Historic (and Lonely) Disappointment

14 February 2001

The Rolex 24 of 2001 was never on my calendar. There is a job here that has nothing to do with coving sports car racing events. There just isn't enough time off to do more than I have planned, including Sebring and a number of other races. After thirteen years of "being there," for Daytona, the event just finally wore me down. Maybe I am just getting too old for 24 hour races. Maybe Daytona's less-than-friendly spectator and media rules just became too irritating. Finally, regardless of my love for GT racing, the prototype end of this field failed to grab my attention.

None of that means I would miss the event entirely if I could help it. The idea of straight-through coverage on Speedvision was pretty exciting, and I imagined some of the old gang that used to make the annual trek to Florida might "tent out" on a floor in front of a large screen television set. So I set out to drum up some interest. In the event, "disinterest" became an understatement.

Kelly spent the first part of the week at a business conference at Disney World, then headed for Naples to visit old friend Greg. That would include boating in the Gulf of Mexico and partying on the beach. It's not reasonable to expect the substitution of Speedvision for frolicking with bikini-clad friends on a Florida beach. I understand.

Sister Bobbi and her husband Jim, one of the most faithful of the Daytona sojourners, spent the weekend skiing in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Hey, if you have a house next to the ski hill, you gotta use it, don't you? I guess the sore ribs from the go-kart track incident with Kelly are healing.

Don didn't answer the e-mail. When you design supercomputer stuff, sometimes you just get buried. Trying to get ahead on the work now, to clear time for the trek to the USGP at Indy, I suppose.

Larry did answer, to the effect that "my Speedvision channel is not working for some reason, so I guess I won't be watching." No invitation in that! Oh, did I tell you I don't get Speedvision, so the "tenting" has to be somewhere else? I am trying to get an offer here. Of course, since "sensitive Larry" took lovely new wife Suzanne to Sebring 1999 with only a too-short tent for shelter in the Green Park, his enthusiasm for the sport has become purely a "guy thing."

I can watch the race at Bobbi and Jim's even if they are gone, so I head over there an hour before race start. I have never learned to operate Jim's stack of electronics…the surround sound, DVDs, video tape decks, tuners and other stuff with the multiple remote controls. I give it a good shot, getting as far as sound, but no picture, on the projection TV (I find out since that there are TWO "on" switches on the projection unit).

Still, I can get Speedvision on the 13" set in the kitchen…that at least will be close to the beer and snacks. I settle in at the counter, my laptop computer within reach. I think this is going to work. I tune in and log on.

David Hobbs and the rest of the "first shift" crew at Speedvision is giving us pre-race tidbits. Interesting stuff, this. Eighty cars, (it will turn out to be 79), 300 drivers (some will never get to drive of course). The Mosler has relinquished the GT class pole and will start at the back of the field. Transmission replacement, they tell us. Can that be right? I thought those kind of changes were acceptable…just not tire changes from those marked during qualifying. That will bring out the cries of conspiracy from the anti-Porsche bunch (sure enough, just such a post appears in a PSCR forum later). I usually like such a move of a swift car to the rear; it creates a "charge to the front," good racing early.

So the JET Motorsports BMW M3 V8 is on the GT pole; there is a hue and cry about that, too. JET appears to be a PTG operation under another name. Tom Milner's team has built the new E46 chassis in Virginia, and equipped it with a 5.0 liter V8 lifted out of the new M5. Evidently under Grand Am rules, if the manufacturer builds the motor, it can go in any chassis of that manufacturer. The question arises: why didn't they just shoehorn in a V12?

Boris Said is quoted to the effect that "we intend to send the Porsche guys crying home to Europe." Other than the fact that only a few are from Europe, it is vintage Said-Stuck "shtick." Of course, someone in the forum takes this "trash talk" seriously and rails against Said's "professionalism." I figure long distance racing is boring enough; particularly without the sights and sounds of being there. Thank god for the occasional attempt at levity. Personally, I don't give this new combination much of a chance to go the distance.

