Photo courtesy of IMSA

Respective journeys for Cameron, Curran, Whelen highlight 2016 title

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In 2007, Dane Cameron was one of those can’t-miss American open-wheel racing talents who had ability in spades, but not dollars.

That same year, Eric Curran began a long and fruitful relationship with Sonny Whelen, when he drove a Whelen Engineering Corvette C6 in World Challenge GT.

And for good measure, a then-23-year-old Frenchman Simon Pagenaud was a rookie in Champ Car after winning the Formula Atlantic title a year earlier.

Their respective paths and journeys converged Saturday at Petit Le Mans, with Cameron and Curran combining to win Action Express Racing’s third consecutive Prototype championship in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, but the first for the No. 31 Whelen Corvette DP since it came under the AXR banner at the start of 2015.

Pagenaud, as the team’s third driver, helped contribute to a second championship run in three weeks, having captured the Verizon IndyCar Series title at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 18 for Team Penske.

The road to the top for all three have been tortuous. Cameron practically needed to win that year’s Star Mazda title in 2007 to keep his career going and advance into Atlantic – a series Pagenaud needed to win, and did, in 2006. Curran drove a variety of privateer Corvette efforts with Whelen, and while success was had with a number of wins and podiums along the way – many with Boris Said as a co-driver – there weren’t championships. Pagenaud’s road we’ve covered in great detail.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

In looking at Cameron first, at age 27 he has become already one of sports car racing’s most versatile drivers. But this year, seemingly for the first time, he wasn’t bouncing around different things.

Cameron entered into the sports car world primarily driving the screaming Mazda RX-8. He delivered that car’s last professional win at Mazda’s spiritual home track of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2012.

But he’s also driven Prototype Challenge cars for multiple teams, including winning the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with Genoa Racing in 2011. He drove an LMP2-spec car for Dempsey Racing, a Lola Judd.

He then moved to a Daytona Prototype in 2013 with Team Sahlen, in a Riley-BMW where he came so close to victories but was unable to tick that box. A lost win at Road America proved particularly cruel.

Once in the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Cameron has flourished as he’s won races in two categories and started races in three. He co-drove with Markus Palttala to win the 2014 GT Daytona title in Turner Motorsport’s No. 94 BMW Z4 GT3; Palttala missed a race and wasn’t able to share in the accomplishment. The same year, Cameron made his GT Le Mans class debut for Risi Competizione at Long Beach in a Ferrari F458 Italia, to enter as a rare non-factory driver in the primarily factory driver class, which speaks volumes of his talent.

With a move to Action Express Racing full-time in 2015, Cameron finally had the top-flight seat at a top-flight team his talent deserves. Combined with Curran, who was also in the best situation of his career after plugging away with Whelen years previous, the two overachieved and won multiple races – but came up just short of the title. For good measure, Cameron also won in a one-off GTD start back for Turner, ironically filling in for Palttala, at Lime Rock Park after an incredible fuel saving run.

The consistency of Cameron, Curran, the venerable Corvette DP and Action Express Racing paid dividends for “DC” this year, who for the first time in his career had the professional stability that wasn’t able to match his personal stability (he’s now married and a dad). This is a driver and past Team USA Scholarship winner whose talent has never been in question, but for whatever reason the struggle to stay in one spot for more than one year at a time was real.

“I’ve raced everything – PC, GTLM, GTD and Prototype, and won in all those levels except GTLM. So that’s a box I wouldn’t mind ticking in the future,” Cameron relayed Saturday to NBC Sports.

“It’s special to have an overall championship. And it’s neat to have one with DPs… a lot of people have made a big impact on this program.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

“For Eric and I, for me anyway, this is the first time I’ve done a program 2 years running, with no changes. So we can build on the relationships, and the co-driver partnership, and push each other on driver changes. The first year was helping Eric understand the downforce cars. But he’s done such a great job. He was fantastic in the rain last year here. And Simon and I have driven together a couple times now. He brings such a good attitude and he’s such a rocketship. I wanted him part of this program this year, so I was happy to bring him on board.”

Cameron and Curran won twice this year – back-to-back at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Road America – and Cameron noted the pair’s run to the title by three points over teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi owed more to execution and strategy than outright pace. Eight finishes of fourth or better in 10 starts, including seven podiums, were enough to do the trick.

“The P2s haven’t put the races together; our wins were almost given to us,” Cameron admitted. “I think the better teams have had DPs. The future is now and it’s a cool feeling to have the last DP championship as we look forward to the future.”

For Curran, the title was about delivering for Whelen, who has been an ardent supporter of sports car racing for more than a decade.

