Segal, Balzan and Nielsen. Photo courtesy of IMSA

History all around for Nielsen, Balzan, Scuderia Corsa with GTD crown

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The biggest compliment you can pay to Christina Nielsen in the wake of becoming the first female driver to win an IMSA championship is not using that “female driver” line as the primary descriptor.

If instead, you say the 24-year-old Dane has joined the ranks of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship champions, and then note, oh yeah, and she happens to be female, then that’s a more proper way of going about it.

Nielsen, who just two years ago was a regular in IMSA’s Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama and only made selected endurance race starts for TRG-AMR in the first season of the merged IMSA series before advancing into the WeatherTech Championship full-time last year, is now one of the series’ newest champions.

And she’s done so with her full-season co-driver Alessandro Balzan, the talented and yet still underrated Italian who was back full-time with Scuderia Corsa this year after a one-year hiatus and has banked his second title in four years.

Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa, itself, adds the GT Daytona title to its banner season where the team also won the GTA title in Pirelli World Challenge with Martin Fuentes, and the GTE-AM class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Nielsen and Balzan’s third driver Jeff Segal, then its 2015 GTD champs in Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler.

Rather than list all the stats, Scuderia Corsa did the job for us via this Instagram post:

The fact the team repeated in GTD this year spoke to a lot of factors about how well the team operates, and how good of an environment they provided for Nielsen this year.

Bell and Sweedler left the team to shift to the new Lamborghini Huracán GT3, which was expected to be fast, but with a new team in O’Gara Motorsport comprised of a number of ex-Dorricott Racing personnel. That O’Gara squad lasted exactly one race and Bell and Sweedler scrambled from there to put together a program for the remainder of the year, and instead only did two more races in IMSA.

By contrast, Scuderia Corsa meshed its new parts well, as it still maintained the same core leadership group of Mattioli, technical director Roberto Amorosi, managing director Eric Bachelart and sporting director Stefan Johansson. The team upgraded from the venerable Ferrari 458 Italia GT3, which it ran at the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, to the new 488 GT3 starting at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

And with Bell and Sweedler out, Balzan was the natural replacement to come back as the full-season Gold or Platinum-rated driver, and Silver-rated Nielsen switched after two years with TRG-AMR.

The new group clicked instantly. A sixth place at the Rolex 24 with the old car was the perfect low-key, successful result to sign off the old 458, and with two one-off entries finishing ahead of them there weren’t many points hurdles to overcome from there.

Sebring was, if possible, a turning point even though it was only the second race of the year. Segal scored the debut pole for the new 488 GT3, and despite occasionally miserable conditions the three drivers were incredible all race. Balzan brought the car home to the finish and a debut win, marking Nielsen’s first at this level as well.

Further podiums in Monterey and Detroit followed before another endurance race win – this time at Watkins Glen in the six-hour – and after Bell, Sweedler and Segal had seamlessly won Le Mans in the interim. Balzan, too, ran in Scuderia Corsa’s GT Le Mans car at Long Beach and per IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam, that makes him the only driver who competed in every IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race this season – each of the four classes occasionally missed a round.

With a total of seven podiums in 11 races in the stacked GTD class, which had anywhere from 12 to 22 cars entered per race, there was no stopping the team en route to the title. Nielsen and Balzan won by 27 points over Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating, which was the largest class margin of victory within four classes.

The No. 63 won a stacked GTD field. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The No. 63 Ferrari won a stacked GTD field. Photo courtesy of IMSA

A smart strategic play to run Nielsen the opening three hours at Petit Le Mans to get her her minimum three hours drive time was enough to ensure they had the title in the bag.

It capped off a whirlwind weekend for her, with the media attention and extra coverage added to her primary focus and task at hand, which was wheeling the hell out of the No. 63 car.

“It did seem a bit long in the first couple laps… because we knew there were still two hours and 50 minutes to go!” Nielsen told NBC Sports. “But it was definitely tough battling because everyone knew I had something to lose. I was a bit more careful than normal. It was hard racing for a 10-hour race, in GTD, like many of the others.

