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Auberlen favors Sebring race

Bill Auberlen will become the sixth driver to make 20 starts at the 12 Hours of Sebring this morning.

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Bill Auberlen will become the sixth driver to make 20 starts at the 12 Hours of Sebring this morning.

This weekend's 12 Hours of Sebring is the end of an era.

The American Le Mans Series is in the process of merging with the NASCAR-backed Grand-Am Series, which oversees the Rolex 24 at Daytona. That will unite the rival factions and join America's two biggest endurance races under one umbrella — United SportsCar Racing — at last.

Bill Auberlen, a veteran driver in both series, is all for the change.

There's just one problem.

"I'm going to lose half my paycheck," he said in a visit to St. Petersburg last week. "So that kind of bums me out, obviously. But the racing's going to be amazing."

Auberlen is a full-time driver in ALMS for Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing, and when the schedule allows, he also drives for Turner Motorsport in Grand-Am — his "moonlighting job" as he calls it, and his second source of racing income.

Still, the positives in unification are plain to see.

"The big picture is, racing is going to get better," he said. "Whenever you put everything under one roof and have total control, and all the fans see one amazing race, it's going to get better."

Running in both of Florida's marquee endurance races is no big deal to Auberlen — he has run 14 times in the 24-hour Grand-Am event at Daytona, the annual kickoff to Speedweeks, and was part of the winning GT3 team in 1998.

But Sebring International Raceway, where he is making his 20th start in the 12 Hours of Sebring this morning, the sixth driver to hit that mark, holds the most charm for him.

"I've raced in Japan, Europe, Australia, everywhere," Auberlen said. "It's my favorite race in the world. It's the most historic race in America. … It is a party that goes on for a week. If you ever get to that infield it will blow your mind. It's like Mardi Gras, and then they put a car race around it.

"Plus that track is raw. It's angry. It's bumpy, it's rough, it's what racing used to be. You are a piece of history if you get to participate. If I didn't race, that would be a race I would go to as a fan."

Auberlen, 44, has been part of a GT class victory three times and been second three times. This year, the Californian teams with seasonlong teammate Jorg Muller plus Maxime Martin at Sebring (teams typically have at least three drivers for races of 12 hours or more, two for shorter races).

The vast majority of Auberlen's career has been with BMW, and for the past four seasons he has driven for RLL, which also runs an IndyCar team. Auberlen says Bobby Rahal is very involved with the sportscar team.

"I don't care if it's a go-cart, a bobsled, that guy's going to put his engineering staff behind it and find a way to win," Auberlen said. "That's what Bobby's about."

This year the team is helping BMW introduce a new ALMS car, the Z4 GTE, which replaces the M3 GT. Auberlen said the new ride is better in every way, except for straight-line speed: "That's the best GT car I've ever driven in my life and I've been through hundreds of them."

And it was designed with the merger in mind.

"They were already looking ahead; they were looking at the merger as a great thing," Auberlen said of BMW. "They just know the potential of the viewership is going to go way up. It's a better place to be."

No matter what your pay grade.

. fast facts

12 Hours of Sebring

When: Starts at 10:45 a.m. today

Where: Sebring International Raceway, 113 Midway Drive, Sebring

TV: Speed Channel, 10:30 a.m.-noon, 1-7:30 p.m., 10:30- 1 a.m. (conclusion, tape delayed)

Area drivers: Ed Brown, Tampa; Jan Heylen, Tampa

Qualifying: Marcel Fassler earned the pole Friday with a track-record lap of 1 minute, 43.886 seconds (129.604 mph) in an Audi R8. He and co-drivers Benoit Treluyer and Oliver Jarvis start alongside another Audi, driven by Lucas di Grassi, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish. Ryan Briscoe had the fastest time in the LMP2 class and starts seventh overall in an HPD ARX-03b; Gianmaria Bruni had the top time in GT and lines up 20th overall in a Ferrari F458.

Auberlen favors Sebring race 03/15/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 11:09pm]

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