and twelve minutes to hand over to Thomas Erdos.

After a few tweaks and adjustments, the Brazilian was swiftly back out on track, and to begin with the car performed well. Then, as Tommy started the race’s 50th lap, just twenty minutes into his stint, things began to go seriously wrong. “All of a sudden, as I was heading out along the front straight, at maximum speed – nearly 190 mph - the thing just went bang! It was a complete, catastrophic failure – big time,” he exclaimed. “There was a fire straight away, although I couldn’t see it behind me, but I knew what was happening. I pulled over immediately.”

Tommy was stranded beside the track for several minutes until two other incidents occurred. The #40 Hypersport Mazda came to a halt on the apron at Turn 4, and ironically, Antonio Garcia in the sister Cheever Racing Coyote #16 encountered that car’s first problem. A full-course yellow was declared while the various cars were recovered. “When I got back to the garage, there was a massive hole in the side of the engine,” said Erdos. “The technicians looked at the data, and it all looked perfectly healthy until the point that it blew up. There was absolutely no warning whatsoever.”

It was a massive disappointment for everyone, but it would get worse. Having recovered from the earlier alternator problem, the #16 would also retire a few hours later after covering some 170 laps with an overheating engine, possibly caused by a blockage to the radiator intakes. Although not a great weekend for the team, it had still been an enjoyable one for AD Group and the American guests who had watched the spectacle of the Daytona 24 Hours unfold. “That we didn’t finish was certainly a disappointment for them,” suggested Tommy, “but on the plus side, it did mean that Mike and I could spend more time with them in the suite. Many of them watch the end of the race with us, and it was great to experience their support and enthusiasm. Even with all the problems, I thoroughly enjoyed working with Eddie and the team. It may have been a bit frustrating at times, but the atmosphere remained so good throughout.”

The eventual winners were Chip Ganassi Racing (with Felix Sabates), who became the first team to capture three straight Rolex 24 wins, with victory going to the #1 Target Lexus Riley driven by Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti.

Now Mike and Tommy can look ahead to their Le Mans Series season, which kicks off with two shakedown tests in the UK in February ahead of the first official test at Paul Ricard at the start of March.

Further information from

All photos courtesy of