SEBRING, Fla. (March 20, 2009) – Tony Rivera, of Missouri City, Texas, became the first SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge GT driver to win in his series debut in five years, taking the Toyo Tires Season Opener at Sebring International Raceway, part of the 57th Annual Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Presented by Fresh From Florida. Eric Curran, of East Hampton, Mass., and Brandon Davis, of Huntington Beach, Calif., completed the top three.
Starting third in the No. 97 Tax Masters/Mirage Group Porsche 911 GT3, Rivera moved to second behind polesitter Dino Crescentini’s No. 4 Stoptech/GMG Porsche 911 GT3 on the standing start. By the end of the first lap, second-starting Curran was back to second in his No. 30 Whelen Engineering Chevrolet Corvette. The trio ran in that order until Curran made his move on Crescentini in Tune One on lap four. Rivera followed suit a lap later around the outside of Crescentini in Turn 15 with Davis putting his No. 10 Applied Computer Solutions/Sun Microsystems Ford Mustang into third two corners later.
Curran’s lead ranged from one car length to as much as two seconds over the next dozen laps, with Rivera closing in to within 0.8-second when a lap-14 caution came out to retrieve debris in Turn Seven.
For the first time in series’ history, the new double-file restart was implemented on lap 16, with Rivera and Curran drag-racing side-by-side into Turn One. Rivera kept his orange Porsche on the outside and as the pair exited the high-speed corner, he edged ahead of the Corvette in the run to Turn Three. The move earned Rivera the AutoWeek Move of the Race.
“I think the reason I got by Eric on the restart was because he stayed on the rev limiter too long,” Rivera said. “I was able to get just enough to be alongside of him at turn in. It was nice to be able to run alongside people. One of the series I ran in last year, you got alongside people and they’d just drive right into you. I went side-by-side with Brandon [Davis] on the start. I did the same thing with Eric [Curran] on the restart. I was out there holding on, trusting that he wouldn’t plow into my door.”
From there, Rivera slowly pulled out an advantage to the checkered flag of the 20-lap, 74-mile contest, beating Curran to the finish line by 2.049 seconds, averaging 93.488 mph. Rivera also set the race’s fastest lap while in second place, a 2:11.589 (101.224 mph).
“I haven’t done standing starts before except in my old SCCA ProSolo days,” Rivera added. “I’m really tired right now and it’s probably because of all the adrenalin I had in my left foot at the start.
“We did a lot of testing in the off season, putting this team together. We had really high hopes in the beginning of this week. But, we’re a new team and we were trying new things and we ended up fighting the car all week. I was thinking ‘this can’t be happening.’ Luckily, our Kelly-Moss Racing and Brass Monkey Racing guys write things down and we were able to go back to the good setup and qualify third.”
For Curran, it was the first of what he hopes are 10-straight finishes in 2009 after two trying seasons of either a great result, or a disappointing DNF.
“Things couldn’t have been more extreme for me the past two years,” Curran said. “I can’t complain about being second. The Whelen Engineering guys have worked so hard. We’ve had reliability issues the last two years, but they’ve been focusing on trying to build the best car they can make. This car is fairly new. So far it’s reliable. I’ve told [series announcer] Tom Hnatiw many times that I want to see 10 checkered flags this year. Ultimately, I’d like to see a Championship for Whelen Engineering as much as for myself.”
While he did not want to see the caution, Curran knew his car was fading toward the end of the race.
“It was a slippery track today and I was slipping around quite a bit, but I tried to manage it the best I could,” he said. “The last thing I wanted was a yellow flag. My car was going off because of the pace I was having to run. I don’t know that I could have kept it up, so I don’t know if things would have changed that much on the outcome.
“It was funny today; the Corvette was better in the high-speed corners and the Porsche was better in the low-speed corners. You wouldn’t really suspect that from these two cars. The Porsche was really strong in the low-speed corners today and Tony was doing so well. I think the American cars really struggled in the lower-speed corners today, but did better on the brakes and in the high-speed corners.”
Davis, who started fifth, had to fight after the restart with James Sofronas’ Porsche 911 GT3, but solidified the final spot on the podium after Sofronas did a quick spin in some oil on the penultimate lap.
“[The restart] did not go well,” Davis said. “We went from just the three of us to having James Sofronas right next to me. He got a really good restart I guess and was able get by me before we got to Turn One. I had tried to fight back going into Three and while I was dealing with him, [Rivera and Curran] checked out a little bit.
“James is really hard to get by. I think he used up a lot less of his car in the beginning of the race than I did. I don’t know that I could have gotten by him if he hadn’t spun.”
Tony Gaples, of Libertyville, Ill., sliced through the field after being moved from 11th on the grid to the back due to an engine change in his No. 34 Kleinschmidt Inc/Blackdog Racing Chevrolet Corvette to finish fourth. Despite his quick spin, Sofronas managed to hang on for fifth place in his No. 14 Global Motorsports Group Porsche 911 GT3.
Andrew Aquilante (Chevrolet Corvette), rookie David Welch (Dodge Viper), rookie William Ziegler (Porsche 911 GT3), Joey Scarallo (Pontiac GTO) and rookie Lee Saunders (Dodge Viper) completed the top 10.
Ziegler earned the Sunoco Hard Charger award for advancing nine positions in the event, from 17th to eighth in his No. 05 Swisher Racing/GMG Porsche 911 GT3.
Crescentini had fallen to fifth by the caution, and his day ended after contact on the restart.
It was a surreal day for Rivera, who dreamed for years of one day making it to World Challenge after running SCCA Solo and Club Racing events for years. On a day when he captured his first major road racing win, he was at a loss for words.
“I don’t think winning a World Challenge race has sunk in yet to tell you the truth,” Rivera reflected. “I don’t think you ever feel like you’ve really achieved your goals. I got my first race under my belt and was hoping for a top 10. Probably about midnight tonight it’ll hit me: I’ve made it. I don’t really know what to say about it. I’ve learned so much about the racing business and now it’s just an honor to be able to do this no matter what level you’re at. It feels really good though. I never thought I would finally get here.
“Right now, I’m dumbfounded.”
Rivera’s sponsor, Tax Masters, made its first presentation of $5,000 to the United States Olympic Archery team Friday as well, something it intends to do at each race Rivera reaches the podium in 2009.
The win was the first in World Challenge GT competition for a driver making his series debut since Wolf Henzler won at Infineon Raceway in 2004.
Rivera leaves Sebring with a two-point lead over Curran in the Drivers’ Championship, 124 to 122. Davis is third, with 95, followed by Sofronas (86) and Gaples (85). Porsche leads the Manufacturers’ Championship Presented by RACER Magazine with 10 points to Ford’s five.
The series next travels to Long Beach for the ACS World Challenge at Long Beach Presented by Lala Motorsports April 17-19. Today’s SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge GT Championship race will be broadcast shortly on SPEED. Check www.speedtv.com or www.world-challenge.com for details.