Track records were the common thread for all three classes of Pirelli World Challenge Championship drivers during qualifying on Friday at the Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg Presented by Pirelli. Patrick Long, from Belleair, Fla., Eric Foss, of Dallas, Texas, and Tristan Herbert, of Reston, Va., set pole position and new records in the GT, GTS and Touring Car classes, respectively.
Long's journey to the front of the grid for Saturday's opening round at the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit was an eventful one. Signed just this week to drive the No. 45 TruSpeed./Privacy Star/Entrust Porsche 911 GT3, Long arrived from another commitment in Germany in time for Friday's on track activities. Quickest in the opening practice during the morning, Long set out during the 20-minute qualifying knowing he had a shot at pole position.
That goal seemingly went out the window on the opening lap when he encountered traffic, slid off course, and was forced to pit lane. Long recovered to nip second-running Mike Skeen by just 0.088sec by posting a fast time of 1:15.071 (86.318mph) on his final lap of the session.
"Into the last corner, on the first timed lap, I came through the chicane and there was a slow car,” Long said. “I swerved to avoid it and I lost the car, it was facing the wall and then I was into the gravel trap. I thought, 'OK, we've got damage, we're stuck in the gravel trap.' The thing fired up, came out of the gravel and the next lap I had a flat coming into one. I stopped the car and talked to the crew and they said I could come in and change the tire. We went back out with 11 minutes to go, dead freaking last, and put it on pole. That's a testament to the TruSpeed guys.”
Long, an accomplished road racer who has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and American Le Mans Championships, is looking forward to Saturday's sprint race.
“It's going to be unbelievably busy, probably busier than any endurance racing I've ever done other than maybe the Nurburgring with 200 cars,” Long said. “To scale, we've got about that or even more per meter of racetrack. It's going to be keeping a cool head, but also making good moves, because you'll be able to find three or four seconds by making good moves. But it's hero or zero, I don't want to take anybody out here. We're here for the championship.
“The biggest wild card for me will be the standing start. That's the fun-slash-craziness of tomorrow. Once we get out there and start picking our way through traffic; that comes pretty naturally.”
Long is making just his second World Challenge start and first since a third-place finish at Mosport in 2005.
Making the standing start in the front row beside Long is Skeen, who posted a qualifying time of 1:15.159 (86.217mph) in the No. 2 Crager Wheels Chevrolet Corvette.
Row two on the grid is also filled with potential title contenders. James Sofronas finished on the podium in both races of the doubleheader last season at St. Pete, and will start third in race one after posting a time 1:15.369 (85.977mph) in his No. 14 GMG Porsche 911 GT3. Defending GT champion Randy Pobst will start fourth in the No. 6 K-Pax Racing Volvo S60 after a fast time in qualifying of 1:15.750 (85.544mph).
Dino Crescentini, who started on the front row and won Sunday's race at St. Petersburg in 2010, will start fifth on Saturday. Crescentini's fast time of 1:15.840 (85.443mph) in the No. 14 Centric Parts/Stoptech/GMG Porsche 911 GT3 left him just 0.769sec behind Long.
Johnny O'Connell will start sixth, posting a time of 1:16.610 (84.584mph) in the much-anticipated return of the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe to the Pirelli World Challenge.
Foss dodged the drama that plagued Long to post the top time in the GTS class behind the wheel of the No. 73 Traxxas/St. Jude Hospital/SPX Ford Mustang FR500S. His fast lap of 1:21.936 (79.086mph) came on the first flying lap and held up throughout the 20-minute session.
The pole was a celebration for Foss, who returns to the series for the first time since a Rookie of the Year campaign in the Touring Car class in 2009. Foss earned a pole during the doubleheader at Mosport that season, bringing his career total to three with Friday's effort.
