SEBRING, Fla. (March 20, 2009) – Seth Thomas, of Cumming, Ga., capitalized on a tremendous start from the front row to take his first-ever SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge Touring Car win in the Toyo Tires SCCA SPEED World Challenge Season Opener at Sebring, part of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Presented by Fresh From Florida. Pierre Kleinubing, of Coconut Creek, Fla., and Jason Saini, of Fort Worth, Texas, completed the podium.
Starting second, Thomas’s No. 38 BimmerWorld/GearWrench BMW 328i immediately leapt to the front as the World Challenge Touring Car field launched from its signature standing start. Thomas’ start line reflexes earned him the AutoWeek Move of the Race. Polesitter Kleinubing and his RealTime Racing teammate Kuno Wittmer fell into line behind Thomas and gave chase as the pack funneled into Turn One.
“I didn’t expect that kind of advantage going into Turn One,” Thomas said. “The BMWs have rear-wheel drive and they launch really well off the start. Pierre [Kleinubing] has a lot of experience starting up there and I expected him to be tough and get a little better launch. The way it worked out, I went into the brake zone for Turn One and looked in the mirror and saw the gap. I just thought ‘just maintain that and see what we can do.’”
The RealTime pair’s efforts were in vain, as Thomas’s gap was already at 1.280 seconds by lap three. While Thomas continued to click off fast laps around the 17-turn, 3.7-mile road course, including the quickest lap of the race, a 2:24.044 (92.471 mph), Kleinubing lost his drafting partner on lap seven, when Wittmer pulled off course with mechanical problems.
Sticking to the plan and maintaining his gap back to the 2008 Sebring race winner for the remainder of the 18-lap, 66.6-mile race, Thomas cruised to his very first World Challenge victory by 2.563 seconds.
“I’ve been coming here for many years,” Thomas said. “I always had good success at Sebring in the BMW Club stuff I did. Then we came to World Challenge and things went a little haywire. After last year, it’s definitely redemption here. Last year, we should have started on the pole but a technical infraction got us in trouble and we had to start from the back. I felt like this year was going to be the year.
“I keep telling everybody, there’s no words that can describe winning. It’s the best feeling. We’ve worked so hard to get here and it’s finally happened.”
On his own, once teammate Wittmer dropped out, Kleinubing finished second, ruing his start-line slip up.
“I was afraid that was going to happen,” Kleinubing said of the start. “It felt pretty good but halfway through first gear I spun the tires pretty badly on the big painted stripe and lost a little bit there from first to second. [Thomas] pulled a huge gap at that point. Every time I’d get a little closer, he seemed to answer and pull it back out. I just did what I could and finished second.”
Though it wasn’t a repeat win for the driver of the No. 42 Acura/RealTime/Red Line Oil Acura TSX, Kleinubing was quick to point out that consistency, not necessarily race wins, is the key to winning Championships.
“I didn’t win today [like in 2008] but hopefully I can finish the season a little better this year. That’s the goal—to score big points at every race. Peter [Cunningham] didn’t win a race last year and he won the Championship, so I’m keeping that in the back of my mind—try to score as many points as possible at every race.
“Good start for RealTime—not as good as Seth [Thomas], but we’ll work on it. I’ll have a new car at the next race so we’ll see how it goes.”
Saini, the 2008 World Challenge Touring Car Rookie of the Year, started fifth, but was immediately promoted to fourth when teammate Charles Espenlaub, pulled into the pit lane on the formation lap with a throttle issue. Once the race was underway, Saini came under threat from the No. 97 MAZDASPEED/Tindol Motorsports MAZDA6 of Chip Herr, from Lititz, Pa. Herr took over the fourth spot on lap three in Turn One, but pulled into pit lane two laps later when the engine of his Mazda expired.
Unable to catch Kleinubing, and without any challengers to his third-place spot, Saini claimed the final step on the podium at Sebring. It was a huge finish for a driver who, until recently, wasn’t sure he’d make the season opener.
“This was sort of a last minute thing,” Saini said. “It’s been kind of tough getting everything going for Sebring. We got everything done at the last minute and the team did a great job to get the cars ready. The car kept getting better and better throughout the race. There were a couple of unfortunate mechanicals. Chip [Herr] dropped out and then Kuno [Wittmer] dropped out. I was looking forward to racing Kuno. That was going to be fun.
“To get on the podium after all it took to get here is just great. I give all the credit to Mazda and Tri-Point for making this all happen as well as some personal sponsors to make this race possible. Hopefully, we can take these results and move them forward to the rest of the season.”
Rookie Eric Foss, of Fort Worth, Texas, made a stunning World Challenge debut in the No. 75 MAZDASPEED/Stoptech/Racinghart MAZDA6. Starting 12th, Foss was able to claw his way to ninth on the opening lap. The 2008 SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup Champion then battled some of the series’ fiercest competitors, including defending Champion Peter Cunningham, Michael Galati and James Clay, en route to a hard-earned fourth-place finish. Foss’ climb through the field, a full eight positions, won him the Sunoco Hard Charger Award.
Nick Esayian, of San Diego, Calif., completed the top five, collecting a career-high finish in the process. The driver of the No. 34 BimmerWorld/GearWrench BMW 328i ran as high as fourth midway through the race, but was caught by Foss on lap 12. Esayian was nearly demoted another spot by teammate James Clay (BMW 328i) on the final lap, but Clay would take the checkered flag in sixth.
After missing the promoter test day and first practice session on Wednesday, Michael Galati brought his MAZDA6 home in seventh after a spirited battle with newcomer Andrew Aquilante, who finished eighth in his Subaru WRX.
Defending Champion Peter Cunningham, in the new body style Acura TSX, finished ninth, after losing his front bumper in an early incident, followed by Jeff Courtney in the previous body style Acura TSX.
The Toyo Tires SPEED World Challenge Season Opener will air on SPEED. Broadcast times will be announced shortly. Round Two of the SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge Touring Car Championship is set for May 1 – 3, at Thunderbolt Raceway in Millville, N.J. For more information visit www.world-challenge.com.