“Thinking back to years past, driving for Sonny Whelen where we were a few years ago to now winning a championship. It’s been unbelievable,” Curran said. “Working with Dane Cameron is so top notch. It was down to the wire today… as we entered one point ahead. We brought in our buddy Simon Pagenaud to help driving. It felt really good though, this is our time, this is our day. For Sonny Whelen and Whelen Engineering… this such a good deal for him.”

Pagenaud, the third member of the trio who raced at Daytona and Petit Le Mans, praised Cameron’s ability level.

“I’ve always loved worked with Dane. My first drive in Daytona was with him. He’s a tremendous driver,” Pagenaud said. “I’ve told so many people how good he is. Some day I could see him in an LMP1 car at Le Mans… he deserves it.”

And it’s with that tie-in we go back to Cameron, noting how like Pagenaud, he had to win earlier in his career to even have this opportunity on Saturday.

“Star Mazda was so, so important. My career hung in the balance. If I didn’t win that championship, I had no money to go anywhere else,” Cameron reflected. “I wasn’t going to move to Formula Atlantics – I couldn’t afford it! So that was the most personal pressure on me… I had to win to keep the dream of being a professional race car driver alive.

“The GTD title was a bit of a surprise after a topsy turvy year. But that cemented myself a bit more in sports cars. It was the first one I could get. I wedged my feet in pretty good.

“This completes the set nicely. After my ‘rookie year’ with Sahlen DP in GRAND-AM, we were just coming on song at the end of year. We had poles, we led laps, but wins slipped through our fingers.

“So coming back to Prototype, I had to finish what I thought was unfinished business.”

NHRA Phoenix winners: Steve Torrence, Tommy Johnson Jr., Erica Enders

Photos and videos courtesy NHRA
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Missing the season-opening race two weeks ago didn’t have much impact upon two-time defending NHRA Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence, as he roared to victory in Sunday’s finals of the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.

“First round I had a little bit of the jitters,” Torrence said after the 37th win of his Top Fuel career, including 29 since the start of the 2017 season. “We missed [the season opener in Pomona, California] so you came here and this is the first round of the first race of the season for us and I was a little bit nervous to go up there.

“We’re just going to see how the races go and what the weather throws at us. I think that we’ve always had a good hot weather tune-up. We’re just going to try to develop cool track conditions. We’re easing up to it. We’ll just see how it goes and that’s something that we really need to try to put our thumb on.”

Torrence had a final round effort of 3.679 seconds at 321.27 mph to defeat runner-up Doug Kalitta. It was Torrence’s second career win at Phoenix. Torrence and his Capco Contractors dragster got to the final round after defeating, in order, Jim Maroney, Shawn Langdon and Steve’s father, Billy Torrence [in the semifinals].

In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson Jr. [3.883 seconds at 326.40 mph] earned his 18th career win in the class in what was an all-Don Schumacher Racing final round, defeating teammate Jack Beckman, who won the season-opening race at Pomona.

“We had a good car,” said Johnson, whose last Phoenix win came back in 2006. “The last qualifying run showed us that we have a solid car. Coming up here today, we had a lot of confidence. We went out first round and laid down a solid number.

“We weren’t low (elapsed time) but we were close. We came out second round and sat low ET so we knew we had a solid car. As a driver, going into each round knowing you have a car that’s going to perform makes your job a little easier. It gives you a little less stress. The guys did a great job. Even in Pomona we a had a good car, just dropped a cylinder second round and event had a little issue with that in qualifying here.”

In Pro Stock, three-time and defending champion Erica Enders won for the 26th time of her career in the class with a 6.531-second, 210.44 mph over Bo Butner.

“I’d have to say today was excellent,” Enders said. “Our objective coming in was to just get my car as happy as possible. We tested in Tucson on Wednesday, so coming in we were definitely optimistic and finally got our act together for that one fun on Saturday.

“The guys gave me a tremendous race car today. Very consistent, very fast and we just crushed the competition today and it was really fun.”

The third race of the 24-race NHRA national event schedule are one of the biggest races of the season, the Gatornationals, March 12-15 in Gainesville, Florida.