“Coming back to World Challenge is a great opportunity,” Foss said. “I learned so much in 2009 about this series, and really realized that you're always going to get the most out of the car on the first lap. So I set myself up for it, left a really big gap and was really lucky. The Traxxas/St. Jude/Amsoil/SPX Mustang was really phenomenal. Leo Capaldi and his sons, Chris and Craig, have been really great to work with. It's a family effort, and I'm really pleased to have this opportunity.”
The next goal for Foss is his first Pirelli World Challenge win.
“This is my first time here at St. Pete, so I'm looking forward to racing the course,” Foss continued. “I do love street courses, but with 49 cars this weekend it's going to be very difficult. It's going to be a long race, so we need to manage the tires on the car. I know there are several cars behind me that have an opportunity to win this race, too, so it's just going to be managing the car as best we can and hope there's something left at the end.”
It will be an all-Mustang front row for Saturday's race, albeit different models of Mustangs, as Paul Brown will start alongside Foss in the No. 50 Lucas Oil/K&N Filters Ford Mustang Boss 302S. Brown's fast time of 1:22.876 (78.189mph) also came on his opening lap of the session.
Starting behind the Mustangs is a row of youth versus experience, with rookie Alec Udell – making his first series start – beside Peter Cunningham, the six-time World Challenge Champion and all-time leader in wins. Fifteen-year-old Udell, the youngest participant in World Challenge history, will start third after a fast lap of 1:23.132 (77.948mph) in the No. 06 Momentum Autosports Chevrolet Camaro. Cunningham, who clinched his first World Challenge title in October of 1995, a month before Udell was born, broke up the muscle car party with a time of 1:23.155 (77.926mph) in the No. 1 Acura/RealTime Racing/HPD Acura TSX.
Jason von Kluge (No. 19 Varsity Ford Ann Arbor/Steeda Ford Mustang Boss 302S) will start fifth with a qualifying time of 1:23.628 (77.486mph).
Herbert earned the Touring Car pole in his Brimtek Motorsports Volkswagen GTI with a fast time of 1:25.899 (75.437mph) to establish the track record in that class on the streets of St. Petersburg. It was the pro racing debut for Herbert, who was second in combined practice but turned the fastest lap with the pressure on.
“We want to keep the car in one piece during the practice sessions, but in qualifying is where you let it all hang out,” Herbert said. “There are some stripes down the side of the car where I got a little close to the tires and took out a mirror, but you've got to drive it on the ragged edge if you want to go fast and that's what we did today.”
Herbert credited the hard work of the Brimtek team for the pole position.
“The car has been really good,” Herbert said. “We've got a fantastic crew at Brimtek Motorsports with help from GermanAutoParts.com. We've had a tough couple of weeks getting the car ready. We had a pressure plate go out on us, a ball joint fail, and some near catastrophic misses in getting the car ready. We've all been working a lot of late nights. I work a regular day job, I came from Club Racing, and still do a 9-5 and go to the shop until 3 in the morning. My wife is incredible and lets it all happen. I'm really excited about this. It couldn't have turned out better. We're real happy about being on the pole.”
Starting on the outside of the front row on Saturday is Chip Herr, who posted a time of 1:26.312 (75.076mph) in the No. 07 Grid 1 Motorsports Mazda RX-8. Herr is a seven-time winner in Pirelli World Challenge Touring Car. Lawson Aschenbach, who won the GT class on the streets of St. Petersburg in 2006, will start third in the No. 71 Compass360 Racing Honda Civic Si after posting a time of 1:26.532 (74.885mph) to become the third different manufacturer in the top three of the Touring Car class.
Eric Meyer's flying lap of 1:27.343 (74.190mph) in the No. 32 XOWii/Samaritan's Feet/Delvira Mazda RX-8 places him fourth on Saturday's grid. Ronald Zitza will start fifth after posting a time of 1:27.806 (73.799mph) in the No. 60 Zotz Racing Volkswagen Jetta.
All 49 cars will open the Pirelli World Challenge season with a standing start on Saturday morning at 11:50 a.m. Saturday's race will also set the grid for Sunday's race two, which will be set by the fastest lap time during the race.