The parade laps start, with a rundown of the field. Perhaps because there are too many cars, pictures are not displayed and the listing runs by too fast to follow much of it. From the pre-race coverage I learn the following:
- There are 23 cars per mile here, compared to 5 per mile at Le Mans. They call it a "congestion index." There is the opinion that makes this the toughest endurance race in the world. Of course, when we get to Le Mans, THAT will be the toughest endurance race in the world.
- Paul Newman is 76. Interestingly, that is the number of the Gunnar Racing prepared, Texaco-sponsored Porsche GT1 he is driving. Intentional, or only because Champion, with which Gunnar has a long association, has often used that number?
- Two generations of Earnhardts share the #3 GTS Corvette with two accomplished road racers.
- Rolex will become the title sponsor of the Grand American Road Racing Association.
- Jackie Stewart, a man who drove few sports cars, is the Grand Marshal. He does have a lifetime promotional contract with Rolex, however.

Finally the field approaches the flag stand and gets the start. Not far into the infield course, German driver Norman Simon spins the Bob Akin entered #83 Ford R&S, and the field scrambles to get around, including a Corvette excursion into the grass. Precariously as the R&S is placed, it is a surprise no one collects him. Jon Field takes his Judd-powered Lola to an early lead, chased by James Weaver in Rob Dyson's #16 entry, that team's "lead" car. (Whichever car does not have the owner as a listed driver can be considered to be the lead car on that team.)

Bob Akin brings back memories of the eighties; IMSA's "golden" era. Along with Jim Downing, Rob Dyson, and Tom Milner, Akin was a stalwart of those races with his Porsche 962s. Maybe that is one of the reasons these prototypes have me thinking "HSR." Another reason might be the Risi Ferrari 333SP, in perhaps its last competitive outing in the United States. The old war-horse is still dominating John Mangoletsi's series in Europe, of course. Interestingly, this one, the 37th chassis constructed, has been entered by its collector owner, to get a "racing history," having never before turned wheel in anger.

Field's early lead continues to be challenged by Weaver. It seems curious to me that the Ford is faster on the tri-oval, while the Judd-powered Lola stretches its lead in the tight infield portion of the course. It that primarily an aerodynamic difference in chassis or set-up, or does the Ford have more top end power? John Field had a promising start with the Judd package at Road America last summer; Gabrielle Rafanelli won a race and was otherwise mildly competitive with the engine in an R&S in 1999. Kevin Doran ran a Judd with limited success in GARRA last year. Otherwise, a few flashes of qualifying speed are all we have seen from the Judd. I would think this engine has to produce better results this year.

Ralf Kelleners has the Ferrari in third overall, with McNish waiting in the wings on the driver list. The early racing at least, is good. That is, if you are focused solely on the up-front prototypes, as Speedvision is. My hope to follow a charge through the field of the Mosler is unfulfilled.

There are early troubles in the prototype ranks. Simon brings the #83 R&S into the pits--broken radiator bracket. We are about five minutes into the 24 hours. Jackie Stewart joins the broadcast crew. He characterizes the Rolex as "an important race." And says "I didn't fancy long distance racing, I go to bed early at night." He leaves the impression that he won't stay up late for this one either, so the talk turns to F1 (Bernie's rumored sale of his controlling interest), the Rolex commitment to Grand Am (and Jackie's long involvement with the company), and son Paul (recovering from a rare cancer).

The Tom Volk Racing Chevrolet-powered R&S is in the pits, bonnet off, with a "massive" oil leak. The Racing for Kids entry probably won't make a lot of money in pledges for laps completed--too bad. This will become the first retirement of the race.
There is discussion in the booth about "drivers who shouldn't be here." Sam Posey says, in dismissal, "That is one of the characteristics of this race." And he is right, of course.

Weaver takes the Dyson prototype into the lead ten minutes into the race, and the Ferrari is close behind him in second place five minutes later. The Judd run at the front has been a short one.

The #65 Cirtek Porsche GT3-R holds up some faster traffic, and the Racer's Group / Team Seattle Porsche blows a tire in the West Horseshoe. The SRPII pole-sitter, a Nissan-Lola of Sportscar Team Sweden (Larry Oberto is not claimed to be a Swede, I hope) comes into the pits for an unscheduled early stop. At 1:19, Ralf Kelleners takes the 333SP into the lead.

