Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock), Robert Hight (Funny Car) and Antron Brown (Top Fuel) celebrate their wins at the NHRA SpringNationals on Sunday in Baytown, Texas. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

Enders-Stevens (PS), Hight (FC) and Brown (TF) capture wins in NHRA SpringNationals near Houston

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The next time a female drag racer wins an NHRA national event will be one of the most historic milestones in the sport’s more than half-century of competition.

Erica Enders-Stevens earned the 99th national event win by a female driver in NHRA history, capturing the Pro Stock division of Sunday’s finals in the O’Reilly Auto Parts SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas.

In other pro classes, Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Robert Hight (Funny Car) each won their third respective races of 2014.

Having a quicker reaction time at the start of the race, Enders-Stevens (6.594 seconds at 210.60 mph) powered to her second national event of the season, defeating 2012 NHRA Pro Stock champion Allen Johnson (6.588 seconds at 201.28 mph).

“My team’s been really awesome,” said Enders-Stevens, driver of the Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro. “I’ve had a really consistent race car. That’s what it takes Sundays, consistency. We had to make a last-second transmission change and go through the gears to make sure everything was right.”

With her eighth-career win and first-ever at Royal Purple Raceway in suburban Houston, Enders-Stevens retained her points lead in Pro Stock, the only female to lead the points in the history of that class.

She realizes there’s a lot for her to live up to, both as a female racer and the points leader.

“The ball’s in our court,” Enders-Stevens said. “We’ve got to carry the momentum. That’s important in this game, and I know I keep saying that, but it’s huge, and we’re going to keep carrying it as long as we can.

“Pro Stock really goes in cycles, so I’m really hoping this is our cycle, and we’re going to keep fighting for it.”

The loss was Johnson’s first in three final round appearances this season, having previously won at Phoenix and Gainesville (Fla.). He came into Sunday’s eliminations as the No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock for the event, and is now second to Enders-Stevens in the standings.

Hight, president of John Force Racing, made it 13 straight final round appearances in Funny Car for a JFR driver (the team includes Hight, team patriarch John Force and Force’s daughter, Courtney), including this season’s first six races and dating back to the last seven races of 2013.

In his fifth straight Funny Car final round, Hight defeated Jack Beckman, who made his first final round of 2014. Hight ran 4.055 seconds at 314.90 mph, to 4.176 seconds at 308.43 mph for Beckman, the 2012 NHRA Funny Car world champ.

Hight earned his 32nd career national event win. Royal Purple Raceway is special because it was where Hight won his first national event.

It was a big rally for Hight, who failed to make even one complete pass (in two attempts) in Friday’s first round of qualifying.

“It was like we didn’t show up on Friday,” Hight said. “It was horrible. We just totally missed it, but I never lost faith in my team. They showed confidence that we were going to get them tomorrow.

“On Saturday, we went out there and ran 4.07, 4.08, and then we went 4.07, 4.07 and 4.07 before the final. Do you know how hard it is to do that in one of these cars? There are so many variables. It’s hard to make that many consistent runs in a row.”

Hight remains the Funny Car points leader, 122 points ahead of teammate, boss and father-in-law John Force.

In Top Fuel, Brown won his 44th career national event and second race in a row this season with a run of 3.793 seconds at 317.72 mph over Al-Anabi Racing driver Khalid alBalooshi.

Brown won two weeks ago at Charlotte, beating alBalooshi’s teammate, defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon.

“We have a lot of respect for the Al-Anabi guys,” said Brown, who moved to the top of the Top Fuel standings, leading Doug Kalitta by 37 points. “You have to beat them to contend for the championship because it goes through them.

“We get up for that challenge whenever we race them. Any time we beat them, it’s like hitting the jackpot. There are a lot of good teams out here, and we don’t take anybody lightly.”

Brown has been the most consistent driver in Top Fuel since the latter part of last season. He has reached seven of the last 10 finals, winning five of them.

Of special note Sunday, former three-time Top Fuel world champ Larry Dixon made his first start in nearly a year and finished 16th, while former four-time Pro Stock champ Greg Anderson, who missed the first five races recovering from heart surgery, finished 14th.

The next NHRA national event is May 16-18 at the Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Ga.

