Pirelli World Challenge Kicks Off 25th Anniversary Season In St. Petersburg
The streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. will see the next chapters written in the now-25-year history of the Pirelli World Challenge Championships. The series' 25th Anniversary season kicks off with Rounds 1 and 2 and the Cadillac Grand Prix of St. Petersburg brought to you by StopTech Brakes. The 1.8-mile street circuit will feature action for the GT/GT-A/GTS categories of competition. A host of familiar names are joined by a wealth of promising newcomers, either in the form of new drivers, teams, manufacturers or cars. The full integration of FIA GT3-spec cars has provided a plethora of new manufacturer interest in GT for the 2014 Pirelli World Challenge season.
Additionally, the GT-A subcategory makes its first appearance. New for 2014, the GT-A division is open to gentlemen drivers in GT-spec cars, with the driver scoring the most points at year's end winning both the Sportsman's Cup and a new B.R.M Chronograph. The twisting, tight confines of St. Petersburg have lent themselves to fascinating races in the past, and this year's pair of events should be no different. Both the GT and GTS class champions of 2013 are in the field, and begin their title defense this weekend.
Pirelli World Challenge GT: O'Connell, Sofronas Lead a Deep Field
Johnny O'Connell repeated as Pirelli World Challenge GT champion after a dramatic comeback victory in the 2013 season finale at Reliant Park in Houston. He'll begin the quest for the three-peat at a track where he's only won once previously in series competition (2012). O'Connell, of Flowery Branch, Ga., returns once more in the No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V.R.
Teammate Andy Pilgrim, of Boca Raton, Fla., in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V.R, hasn't left many boxes unchecked over the course of his Pirelli World Challenge career, but he hasn't won in 11 prior starts at this circuit. He won at Sonoma in 2013 and looks for his first win of the year this weekend.
The two drivers that did win the St. Petersburg 2013 races are back for 2014, looking for an encore performance. Alex Figge, of Denver, won the opening Round 1 with James Sofronas, of Villa Park, Calif., taking the first Pirelli World Challenge win for the Audi R8 platform in Round 2.
Figge's K-PAX Racing team shifts from the tried-and-true Volvo S60s to the new McLaren 12C GT3s for 2014. He'll be in the No. 9 entry, as he was in 2013, and will be joined by a new teammate. Robert Thorne, of Littleton, Col., will make his first GT class start in the No. 6 K-PAX Racing McLaren 12C GT3. Thorne, 23, won in his first series race in a K-PAX Volvo C30 in the Touring Car class at Sonoma, 2012. He didn't race in the series in 2013 and has an excellent opportunity to shine in his first full season.
Sofronas will drive the No. 14 GMG Racing Audi R8 Ultra. Sofronas' win at St. Petersburg was one of three he achieved in 2013. He came up just shy of the 2013 GT championship to O'Connell, but looks to go one better in 2014.
Mike Skeen, of Charlotte, N.C., will lead CRP Racing's effort in the No. 2 Hawk Performance Nissan GT-R. Skeen finished sixth in the 2013 GT Drivers' Championship with a win at Lime Rock, driving the team's Chevrolet Corvette.
Another big name returning to St. Petersburg is Tomas Enge, who raced in the 2005 IndyCar Series event at St. Petersburg and has a litany of Formula One and sports car experience. Enge, of Liberec, Czech Republic, will make his series debut in the No. 25 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo FL2.
EFFORT Racing also makes its series debut, and like Reiter and GMG will have cars entered in both GT and GT-A. Tim Bergmeister, of Langenfeld, Germany, will anchor the program in the No. 31 EFFORT Racing Porsche GT3R.
Ferrari has a pair of cars entered in the GT class, from two different teams. Former Formula Atlantic champion and sports car veteran Anthony Lazzaro, of Atlanta, will drive the No. 61 Remo Ferri Group - Ferrari of Ontario/Ferrari of Alberta/Maranello Autobody Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 for R. Ferri Motorsports.
Meanwhile Mike Hedlund of Woodside, Calif. has made several series starts in the past with GMG, but will compete in his first full season of competition in the No. 64 DragonSpeed/ESM Ferrari 458 Italia GT3.
Turner Motorsport rounds out the class with a late but quality add to the field. Dane Cameron of Atlanta, Ga. will race in the No. 94 Turner Motorsport BMW Z4 GT3, as Will Turner's team makes its return to the Pirelli World Challenge Championships.
Pirelli World Challenge GT-A: Stacked deck of 12 for class debut
The new GT-A classification is designed to increase turnout of GT3-spec cars driven by gentlemen drivers. These are drivers who do not make their living from racing cars, but as sportsmen, love the sport and have a passion for driving. Half of the 12 drivers entered have past Pirelli World Challenge experience.