Twenty-five minutes into the race, Jon Field has the Intersport Lola back among the leaders. 12 (Ferrari), 16 (Ford R&S), and 37 (Judd-Lola) are all pretty much nose to tail when the first yellow flag flies. Friesinger’s #71 Porsche GT3 has blown a tire. Tire debris almost takes Kelleners, in the Ferrari, into the next life, as it just misses his helmet and hits the roll bar behind his right shoulder. Cars scramble for the pits, taking advantage of the caution for early stops. Timing works against the Ferrari, as he is held at pit exit for the leaders to come around, and goes down a lap. Similarly, the #3 Corvette suffers a long stop when the team has trouble with the right rear wheel. The Earnhardt car also loses a lap; the #2 sister car does not. Weaver gets a clean in-and-out for the Dyson entry, as Jack Baldwin, who does not pit during the caution, takes the lead in the #74 Robinson Racing Judd R&S.

The Gunnar Racing #76 Porsche GT1 is smoking on the course, and it goes behind the wall with an unspecified leak at 1:43. Young Gunnar Jeannette, a freshman at Central Florida University, has mononucleosis. Gunnar may again be the youngest driver at this race--he was last year, and shares the car with the oldest living racecar driver of any kind, Paul Newman. The safety car is off at 1:41, a 13 minute yellow. To fill some of the time during the caution, Sam reminisces about leading with Hans Stuck at halfway of this race in 1975 in a BMW 3.0 CSL. Sam, Hans, and Brian Redman won Sebring a few weeks later.

The Intersport Lola takes to the grass a few minutes later, while EFR challenges Balwin's Judd for the lead. On EFR the commentary is "old but bold." He is also the nice man who gave us a sincere lecture on the promise of Grand Am racing at Road America last year. Time clearly hasn't dulled Elliott's competitive edge; as a driver he seems to still be the same young man pushing a very fast Corvette GTP with partner Sarel van der Merwe in the hayday of IMSA.

The Lista Doran Crawford Judd, the year's new package for Grand Am, heads back to the paddock for a gearbox change. Although the commentary is that they have but two, it later turns out they have three. None-the-less, later in the race they will retire after the second failure, not wanting to trash a third $80,000 gearbox. Grand Am price controls or no, these prototypes still clearly hit the million dollar mark once all their bits and pieces are in place.

Grand Am's pit notes tell me that the Gunnar Porsche is hit in the rear by a Camaro, and goes behind the wall at 2:15 to replace the turbo. There is no mention of that on TV, unless I missed it. It seems strange, since the same car was reported behind the wall at 1:43. Is a Camaro really fast enough to hit a GT1 in the rear? (under a caution it is, Tom. Ed.)

Hobbs and Posey are old racers, and they of course sprinkle their commentary with talk of other old racers. The subject is Hans Stuck this time, who leads GT in the #54 Jet Motorsports M3. "Boris (Said) trusted him (Stuck) with his girlfriend on the golf course the other day--something that never would have happened a few years ago." Of course, that may have less to do with Han's age than the fact that Herr Stuck is completely head-over-heels in love with new wife Sylvia. The beautiful Austrian model has also proven that you can make the old guy quite presentable, even at the races. As my photographer, Jeannie, observed at the PLM last year, "he cleans up pretty nicely." Sure enough, there was Sylvia nearby.

Another caution flies, this time for an AGT Camaro at an hour and forty minutes into the race. For the first time we get some commentary on the non-prototype field (other than the incessant coverage of the Earnhardts). The Saleen S7 R has trouble with the left rear, a tire blow. That damages the suspension and the long stop of at least 30 minutes will likely take the team out of the running in GTS.

Dale Earnhardt passes Kyle Petty…I scramble for the remote, momentarily fearful that I have blundered into a re-run of last year's NASCAR season. The #3 Corvette gotten back to 13th overall in the hands of the senior Earnhardt, acquitting himself quite well through the traffic and suddenly now, significant rain.

A spectacular crash (and spectacular incidence of terminal brain fade) brings out the caution once again. The Sezio Florida Team’s Mader Norma (the Mader is a derivative of the BMW 4.0 liter V8 tried in prototype racing in 1998. The boys once had a discussion of "the worst race engine ever fielded" and that turkey was right in the running.) passes the #91 Cirtek GT2 Porsche turbo on the tri-oval, then inexplicably cuts him off, well before the necessary turn-in for turn one. The #15 Chamberlain Viper is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is caught in the wreckage. This in the third caution of the race, and we haven't gotten to the 2 hour mark yet.