 

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Here’s a complete statistical package of Sunday’s final eliminations in the 27th annual O’Reilly NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas:

 

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown; 2.  Khalid alBalooshi; 3.  Shawn Langdon; 4.  Steve Torrence; 5.  Doug Kalitta; 6.  Spencer Massey; 7.  Leah Pritchett; 8.  Brittany Force; 9.  Bob Vandergriff; 10.  Richie Crampton; 11.  Tony Schumacher; 12.  Terry McMillen; 13.  Clay Millican; 14.  Troy Buff; 15.  J.R. Todd; 16.  Larry Dixon.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Robert Hight; 2.  Jack Beckman; 3.  Del Worsham; 4.  Ron Capps; 5.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6.  Alexis DeJoria; 7.  Cruz Pedregon; 8.  Chad Head; 9.  Courtney Force; 10.  Matt Hagan; 11.  Tony Pedregon; 12.  Jeff Arend; 13.  Tim Wilkerson; 14.  Terry Haddock; 15.  John Force; 16.  Bob Tasca III.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Erica Enders-Stevens; 2.  Allen Johnson; 3.  Jeg Coughlin; 4.  Vincent Nobile; 5.  Jason Line; 6.  Jonathan Gray; 7.  Dave Connolly; 8.  Shane Gray; 9.  Chris McGaha; 10.  Larry Morgan; 11.  Rodger Brogdon; 12.  V. Gaines; 13.  Steve Kent; 14.  Greg Anderson; 15.  Greg Stanfield; 16.  Matt Hartford.

 

FINAL ROUND RESULTS:

Top Fuel — Antron Brown, 3.793 seconds, 317.72 mph  def. Khalid alBalooshi, 4.433 seconds, 184.67 mph.

Funny Car — Robert Hight, Ford Mustang, 4.055, 314.90  def. Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.176, 308.43.

Pro Stock — Erica Enders-Stevens, Chevy Camaro, 6.594, 210.60  def. Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 6.588, 210.28.

Top Alcohol Dragster — Randy Meyer, 6.478, 259.26  def. Mark Taliaferro, 19.835, 34.27.

Top Alcohol Funny Car — Shane Westerfield, Chevy Monte Carlo, 6.311, 254.23  def. Annie Whiteley, Ford Mustang, 11.004, 76.93.

Pro Modified — Mike Janis, Chevy Camaro, 5.927, 244.56  def. Mike Castellana, Camaro, foul.

Competition Eliminator — Clark Smiley, Pontiac GXP, 7.326, 181.57  def. Alan Ellis, ’23-T Ford, 9.806, 101.53.

Super Stock — Dale Hulquist, Pontiac Grand Am, 10.419, 128.62  def. Larry Stewart, Dodge Challenger, 9.872, 125.25.

Stock Eliminator — Jacob Pitt, Plymouth Barracuda, 10.598, 122.03  def. Brett Candies, Ford Mustang, 9.059, 147.44.

Super Comp — Austin Williams, Dragster, 8.928, 167.72  def. Brandon Mouton, Dragster, 8.913, 166.99.

Super Gas — Steven Collier, Chevy Vega, 9.917, 158.87  def. Rustin Mayse, Chevy Corvette, 9.928, 150.38.

Top Dragster — Allen Constantine, Dragster, 6.308, 226.01  def. Wade Pennington, Dragster, 6.202, 208.04.

Top Fuel Harley — Tommy Grimes, Harley, 6.247, 232.91  def. Jay Turner, Harley, 6.349, 230.69.

 

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Brittany Force, 3.787, 327.82 def. Richie Crampton, 3.813, 323.74; Doug Kalitta, 3.779, 326.48 def. Bob Vandergriff, 3.810, 321.88; Khalid alBalooshi, 3.802, 321.19 def. Tony Schumacher, 3.838, 313.80; Steve Torrence, 3.776, 328.86 def. Terry McMillen, 3.866, 321.81; Antron Brown, 3.843, 318.47 def. Clay Millican, 3.899, 305.91; Shawn Langdon, 7.140, 93.10 def. Troy Buff, foul; Leah Pritchett, 3.813, 313.22 def. J.R. Todd, 5.867, 116.08; Spencer Massey, 3.990, 270.81 def. Larry Dixon, 12.967, 36.10;

QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.778, 322.11 def. Massey, 3.839, 318.32; alBalooshi, 3.950, 312.50 def. Pritchett, 4.010, 288.64; Langdon, 3.804, 325.14 def. Kalitta, 3.799, 324.28; Torrence, 5.363, 154.46 def. Force, 11.827, 46.49;

SEMIFINALS — alBalooshi, 3.846, 315.42 def. Torrence, 9.959, 81.18; Brown, 3.801, 321.58 def. Langdon, 3.863, 320.66;

FINAL — Brown, 3.793, 317.72 def. alBalooshi, 4.433, 184.67.

