Seth Thomas, of Cumming, Ga., earned a long overdue and emotional win today in Round Nine of the SPEED World Challenge Touring Car Championships at Road Atlanta, part of the Toyo Tires Road Atlanta Grand Prix Presented by Dish Network. Thomas' BimmerWorld teammates James Clay, of Blacksburg, Va., and Nick Esayian, of Encinitas, Calif., swept the podium, respectively.
Thomas leads Clay to the finish and captures first win at his home track (Shaun Lumley image)
In front family and friends, Thomas got a great launch from his third starting spot in the No. 38 BimmerWorld/GearWrench BMW 328i. At the start, he easily slipped in behind teammate Esayian, who started from the pole, and drafted behind him for the first 14 laps before passing Esayian for the lead. From there, Thomas cruised to his third SPEED Touring Car win of the season. He won by 1.692-seconds over Clay.
“Nick made one little bobble and I had a run coming out of five and I had to take it [the lead],” Thomas said. “I felt like if I took it that he and I could pull away even further [from the field] because it is my home track and I know all of the little ins and outs.
“We've been close to winning before here. My home track really has been a jinx for me. I've had some good luck. But, many times, the finishing results have been bad luck. This win was very special for my family - especially with my grandfather being here – it was extra special because he is 86. I wanted him to see me win here at my home track. I wanted him to see it in person. It was ultra important for me.”
Clay, who started fifth in the No. 36 BimmerWorld/GearWrench BMW 328i, had to really battle throughout the race to find his way to the podium. Early on, Clay swapped paint with fourth-finishing Kuno Wittmer, of Montreal, Canada, and fifth-place finisher Eric Foss.
On lap six, Clay finally cleared both Wittmer and Foss and set his sights on catching his teammate, Thomas, who was running second at the time. Running in a BimmerWorld nose-to-tail train, Clay, Thomas and Esayian, began to pull away from the rest of the field.
After Thomas passed Esayian for the top spot, Clay was right behind Esayian. Clay was pushing hard, but was content to let his teammate lead the way as long as all three cars could finish on the podium. Unfortunately for Esayian, on lap 20, he made a little bobble and it allowed Clay to pass him for second – which is where Clay finished.
“It was pretty wild,” Clay said of his battles with Wittmer and Foss. “I knew those guys were fast. Foss was looking extra 'racey.' He looked like he wanted to get by some folks. He was driving it pretty hard out there. I knew if I just put my head down that I had the speed [to pass them].
“I kept trying to get around Kuno and I couldn't get around him. Going down the straight I could get in his draft. He has the best draft of any car in the series – unfortunately for him. But, every time I'd get beside him, he'd nip a tire into me and slow me down a little bit. It was frustrating, but finally he let me by pretty cleanly.
“It was pretty wild with Foss. Going through [Turn] 10a, I thought I had Kuno and then all of a sudden boom – there was Foss in a piece of real estate I did not know existed. But, I made it work. It was good tough racing.”
Clay won the Sunoco Hard Charger for picking up three spots from his grid position. He also won the AutoWeek Move of the Race for passing Esayian on lap 20.
Esayian finished third in the No. 34 BimmerWorld/GearWrench BMW 328i. He was under pressure by his teammates all race long, but, in the end, put together a solid drive to earn his first-career SPEED Touring Car podium.
“I knew it was important to get a good launch and I did,” Esayian said of the race start. “Seth and I got away from everyone. It was good run. Seth was on me. I knew that he was a little quicker than me in qualifying. And, we knew that the ‘freight train James [Clay]' was coming. I bobbled twice over the course of the race. I pushed a little too hard and the two guys that got by me were my teammates. If you've got to make a mistake, that is the way to do it.
“We [his teammates] were obviously being careful with one another. Seth was quicker than me through the Esses and Turn Five. I'd gap him in a couple of other places. I bobbled – it was my error – in five and did not catch the right gear on the exit. That's when Seth got by. It was a clean pass. Once he got by, he checked out. We ran like that for the majority of the race.
“James caught me. We knew that Kuno was back there. So, I tried to brake a little deeper and had a little too much rear bias. I had a dramatic moment that hopefully I will not repeat for the next 15 years because I was looking out the windshield at the wall. It wasn't good and James squeezed by. It was good he did not pile it in there because we could have had another two-thirds of Watkins Glen.”
Jason Saini leads the World Challenge Touring Car Drivers' Championship, with 892 to Pierre Kleinubing's 838 points. Peter Cunningham is third, with 812, followed by Thomas (806) and Charles Espenlaub, with 771. Mazda has a one point lead over Acura in the Manufacturers' Championship Presented by RACER Magazine. Mazda has 63 points and Acura has 62, followed by BMW, with 37.
Friday's SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge Touring Car Toyo Tires Road Atlanta Grand Prix Presented by Dish Network will air Tuesday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m. (EST). The series next heads west to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the season finale, Oct. 9-11.