Street courses: motorsport’s version of the cage match. As if rocketing around at 100 mph, door-to-door with your opponent isn’t hair-raising enough, let’s surround the entire show with unforgiving concrete walls. Yes, this is Round Two of the SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge GT Championship, the World Challenge ACS Grand Prix of Long Beach Presented by Lala Motorsports.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has long been a jewel on the U.S. racing calendar. Some even refer to it as the Monaco of North America. Monaco, however, has never seen anything the likes of World Challenge GT.
Arriving in Long Beach less than a month after the opening round at Sebring, the mean machines of World Challenge GT have only just begun to stretch their legs. If we learned anything from Round One, it’s to expect the unexpected and to keep an eye on Tony Rivera and Brass Monkey Racing.
Certainly no one brushed aside the work of Kelly Moss Motorsports or Rivera’s impeccable record in last year’s IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge, but surely it would take a race or two for them to learn the ropes right? Wrong. With zero experience on standing starts, Rivera rocketed away from the grid in his No. 97 Tax Masters/Mirage Group Porsche 911 GT3 and proceeded to hold his own with the likes of Dino Crescentini, Brandon Davis and Eric Curran. After taking the win in his first series start, Rivera commented how refreshing it was to compete with a group of drivers you could trust to race side-by-side without incident. Will he have the same comments after racing in the close confines of Long Beach?
Two former Long Beach winners followed Rivera across the finish line in Sebring and follow him in the point standings as well: Curran and Davis. Victorious at Long Beach in 2007, Curran cautiously jumps behind the wheel of his No. 30 Whelen Engineering Chevrolet Corvette this weekend. In previous years, a successful result, such as his second-place finish at Sebring, was inevitably followed by a frustrating one. In fact, at Long Beach last year, Curran started at the back of the grid after an electrical problem in qualifying and then sustained front end damage early in the race, which affected the car’s cooling and forced him to park it after only five laps. He’s betting a renewed focus on World Challenge will be the key to unlocking a consistent season in 2009.
Defending race winner and hometown favorite Davis is also aiming for consistency this season and a third-place finish at Sebring in the No. 10 Applied Computer Solutions/Sun Microsystems Ford Mustang Cobra was a good way to start. In addition to starting the season with a podium finish, Davis, from Huntington Beach, is racing on home turf this weekend, at the course that brought him his first World Challenge GT win and with his dad Mike alongside him in the No. 11 Applied Computer Solutions/Sun Microsystems Ford Mustang Cobra. It will be tough to shake the 23 year-old’s confidence this weekend.
Davis isn’t the only hometown standout on the entry list. James Sofronas, who owns Southern California’s foremost Porsche tuning outfit, Global Motorsports Group, is always pumped for Long Beach. Though sometimes he lets it get the better of him, like in 2007 when he collected a speeding ticket on his way to the track! Sofronas has yet to finish outside the top 10 at Long Beach in the No. 14 Global Motorsports Group Porsche 911 GT3, but climbing the top step on Sunday would be a dream come true for the Newport Beach resident.
The season got off to a rough start for the K-PAX Racing squad. Time simply ran out in the off-season when it came to building two Volvo S60s from scratch, even with the highly respected 3R Racing crew on the job. Mechanical gremlins appeared left and right at Sebring, preventing defending Champion Randy Pobst from starting the race in his No. 1 K-PAX Racing Volvo S60 and putting Andy Pilgrim in the No. 8 K-PAX Racing Volvo S60 at the back of the grid. Keeping one eye on the temperature gauge and one on the road ahead, Pilgrim managed to pick his way through the field for a well-earned 12th-place finish. Going back over the cars with the utmost scrutiny and logging in some more testing time after Sebring, Pobst, Pilgrim and the K-PAX team are looking forward to running up front once again.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tony Gaples has gotten the season off to a tremendous start in the No. 34 Kleinschmidt/Blackdog Racing Chevrolet Corvette. The team elected to change a motor before the race at Sebring, requiring Gaples to start from the back of the grid. Unphased, Gaples patiently sliced his way to the front, collecting a remarkable fourth-place finish, his best result since Infineon Raceway in 2004. Long Beach hasn’t been too kind to Gaples in season’s past (best finish was 14th last year), but the team has karma on their side this weekend as they partner with the Boys and Girls Club of Long Beach for their “Greater Good” campaign.
An intriguing story line to follow is Chip Herr’s new drive: the No. 7 DP7 Racing Lamborghini Gallardo. The car made its debut at Sebring, but engine concerns forced the team to pull out of the race. To maximize the performance of the Lamborghini and speed up the development process, former Houston Oilers star quarterback Dan Pastorini is handing over driving duties to Herr. It will be interesting to see what this World Challenge Touring Car ace brings to the team and a new car on his first trip to Long Beach.
Last year’s highest finishing Dodge Viper pilot at Long Beach, Jason Daskalos, is crossing his fingers for another strong finish in the LBC after a poor showing at Sebring. Early in the race, brake issues contributed to a run-in between Daskalos’ No. 5 Daskalos Developments Dodge Viper and the Porsche of Tim McKenzie. The incident forced Daskalos to hit pit lane and retire with only four laps in the books. Long Beach was a breakthrough race for Daskalos last year, finishing fifth, which was a new career-best for the Viper pilot at the time. The team will try to re-start its 2009 season this weekend with an equally strong performance.
Gunter Schaldach is also aiming for an impressive performance at Long Beach. With his team, Lala Motorsports signed on as the presenting sponsor for this weekend’s World Challenge race, it would make for a perfect photo-op if Schaldach were to claim his maiden podium finish here. The 2008 World Challenge GT Rookie of the Year finished 17th in his first visit to Long Beach and needs to score big on Sunday to bounce back from a technical disqualification at Sebring in the No. 9 Lala Motorsports Dodge Viper.
The glitz, the glamour, the ear-popping roar of World Challenge GT machines launching from a standing start down Shoreline Drive – Long Beach is hard to beat. If you can’t make it to the sunny Southern California coast this weekend, you’ll be able to catch all the action on www.world-challenge.com with live timing, lap notes and streaming audio for the race, which is set for 4:15 p.m. (PDT) on Sunday, April 19. Then, mark Friday, May 22 on your calendar, for the 2 p.m. (EDT) race broadcast on SPEED.