After knocking on the door all season, RJ Lopez, of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, kicked the door down today at the Honda Indy Toronto and emphatically scored his first career victory in SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am Series competition.
In a race that was limited to 44 laps – eight laps shy of the scheduled 52-lap distance – due to time constraints, Lopez moved from fourth on the starting grid to second on the third lap of the race in the No. 6 Disco 106/ECR Engines/Goodyear Chevrolet Corvette, when polesitter and early leader Tomy Drissi got a flat tire and had a bit of a scrape with second-place starter Amy Ruman. Drissi's misfortune also allowed championship leader Tony Ave to take the lead.
From there, Lopez quickly set out after Ave and wrestled the lead away from him in Turn 3 at the end of the famed Lake Shore Blvd. straight on lap 14 and then took a page from Ave's playbook in recent events. Lopez quickly pulled out to a comfortable lead over Ave but made sure not to jeopardize his equipment. Whenever he saw Ave close the gap, he'd turn up the wick himself. The end result was a solid, 8.984sec victory.
I knew I had a good car," Lopez said. "In fact, I knew Tony had said before the race that he didn't think his car was going to be all that great, but he drove the hell out of it. It's unfortunate what happened to (Tomy) Drissi (who started the race from pole), and I got by (Amy) Ruman when Drissi cut a tire (on the opening lap). I would have liked to have had a good battle with Ruman, but I was able to sneak by there. I just started catching Ave and I knew we were going to get him. Once we passed him, I was just running a pace. Every once in a while, I'd see him get a little closer and I would just pull out a little more until I couldn't see him in my mirrors. Then I just cruised."
For Lopez, his maiden Trans-Am victory comes after several podium performances throughout the first half of the season. He opened the year with four straight podiums before missing out on the top three two weeks ago at Lime Rock due to a late-race incident. Today's race more than made up for that.
"Honestly, it's about time, but it feels awesome," Lopez said. "If there was any place to do it, it's right here in front of the biggest crowds. I love this place. Toronto is just awesome. In front of the IndyCar guys, it's great. To be ahead of Tony Ave is just awesome. He's won the last three races and to be able to beat him, to finish first ahead of him is just killer. Obviously, in the points, it would have been better if he finished farther back, but I'm glad he finished second. It just feels amazing. I've got to thank my dad for really supporting us the last couple years with what we're trying to do here. It's a whole team effort. It's a family effort. I'm just ecstatic."
Ave, of Maiden, N.C., saw his Trans-Am win streak snapped at three and admitted after the race that he and the team were never quite able to get the No. 4 Lamers Racing/McMahon Group/Optech/PME Chevrolet Corvette exactly the way they wanted it this weekend. Nevertheless, he managed to bring the car home in one piece and with a second-place trophy. He now leads Lopez by 75 points, 752-677, with six of 10 races complete.
"This is the first time we've had these cars on a street course, and we're still figuring it out," Ave said. "We had a decent race today. It looked like Tomy hit the wall on the first lap, so I was able to get around him and lead some laps, but RJ was really fast. After he got around me, I said to my guys to tell me when there was 20 laps to go and I'd go for it, and I did, but as soon as I did it, RJ got faster, too. I know how that deal works, so I figured I'd just ride around and get second. We led some laps today, which helps us, so RJ couldn't cut into the points lead too much. We'll go on to Autobahn and hopefully return to our winning ways."
After starting from the outside of the front row, Ruman, of Kent, Ohio, earned her second straight podium result in Trans-Am competition with a third-place ride in the No. 23 McNichols/Goodyear/Cenweld Chevrolet Corvette. Ruman also finished second at Road America last month and made her third Trans-Am start of the season this weekend.
"It went good," Ruman said. "I couldn't be happier. The McNichols/Cenweld Chevrolet Corvette got us to the top again. I can't complain. I'm a little disappointed we weren't a little farther up, but Tomy had a problem early on, and I, unfortunately, got caught up with that. He slid out into my lane with a flat tire and there was nothing I could do. That's when they got by me. I tried to stay with them. It just was greasy. I was trying to maintain a good pace and hopefully be there at the end. Unfortunately, we were just a little short today.
"With our luck this year, we've been on the podium pretty much every race except for one, and that's because I was running the 310 motor at New Jersey. I'm not going to complain. Our time will come when we win. RJ had to be patient and he's had a couple seconds this year. There is still a lot of Trans-Am racing left in this season and we're going to be there. Hopefully, I'll be on the top step pretty soon."
In his second consecutive Trans-Am start, Glen Jung, of Osteen, Fla., came home fourth in the No. 77 Rotary X-treme/MAZDASPEED/Goodyear Mazda RX-7. It was the best result of Jung's Trans-Am career to date, eclipsing a previous best of fifth at Lime Rock Park earlier this month.
Despite the early setback, defending series champion Drissi, of Hollywood, Calif., rebounded to finish fifth in the No. 5 Wall Street, Money Never Sleeps Jaguar XKR. Drissi remains third in the championship standings with 636 points.
After another two-week break, the SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am Series returns to competition at Autobahn Country Club on Sunday, Aug. 1.