During the caution, Paul Newman takes the wheel of the Gunnar Porsche. Barely two hours into the race, and unless their luck changes in a hurry, this will not be a long run.

At two hours, pit notes put the #2 Corvette into 7th overall, and the #54 BMW into 16th. Early as it is, that is mildly surprising--GTS and GT leaders so close to the front. Only mildly, of course, since we saw a prototype melt-down in this race last year. The Risi Ferrari 333SP leads overall at 3:00 PM. It would be nice to see a farewell victory by this car. Quite possible in this field, of course.

In hour 3, the prototypes begin to have problems. Konrad, engine problems; Akin, front end; Champion, vibration. At the end of the hour, Corvette has captured 6th overall, and the GT leader is into 15th. Four GTS cars are in the top ten. The new Mosler is suffering from "teething" problems--transmission, radiator, and is not spending much time on the track. Too bad, it is a pretty car, a heck of an improvement on its ungainly predecessors. Or are they "Mosler" problems? Finishing races has not been a strong suit in the past few years. Not since the Conseleiur won at Nelson Ledges, anyway.

Weaver, Wallace and Leitzinger are keeping Jim Dyson's #16 R&S out front for now. That at least was expected. Just into hour five, the #83 R&S is retired with an engine failure. Rain came just a couple of hours into the race and continues. I remember previous cold and wet years at Daytona, and decide I don't really miss being there. There is a good race going on in GT, and with the Marcos Mantara in GTS, too. Not that the TV camera guys care much. Someone told them to glue themselves to the prototypes, and except for wrecks and Earnhardt interviews, that is what we see. I have to admit that some level of boredom is finally setting in. OK, it does occur to me that if I were there, I could actually follow those GT battles when they are better than what is going on up at the front, and not be hostage to Speedvision's prototype-fixation. It sure isn't the same as being there. There are no sounds, no smells (and of course no rain, no cold). Of course, it is my history to get bored with these endurance races even if I am there. Round and round, it is all sort of mind-numbing. I have never really stayed up all night through a Daytona 24-hour race, Sunbank 24, Rolex 24, any of them. It seems sensible to follow what is going on until about midnight, then crash and see who is left at sunrise. Besides, as unique as night racing is, after a while seeing lights whiz by gives me a headache, though I suppose it is better now with the improved track lighting. Maybe my headache was a result of trying to memorize all those special light patterns by which the cars can be identified in the dark. I remember when Bell Motorsport put a little neon bell in the window. I followed them around one year at Sebring simply because they were easy to identify!

There are 13 cars reported "officially" out of the race. That is misleading of course, because there are far more than that "really" out of the race. Some old line about "being dead and not knowing it yet" occurs to me. This might be better if it were played by the rule used in some softball leagues--the "ten run rule." Fall that far behind, and you are done. Perhaps a "50 lap rule." This occurs to me particularly when it is mentioned that the Norma is being repaired to return to the race. That sucker was a total and didn't contribute much to this race (other than carnage, of course) when it was out there. I recall Sam's admonition, though…"a characteristic of this race."

For all the crying, one Porsche is giving the V8-powered M3 all it wants. White Lightning Racing's GT3-RS has been splitting the leader time with the BMW. Oh, and it occurs to me that drivers DO count. Look at that bunch in the class-leading Porsche: Luhr, Fitzgerald (the 2000 Porsche Cup winner), Pobst, Menzel.

Some ‘mid’ race thoughts about following the event this year. I am logged on to the internet along with watching Speedvision's coverage. Although I appreciate the flag-to-flag, and find the commentary knowledgeable and generally interesting, as the hours wear on, I am less and less satisfied with the overall quality. There are plenty of anecdotes, a number of features on history (how many times have we seen Gurney driving across the finish line on his starter motor?), but little depth. If any sporting event ever needed running graphics at the bottom or top of the screen that provides standings, it is this one. And the inability to find the "close races" going on within the race is surprising. I get the feeling that the Speedvision crew really does not know where those races are going on, so they just randomly follow cars on the track--usually prototypes. Further, Sam's quote about "a characteristic of this race" seems to have put paid to any journalism. This is an "everybody's happy" kind of coverage. Even NASCAR coverage would have savaged the "chop-down" move of the Norma that caused the early crash and caution. These guys just let it go.

