SEBRING, Fla. (March 18, 2005) – All-time career win leader Peter Cunningham, of West Bend, Wis., dodged early carnage and managed the tires on his Acura TSX to win the SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge Touring Car opener at Sebring International Raceway, part of the 53rd Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.
Bill Auberlen, of Rolling Acres Estates, Calif., fell short of his bid to win three-consecutive Sebring events and finished second in the No. 1 Turner Motorsports/H&R Springs BMW 325i, 3.915 seconds off Cunningham’s pace. Tri-Point Motorsports’ Jeff Altenburg, of Ellicott City, Md., overcame an early mishap and forced his way back through the field to finish third.
After rain washed out Thursday’s qualifying session, Cunningham took the grid fourth in his No. 42 A-SPEC/RealTime Racing Acura TSX based on Wednesday’s practice times. The starting spot turned out to be good fortune as pole-sitter Altenburg was clipped from behind on the first lap by the No. 43 A-SPEC/RealTime Racing Acura TSX driven by Pierre Kleinubing, of Coconut Creek, Fla., going into turn one, forcing Altenburg’s Mazdaspeed/Tri-Point Motorsport Mazda 6 off the course.
With Altenburg out of the way, the lead spot switched hands virtually every lap, bouncing from Auberlen to Kleinubing to Altenburg’s Tri-Point teammate, Randy Pobst.
Pobst led most of the 18-lap race before disaster struck on lap 15 when his No. 73 Mazdaspeed/Tri-Point Motorsport Mazda 6 suddenly lost power, forcing Pobst to relinquish his nearly four-second lead over Cunningham and ending his day.
“That start was really crazy,” said Cunningham, who last drove an Acura in 2002 on his way to winning the SCCA SPEED Touring Car Drivers’ Championship. “Those guys were really fast, and I was going as fast as I could without grinding on the tires too much.
“Based on my experience, I found that the tires were happier with one heat cycle on them. We all started on ‘sticker’ tires since there was no qualifying, so, I tried to keep the car from under-steering or over-steering too much. I wasn’t sure that was working because those guys kept pulling away from me and maintaining a pretty good gap.”
Spotting his opportunity after 14 laps, Cunningham seized control of the race and never looked back, taking the checkered flag with an average speed of 92.632 mph.
“I certainly thought I was in contention for the podium,” Cunningham said. “But I was happy to find out that in the second half of the race that my car stayed underneath me pretty well, and I was able to keep pressure on the guys ahead of me.”
Auberlen stayed clean through the remainder of the season-opener as well and said that catching Cunningham wasn’t going to happen.
“Right now, we seem to be a little slow on the straights compared to the Acuras and Mazda 6s, and also on the corners,” Auberlen said. “They are very strong cars and those teams did a great job in the off-season.”
Aside from his assisted mishap on the first lap, Altenburg may have turned in the race’s best driving performance as he displayed ultimate patience and skill in overtaking car after car and finishing on the podium. His best pass may have been the last one as he overtook the No. 27 Tasker Products/Tecmark Autosport BMW 325i driven by Nic Jonsson, of Buford, Ga. on turn 17 on the race’s final lap.
“Bill [Auberlen] got in front of me and covered the line,” Altenburg said of the start. “So I was just kind of hovering around in not quite the middle of the track. I thought it was clear, so I started moving over to the left. Apparently it wasn’t clear because Pierre [Kleinubing] was there. I got turned around, and I’m sure Pierre didn’t do it intentionally.
“After I got things turned around and back on track, I got a few laps under my belt and just started passing people.”
James Clay, of Blacksburg, Va., finished fifth in the No. 36 BimmerWorld BMW 325i.
Chip Herr, of Lititz, Pa., earned the season’s first B&M Holeshot Award in the No. 18 Drew Bledsoe Foundation/STaSIS Audi A4 for passing 10 cars on the first lap. Hugh Stewart, of Massapequa, N.Y., earned the Sunoco Hard Charger Award for advancing the No. 22 Georgetown Automotive Dodge SRT-4 from a 30th starting spot to a 14th-place finish.
For his pass on turn 17 on the final lap, Altenburg earned the GS610 Harder, Longer Braking Award.
Kleinubing was in contention until a fuel map sensor failed mid-race, necessitating a pit stop. Kleinubing was able to return and finish 24, one lap down, but took the UrbanRacer.com Hot Lap for the record fastest lap of 2:21.936 (93.845 mph).
Today’s race will be broadcast Sunday, March 27 at 1:00 p.m. (EST). Round Two of the SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge Touring Car Championship comes April 1-3 at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
For more information about SPEED World Challenge and SPEED Touring Car, visit www.world-challenge.com.
Link to story: http://www.scca.com/News/News.asp?Ref=260