“I always had the championship on my mind. I wanted to get this done. I had to get my drive time in. Otherwise, I couldn’t relax.”

Relax may have been said there, but this has been a crazy year spent living in Southern California and bouncing between her IMSA role with her European Le Mans Series effort as well, racing a Ferrari F458 Italia GTE car for Formula Racing.

“I’ve been traveling quite a lot actually. It’s been a busy season,” she said. “But it’s been nice. I really like the weather. It allows you to do a lot of outdoor stuff. I think it’s been a great place to network for sponsor opportunities.”

She’s been able to handle all the travel and all the racing with the help and support of her team, particularly paying tribute to Balzan.

“I’ve learned so much from him as a driver and person,” she said. “His focus and approach to racing is very professional. The key is we have a great group dynamic; they’re supportive, sweet, funny and want to bring the best out of it.”

Balzan, who’s been with Scuderia Corsa largely since the start, first really noticed Nielsen when she won a GTA class race in Pirelli World Challenge for Kevin Buckler’s TRG-AMR team on Buckler’s home soil of Sonoma – tops among 11 drivers in class in a 26-car GT field. She finished 13th overall, behind a number of factory GT drivers.

“Last year, I already had put my eyes on Christina in Sonoma,” Balzan explained. “I was coaching NGT Motorsport and the Cisneros brothers in Pirelli World Challenge. I remember she won that race… and I followed the GTA class, and it was impressive how consistent she was over one hour in Sonoma. Every lap, no mistakes; and that’s at a track where it is very easy to make mistakes! She drove a great race.”

“It was very good for us immediately in Daytona even with the 458; it was a very nice race to get to meet Christina and get going,” he added. “Once we got the 488, it was a big step. She was comfortable here right at the beginning. Last time we won in 2013, but the team has improved a lot.”

He won the 2013 Rolex GT title with Scuderia Corsa, which came as a surprise at the time considering how youthful both driver and team were within sports car racing at the time. Now though, they’ve clearly established themselves.

“What is great on this team that’s not easy to find elsewhere is we are all pushing,” Balzan said. “But if we go the wrong direction, we calm down, we use our brains, and fix the situation and understand completely the problem.”

Nielsen, additionally, has found her footing within the championship. As she’s younger and less experienced compared to many of her peers – some of which in the GTD class are essentially two full pros in a meant-to-be pro and lesser experienced driver class – she’s raced hard but fair thus far, and feels more accepted.

“I think it’s taken a bit of time to earn people’s respect, I would say,” she said. “But it’s a pleasure to race so many of the field in GTD. If you treat others nicely, they’ll do the same… and that’s how you can work within multi-class racing.

“I’ve really enjoyed racing this year. We always race to the edge. Sure, maybe there’s a bump and a grind here. It’s been really great.

“As a driver it’s great to be in position we’re in… and yes, it’s good to represent females.”

3-time NHRA champ Larry Dixon gives back to save lives on the streets

Photo courtesy Larry Dixon Racing
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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon is a man on a new mission: to save lives on the streets and highways as perhaps the fastest driving instructor in the world.

Because he’s not currently hurtling down a dragstrip at 330 mph on the NHRA national tour, Dixon is at a point where it was time for him to give back and help youngsters the way so many individuals helped him in his own life and career.

Much like when he became the protege of mentor Don “Snake” Prudhomme – first as a crew member and then as Prudhomme’s hand-picked choice to replace him when he retired as a driver – Dixon is now imparting some of his vast knowledge behind the wheel upon thousands of impressionable teens and young adults around the country.

Dixon recently signed on as an instructor with fellow former Top Fuel champ Doug Herbert’s nationally renowned B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driver safety training program. Since Herbert formed the free, non-profit program in 2008 to honor the memory of sons Jon and James, who were both killed in a tragic car crash, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students across the U.S. and five countries to be better and safer drivers.

