Pirelli World Challenge 2013 Season Review

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Perhaps 2013’s best sports car racing in North America on a race-to-race basis was the Pirelli World Challenge series, with drama usually ensuing in at least two of its four classes on a given race weekend. Seven of the nine weekends were contested alongside IndyCar events, to give fans a dash of sports car variety and provide them more bang for their buck. The series continued to make strides as it heads into 2014, its 25th anniversary season.

GT

While Johnny O’Connell secured his second straight GT class driver’s title in his Cadillac CTS-V.R, it was no cakewalk. If anything, this one required renewed focus and a bit of luck to overcome deficits at two points during the season. O’Connell was in a hole out of the gate from the first seven races, despite two wins, as failures to finish in Long Beach and Austin cost him substantial points. James Sofronas picked up three early season wins and led the points in his GMG Racing Audi R8.

But Sofronas’ car often took longer to get its tires up to optimal working temperatures; the car was always at its best near the end of the race. O’Connell’s came in quicker from the midway point, and two further wins at Lime Rock and Toronto boosted him into the points lead. The tide shifted once again though with back-to-back DNFs for O’Connell at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, and podiums for Sofronas moved him into the title lead heading into the Houston finale. There, qualifying was set by points after the track delays and weather compromised the schedule, so Sofronas had the pole. The Audi had the measure of the Cadillac in Sunday’s wet race before the conditions turned, and a seesaw battle eventually ended with O’Connell taking both the win and the title with Sofronas a very hard luck second.

O’Connell’s Cadillac teammate, Andy Pilgrim, along with the two K-PAX Racing Volvo S60s (Alex Figge, Randy Pobst) and Mike Skeen’s Corvette also won GT class races. Expect the number of winners to grow in 2014 as the GT class will feature a swath of FIA GT3-spec machinery, which was homologated for Pirelli World Challenge, and an additional outlet for gentleman drivers with the creation of the GT-A subcategory. Big things are ahead here.

GTS

If GT was good, you could argue GTS was better for the course of 2013. Jack Baldwin led the points from start to the second-to-last race in his Goldcrest Motorsports-prepared Porsche Cayman S, on the strength of three wins and 10 podium finishes in the first 13 races. But while Baldwin sought to add the GTS crown to his stacked road racing resume, younger chargers Lawson Aschenbach and Mark Wilkins had other ideas.

Aschenbach won a class-high five races heading into Houston in his Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro, while Wilkins took two wins in his Kinetic Motorsports Kia Optima. They each had a mathematical shot at the title heading into Houston and Aschenbach seized the win there as Baldwin fell far enough back to lose the points lead; Wilkins had his own shot too if the race lasted another roughly 5-10 minutes. It was a stellar effort from all three over the year.

Elsewhere in class, Andy Lee (Camaro), Dean Martin (Ford Mustang Boss 302S) and Brandon Davis (Aston Martin Vantage GT4) also won races. Defending class champ Peter Cunningham fought through a difficult season in his RealTime Acura TSX but still secured six podiums, and Ford’s top driver on the year, teenaged Alec Udell, showed promise for the future. Car counts generally ran in the mid-to-high 20s, save for Toronto.

TC

Ryan Winchester took the year’s only truly dominant class championship, with a commanding performance in the Touring Car class for Karl Thomson’s Compass360 Racing team. The Iowa native excelled as a rookie and put together a much better second season with six wins and podiums in all but one of the 14 races in his Honda Civic Si. Full season teammates Brett Sandberg (four wins) and Remo Ruscitti (none, but top rookie) were often his closest challengers.

Defending class champion Michael Cooper missed the season opener in Austin, which dented his title hopes before they even began. Still, Cooper had the measure of the field in the midseason with four wins. Jon Miller also impressed over the year with a number of exciting passing maneuvers, but luck was simply not on his side. All told TC had the lowest car counts throughout 2013 and the series is examining how to move forward with the class beyond 2014, as a new TCA class for SCCA T4 and similar machinery is set to be introduced to help cut costs.

TCB

The entry-level class grew by leaps and bounds in 2013, with car counts jumping from roughly half a dozen to often north of 20 in TCB. An incredibly tight title battle ended with Robbie Davis taking the class championship in his MINI Cooper ahead of Joel Lipperini (Honda Fit) and Ernie Francis Jr. (Mazda 2). Francis won the most races but had several points penalties over the course of the year; Davis picked his spots well and survived Lipperini’s late charge to take the title.

Tyler Palmer swept the season finale at Houston in his MINI and emerged as a potential future star from this class beyond the top three. More than 30 car and driver combinations appeared at some point during the year and always helped keep this class interesting.

