ST. PETERSBURG, FL (March 25, 2012) - The 2012 Pirelli World Challenge Championships opened with a Saturday night street fight at the Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg presented by Pirelli and when the dust settled and the smoke cleared, Lawson Aschenbach, Justin Bell and Michael Cooper found themselves celebrating atop their respective class podiums.
In a 50-minute timed race slowed by four full-course caution periods, it was clear from the start that anybody who wanted to win would have to take advantage of every opportunity, no matter how small. That's exactly what Aschenbach, of Darnestown, Md., did.
Aschenbach started third in the No. 1 Privacy Star/Entrust Porsche 911 GT3 and was briefly shuffled back a few positions. However, he remained well within sight of the leaders throughout the race and when leader Alex Figge got caught up in slower traffic, Aschenbach pounced.
With Figge and Cadillac teammates Johnny O'Connell and Andy Pilgrim bottled up behind the slower car, Aschenbach - who was running fourth - chose an alternate route around the lapped car, which ended up also vaulting him into the lead on Lap 17. In fact, Aschenbach's move earned him the Kia Turning Point of the Race Award.
From that point on, Aschenbach, the 2011 World Challenge Touring Car champion and 2006 GT champion, would not be challenged as he went on to win under caution. It was Aschenbach's sixth career World Challenge victory and his third on the streets of St. Petersburg. The victory could be a good omen for Aschenbach, as his previous two St. Pete victories came last year in Touring Car and in his 2006 GT championship season.
"St. Pete is a very tough track," Aschenbach said. "It's very small, there's a lot of cars out there, there's a lot of attrition going on, so the main thing is keeping your head down, keeping the car clean and getting every single opportunity you have and taking advantage of it. I was fortunate enough that some guys slowed down and I was able to get around them through certain situations. It's tough, though. This track surprises everybody sometimes. More importantly, I just can't thank everybody at TruSpeed Motorcars enough. This Privacy Star/Entrust Porsche GT3 was just flawless all weekend. We knew we had a good shot here, but like I said, you've just got to take advantage of every situation and go like heck."
Aschenbach posted the fastest lap of the race at 1:15.561 (85.758 mph) in addition to taking the race victory. As the starting grid for the second race of the Acura Sports Car Challenge doubleheader was established according to each driver's fastest lap in Saturday's race, that means Aschenbach has earned the pole position for Round 2.
O'Connell, of Flowery Branch, Ga., wound up second in the No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V Coupe. After starting fourth, O'Connell saw fifth-place starter Figge leapfrog him and the cars in front of him to take the lead heading into Turn 1 on the opening lap. He was seemingly locked in one battle or another throughout the race before finally settling into second place, where he finished.
"It was a good race," O'Connell said. "If you look at the top four or five cars, maybe six cars, everybody was very, very close. It really all came down to restarts. We got good restarts, all that kind of stuff, and I'm very proud of the Cadillac team. We had great race cars and all the off-season work paid off.
"These are some outstandingly good drivers, some very aggressive drivers and everybody wanted to win. The way we all raced each other was really hard. Amongst the leaders, there was minimal contact. James Sofronas and I were running through some of the fastest parts of the racetrack side-by-side, so it was good racing all around. I think that's going to be one heck of a show when people watch it on TV."
Sofronas, of Newport Beach, Calif., wound up third in the No. 14 Global Motorsports Group Porsche 911 GT3. As O'Connell described, it was a race-long battle between the No.14 Porsche and the No. 3 Cadillac, which landed both cars and drivers on the first podium of the season.
"You had to drive flat out here," Sofronas said. "You had to take advantage of every opportunity, restarts, traffic, any bobbles from the cars in front of you. The GMG boys prepared an awesome Porsche. I pushed that thing hard. I was banging into people. I was leaving room, but it was hard racing with Johnny O and a couple other guys. It was actually a lot of fun. It's just a shame it had to end under the yellow, but we knew it would, so we set the car up differently, plus the StopTech brakes gave me a great advantage on the restarts into Turn 1. It should be a great show for the fans."
Figge, of Denver, Colo., led the first 16 laps of the race in the No. 9 K-PAX Racing Volvo S60 before getting demoted to fourth place shortly afterAschenbach's race-deciding pass. However, his amazing start from the fifth position on the grid into the lead by Turn 1 earned him the Invisible Glass Clean Pass of the Race Award. Pilgrim, of Marina Del Rey, Fla., ran more than half the race in second place but was ultimately forced to settle for fifth in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V Coupe.
The race was decidedly more disappointing for Mike Skeen, of Charlotte, N.C. Skeen qualified the No. 2 Hawk Performance Chevrolet Corvette on the pole position, but he pulled the car into the pits as the field formed up for the start of the race and didn't make a lap due to a differential problem.
