“Exciting.” That was the word that overall and GT class winner Patrick Long, from Belleair, Fla., GTS class winner Jason von Kluge, from Ann Arbor, Mich., and Touring Car winner Lawson Aschenbach, from Darnestown, Md., each used to describe Saturday's Acura Sports Car Challenge Presented by Pirelli, featuring 49 Pirelli World Challenge Championship cars battling on the temporary street circuit in St. Petersburg. The season-opening race was part of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Long, an accomplished sports car racing veteran but making just his second career World Challenge start, started on the pole in his No. 45 TruSpeed/Privacy Star/Entrust Porsche 911 GT3 and battled early in the race with defending GT class champion, and early leader,Randy Pobst, Mike Skeen and James Sofronas.
The four used the early part of the race to get a feel for the race and the crowded race track that featured all three Pirelli World Challenge classes running on Pirelli slick tires for the first time, a dramatic change from the treaded DOT-approved tires the series traditionally used. The intensity picked up for the front runners after race's only full-course caution flew on lap seven for two separate incidents – a single car accident that ended the day for 15-year-old Alec Udell in the GTS No. 06 Momentum Autosports Chevrolet Camaro, and a three-car accident that collected a trio of Touring Cars (Eric Meyer's No. 32 XOWii/Samaritan's Feet/Delvira Mazda RX-8, Shea Holbrook's No. 67 Lucas Oil/MyPluggz.com Honda Civic Si, and Brett Sandberg's No. 28 Monticello Motor Club Honda Civic Si).
By the time the clean-up was finished, the scheduled 34-lap race had bumped up against the 50-minute time limit, and only eight minutes remained when the green flag flew again on lap 18.
Long brought the field to the flag followed by Skeen's No. 2 Crager Wheels Chevrolet Corvette Z06, and the pair left third-running Pobst's No. 6 K-Pax Racing Volvo S60 and the rest of the field behind.
Long and Skeen ran essentially nose-to-tail through traffic until the white flag came out on lap 23. Coming through the right-handed turn nine onto Bay Shore Drive, the No. 63 Venodrome Honda S2000 of Tom Felt spun just in front of the leaders. While Long narrowly avoided it, Skeen had nowhere to go and was collected, leaving him to limp home for a ninth place finish and giving Long a 4.110-second victory.
“Mike was running very strong and certainly keeping me honest,” Long said. “As we came into the back of the traffic on the last lap, the black S2000 lost it just coming out of the first of the double rights in the back session. I missed him narrowly, literally by inches, and unfortunately that left Mike with a blocked racetrack and I was able to just slither through. It was unfortunate for him, good for us, and that's what it's all about with multiple classes.”
Long was happy to escape with a win in the opening round and was already turning his attention to Sunday's second race.
“It's an exciting series, and I think World Challenge has progressed since then last time I raced here in 2006,” Long said. “The tires are one thing, the multiple class structure adds an endurance element to the track and to the race series. I think it's a lot of fun, but its certainly challenging, especially on a street course. It's unbelievably busy, but I have a lot of respect for the GTS and Touring Cars who have their own battle going on. There were a lot of yellow flags today, and that's not the way we want to put on a show but hopefully we'll run a little bit cleaner out there. It's tough going out there, everybody is doing their best out there and we'll try to put on a better show tomorrow.”
Skeen's bad luck created a podium sweep for Porsche, with Global Motorsports Group teammates Dino Crescentini's No. 4 Centric Parts/Stoptech/GMG Porsche 911 GT3 and Sofronas' No. 4 GMG Porsche 911 GT3 finishing second and third.
Crescentini, who was running fifth under the caution, shot past Sofronas and Pobst on the restart and into turn one, leaving him in a prime position to inherit second when Skeen fell back.
“Frankly, I was stunned,” Crescentini said. “I was fine where I was and debating what gear to be in. I saw Patrick [Long] really slowed down, and I figured he was trying to pull a move on the Volvo. I went down to first, and I think that was my lucky call right there. I launched from first gear and just put the hammer down right there when the green flag came out. Before I knew it, I was like geez, I'm in third. I just rolled with it. I had warmed up my tires well in advance and my brakes were warm, and I was pretty hooked up. I just wanted to hang with the leaders for a little bit. Unfortunately for Skeen, he got hit, and what was I supposed to do? I got around the carnage, and I was in second. It was taking advantage of some bad luck that turned into a good break for me.”
Sofronas also got past Pobst on the restart and landed on the podium for the third time in as many starts at St. Petersburg.
“It came down to the restart and Patrick was going real slow, which I thought was a strategic move on his part,” Sofronas said after the race. “The Porsche is really good on the throttle, and he knew he could get a jump when it was up to him. It caused Randy to bog down on the boost, and I knew that was going to happen. I got a great run and got by Randy, and the next thing I know I look up and Dino is just hauling ass past me!
“Anyone else, I would have shut the door, but he had a great run and got by me. I was going to let Dino go after the top two guys, and I thought there were more laps left so I was just going to bide my time. Then I saw the white flag come out and I thought that was fast. I'm trying to chase down Dino, and he never put a wheel wrong the whole run. The next thing I know it's the last lap, Skeen is turned around, I see the [local] yellow flags and jump onto the back of Dino. We got through the carnage, and finished two and three, and that's pretty good for GMG and the Porsche sweep.”
Long pointed out that, while it certainly paid off for the Porsches, the pace of the restart was dictated by World Challenge rules and not strategy.
“It wasn't very strategic. I had a meeting with the race director and the starter this morning to make sure I had the procedures correct in how things work here. I'm the new guy and I didn't want to screw things up if I did lead the field around, and that ended up happening. I was told to maintain the pace of the safety car until I reached the green acceleration cone and that's what I did. I might have caught some guys off guard, but that's my job. There's an array of different types of cars out there, and obviously the Volvos and the Corvettes have a lot of horsepower and I wasn't about to give the race up. Unfortunately my teammate [Rob Morgan] got a little bit caught out by it, but I want to make it clear that it wasn't strategic; I wouldn't have wanted to bog his race. But it worked out great for the GMG boys, and it's a great one-two-three for the Porsche 911 GT3.”
Johnny O'Connell, driving the No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, finished fourth in the return to the Pirelli World Challenge for the manufacturer. Cadillac was the 2005 and 2007 Manufacturers' Champion, with Andy Pilgrim clinching the 2005 Drivers' Champion in the previous iteration of the CTS-V racecar. Pilgrim is also back in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V Coupe and finished eighth in the opening round. Pobst was the fifth to take the checkered flag during Saturday's race.