Grand Am has finally caught on to internet race coverage. There are race notes, and there is "live scoring," sort of. They must have been paying some attention to the work PSCR has been doing on their site for the past two years. Still, there is much to be done with their execution. The race notes are spare, often less than a page for an entire hour of racing, far short of what we are used to getting during ALMS races. The "live" timing and scoring is something less than live…consecutive "refreshes" show no change over as much as ten minutes. And the detail in it is lacking--it does not show when cars are in the pits, for instance.

The only other timely coverage out there is TotalMotorSport.com, the 2001 successor to Sportscarworld.com. Malcolm is at the keyboard, with running commentary, much more interesting than official "race notes." Janos Wimpffen, recovering in Seattle from major surgery, is contributing comments via e-mail, and Malcolm shares the stage with the usual cast of unusual characters--curmudgeons like John Brooks and Kerry Morse, Andy Hartwell, with his "human side of the sport" bent, and for contrast, the relatively "normal" Andrew Cotton, provoked by GM.

"Fast Details" proprietor Tim Crete is there too, but as usual, the details are about fast (racing), not about being fast (in posting news). Of course, that is not a fair standard, since Tim is a one-man band, and although he also writes insightful reports, he is a really top-notch photographer. He has assured us on his site that he is there with his new Canon digital, and we know that wonderful pictures are in the offing a week or so after the race. Both those photos and his race summary will be welcome when posted following the race.

Finally, there is the PSCR forum. One has gotten used to reading the postings of the interesting, the knowledgeable, the angry, the confused, and the clearly insane. Unfortunately, technical problems there are creating a delay of hours before posts appear. That takes the "edge" off the usual give and take, and most seem to have simply given up on the forum as a place to comment on this race. There are few comments there during the course of the race.

As the race wears on toward one-third time / distance, some themes are starting to play out. First, only Dyson and Risi are seriously contending among the prototypes. Champion's Porsche-powered Lola is within a few laps, but will only inherit the lead on endurance, not speed, and smoking a while ago does not make that likely. The car was slow last year, and remains slowish this year. It is not a package that can run with the old R&S and Ferrari.

Malcolm comments around the eight hour mark that GTS cars are in fourth, fifth, and sixth--two Corvettes and one Marcos. The latter is a car that only a Brit could love. And love it they do…we agree, an underdog from the old country taking on the might of GM.

For the first time there is the specter of another disaster for the prototypes….Malcolm asks "Can the GTSs win again?" Want to know the truth? I am now hoping for just that--maybe even a GT winner. Why? I really don't like these prototypes--long in the tooth, way past retirement age. If these cars can win it strikes at the heart of sports car racing, which, to me, is all about technology. It bothers me that this showcase for sports car racing is a showcase for yesteryear. NASCAR already has that market.

It is 10:00 PM central time now, the start here was at noon. JET Motorsports' BMW trails the White Lightning Porsche by a lap sometimes, and on the same lap at others. Friesinger's Porsche is four laps down to these two.

The race continues through the next two hours in the same mode; prototypes still lead, but their grip on the front of this race grows more tenuous. Five are still in the top 10 overall, but only Dyson's leading #16 R#S, and the 333SP have anything like a real run going. Champion's Porsche is gone from among the leaders, and the others still in the "front" are 26 or more laps off the pace, and actually trail not only one of the GTS Corvettes, but two GT cars, who are all the way up in 4th and 5th overall. The thought crosses my mind at midnight--these prototypes are not up to it. On reflection that might not be fair to hard working teams and drivers, but it has little to do with effort. Results are the test of motorsport, and these guys are not getting there. Perhaps Rob Dyson will be able to maintain the pride of the class. Or maybe the Ferrari will give its owner that much-desired win that will increase the value of a collector's investment. I guess that last illustrates where we are…actually racing historics at venerable Daytona.

Kerry Morse nails it in his "Midnight Rambler." "But what are we watching? Cars that would qualify 9th and 11th overall at an ALMS race and would not be allowed to even be unloaded at La Sarthe. Unless of course, that the Riley & Scotts and solo Ferrari were in the historic parade. The question is WHY?" To me the answer is simple: Price controls suck, both in economics and in racing. With that, I decide to go to bed and see who is still around at sunrise.