 

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Ford Mustang, 4.074, 313.29 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 12.008, 63.19; Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 4.114, 310.20 def. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.263, 292.65; Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.106, 308.07 def. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.113, 299.80; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.143, 300.60 def. Terry Haddock, Chevy Impala, 5.140, 151.12; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.114, 310.27 def. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.148, 276.29; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.073, 311.41 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.132, 305.01; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 6.234, 123.66 def. John Force, Mustang, foul; Chad Head, Camry, 4.110, 293.41 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 5.099, 150.18;

QUARTERFINALS — Beckman, 4.116, 308.43 def. C. Pedregon, 5.382, 140.39; Capps, 4.177, 294.75 def. Johnson Jr., 4.920, 167.30; Hight, 4.076, 313.07 def. DeJoria, 5.221, 155.54; Worsham, 4.368, 242.54 def. Head, 6.968, 91.61;

SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 4.485, 288.39 def. Capps, 9.490, 75.57; Hight, 4.071, 309.20 def. Worsham, 4.201, 287.29;

FINAL — Hight, 4.055, 314.90 def. Beckman, 4.176, 308.43.

 

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Jonathan Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.645, 209.82 def. V. Gaines, Dodge Avenger, 6.642, 211.06; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.626, 209.69 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.611, 210.60; Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.609, 210.08 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.670, 209.36; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.618, 209.82 def. Larry Morgan, Ford Mustang, foul; Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.627, 209.85 def. Steve Kent, Camaro, foul; Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.614, 210.08 def. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.640, 208.88; Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.581, 211.06 def. Greg Stanfield, Camaro, 6.692, 206.92; Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.578, 211.26 def. Matt Hartford, Avenger, 6.695, 207.78;

QUARTERFINALS — Nobile, 6.722, 209.20 def. S. Gray, 15.159, 55.97; Coughlin, 6.598, 210.24 def. Connolly, 6.659, 209.04; Johnson, 6.587, 211.13 def. J. Gray, 6.649, 209.20; Enders-Stevens, 6.577, 211.26 def. Line, 6.639, 209.75;

SEMIFINALS — Johnson, 6.585, 210.47 def. Nobile, 6.639, 210.01; Enders-Stevens, 6.584, 211.26 def. Coughlin, foul;

FINAL — Enders-Stevens, 6.594, 210.60 def. Johnson, 6.588, 210.28.

 

POINTS STANDINGS:

Top Fuel: 1.  Antron Brown, 580; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 543; 3.  Steve Torrence, 428; 4.  Shawn Langdon, 408; 5.  Khalid alBalooshi, 381; 6.  Tony Schumacher, 353; 7.  Spencer Massey, 342; 8.  Brittany Force, 300; 9.  Richie Crampton, 224; 10.  J.R. Todd, 220.

Funny Car: 1.  Robert Hight, 609; 2.  John Force, 487; 3.  Alexis DeJoria, 431; 4.  Del Worsham, 361; 5.  Ron Capps, 356; 6.  Jack Beckman, 336; 7.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 323; 8.  Matt Hagan, 289; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 277; 10.  Courtney Force, 275.

Pro Stock: 1.  Erica Enders-Stevens, 554; 2.  Allen Johnson, 477; 3.  Jason Line, 437; 4.  Vincent Nobile, 414; 5.  Shane Gray, 390; 6.  Dave Connolly, 366; 7.  Jeg Coughlin, 344; 8.  V. Gaines, 340; 9.  Chris McGaha, 290; 10.  Jimmy Alund, 282.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: Kenton Koch goes for another title after a balancing act year

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Koch with Jim Swintal after his title print last year. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – The driver who once compared himself to “Gumby” can wiggle his way into a fifth consecutive championship in sports car racing at this weekend’s Petit Le Mans.

If Justin Wilson was considered IndyCar’s “gentle giant,” then Kenton Koch is well on his way to being sports car racing’s version of the man who balances his lanky frame, incredible talent and even more incredible humility, all at the tender age of 22.

Most drivers who would be in Koch’s situation this year would have struggled to comprehend why they aren’t in a full-time ride.

Instead Koch, to his credit, did not let it get him down publicly and has maximized his limited opportunities throughout the 2016 season.

“It’s definitely difficult being in the position I’m in, but, I also have to be so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” Koch told NBC Sports. “I’m here driving a racecar, and I get to try to have other opportunities like this for a full ride next year.