IMSA: Sebring Day 2 of two-day test notebook

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Testing across several IMSA sanctioned series continued at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday as preparations continue for next month’s events during the weekend of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Below are highlights from Day 2 of testing around the 3.74-mile road course.

Eurosport Racing Continues Work with Mazda Prototype Challenge Chassis

Teams in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda championship completed their second day of testing on Tuesday. Among them, Eurosport Racing continued their work with the only Mazda Prototype Challenge (MPC) entries in the field, in the hands of drivers Dr. Tim George (in the No. 24 entry) and Jon Brownson (in the No. 34).

“Right now, I’m driving by myself so we’re trying to make the car comfortable enough to last an hour and 45 minutes with just me in the car,” George said of their preparation efforts. “We’re trying to set up the car where it’s quick, yet it and can last, both the car and for me to make sure we don’t tire out, get fatigued and make mistakes.”

The 1 hour 45 minute window that George referenced represents the race times for the 2018 season, up considerably from last year’s sprint format that featured a pair of 45-minute races across a race weekend.

Though that change represents a drastic shift in driving philosophy, it is one that George welcomes.

“The new rules for the endurance races are great, I enjoy it a lot,” said George. “It gives you a chance to think through things differently with strategy. It also gives you a chance if you blow it…in a sprint race if you make a mistake you don’t get a chance to come back.”

Florida Drivers in Continental Tire Challenge Eager for Hometown Race at Sebring

A strong contingent of drivers from Florida are represented in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, and next month’s 12 Hours of Sebring weekend will see them compete on home soil.

“I grew up in Tallahassee and I live in Orlando now, so Sebring has been my home track since day one,” said Paul Holton, driver of the No. 76 Compass Racing McLaren GT4, which finished 14th at the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve spent a lot of time down here and really enjoy the place. It’s a nice, quaint little town not far from Orlando so it’s a quick, easy drive down for me.”

Fellow Floridian Ramin Abdolvahabi, a native of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and driver of the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage, revealed that, even though Sebring is only two hours from his hometown, this week’s test was his first time at the track in two years.

“I haven’t been here for two years, so coming back is like coming home,” he said. “It’s a fantastic track and it’s one of the iconic tracks in the world so being at Sebring – a small town, my hometown, welcoming – it’s fantastic. I went on the track a couple of times yesterday and it’s just like wearing an old shoe, it just fits and it’s fantastic. Hopefully, the race will go well and the weather will hold, so anyone who’s out there, come and see us!”

Frank Raso Trades in Airplanes for Porsches at Sebring

Several IMSA drivers boast “day jobs” outside of their racing gigs. Among them, Frank Raso’s work falls outside of ordinary jobs like doctor or lawyer. Rather, Raso flies airplanes for a living.

“I’m an airline pilot for a major airline,” said Raso, who tested the No. 10 Topp Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car at Sebring. “I’ve been flying for almost 30 years, and it’s allowed me, with all my time off and things like that to do this and fall back into racing again. I messed with it a little bit when I was younger, but it was, of course, expensive, so I got away from it for a while. I decided I wanted to get back into it in kind of my last couple of years before I get too old.”

Raso explained that the skills he practices while flying planes are more than transferable to his driving duties in a Porsche GT3 Cup car.

“Flying an airliner or flying any airplane, we have checklists, but everything is kind of done in order. It’s almost in a robot fashion type of a thing where you do this, you do this, you do this and you have to make sure you hit all your marks and fly the airplane with precision.

“So, when you get in these Cup cars, with no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, and no driver assist items, you have to make sure you hit your marks, when you’re accelerating, when you’re turning in. You have to be alert. It keeps your wits about you. The car can step out at any time. They’re a very difficult car to drive, but they’re a lot of fun.”
The 54-year-old Raso posted a best finish of fourth, on four separate occasions, in a part-time schedule during the 2017 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season as a competitor in the Gold Cup class.
Newcomers Get Taste of Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge
A number of new drivers got to sample Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge cars during the two days of testing at Sebring. Among them was amateur racer Scott Welham, who got his first taste of professional racing during the two-day outing at Sebring.
And he had a strong support system backing him up in the Kelly-Moss Road and Race team, the defending Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge champions with driver Jake Eidson.
“Here, you’ve got somebody that actually does coaching, data acquisition, track management – these are all separate people – plant manager, owner, a car-setup guy, you’ve got someone that bills you – which isn’t always a good thing, but you know, you just have that huge, huge support group that enables you to focus on driving,” Welham said of the team’s influence on his development over the two days.
IMSA’s next visit to Sebring will be for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on March 17.