Bed is the couch in front of the "dead" projection television. I don't set an alarm clock, the sun will wake me. In the event, that is not until 7:00 AM local, 8:00 AM at Daytona. On goes the Speedvision coverage, to find out what is happening.

Ah..Dyson still running at the front…Ferrari gone, with a blown head gasket at about 16 hours, I find. Corvette in the chase. Shades of the 2000 race. Sadly, the best race on the track has ended just a few minutes before sunrise, with an oil leak for the BMW. White Lightning has a shot to run home with a Porsche win in GT and along with it a very high overall finish.

I go back to the internet to catch up on the overnights happenings. Janos made a contribution at 15 hours. At that point it was not the "prototype meltdown of last year [yet?]". He observed that Corvette looked a likely GTS winner (the Marcos being gone), and that the best race was in GT. I agree, of course, but Speedvision gave the latter scant attention. Of course, they might be right...the gang on the PSCR forum has a thread going on "why prototypes are the reason I watch sports car racing." Begging the question: Why then do the same folks bother with GARRA?

I read the delightful (and accurate) comment that "AGT is at best a field filler at the shorter races….(here) the tubeframes are mere moving (and disintegrating) chicanes. But, as Sam says "it’s the characteristic of this race."

So now this is a rolling car show, since there is no race worthy of attention. Unless someone breaks, no one can overtake a lead. Oh, there are some cars within a lap or two of each other, deep in the field, but those won't get covered. Speedvision increases its coverage of the Earnhardt show (it is hard to remember that this is NOT the leading car on this team, say nothing of the class), and follows the leading Dyson machine around the track with a kind of ghoulish "will it break?" attitude. Well, that thought has me interested. Maybe another "prototype meltdown" as Janos describes it will put this bunch out of their misery once and for all. Terrible attitude I know, but I really can't help it.

Catching up on the happenings during the night from the internet sources, I find that the #01 Porsche GT1 actually got itself between the two Corvettes before dropping back again at about 4:45 AM in Florida. During the same hour the Ferrari had gone behind the wall with an overheating problem. Probably unrelated, but heat was a problem in the first years of the 333SP at Daytona. Less than an hour later it was withdrawn and started dropping down the field. Interestingly, the #16 Dyson R&S is reported to be running too cool at about the same time…120 degrees F versus 200 F normal coolant temperature. Hmmm, perhaps something there that will haunt the leader? According to GARRA Race Notes, the JET Motorsports M3 first shows signs of smoke at 6:48 AM. If I recall correctly, that is just minutes before daylight. It has always been said that the trick in this race is to last until daylight. With the earlier starting time, that is more difficult than it used to be. Too difficult for Milner's new baby, it seems.

Having caught up with the news, I look for coffee; I can't find any, so I head out for the nearby convenience store. When I come back things are as they were when I left, but not for long. Soon after, at about 9:30 Eastern time, the leading R&S blows its motor with Butch Leitzinger driving. Now I start looking even more closely at the race standings. The only prototype in the top 10 is dead on the course, and it seems clear that it will fall much further than that in the next three and one-half hours. Janos' "meltdown" is reality again. And better yet, Jim Downing's ancient Mazda Kudzu will likely inherit the prototype win, someplace in 11th or 12th overall.

Even more interesting, as we draw closer to the finish, the overall leader, Ron Fellows and company's #2 Corvette weakens, perhaps enough to give GT the overall win? No, it appears as if they will be able to baby it home. Nevertheless, what a story. Perhaps last year's prototype failure lessens it for some. I thought as I sat there watching, that it is even bigger, a pattern of futility. Prototypes that I wouldn't invest a thousand dollars or so to travel to Florida. Unless, of course I was knowingly attending an historic event. Forty-eight straight hours of futility. And only here; not at Le Mans, not at half distance at Sebring, not in my memory.

I guess I will probably do this again next year, and likely alone again. Chances of attracting the gang to this turkey after these last two are just about zero. On the other hand, a Porsche GT3RS win next year seems a real possibility…that might attract my Porsche-phile compadres. My dissatisfaction comes from this: a certainty that any one of a half dozen prototype sports cars in the world would have won this, race, and likely by more than fifty laps. The fact is that they are all unwelcome at this place and by this series. Daytona, "The World Center of Racing" has finally gone minor league. How bush is that?

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