Pirelli World Challenge primer: Austin

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For the first time in 2013, all four classes of the Pirelli World Challenge will be in action at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. The GT and GTS classes race twice, with the TC and TCB classes racing three times over the course of the May 17-19 weekend. Live streaming is available at www.world-challengetv.com for all races, with TV coverage on the NBC Sports Network on Sunday, June 16, at 5 p.m. ET.

The full entry list is linked here, and here’s a few storylines to follow going into the weekend:

GT: SOFRONAS SEEKS A HAT TRICK

James Sofronas in the GMG Audi R8 LMS has won the last two races in St. Pete and Long Beach, albeit more by good luck than outright pace. A host of challengers though from Cadillac, Volvo, Nissan, Mercedes and Porsche will be nipping at their heels in the 19-car class. One driver switches teams as Tomy Drissi, who drove an LG Motorsports Corvette the first two weekends of the year, enters the GTSport with Goldcrest team with a Porsche GT3 Cup car. Mike Hedlund also makes his first start of the year in another GMG Audi.

GTS: WIDE OPEN AFTER LONG BEACH

Lawson Aschenbach’s Long Beach win for Blackdog Speed Shop in its Camaro validated the team’s switch from GT. Jack Baldwin leads the points thus far in his GTSport with Goldcrest Porsche Cayman after a sweep in St. Pete. The two 2012 title protagonists (Peter Cunningham, RealTime Acura TSX and Andy Lee, Best IT Camaro) have yet to get on the scoreboard and will no doubt be keen to do so in Austin. Kia and Ford, as well, could show strongly this weekend with some of their entries. Series President/CEO Scott Bove, in a BMW E46 M3, is also among the 30 cars entered.

TC: LIKELY MAZDA VS. HONDA AGAIN

Rookie Michael Cooper took a MAZDASPEED 3 to the TC class title a year ago ahead of a host of Compass360 Honda Civics Sis. Although Cooper isn’t in the field again, Mazdas (with two MX-5s and and RX-8) and Hondas (five Civic Sis) are likely to battle for the win in the 16-car class. Mazda took a win with a Continental Tire Challenge-spec MX-5 for C.J. Wilson Racing at Austin in March. Ryan Winchester (third in 2012, Compass360) is the highest returning driver in points.

TCB: HUGE GRID INCREASE FOR YEAR TWO

The Touring Car B-Spec grid grew from barely more a half dozen entries to 21 for Austin. Cars entered include the Mazda2, Mini Cooper, Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, and Honda Fit. Former SCCA Runoffs champion Joel Lipperini, Shea Holbrook, fourth in TC in 2012, and 15-year-old Ernie Francis Jr. are among the notable driver names entered in this class.

Al Unser Jr. back in IndyCar after a decade away: ‘Life is very good’

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There’s been somewhat of a hole in Al Unser Jr.’s heart ever since he retired from racing in 2007.

It was a void, something was missing.

But now, after a decade away from racing, Unser has found the right medicine to fill that hole in his heart: he’s back in the racing game again.

No, he’s not driving again (although he does participate occasionally in vintage races), but the two-time Indianapolis 500 (1992 and 1994) winner is definitely back in the IndyCar world.

And he couldn’t be happier.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “Since I stepped out of the race car and retired from racing, there’s been something missing from my life, and it’s racing.”

Unser has hooked up with Harding Racing. The team competed in three races last season as a ramp-up for a full 17-race effort this season. While Unser’s official title with the team is “consultant,” he’s involved in so much more.

His main role is as a driving coach to 2015 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Gabby Chaves. But he’s also involved in so many other areas, including helping the team obtain sponsorships and much more.

He then added, “I’m involved in every sense of the word except actually driving the car. And I’m happy about that because I’m too old to drive the car.”

Unser, who won CART championships in 1990 and 1994, is now 55. He’s so involved with his new job that he even moved from his native New Mexico and has relocated to suburban Indianapolis.

Not only is it a new start for Unser, it also is for Chaves. After running all 16 races in 2015 for Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, he competed in just seven races for Dale Coyne Racing in 2016 and only three races for Harding Racing last season.

But he definitely impressed the team, with a fifth- (Texas) and ninth-place (Indianapolis 500) finish in the first two races and 15th (Pocono) in the team’s final run of the season.

That’s why when Harding Racing decided to go fulltime in 2018, Chaves was their pick for behind the wheel. And Unser was their pick to help guide him to potential stardom in the series.

“(Team owner) Mike Harding is definitely a person that when he decides to do something, he does it right,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “The potential for this organization is through the sky. We’re all working really hard here and we see the potential.”

And as for Unser?

“Life is good, life is very good,” he told IndyCar.com. “We’re back full force, eager and better than ever.”

Click here for the full story about Unser from IndyCar.com.