Rising Up the Old-Fashioned Way

05 April

© Janos L Wimpffen

There are three ways in which most drivers make it to the top echelons of the sport. Some reach ever deeper into their own pockets to finance the effort. Others are shrewd in the attainment of sponsorship. Then there are the drivers in the mold of the professional of past decades. They allow the results to speak for themselves. Klaus Graf is of this mold. The young German is a believer in racing as a meritocracy.

The thirty-year old is in his third year as a works Panoz driver in the American Le Mans series. His impressive debut with the original Roadster earned him a coveted permanent spot on the 2001 squad. Klaus is committed to making the new LMP07 a viable competitor to the Audis and this has brought him and wife Steffi to a new home in Atlanta, close to the Panoz shops.

Klaus’ father, Peter, was an active amateur racer in his native southwestern Germany, with forays abroad that included drives in the Monte Carlo Rally. When the youngster showed an interest in the sport, the family made a conscious decision to systematically help Klaus get a start. He began his career with a touring car drive in the one-make Suzuki Swift Cup series, where he wound up fifth in his only season. He immediately moved into single-seaters, where he honed his skills throughout the first half of the 1990s.

For parts of three seasons the family Graf team enjoyed success in Formula Ford. Klaus received a break in 1993 when Walter Lechner, the former Austrian Group C driver, hired him as a Van Diemen works driver. He routinely out-paced his teammate, Alexander Wurz, as well as running clear of other future Formula One and sports car stars such as Ralf Schumacher and Max Angelelli. Winning a total of nine races, Graf became the 1993 German Formula Ford Champion, while simultaneously winning titles south of the border in Austria.

Graf spent three more seasons in single-seaters, this time in Formula 3, before switching to sports cars late in 1997. This was in the highly competitive Porsche Carrera Cup series, where he finished third overall, the best showing ever by a rookie. He caught the attention of Ray Bellm, who invited him to tryout for a seat in the Ferrari 333SP that the Englishman was fielding in the International Sports Racing Series. Klaus had to compete for the spot against John Nielsen, and handily outpaced the former Le Mans winner during a shootout at southern France’s Le Castellet circuit.

He made two appearances with the Ferrari during 1998, culminating with a third place at the Brno round, but the project was brought to a premature close. He also took the opportunity to drive a one-off car that appeared in the series, Peter Stürtz’ rather unsuccessful SMR-BMW. Graf’s “cowboy” approach to moving up through the ranks continued with another opportunity for a tryout, this time against Davy Jones for a spot on the 1999 Panoz team. His first drive came with the old GTR-1 coupe, which ended in an early retirement at Sebring. He spent the next several months intensively testing the new LMP Roadster, which he later nursed to eleventh place at the Petit Le Mans for the semi-private team run by Franz Konrad.

Last year saw Klaus embark on a busy year of seven endurance races plus his continued testing schedule. His highlights were fourth place finishes at the Nürburgring 1000 Kms. (above) and at the Petit Le Mans. He is justifiably proud of the latter accomplishment as he drove for nearly six hours of the race and set the fastest lap near the end of his marathon stint. Klaus attributes that to his excellent fitness. He is an avid bicyclist, skier, and runner. His diet certainly is exemplary. While chatting over breakfast, your intrepid reporter was wolfing down a fair share of starch-laden goodies while the athletic star nibbled at a bowl of fresh fruit.

Interspersed with the factory work in 2000, he joined erstwhile rival John Nielsen to co-drive the Danish entered Panoz at Le Mans (below) and again at the Brno SportsRacing World Cup round. There he placed fifth. Testing is an activity Graf relishes. He routinely reels off 100-150 laps per day at Road Atlanta, keenly observing every nuance of the chassis-engine-tire package. He feels that his suggestions to the team throughout 1999 and 2000 took a good three seconds off the LMP’s time at the Georgia circuit. Klaus is proud to boast that his testing regimen has often left him faster than the team’s acknowledged lead driver, David Brabham.

Intra-team competition has helped sharpen his skills, but Graf is generous to a fault in passing on advice. He has now taken new team member, Gualter Salles, under his wing. He is helping the Brazilian get accustomed to the still problematic LMP07, which Klaus has spent many hours working with. He considers the V8 powered car more akin to the single-seaters of his earlier days than to the original Panoz roadster. That version of the front-engined concept never lost some of its characteristics inherited from its coupe configuration. However, the LMP07 is a pure racing thoroughbred. In the past, the old Ford based motor provided good torque, but then flattened out at higher rpm. However, Graf reports that the new low profile four-liter has a much more useful power band at higher engine speeds.

Sebring was a very troubled outing for the new car, and for Graf it’s back to many more test sessions before, hopefully, a more successful visit to Le Mans. While he enjoys the physical demands of circuits such as Sebring and Road Atlanta, he looks forward to the out-and-out speed of the famed French circuit. Of course, standing squarely in the path of the Panoz is the daunting presence of the Audis. But rather than wishing them away, Klaus finds Reinhold Joest’s presence a motivating factor.

Meanwhile, Klaus (with his manager Christian Kuhn, left) and Steffi are enjoying life in their new home and are busy observing the differences in American and European racing styles. He noted how sports car racing is a very different experience for race fans on the two continents. In Europe, most races have little in the way of side attractions. Devoted fans come to observe the cars and go home. On the other hand, American promoters make a point of providing an event that the whole family can enjoy. Klaus noted that the carnival aspect of the Sebring midway is only one such example.

Graf is likely to enjoy a long tenure with Panoz. When the LMP07 achieves its round of successes, they will largely be attributable to this driver’s talents. It may provide him another opportunity to move on, perhaps again to single-seaters in the form of CART or the IRL. Wherever Klaus Graf goes to next, he will do so clearly on hard work and merit. As that old advert says; he wins the old-fashioned way, he earns it.

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