Brian Vickers to attempt grueling dual road-course weekend

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Brian Vickers loves to race, any time, anywhere. He also loves to travel.

He’ll get more than his share of both this weekend, as he’s the only driver who will attempt to race in Saturday’s Nationwide Series Johnsonville Sausage 200 (no, we’re not making that name up) at Road America and then double up by competing in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

That’s 202 miles around the 4.05-mile Road America layout in the heart of Wisconsin’s Dairyland, the longest road course in NASCAR, and another 219 miles (350 kilometers, hence the name) at Sonoma’s 1.99-mile track in California’s wine country, the shortest road course in NASCAR competition.

Grand total: 421 miles of racing — barring any green-white-checker finishes that may take one or both races into overtime.

That’s the easy part.

There’s another 2,180 miles that Vickers must traverse to get from Road America to Sonoma. Let’s also not forget the 950 miles from Charlotte to Road America, and then the roughly 2,750 miles from Sonoma back to North Carolina.

Add it all up, between racing and flying and Vickers will cover approximately 6,300 miles in a race car and airplane.

Just reading that distance is enough to tire someone out, let alone go through it like Vickers will.

“I’m looking forward to both of them,” Vickers said on NASCAR’s weekly media conference call Tuesday. “It’s going to take a little different mentality and technique going from Road America which is a little bit faster place to Sonoma which is a slower, more technical road race, but I’m up for the challenge and excited.”

It will be the first time racing at Road America for Vickers, while he’s raced seven times previously at Sonoma. Not only did he win the pole there in 2009, he had his best career finish there last year, with a strong fourth-place showing.

Vickers has to be at Road America: the driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing is competing on a full-time basis and for the championship in the Nationwide Series. Sonoma is an added bonus, a track he just loves to run on. Even though Jason Bowles will qualify the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota for Vickers in California, because of the driver change Vickers will have to start Sunday’s race from the back of the pack.

“Obviously missing qualifying at Sonoma and starting last is not going to help, but there are benefits,” Vickers said. “I think there’s opportunities at Sonoma to get to do a little bit different pit strategy. Knowing that you don’t really have track position to protect kind of can create opportunities. We’ve been there in the past where we’ve had either bad qualifying or something happened during the race and we had to come in and pit or penalties on pit road, like last year we had the penalty on pit road and had to go to the back and we worked our way back up to fourth, but as much as it hurt us, it also created opportunities.”

Even though its his first time on Road America’s 14-turn serpentine track (Sonoma has only 12 turns), Vickers hopes a strong finish will help him make a significant climb back upward in the Nationwide standings. After being ranked as high as third, wrecks in his last two races have plummeted Vickers to 10th in the series.

“Obviously setting up for a track that long, you have a lot of give and take, right?” Vickers said. “You get a little bit here but you give up a little bit here when you make a change in the setup. The longer the track, the worse that is.

“I would say the hardest thing for myself and I think a lot of guys going into this weekend is that we’ve never seen it. Most of the guys have not raced there, there’s a few that have. I believe maybe Sam Hornish has run there in other cars, Max Papis and a few guys, but most guys have not, including myself, and the hardest part is going to be just learning a new four‑mile race track.”

He’ll get to practice there Friday and qualify Saturday morning before Saturday afternoon’s race. With a 5:20 pm ET start, the field will have to hustle to the finish line: Road America does not have lights.

According to NASCAR, Vickers and 13 other drivers will be first-timers at Road America. The others are A.J. Allmendinger, Alex Bowman, James Buescher, Landon Cassill, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Mike Harmon (if NASCAR allows him to race after surrendering for arrest late Monday on burglary and theft charges), Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Johnny O’Connell, Travis Pastrana, Regan Smith, Dexter Stacey and Derek White.

Not to be a Debby Downer, but for Vickers’ sake let’s hope there’s no rain delays or postponements at either place. It was just two weeks ago that Joey Logano tried to do a Saturday-Sunday twinbill, competing in a Saturday night Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway and then a Sunday afternoon matinee race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

While Logano had the best intentions, Mother Nature had other plans. The Iowa race was eventually postponed to Sunday morning due to rain, so Logano had to fly back to Pocono in the middle of the night. Ryan Blaney filled in for him at Iowa that Sunday morning, finishing ninth — very respectable given it was Blaney’s first Nationwide race of the season, and that he was thrown into it literally at the last minute.

As for Logano, the redeye flight didn’t seem to impact his Pocono performance too much: he finished 10th. Vickers can only hope for so much.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”