ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (April 1, 2006) – Rookie “Awesome” Lawson Aschenbach, of Gaithersburg, Md., captured his first-career SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge GT Championship win today at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. His run was anything but easy, though, as he fell to as low as fourth before making a run to the front in his Porsche. Johnny O’Connell, of Flowery Branch, Ga., and Ricardo Imery, of Caracas, Venezuela, completed the top three. -30-
Aschenbach averaged a record 79.479 mph in the 33-lap, 59.4-mile race with a margin of victory of 7.973 seconds.
The race got off to a shaky start, as the Aston Martin DB9 of Johnny Mowlem caught fire on the formation lap. Mowlem escaped injury, but the fire necessitated a delayed start for the first time since the series adopted standing starts in 2000.
After starting third in his No. 66 AXA Financial Porsche 911 GT3, Aschenbach moved to second at the start behind polesitter Lou Gigliotti’s No. 28 LG Pro Long Tube Header Chevrolet Corvette C6. On the second lap, defending race winner Tommy Archer made contact with the No. 6 Banner Engineering Chevrolet Corvette C6, sending Leighton Reese off track and leaving both the Corvette and Archer’s Dodge Viper with significant damage. Archer would also receive a stop-and-go penalty for the contact, which took both cars out of contention while battling for third. Following the race, Archer was fined 10 drivers’ points and Dodge was fined one manufacturers’ point for the contact.
Gigliotti continued to lead Aschenbach, the XM/Mobil 1/Motorola/On Star Cadillac CTS-Vs of O’Connell and Andy Pilgrim and the No. 64 AXA Financial/Cavenas Elevators Porsche 911 GT3 of Imery. Aschenbach made a bid for the lead in turn one on lap 16, sliding inside and into first, but Gigliotti came back and regained the point by turn two. Aschenbach made a slight mistake in turn 10, allowing both O’Connell and Pilgrim past, and narrowly holding teammate Imery behind to hold onto fourth.
Two laps later, O’Connell slowed suddenly due to an electrical gremlin and dropped back to sixth before regaining pace. That put defending series Champion Andy Pilgrim into second to put chase to Gigliotti, who looked to be in a good position to win for the second-straight race. On lap 20, Pilgrim made his move to the front, passing Gigliotti under braking going into turn one. Aschenbach took advantage of Gigliotti’s defensive move to go around the outside of him to take over second place.
Pilgrim, who won the 2005 SPEED GT Championship despite not winning a race, looked to be on his way to victory, building a three second advantage over Aschenbach. However, in the closing laps, the Porsche cut the gap and Aschenbach set the race’s fastest lap with five laps remaining at a 1:19.858 (81.144 mph). The two ran bumper to bumper around the course, but Pilgrim suddenly slowed in turn 14 on lap 31. His silent Cadillac coasted into the pits as Aschenbach sped away from the rest of the field. Pilgrim’s car, like O’Connell’s, would re-fire in the pit lane and he rejoined in eighth.
“It was a great weekend, my hat’s off to the team,” said the 22-year old first-time winner. “Team AXA Financial gave me a great car. Jon Groom has put together a first-class team, and they just gave me the best car. It was perfect all race, and I just almost blew it twice. But, I was able to come back and there was some good luck and we were able to get the win out there. We’ll take it.
“I was behind Lou at the beginning of the race, and I had the quicker car, but I kind of wanted to cruise and save my tires and get ready to pass him in a good spot. My crew chief Nathan [McBride] radioed in and said ‘Go get him. Do what you can.’”
"Apparently there was some kind of electrical problem, and the crew will figure out what caused it,” Pilgrim said. “Unfortunately, it happened just as I was going by the pit entrance, so I pulled in thinking that something had broken. I recycled the ignition and it fired right up. I don't know whether we could have won because my car was really sliding around on the tires, but it was a disappointing finish to my race."
O’Connell was in fifth place with five laps to go, but got some help in traffic, moving his No. 16 Cadillac into third place around Imery and Gigliotti and earning the B&M Oil Coolers Coolest Move of the Race. When Pilgrim pitted, O’Connell moved up to second.
"I think that a switch might have shut off when I hit the bump in Turn 5,” O’Connell said of his early problem. “By the time I figured out what had happened, a bunch of cars went by.
"Maybe it's my years of road racing experience, but working the traffic really helped me today. I was running fourth, and when we came up on traffic, I think I read what was going to happen and passed two guys in one move."
On the penultimate lap, Gigliotti spun from third place in turn 10 with Imery’s Porsche coming to a complete stop in avoidance. As Imery pulled away, he was clipped by the similar car of James Sofronas, who was also trying to work his way through. Imery continued on to finish third.
Gigliotti recovered from his spin and battled past Bob Woodhouse on the final lap to finish fourth. Woodhouse, of Blair, Neb., finished fifth in his No. 13 Woodhouse Auto Family Dodge Viper.
Tony Gaples, of Libertyville, Ill., earned the Sunoco Hard Charger award for his run from 16th to finish ninth.
Aschenbach, who won his second-straight Piloti Shoes Rookie of the Race honor, also took over the Drivers’ Championship point lead, with 55. Despite his eighth-place finish, Pilgrim maintained second in the Championship, with 47, followed by Woodhouse (46), race one winner Michael McCann (44) and Imery and Sofronas, both with 43.
With its second-straight runner-up finish, Cadillac moved into the SCCA SPEED GT Manufacturers’ Championship Presented by RACER Magazine lead, with 14 points. Porsche is second, with 12, followed by Dodge (11) and Chevrolet (six).
Saturday’s race will be broadcast Sunday, April 2 at 3 p.m. (EDT) on SPEED Channel.
The series next moves to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach next week, racing Sunday April 9.
For additional series information, please visit www.world-challenge.com.
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