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Pruitt: What a trip to starting line by Jay Drew, Salt Lake Tribune

TOOELE, UTAH - Today might just be a dream come true for Sandy race car owner Steve Pruitt, but the journey to this point has been quite the opposite.

"This has become an absolute, utter nightmare," said Pruitt, who had his $600,000 Ferrari 430 GT burn to the ground in its first race this year; spent $300,000 to repair it and ship it back to Utah; and had his partner ownership group abandon him, taking his crew and his resources.

Pruitt, 58, a successful commercial real estate developer who moved to Utah in 1975, has track-and-Utah-Jazz owner Larry Miller to thank when the green flag drops on today's American Le Mans Series Utah Grand Prix, arguably the most prestigious car race in state history.

Pruitt's support team and pit crew were pulled when the company that agreed to provide support, Peterson/White Lightning Racing, abandoned him after the Ferrari was nearly destroyed in March at the Twelve Hours of Sebring race in Florida.

Miller has loaned Pruitt mechanics, tire changers and other employees from his car dealerships and the Miller Performance Center at MMP. "Team Utah," as they call themselves, has one crew member - lead mechanic David Smith of Salt Lake City's Steve Harris Imports - with experience working on a Ferrari, and less experience working in the pits, where members are expected to gas up a car, change all four tires and make other minor adjustments in about 30seconds. Pit stops in ALMS take longer than those in NASCAR races because competitors are not allowed to add fuel and change tires simultaneously, and a race car's engine must be turned off.

"It has been like pushing water uphill with a rake," Pruitt said. "But we've already built some chemistry, some aura, in the garage, knowing that we are up against it."

Pruitt's "odyssey," as he calls it, began in December when he hooked up with Las Vegas-based Petersen/White Lightning Racing, an ownership group that has raced on the ALMS circuit for years. Pruitt bought the car, and entered into an agreement - which he showed to The Salt Lake Tribune - with Peterson/White Lightning to provide support (crew, trackside services, etc.) for the 2007 series.

After the car caught fire, Pruitt shipped it to Milan, Italy, for repairs, but there were delays because government officials in Atlanta wouldn't let the car on the airplane for four days because of toxicity concerns. It landed in Frankfurt, where German officials with similar concerns held it for five days.

When the car arrived in Milan, there were more problems. Peterson/White Lightning crew members apparently had stripped the car of many of its salvageable parts, causing more delays as restoration work began.

"Then came the bombshell," Pruitt said. He received an e-mail in April from Dale White, one of Peterson/White Lightning's owners, saying the group was withdrawing its support.

"I was dumbfounded," said Pruitt, who says he signed a contract and is considering legal action.

"We just had different ideas on how things should operate," White said from the Peterson/White Lightning garage at MMP on Friday. "There are many ways to do it, and I think he is actually going to enjoy it more now that he has full control. He's the kind of person that wants to run the entire deal, similar to me."

White agreed that a contract exists, but said it is not for the entire 12-race series. "If you want to get legal about it, the contract is a race-to-race [one] and he has to give me a 30-day notice to do any race. It lists the whole series, but it says he has to give me 30 days notice to prepare the team for any race he wants to run. It was not a full commitment for a full season."

White said because Pruitt's car was tied up in Italy, he couldn't get a commitment that it would be ready for this week. After it missed ALMS races at Long Beach and Houston, he decided to sever ties.

Pruitt endured another setback when tire supplier Michelin refused to sell him tires.

"I had folded my tent and was ready to go home," Pruitt said.

After hearing about Pruitt's travails through his track personnel, that's when Miller got involved. Michelin's sister company, BF Goodrich, is the official tire supplier for the Miller Driving School at MMP. Michelin was persuaded to provide tires for just this race, which could be the final one for the No. 48 EquiWest Ferrari 430 GT, unless Pruitt finds another ownership group to hook up with.

"So now I have got this $600,000 car with $300,000 in repairs, and I only get to run it in one race," he said. "I am stuck."

The car was finally ready in Italy last Friday. It was flown to Chicago, where a hauler dispatched by Miller picked it up on Monday night. The car arrived at the track late Tuesday, and the crew wasn't able to get its hands on it until Wednesday. There were more problems during testing on Thursday because the car overheated. Crew members found that one of the hoses going to the radiator was plugged.

The car survived Friday's qualifying, however, and is ready to go.

"As it crossed the gates into [MMP] on Tuesday night, we didn't know whether to raise the checkered flag or the white flag for surrender," Pruitt said.

But this is the race that Pruitt marked on his calendar way back in December - "My 24 Hours of Le Mans," he said, referencing Europe's premier sports car event. It was one he just couldn't miss - experienced crew or not.

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