Johnny O’Connell is the closest thing Pirelli World Challenge has to a “throwback” driver, and Long Beach is the closest thing PWC has to a “throwback” race.
Because as PWC’s race, driver and series format evolve, both O’Connell and Long Beach roll on in the manner that’s different from almost everything else.
At 54 years old, the four-time PWC GT class champion (2012-2015) is anywhere from 15 to 35 years the senior of most of his competitors in the GT class. PWC used to be an older driver’s game and as more factories and manufacturers have entered in, the overall caliber of driver has gone up while the average age has gone down.
“Back in 1986, I was a young punk in my career and I had a great enthusiasm for the sport,” O’Connell said heading into Long Beach, 31 years after his first start on these streets. “I still have that drive and will to win. But now I also have that experience and it helps us a lot against the young guys who remind me of myself 30 years ago. These kids are good and I still love racing going head-to-head with these guys.”
As mentioned don’t let “Johnny Red’s” age fool you; he’s focused and determined as ever, and after turbo boost spikes found during technical inspection took a win away from him last year at Long Beach and relegated him to second, winning is the only thing on the mind for the driver of the Velocity Red No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R this weekend – even though he gained significant respect for Alvaro Parente for how he handled the awkward situation of winning after the checkered flag.
“We won the race on the track last year and the officials moved us to second after a pre-race inspection for being over boost with our turbocharged engine which was a blink of an eye,” said O’Connell, the 20-time PWC race winner of Flowery Branch, Ga. “So, I want to get back to Long Beach and rectify that win. I want another first-place trophy from Long Beach.
“The cool thing last year was that I really respect all of my competitors but Alvaro Parente, who got the win after the race, did a very awesome deal. He finished second on the track but I went to him at the next race (Barber Motorsports Park) and gave him the winning trophy. But he said to me, ‘Dude, you won that race. Please keep the trophy.’ And that showed me a lot of honor from him.”
With only one race this weekend, Long Beach is now an anomaly on the PWC calendar. It’s the only race weekend of 2017 where PWC races only once, as opposed to twice.
And Long Beach will also serve as the beginning of the end of the beginning for the 2017 season, to quote the Smashing Pumpkins. After Long Beach, PWC vaults into three consecutive SprintX weekends for GT at Virginia International Raceway end of April, then Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Lime Rock Park on back-to-back weekends in May. That will change the dynamic of the season as GT lineups go to two drivers for the 60-minute races with a mandatory pit stop.
It makes Sunday’s 50-minute, one-driver dash all the more important to end the last race of the first Sprint portion on top. The Sprint portion is off for more than two months, returning at Road America in June. Parente and Patrick Long won the two races at St. Petersburg, O’Connell having come fourth and second in those two.
Within the rest of the GT class, there’s no shortage of drivers looking to star this weekend either. Some of the intriguing story lines to watch within the 23-car GT/GTA field include:
- Parente (No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3) will look to win on the road this weekend after inheriting his first PWC victory here last year in adverse circumstances.
- Patrick Long (No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R) lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif. has won in ALMS at Long Beach before, but not in PWC. He’ll look to change that.
- O’Connell’s teammate Michael Cooper (No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R) had a toughish St. Pete weekend and looks for his first podium of the year.
- Parente’s teammate, Bryan Sellers (No. 6 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3) and Ryan Dalziel (No. 2 CRP Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3) will pull double duty this weekend between the PWC GT race and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 100-minute race Saturday afternoon.
- Alex Riberas (No. 61 R. Ferri Motorsport Ferrari 488 GT3) enters into the car that won this race in 2015 with Olivier Beretta driving, a race that was memorable for all the wrong reasons with cautions, contacts and fines the prominent story lines.
- With Honda Performance Development based in nearby Santa Clarita, Calif., the new Acura NSX GT3s of Ryan Eversley (No. 43) and Peter Kox (No. 93) seek results on the manufacturer’s home soil for RealTime Racing.
- Magnus Racing and GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing look for podium results. GAINSCO had a nightmare weekend with Jon Fogarty crashing his McLaren here last year. Now in a Porsche, this will provide Fogarty a shot at redemption.
- Santa Ana, Calif.-based GMG Racing swept the GTA races at St. Petersburg with talented youngster Alec Udell; he’ll look to add to those stats this weekend, having now been updated to GT in his No. 17 Euroworld Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R.
The race is at 10 a.m. PT and local time Sunday morning, as the last race before the Verizon IndyCar Series takes to the track for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).