“Brent (O’Neill, Performance Tech Motorsports team principal) helped me a lot on this. It’s cool to have someone like this in your corner. They just got the ‘Extreme Spirit’ award; he’s a super good dude, and they worked hard to get me in the car.”

He looks to complete the quintet of titles after driving for two different teams this year, JDC/Miller Motorsports and Performance Tech Motorsports, in the Prototype Challenge class as he goes for a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup crown.

In 2013, Koch firmly “arrived” on the sports car scene after making selected Mazda MX-5 Cup starts in 2012 and winning the Mazdaspeed Challenge class. He won the Skip Barber/Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge class that year, and for good measure, added an overall win in the rain at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park while in the class.

A year later in 2014, Koch advanced into the primary class of MX-5 Cup with Alara Racing and edged the driver who he’d lost the Mazda club racing shootout to in 2012, Patrick Gallagher, for the overall title.

In IMSA’s Mazda Prototype Lites presented by Cooper Tires (then called Cooper Tires Prototype Lites presented by Mazda) in 2015, Koch controlled the season with 11 wins in 14 races en route to his fourth straight title.

Koch seemed a natural, then, to follow in the footsteps of Tristan Nunez, Sean Rayhall and Misha Goikhberg as a full-time Prototype Challenge driver in 2016. Instead, Koch was only confirmed for the opening two races in PC with JDC/Miller Motorsports as a third driver alongside Goikhberg and talented South African teammate Stephen Simpson.

Koch was immediately on pace and despite an incident at the Bus Stop at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, was trusted enough with the car to bring it home to the finish in his race, series and class debut.

It was mission accomplished, and his win was one of the most emotional of 2016. It came just more than a year after in 2015 his mom, Karen, had undergone a heart transplant and was on site to witness the achievement. His dad, Chris and girlfriend Dani have also provided support at nearly every race along the way, as well.

Koch’s two IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship starts since ended fourth with JDC/Miller at the waterlogged Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and then second for Performance Tech with Kyle Marcelli and James French at Watkins Glen International in the team’s No. 38 Oreca FLM09.

Koch leads the PC points standings, 34-32 over the PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports trio, heading into the fourth and final round of the Patron Endurance Cup. If he can secure the title, he’ll follow in the footsteps of Cameron Lawrence and Al Carter, who were last year’s GT Daytona Patron Endurance Cup champs while doing an endurance-only schedule.

All the while, Cal State Fullerton business student Koch has maintained a presence at the track in the races he’s not driving, doing a mix of either testing the new Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car, driver coaching, or providing color commentary for the Mazda MX-5 Cup races with IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

“The Mazda ladder system has helped me in that, there are other things than just trying to go fast in a race car,” Koch explained. “There’s a lot more involved than meets the eye from an outsider perspective. Being a part of that has helped me see things from a different perspective.”

Koch accurately predicted who’d emerge victorious in MX-5’s crazy photo finish at VIRginia International Raceway in the form of Nathanial Sparks, even though Sparks wasn’t leading out of the last turn.

“It’s just what happened in the corner before. ‘Sparky’ was there sitting pretty. There it was! I was like oh, ‘He’s gonna do it!’”

Few drivers pack his combination of pace, poise, maturity and humility at once.

And to be able to be on the verge of a title while driving for two different teams, with two different sets of teammates and setups, speaks to a true talent who’s as adaptable and bendable as his 6’4” frame.

Shank signs off its prototype run with 250th start

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JANUARY 29:  The Drivers of the #60 DP Michael Shank Racing Ford Riley celebrate in Victory lane after winning the  Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on January 29, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)
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BRASELTON, Ga. – For more than a decade, Michael Shank Racing has been part of the fabric in the prototype ranks – either with a Daytona Prototype or, for the last two years, an LMP2-spec Ligier JS P2 Honda.

Both cars have been huge for Shank’s business, with the racing “lifer” noting how much his life has changed for the better in sports car racing since joining the Jim France-owned GRAND-AM Rolex Series after coming from a primarily open-wheel background.

Long a DP fan, Shank needed a switch for the business – and for his primary customer John Pew – when Pew and longtime co-driver Ozz Negri saddled up in the Ligier Honda starting with the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 16: The Michael Shank Racing Ligier of Laurens Vanthoor, John Pew and Oswaldi Negri drives during qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 16, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
Shank’s Ligier JS P2 Honda at Le Mans. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

This would lay the groundwork for a potential bow at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, achieved this year, as the small-market American team from outside Columbus then made it to the world’s grandest sports car stage. Finishing 14th overall and ninth in the 23-car LMP2 class was a significantly impressive achievement.

