IMSA COOPER TIRES PROTOTYPE LITES – RACE 13
16-year-old Atlanta native Sean Rayhall (LEFT, PHOTO: Darren Pierson/DPerceptions.com) led the speed charts all week and backed it up in the race Thursday, taking his first victory in the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship in dominating fashion, winning from the pole position by a margin of over 10 seconds.
Rayhall, driving the No. 77 Comprent Motorsports/SCCA Élan DP02, kept the field in his mirrors through the entire 21-lap event. Behind him, the battle raged for the remaining positions, with 15-year-old Tristan Nunez, returning to the series after finishing second in his first and only event at Sebring, finishing second from his fifth place starting position. And, yes, the combined ages of the top two finishers are of note – it adds up to a whopping 31.
“The key was to be good on cold tires,” said Rayhall. “The team gave me a great car to be able to do that. There was great competition behind me, with Nunez and my teammate (Jonathan Gore, No.14) coming in third, so it was a good podium for us! It's a great debut for me, with no real moments. But you give it all you've got and really push it no matter how big a lead you have – there's no relaxation out there!”
Nunez had his share of moments during the week, as a shunt in practice Tuesday resulted in an engine fire in his No. 8 Performance Tech Élan DP02. The car that remains looks like an amalgam of every car Performance tech has – but it doesn't have to be pretty to be good.
“I started fifth and got shuffled back two spots at the start,” said Nunez. “I made up a spot in Turn 6 on a restart and just worked my way up from there, pushing harder than I really ever have before. I got up to second but couldn't get to Sean, he was too fast. I had a bit of a fire on Tuesday, which spooked me a little bit, but I was back in the car the next day doing fast laps. These cars are really fast, I love these cars!”
In the Lites 1 championship battle, leader Ricardo Vera finished fourth, with second and third in the title chase, Antonio Downs and Gore, finishing sixth and third, respectively, on the track, so the championship would go down to the final race on Friday.
In Lites 2, with champion Robert Sabato on the sidelines after Tuesday's practice crash, his 6th Gear teammates Michal Chlumecky and Max De Angelis took on Level 5 Motorsports' Scott Tucker for the race win, with Tucker coming out on top, Chlumecky second and De Angelis third.
“I got a great restart,” said Chlumecky, as Tucker headed to his GT3 car (doing the IMSA development series double dip again this weekend). “I got stuck behind a bunch of L1s, which is my own fault. Scott ran a fantastic race and once he got away, I couldn't reel him in. But tomorrow's another day!”
With a championship on the line, it was expected that Friday's last round of the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship would be a wild finish to the season. But as Ricardo Vera secured the Lites 1 title in his rookie year, two teenagers conducted an 18-lap shootout for the race victory that had fans on the edge of their seats, in Round 14 of the Lites championship, part of the Petit Le Mans weekend at Road Atlanta.
In the end, 16-year-old Atlanta native Sean Rayhall had the lead when the checkered came out, having exchanged that lead with 15-year-old Tristan Nunez no fewer than four times. In Lites 2, Level 5 Motorsports' Scott Tucker won from the pole for the fourth straight race, with Michal Chlumecky second to clinch the third spot in the L2 driver's championship.
Rayhall, driving the No. 77 Comprent Motorsports/SCCA Élan DP02, has driven Road Atlanta often – local knowledge that helped him win yesterday's event going away. But Nunez, behind the wheel of the No.8 Performance Tech entry, wasn't letting Rayhall get any kind of a gap today.
“Wild is an understatement,” said Rayhall. “It was controlled chaos. But it was a lot of fun – Tristan gave me a run today. Comprent gave me a great car, though I was having problems with the RPMs that affected my shifting. But it's all about how you bounce back, and we bounced back hard today! It was a great debut for me. It was great racing against Tristan – I can't wait to race with him again!”
“I started P2 and was able to get a run on him going into turn two,” said Nunez. “But then the first caution came out and I knew it would be close with him right behind me. He made a pop in Turn 1 on the restart and I was fighting hard to keep up with him. We got up to a lapped car and I was able to get around him in Turn 1, until we caught another lapped car and he got me on the outside in Turn 10 – which is pretty impressive. It was a great race.”
For the 18-year-old Vera, the championship brings many awards, not the least of which is a test session in the Dyson-Mazda LMP car. To win the title in his rookie season means a great deal to the youngster.
“The team gave me a great car all year,” said Vera. “I'm really happy to have won the championship! I knew that with the lead I had, all I had to do was finish near the top. It's been great racing against everyone this year.”
Tucker, driving the No. 5 Level 5 Motorsports West WR1000 heading out immediately to jump into his LMPC car for the ALMS morning practice, appreciated that chance to get into the Lites 2 car and experience the tight racing the series is known for.
“That was a close one,” said Tucker. “Mike was coming on strong and I knew I didn't have anything for him. I'm fortunate for the result – this is great racing. It's a good concept, a good format and we're really pleased to be a part of it.
Chlumecky (No. 30 6th Gear Racing) finished ahead of teammate Max De Angelis to take the third spot in the title chase ahead of De Angelis. Rookie Alan Wilzig (No. 15 Wilzig Racing) finished fourth on the day and second in the drivers' championship.