After eight prior weekends, the ninth and final race weekend in the Pirelli World Challenge season is an inaugural trip to the Reliant Park street circuit in Houston for what is poised to be a thrilling conclusion to the series' four class championships.
Three of the four classes (GT, GTS and Touring Car B-Spec) have fiercely tight title battles heading into Round 14 of the GT/GTS season, and Rounds 13 and 14 for Touring Car and Touring Car B-Spec in the Foametix Grand Prix of Houston.
Houston is the fifth street course on the 2013 calendar and as a new track for the series, offers a near level playing field as a majority of the competitors do not have prior experience at the circuit. Expect drama at every turn as the titles are decided.
Pirelli World Challenge GT: Sofronas vs. O'Connell Set for 2013 GT Crown
Although Andy Pilgrim in third place has not been mathematically eliminated from title contention, the 2013 Pirelli World Challenge GT champion is likely to be one of two drivers: points leader James Sofronas, or defending class champion Johnny O'Connell.
Sofronas, driver of the No. 14 The Thermal Club/Swisher Racing/GMG Audi R8 LMS regained the championship points lead last race at Sonoma with his third consecutive third-place finish. Sofronas won three early season races including two at street courses, Round 2 at St. Petersburg and Round 3 at Long Beach. The Audi is at its best on long runs and if Sunday's Round 14 through Houston's concrete canyons can run with limited caution flags, Sofronas stands a good chance of capturing his first class championship.
O'Connell, in the No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V.R, needs a rebound after consecutive finishes outside the top 10 in the last two races. Still, he has a class-high four victories this season and has matched Sofronas with a pair of wins on street courses (Round 6 at Detroit, Round 10 at Toronto). He also has two prior Houston starts, and a class win achieved in 2007. O'Connell and teammate Pilgrim will attack Houston in a fresh, intense, black livery thanks to a contest where fans were asked to choose the car colors for both Cadillacs for the season finale.
Pilgrim, in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V.R, scored his first win of 2013 last race at Sonoma and enters Houston 76 points back of Sofronas in third place in points, with a remote but not impossible shot at a title. He'd need to win his second straight race to end the campaign and hope the two in front him have some bad luck. Nonetheless, Pilgrim has helped contribute to Cadillac's points lead in the Manufacturer's Championship (100-78 over Audi) on the strength of that Sonoma win, eight total podium finishes and 12 top-five finishes in 13 starts.
Fourth and 74 points back of Pilgrim is Randy Pobst in the No. 6 K-PAX Racing Volvo S60. Pobst and teammate Alex Figge, in the No. 9 K-PAX Racing Volvo S60 have combined for four wins this year with Pobst winning once and Figge scoring three wins. Figge, who enters the weekend fifth in points, has led the most laps this season with 155.
Craig Stanton, in the No. 85 Racing for our Heroes Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, and Bill Ziegler, in the No. 95 Swisher Racing/GMG Audi R8 LMS, are also listed to enter.
Pirelli World Challenge GTS: Three-Horse Race Among Baldwin, Aschenbach, Wilkins
It could be argued that Pirelli World Challenge GTS has been the most competitive class in the championship this year. Drivers from five different manufacturers (Chevrolet, Porsche, KIA, Ford, and Aston Martin) have won in the first 13 races and a sixth (Acura) has also led laps and set fastest race laps. Three drivers from that batch have made it to Houston with a shot at the GTS crown, each of whom seeks their first GTS class title in the series.
The points leader since the season opener in St. Petersburg has been Jack Baldwin in the No. 73 Motul/StopTech/Foametix Porsche Cayman S for GTSport Racing with Goldcrest. Baldwin posted three wins and 11 podium finishes in the first 12 races, but contact with O'Connell and defending GTS class champion Peter Cunningham last time out at Sonoma took him out of the race on the first lap. Baldwin's worked all year with his team to secure a title to add to his phenomenal career resume, but could the disastrous result at Sonoma ultimately be the reason he doesn't claim the GTS Drivers' Championship?
The two younger stars who've been chasing him all year are also multiple race winners, and enter separated by only a point. Baldwin leads Lawson Aschenbach by 46 points (1297-1251) and Mark Wilkins by 47 (1297-1250).
Aschenbach seeks to take the crown in the No. 10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro after a year that has included five victories and 10 podium finishes. It would give Aschenbach a hat trick of Pirelli World Challenge titles, having also captured the GT crown in 2006 and the Touring Car title in 2011. Aschenbach has fought back all year from a points deficit and has an excellent chance to make the final position jump on Sunday.
Wilkins, in the No. 38 B.R.A.K.E.S. Kia Optima turbo has won twice and been consistent with no finishes worse than sixth in any of the 13 races. He and teammate Nic Jonsson, in the No. 36 DonorsChoose.org Kia Optima turbo had the measure of the field on pace in the most recent street race at Exhibition Place in Toronto although neither had the result to match. Expect a fierce challenge from the Canadian this weekend, and support to boot from the Swede who started a sports car race at Houston in 2007.
A runner-up finish for Andy Lee in the No. 20 Best IT/Bondurant/Crown Seven Chevrolet Camaro, in the most recent round at Sonoma has more or less secured him fourth in the championship. Lee's won only once with his luck up-and-down most of 2013, but his pace has been excellent with a class-high five poles and two fastest race laps.
A tight battle is also on the line for fifth with Alec Udell moving ahead of defending GTS class champion Cunningham last race at Sonoma. Udell, in the No. 17 Motorsports Development Ford Mustang Boss 302R finished fourth in Sonoma to move into fifth in points with 960, seven clear of Cunningham's 953. Cunningham, of Milwaukee, WI in the No. 42 Acura/HPD/RealTime Acura TSX, has had tougher luck throughout the year and still seeks an elusive first win of the year. He did post three straight podiums on street courses, however, to open the 2013 campaign.
Others to watch include Tony Gaples in the No. 11 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro, who posted a season-best fifth place at Sonoma last race. Meanwhile Nick Esayian, in the No. 34 Acura/HPD/RealTime/Red Line Oil Acura TSX can score his 10th top-10 finish of 2013 this weekend. Those two rank seventh and eighth in points entering the weekend.
Jonsson is 10th in points behind Brad Adams, in the No. 96 Voodoo/DatDog/Yo MTV Raps! Ford Mustang Boss 302S. Adams has six top-10 finishes in 2013 with a best result of sixth the series' last street race in Toronto.
Udell isn't alone racing on home soil in Texas; three others in GTS will be flying the flag in the Lone Star state. Those include Ardee Toppe, in the No. 21 Capaldi Racing Ford Mustang Boss 302, Don Istook, of River Oaks, Texas in the No. 01 Milltek Exhaust/ STaSIS/REVO Audi TT RS and Colin Cohen, in the No. 03 Milltek Exhaust/STaSIS/REVO Audi TT RS.
The rest of the 21-car GTS class is scheduled to include Ric Bushey, in the No. 51 Nissan/Motul/OSGiken/SPL/Sparco Nissan 370Z, Roger Rodas, in the No. 52 Always Evolving Performance Ford Mustang Boss 302S, Jim Taggart, in the No. 61 Lotus USA/Taggart Autosport/LRR Lotus Exige, Buz McCall o in the No. 72 Motul/StopTech/Foametix Porsche Cayman S, Robert Stout, in the No. 86 Scion/TRD/Lucas Oil/E3 Spark Plug Scion FR-S, Mitch Landry in the No. 97 VersaCrane Ford Mustang Boss 302S and Brian Kleeman, in the No. 07 DXD Clutches/DWW Motorsports Nissan 370Z.