Now, the prototype era for Shank meets its end, as part of a number of “eras” ending this weekend at Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

The team makes its 250th prototype start this weekend – full details can be found amidst this smorgasbord of information in the team’s pre-race advance – as Pew makes his final scheduled professional start along with Negri and Olivier Pla.

There’s been several highlights, including the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona – the 50th anniversary Rolex 24 – when Negri, Pew, AJ Allmendinger and the late Justin Wilson won the race in a Riley-Ford DP.

“Looking back on our time in prototypes, it’s hard to even begin. We finished fourth in our very first race – the Rolex 24 – and in the next race Ozz joined us and we were on the podium. We had a few podiums that year with that car and that’s what kind of all kicked things off for us,” Shank said.

“Lot of memories with this team from the very beginning, with Ozz (Negri) and Ian James and Mark Patterson,” Pew added. “Big DP fields, two-car team, it was a lot of fun. As the series changed over time, we kind of changed with it. It’s all been really good.

“I’ve really grown to love these guys at Michael Shank Racing. They’re great guys and when the going gets tough, they just work hard with a smile on their faces. It was a real honor to go with them and take them along to Le Mans. We’ve had some fantastic times including when we won the Rolex 24 with AJ (Allmendinger), Justin (Wilson), and Ozz (Negri). I drove with some great guys and met some great people.”

Next year, Shank moves ahead with the Acura NSX GT3 program in the GT Daytona class.

The two-car effort is expected to feature some additional announcements about that program as early as next week.

Button reflects on ‘great ride’ ahead of 300th Formula 1 start in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 29: Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda in the Drivers Press Conference during previews for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 29, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Jenson Button conceded on Thursday that he never expected his Formula 1 career to last so long ahead of his 300th grand prix start in Malaysia this weekend.

Button made his F1 debut back in 2000 with Williams, making him the most experienced active driver in F1.

Former Honda and Brawn teammate Rubens Barrichello holds the record for the most F1 starts at 326, while Michael Schumacher sits second in the all-time list on 306.

Button will move onto 300 this weekend in Malaysia, before finishing up on 305 at the end of the season before taking a sabbatical from F1 in 2017.

“It means I have been around for a hell of a long time,” Button said when asked about his 300th start.

“I remember when Rubens got to 300 – it was unbelievable that he’d reached 300 grands prix. I was like, ‘I’m never going to race for that long’.

“When I started in 2000 I remember speaking to my dad and he said: ‘How long do you think you’re going to race for?’ and I said: ‘I’ll be done by the time I’m 30 years old.’ And here I am at 36 and this weekend I’m starting my 300th grand prix.

“It definitely sucks you in, Formula 1. It doesn’t let go for a long time, as long as you are performing. So it’s been a great ride to 300.

“Lots of ups and downs, as every career will have, and the important thing is that you stay on top of those bad times and you enjoy the good times as much as you can, because you never know how long they are going to last.

“A very exciting career to this point, 300 races, and if any of these guys can achieve it around me, fair play to them, because it’s a long time doing the same thing.”

Panoz’s racing legacy honored as DeltaWing set to run one more race

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Scott Atherton and Don Panoz. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – The man who helped save professional sports car racing in North America, Dr. Don Panoz, then shook it up in an even bigger way in 2012.

The DeltaWing was born of a desire to create a car with half the weight, half the horsepower and half the fuel load, but still be ridiculously efficient in terms of aerodynamics and downforce.

It would premiere to massive media attention and critical acclaim at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans as a Garage 56 entrant, and Panoz’s vision was achieved with the help of a number of key partners. Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, Ben Bowlby, Michelin, Nissan and Highcroft Racing were the five entities most frequently connected with the car when it ran as the experimental entry at both that year’s Le Mans and then Petit Le Mans in the fall.

It nearly died on the vine as a project, however, after taking that checkered flag at Road Atlanta in an incredible fifth place overall, having made fewer pit stops than the competition, and thus proving its point.

A tortuous road followed as the difference in future direction was revealed between Panoz and the partners, and throughout the winter there was a question if the DeltaWing would live on.

Indeed it did, as nearly an entirely new team was born over that winter.

