Catching up with Andre Ahrle, the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association’s latest hero, is easier in the paddock than the race course. Ahrle, fresh from last weekend’s victory with co-driver Robby Unser in the “Indy Legends” Charity Pro-Am at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is entered in three races this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Vintage Grand Prix. He will drive in today’s Shelby American Automobile Club contest and then SVRA sprint races on Saturday and Sunday. A scan of Andre’s resume – which includes two GT2 victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona – drives home the point Paul Tracy made at IMS in his video interview with Robin Miller after his first practice session in Gary Moore’s Group 6 Mustang.
“These guys are as serious as a heart attack,” a flushed Tracy pronounced.
Ahrle is a good example. About that resume – Ahrle has been racing since 1992 and much of it in the professional ranks. Not only was he part of teams that picked off two GT2 wins at Daytona but he also tackled the 24 Hours of Le Mans for five consecutive years starting in 1996. His best finish there was fifth in the GT-2 class. All that time he drove Porsches. Sometimes, as in the case of the Larbre Team in 1998, his team had factory backing. That year the team finished second in class but impressively came home third overall.
Ahrle ended his professional racing career at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2002 at the wheel of the Red Bull Porsche 911 GT-3 RS. Like so many racers, he lost his primary sponsor. He also felt the need to tend to his business, Special Security Services, which he founded and remains the president and CEO. He has enjoyed tremendous success there, providing worldwide security for entertainment and sports events and working with such mega-star performers as Bruce Springsteen.
By 2008 Ahrle was itching to get back into competitive racing. He decided vintage racing was a viable option and began looking at Shelby Cobras. He acquired an original 1965 Cobra chassis and sought the services of another “Indy Legends” Pro-Am champion, Peter Klutt, to perform the restoration. The result was the beautiful and powerful Cobra he and Unser shared last weekend and is with him at Mid-Ohio today.
The car is a tribute to the original Essex Wire Shelby Cobra that is preserved in a private museum today. That car was raced between 1964 and 1974 and is known as the winningest Cobra in racing history. It scored over 50 SCCA victories with Dr. Dick Thompson, Skip Scott and Ed Lowther driving.
Ahrle owns four Shelby Cobras and is a member of the Shelby American Automobile Club, who is sharing the Mid-Ohio stage with the SVRA this weekend as they produce their 41st annual convention. The natural question for Andre, though, is: after all that time racing Porsches, why now own and race Cobras?
“I love Cobras,” he says flatly.
Ahrle re-emerged in vintage racing in 2009 and immediately enjoyed success, including one of his favorite memories, a victory at Watkins Glen in 2013. Still, he says, nothing compares to last weekend at the Brickyard Invitational.
“Winning that Pro-Am with Robby was easily my biggest moment in vintage racing,” the German-born speedster asserts. “I came to the first Brickyard Invitational with this Cobra in 2014. It was the complete opposite of last weekend. I cracked the sixth cylinder wall in my first practice session and I was done for the weekend.”
It’s not that last weekend was a piece of cake. Ahrle got one practice session in and then most of the first qualifying session. He was pressing for a better time late in the session and ended up crossing over the curbing in Turn 1. The car bounced and came down hard on the front suspension before skidding into the grass. The result was a bent front suspension.
Unser, who works with Speedway Engines of Indianapolis, called that team into action. Within four hours they had repaired the damage and hit the setup right on.
“Robby and I have very similar driving styles, so that helped a great deal,” Ahrle shares. “We decided he should run the second qualifying session to get time in the car. He only had four laps but because we like the same setup things really fell into place for us.”
The two decided to split the 40-minute race evenly. Fortunately for them, they made their driver change before the extended yellow created when Tom Bagley spun and stalled in Turn 1 and forced a pace car to bunch up the field. Robby was able to close the gap on his cousin Unser Jr.’s co-driver Klutt, who led better half the contest. When the green flag waved Robby was able to out-sprint Max Papis and Paul Tracy to the yard of bricks in the closing laps.
The experience created a bond between the two men who had never met each other before they were paired for the biggest single race on the SVRA’s 16-event weekend calendar. In the press conference after the race, Unser declared their racing collaboration “a perfect partnership.”
Not only do Ahrle and Unser expect to reprise their Pro-Am partnership next year; they are already discussing a variety of projects together. There is a possibility they will field a team for the next year’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, where Unser has racked up nine victories.
Ahrle is a bit amazed at the turn of events and he attributes it to the growth of the SVRA since 2013.
“[SVRA president] Tony Parella has all my respect,” Ahrle says. “He has developed the SVRA into a very professional organization. The Indy Legends Pro-Am is a first class event and it is creating opportunity for a lot of people.”
Indianapolis 500 champions have often said that winning that race changed their lives forever. For Ahrle, winning at the Brickyard has made him a vintage racing hero – and just might put his vintage-racing career on a new and more powerful trajectory.