The GTS race saw a familiar car go to Victory Lane, albeit driven by an entirely different driver. Paul Brown drove the No. 50 eBay Motors Ford Mustang Boss 302S fielded by Tiger Racing to the 2011 GTS championship, but with Brown sidelined due to minor surgery, Bell, of Los Angeles, Calif., was brought in as a pinch-hitter.
Bell hit the racing equivalent of a pinch-hit home run in his maiden World Challenge appearance, taking advantage of s restart to find his way around early GTS leader Peter Cunningham. He then held off a late charge from Cunningham and was decidedly pleased to see the final full-course caution period come out, which preserve his victory.
"[Cunningham] just didn't come out quite as well on that restart as he had done before," Bell said. "I knew I was really good on the brakes to the end. I was fully committed to my brake zone. He's so fast in that car. That car is so tidy. Ours is a very heavy car, and he was fast on the last half of the track and I was fast on the first. Before that last yellow, when those two cars crashed, I knew going in there that I would have probably one lap to do before the full-course and I was behind one backmarker, a TC car.
"I was like, 'I'm screwed here,' because he was holding me up. He came to go down the outside and hey, the full-course yellows were coming out so my car just got really wide. Then, the yellows came it. It was wonderful for the team, for eBay Motors and Mobile. Paul Brown is sitting at home, so it was nice to do that for him and, obviously, also for the [Children's Tumor Foundation] kids that I'm here for."
Cunningham, of Milwaukee, Wis., ended up second in the No. 42 RealTime/Acura/HPD Acura TSX. He also turned in the fastest GTS lap in the race at 1:21.777 (79.239 mph), which puts him on pole for Sunday's second race of the Acura Sports Car Challenge doubleheader.
Jason von Kluge, of Ann Arbor, Mich., completed the GTS podium in the No. 19 Steeda Autosports Ford Mustang Boss 302S, followed by class polesitter Andy Lee, of Colorado Springs, Colo., who finished fourth in the No. 20 Best IT Chevrolet Camaro. Jack Baldwin, of Marietta, Ga., finished fifth in his World Challenge debut driving the No. 68 Hot Wheels/GTSport/PNR Porsche Cayman S.
One of the race's fiercest battles came in Touring Car, where Cooper, of Syosset, N.Y., fought tooth-and-nail for most of the race with Tristan Herbert, of Reston, Va. Herbert was looking for his second St. Pete victory in the No. 33 Brimtek/GermanAutoParts.com Volkswagen GTI after taking the Touring Car win in Race 2 last year, while Cooper, the 2011 Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup champion, was looking to get his World Challenge career off to the best possible start.
Cooper started from the pole position in the No. 3 MAZDASPEED Motorsports MAZDASPEED3, but Herbert got the lead at the start and led the first two-thirds of the race with Cooper in hot pursuit. On Lap 22, Cooper pulled off the Cadillac CTS-V Move of the Race, getting around Herbert in Turn 10 and into the Touring Car lead. Two laps later, Herbert attempted to retake the lead heading into Turn 1 and momentarily got the position before running wide on the exit of the corner and losing several positions, while Cooper disappeared into the sunset.
"It didn't go nearly as smooth as I would like," said Cooper. "I think we got hit from about every angle, front, back and both sides, but we got it done. We avoided some crazy maneuvers, avoided the crashes and made it here.
"You always hope it's not going to be like that, because you need to race tomorrow. But if it's like that, you've got to do it. You've got to get down there and get dirty with those guys and get it done."
Cooper's first career victory was solidified when Herbert and Ryan Winchester, of Mason City, Iowa, crashed together in Turn 1 to bring out the final full-course caution. Both drivers avoided injury. Before the incident, Herbert posted the fastest Touring Car lap of the race at 1:25.101 (76.144 mph).
Todd Lamb, of Atlanta, Ga. took second in Touring Car in the No. 71 National Karting News/HPD Honda Civic Si, followed by Anthony Rapone, of Thornhill, Ontario, Canada, who finished third in the No. 81 Durabond Racing Honda Civic Si. Rapone earned the Sunoco Hard Charger Award after advancing 18 positions from start to finish. Fourth in Touring Car went to Gustavo Michelsen, of Lima, Peru, in the No. 69 TLMUSA.com Honda Civic Si and Shea Holbrook, of Groveland, Fla., completed the Touring Car podium with a fifth-place run in the No. 67 TrueCar.com Honda Civic Si.
Touring Car racer Roberto Ricciardelli, of Venezuela, won the Optima Batteries Best Standing Start Award in the No. 63 TLMUSA.com Volkswagen Jetta GLI.
It will be a quick turnaround, and in many cases, a long night ahead for World Challenge teams to get ready for tomorrow's second race of the St. Pete doubleheader. The race goes off from a standing start at 11:00 a.m. ET and will again be available live on www.world-challengeTV.com. Both races of the Acura Sports Car Challenge doubleheader will air on NBC Sports Network on April 8 at 4:30 p.m. ET.
For more information, please visit www.world-challenge.com. Follow World Challenge on Twitter @WCRacing.