There was new tires in the form of Bridgestone – adopted from the molds made when the DeltaWing was an IndyCar idea, then rejected by that series’ “ICONIC committee” in 2010 when discussing ideas for a new car. The engine was the 4-cylinder Élan turbo, based off an MZR-R block but with almost no Mazda content in it.

There was a new crew, with staff taken from some other Atlanta-region teams, and veteran team manager David Price brought back for another tour of duty in Braselton. The livery changed; it went from sinister black to chrome and red, and the driver lineup changed once more as well. The team even took a flier on a PR rep that had exactly one race experience in that department… and to this day I don’t know why Dr. P thought I was the right person for the job, but I’m eternally grateful he did. Even if it was only a two-race stint.

The DeltaWing didn’t fit, but then again, that was the point. The car ran in the American Le Mans Series’ LMP1 class in 2013 even though it wasn’t homologated for anything, but it was better than LMP2, where it ran closer on lap times to at Le Mans the previous year.

The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The four years since have proven that while the DeltaWing may not have had the outright pace to contend on an every-week basis, it’s had that spirit of innovation that has fueled Panoz throughout his motorsports career, and it’s had a fan following that’s been fervent at nearly every race it runs. It’s polarizing, which is probably its best asset.

Panoz’s 20 years in motorsports since the late 1990s have featured a run of abnormal cars, from the first hybrid dubbed “Sparky,” the stealthy GTR-1, the Panoz LMP1 Roadster with the engine in front, the successful but still off-beat Esperante GT2 (which won Le Mans 10 years ago), to the stillborn, unclassified Abruzzi that disappeared after just two starts. And for good measure, he founded the American Le Mans Series on its own in 1999… after only several months of planning and preparation.

But the DeltaWing has lived on for four years, scoring a number of podiums and leading a number of laps along the way. More importantly, as a true prototype, it may be the last of its era as regulations further define sports car racing and outside-the-box creations rarely last.

The failed Nissan LMP1 experiment of 2015 – despite its crews’ best efforts – shows just how difficult it is to make something completely new “go.”

Andy Meyrick and Katherine Legge have served as the primary drivers for the DeltaWing since its 2013 evolution away from the original drivers and crew. Legge has been full-time since her debut at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, which was a race the pair and car podiumed for the first time. Meyrick started a race earlier, at the season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and ran full-time in 2013 and 2014 while running the endurance races last year and this year.

Memo Rojas (2015) and Sean Rayhall (2016) have been the other full-season drivers, and the list of other drivers who’ve driven it, or were scheduled to, is listed below.

Satoshi Motoyama’s exploits to try to fix the car at Le Mans in 2012 after it broke made him a cult hero, and the team’s rebuild following an accident in practice with a GT Cup car at the 2012 Petit Le Mans was also a memorable moment from that first year.

  • Marino Franchitti (2012 24 Hours of Le Mans)
  • Satoshi Motoyama (2012 24 Hours of Le Mans)
  • Michael Krumm (2012 24 Hours of Le Mans)
  • Gunnar Jeannette (2012 Petit Le Mans)
  • Lucas Ordonez (2012 Petit Le Mans)
  • Johnny O’Connell (2012 and 2013, both spyder iterations, testing only)
  • Olivier Pla (2013 12 Hours of Sebring)
  • Alexander Rossi (2014 24 Hours of Daytona)
  • Gabby Chaves (2014, 2015, 2016 endurance races)
  • Andreas Wirth (2016 24 Hours of Daytona)

At an event Wednesday night at the Panoz Museum, Panoz admitted that the last thing he’s doing is slowing down.

He just launched a new street car – the Panoz Esperante Avezzano, or Avezzano for short – which has a special connection for Panoz.

Panoz’s grandfather’s wife was killed in the 1915 Avezzano earthquake, which killed more than 30,000 people. A new woman that met Panoz’s grandfather to take care of the two children at the time got married to his grandfather, and the rest, as they say, is history. Because that’s Panoz’s grandmother.

“Without that earthquake… without that woman to take care of the kids, I would not be here, you would not be here, and the Panoz name would not be here,” Dr. P said last night.

And, true to form, Panoz had another surprise up his sleeve.

A surprise announcement occurred Wednesday night when Panoz caught many in the room off guard by announcing the DeltaWing will run at the Rolex 24 at Daytona next year.

The car doesn’t comply with the upcoming 2017 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) regulations, but that hasn’t stopped the car before, and its outright speed at Daytona has been on display early each of the last two years before retirements.

It makes that race a one-race extra signoff, for the visionary who continues to amaze depending on the day or situation.