Here are the results from Sunday’s race:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Billy Torrence; 4. Antron Brown; 5. Brittany Force; 6. Leah Pruett; 7. Shawn Langdon; 8. Justin Ashley; 9. Terry McMillen; 10. Clay Millican; 11. Scott Palmer; 12. Jim Maroney; 13. Doug Foley; 14. Terry Totten; 15. Austin Prock; 16. Shawn Reed.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 2. Jack Beckman; 3. Ron Capps; 4. John Force; 5. Tim Wilkerson; 6. Bob Tasca III; 7. Jeff Diehl; 8. Jim Campbell; 9. Paul Lee; 10. Blake Alexander; 11. Alexis DeJoria; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. J.R. Todd; 14. Robert Hight; 15. Terry Haddock; 16. Matt Hagan.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders; 2. Bo Butner; 3. Jason Line; 4. Alex Laughlin; 5. Kenny Delco; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Cristian Cuadra; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Matt Hartford; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Marty Robertson; 12. Aaron Stanfield; 13. Val Smeland; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Greg Anderson; 16. Deric Kramer.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.679 seconds, 321.27 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 4.052 seconds, 218.90 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.883, 326.40 def. Jack Beckman, Charger, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.531, 210.44 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.606, 209.33.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Doug Kalitta, 3.711, 330.07 def. Shawn Reed, Foul – Red Light; Shawn Langdon, 3.717, 321.65 def. Clay Millican, 3.750, 321.42; Justin Ashley, 3.717, 312.21 def. Scott Palmer, 3.843, 288.21; Brittany Force, 3.643, 337.92 def. Terry Totten, 8.635, 84.50; Leah Pruett, 3.654, 331.12 def. Doug Foley, 5.328, 127.81; Steve Torrence, 3.717, 325.69 def. Jim Maroney, 4.436, 190.35; Antron Brown, 3.729, 326.95 def. Terry McMillen, Foul – Red Light; Billy Torrence, 3.683, 322.73 def. Austin Prock, 9.008, 78.60; QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.721, 326.87 def. Ashley, 10.031, 78.07; S. Torrence, 4.570, 203.31 def. Langdon, 5.170, 216.72; Kalitta, 3.695, 325.69 def. Force, 3.685, 334.15; B. Torrence, 3.703, 328.78 def. Pruett, 3.688, 324.20; SEMIFINALS — S. Torrence, 3.698, 329.58 def. B. Torrence, 3.699, 329.91; Kalitta, 3.672, 330.55 def. Brown, 4.360, 183.74; FINAL — S. Torrence, 3.679, 321.27 def. Kalitta, 4.052, 218.90.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.051, 318.02 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 6.254, 109.34; Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.591, 248.16 def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 7.416, 90.63; John Force, Camaro, 3.848, 335.90 def. Terry Haddock, Ford Mustang, 7.692, 86.52; Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, No Time def. Matt Hagan, Charger, DQ-CCL; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.878, 325.85 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.898, 320.05; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.211, 318.99 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 5.172, 151.36; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.979, 286.25 def. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 6.045, 111.71; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.905, 329.02 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 6.383, 103.46; QUARTERFINALS — Beckman, 3.895, 329.42 def. Campbell, 8.959, 70.61; Force, 3.894, 332.43 def. Wilkerson, Foul – Red Light; Johnson Jr., 3.864, 323.74 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light; Capps, 4.184, 232.19 def. Diehl, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.882, 329.91 def. Force, 3.917, 326.63; Johnson Jr., 3.871, 319.98 def. Capps, 3.864, 328.06; FINAL — Johnson Jr., 3.883, 326.40 def. Beckman, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Alex Laughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.548, 209.85 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.586, 208.68; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.583, 209.46 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 15.609, 67.56; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.649, 186.28 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 30.055, 23.82; Bo Butner, Camaro, 10.108, 78.96 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.601, 208.65 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 10.724, 93.79; Cristian Cuadra, Ford Mustang, 6.633, 208.10 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 7.162, 145.93; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.532, 210.37 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mustang, 6.611, 207.91; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.535, 210.11 def. Marty Robertson, Mustang, 6.634, 206.67; QUARTERFINALS — Line, 6.581, 210.01 def. C. Cuadra, 14.134, 51.15; Butner, 6.863, 167.32 def. Delco, Foul – Red Light; Laughlin, 6.546, 210.44 def. Coughlin, 6.810, 175.34; Enders, 6.526, 211.00 def. McGaha, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Butner, 7.262, 147.44 def. Laughlin, Broke; Enders, 6.555, 210.28 def. Line, 6.582, 209.33; FINAL — Enders, 6.531, 210.44 def. Butner, 6.606, 209.33.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 212; 2. Brittany Force, 153; 3. Leah Pruett, 137; 4. Austin Prock, 131; 5. Steve Torrence, 121; 6. Justin Ashley, 108; 7. Antron Brown, 103; 8. Shawn Langdon, 91; 9. Clay Millican, 85; 10. Shawn Reed, 83.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 220; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr., 175; 3. John Force, 173; 4. Ron Capps, 128; 5. Matt Hagan, 124; 6. Tim Wilkerson, 107; 7. Robert Hight, 100; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 99; 9. Bob Tasca III, 87; 10. (tie) Paul Lee, 65; J.R. Todd, 65.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 203; 2. Jeg Coughlin, 197; 3. Jason Line, 168; 4. Kenny Delco, 132; 5. Bo Butner, 131; 6. Chris McGaha, 106; 7. Alex Laughlin, 104; 8. Matt Hartford, 85; 9. (tie) Cristian Cuadra, 82; Fernando Cuadra Jr., 82.

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