MORE: Drag racer Doug Herbert turns son’s deaths into program that has helped over 35,000 teens

After putting two of his own teen children through Herbert’s program (with a third child to go through the program soon), Dixon was so impressed with the training that his kids received that he told his old buddy he wanted to become involved with B.R.A.K.E.S.

“I’ve known Doug since we were in high school,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “We both worked at a chain of speed shops in Southern California, Doug at one in Orange County and me at one in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys. We came up together racing Alcohol cars and Top Fuel cars kind of along the same lines. That’s how long I’ve known Doug.

Photo: Larry Dixon Racing

“I ran my son through the course a couple years ago when it came through Indianapolis (where Dixon and his family now live), and then my daughter signed up for a class a couple months ago, and that kind of got the talk going because I’m not on the (NHRA national event) tour now and I’ve got more time and the conversation just snowballed and here I am.

“I obviously believe in the deal if I ran my own kids through the system. The program is very methodical but still personal. When you put the kids in the car, you’ve got one instructor and three students, so they’re getting taught one-on-one almost.”

Even though he’s been driving for nearly 40 years, Dixon, 52, readily admits with a chuckle, “I’ve even learned things from the program already, which shows you’re never too old to learn.”

In a more serious vein, Dixon said from his perspective as both an instructor and a parent of two of the program’s graduates is how parents are so vital to the program’s impact.

“It’s mandatory that when you’re running a student through the program that at least one parent or guardian is also there, so the message you’re teaching the teens, you have to rely on the parent to not only be on the same page as what we’re teaching, but to also drive that message home for the rest of their lives.”

Dixon isn’t teaching students to drive 330 mph or to become aspiring drag racers. On the contrary. Dixon is right at home giving instructions on how students can avoid incidents or accidents on streets and highways at speeds typically between 30 and 50 mph.

“It’s more impactful as far as your legacy,” Dixon said of his motivation to teach. “Obviously, I’ve won a lot of races, but what I have to show for those wins are trophies but they’re in the basement, and if you don’t dust them, they get dusty.

“What I’m doing with B.R.A.K.E.S., you’re making a difference for people hopefully for the rest of their lives, and that’s bigger. I remember when I first got my own racing license. The first day I had my license, I was a race car driver but I wasn’t a great race car driver right away, I just had a license. It took a lot of years and a lot of runs and laps down the racetrack to be able to be good.

“It’s the same thing with a driver’s license. You go through the driver’s education course and such and they hand you your license, but that doesn’t make you a great driver. It takes a lot of road time to be able to get that experience. And the great thing about this course is you’re trying to ramp up that experience and put the teens in situations ahead of time so that when they’re in the real world, they’ll know how to react to them.

Larry Dixon is interviewed recently during his debut as a driving instructor for B.R.A.K.E.S. Photo courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

“These cars nowadays have so many safety features on them, but they don’t get taught. When you go through a basic driver’s education course, they don’t teach you that you can slam on the brakes and if you have an ABS (anti-lock) brake system, let alone how to use it, so that’s part of what we’re running the kids through. It lets them speed up and then slam on the brakes and feeling what ABS does and that a car isn’t going to spin out or flip over like you might see in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Most people don’t know what you can do with a car and how great cars will take care of you as long as they use the tools you’re supplied with.”

Dixon has already taught three different classes in the last month, with five more sessions scheduled primarily in the Midwest in the coming months. You can immediately hear the passion and self-satisfaction he’s getting from being a teacher.

“I really do enjoy it,” Dixon said. “You get to see the difference you can make in someone’s lives. When you get them on a skid course and they’re learning how to get out of a spin or slide, they’re having fun but also learning a valuable lesson.

“After they’ve taken the course, they have a bounce in their step and know and understand cars better and have a good time doing it. That’s what Doug has done, out of his tragedy, he’s really making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not trying to turn the kids into Mario Andretti or anything like that … just to be better and safer drivers.”

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