One of GT-A's leading contenders will be Tim Pappas, of Boston, Ma., in the No. 54 Black Swan Racing Black River Caviar Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3. Pappas competed in nine series races in 2013, and finished eighth in the GT Drivers' Championship with a best finish of fifth in Detroit.
Sofronas' GMG team has three cars entered in GT-A. Bill Ziegler, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., stepped up to GT midway through 2013, and GT-A will be a great fit for the driver of the No. 95 Swisher Racing/GMG Audi R8 Ultra. Bret Curtis, of Austin, Texas, will be in the No. 32 GMG Racing Audi R8 Ultra. He made five 2013 starts, with a best result of fifth in Long Beach. Rookie Andrew Palmer, of Chicago, will make his series debut in the No. 21 GMG Racing Audi R8 Ultra.
Series veteran Jeff Courtney will add another Audi to the GT mix. Courtney, of Milwaukee, Wis., will drive the No. 99 Kenda/RecStuff.com JCR Motorsports Audi R8 Ultra. Courtney has five top-10 finishes in seven prior St. Petersburg starts.
DragonSpeed and R. Ferri, which both have GT class programs, also have a Ferrari apiece entered in GT-A. Henrik Hedman, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. but originally of Sweden, will be in the No. 10 DragonSpeed Ferrari 458 Italia GT3. Nick Mancuso, of Chicago, will drive R. Ferri's No. 16 Ferrari Lake Forest Ferrari 458 Italia GT3.
Two Lamborghinis, two Porsches and an SRT Viper apiece round out the class, with three series newcomers. Albert von Thurn und Taxis, of Regensburg, Germany, will drive the No. 24 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo FL2, with Marcelo Hahn of Sao Paulo, Brazil in the No. 0 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo FL2. Porsche veteran Michael Mills, of Angleton, Texas, is entered in the No. 41 EFFORT Racing Porsche GT3R while Jim Taggart, of Cary, N.C. jumps up from GTS to GT-A in the No. 7 Taggart Autosport/Smartcharms.com/Corbeau Seats/Local Motors Porsche GT3R. Lastly Dan Knox, of Pilot Point, Texas, will be in the No. 80 ACS Manufacturing, Inc./Performance SpeedTech SRT Viper GT3-R for Lone Star Racing.
Pirelli World Challenge GTS: Top three from 2013 lead 28-car field
With more than half the entries of the St. Petersburg total, the Pirelli World Challenge GTS class of 27 cars could be anyone's game this weekend. But the top three drivers from 2013 all return, and may have an early edge on the rest of the field.
Defending series and three-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. makes the switch to the number 1 aboard his Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro. Aschenbach is a past St. Petersburg race winner and looks to improve on his 2013 finishes of fifth and second.
Jack Baldwin, of Marietta, Ga., narrowly lost out on last year's GTS championship. But he won both St. Petersburg races in 2013 and seeks an encore in the No. 73 RESET-MD/StopTech/Motul Porsche Cayman S for GTSport Racing with Goldcrest.
Mark Wilkins, of Toronto, won twice in 2013 including on the streets of Detroit. His No. 38 Kia Motors America Kia Optima should be among the contenders this weekend, as well.
All three have the same veteran teammates as they did in 2013. Wilkins' teammate at Kia Racing/Kinetic Motorsports, Nic Jonsson, had more pace than luck throughout 2013. The Swede, now of Buford, Ga., will drive the team's No. 36 Kia Motors America Kia Optima.
Tony Gaples, of Libertyville, Ill., returns in the No. 11 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro and Buz McCall, of Boca Raton, Fla., will drive the No. 72 RESET-MD/StopTech/Motul Porsche Cayman S for GTSport Racing with Goldcrest.
With Peter Cunningham moving up to GT, longtime teammate Nick Esayian has a new opportunity for 2014. Esayian, of San Diego, Calif., shifts to TRG-AMR North America for 2014 in the No. 34 Natural Cures TRG-AMR North America Aston Martin Vantage GT4. The series veteran will lead that team's three-car lineup, alongside teammates Drew Regitz, of Denver, in the No. 02 and Jorge de la Torre, of McAllen, Texas, in the No. 04.
Young guns Andy Lee and Alec Udell lead the rest of the big "American muscle" contingent. Lee, of Colorado Springs, Col., won only once in 2013 despite leading 72 laps in the No. 20 Best IT/Bondurant/Crown7.com Chevrolet Camaro. Lee will be joined at Best IT Racing in 2014 by rookie Geoff Reeves, of Cleveland, Ohio, in the No. 40 Best IT/Bondurant School Chevrolet Camaro.
Meanwhile Udell, 18, finished sixth in the 2013 standings and could lead Ford's contingent early on for Motorsports Development Group. Udell drives the No. 17 Watson Racing Ford Mustang Boss 302S for MDG.
An iconic racing name joins Pirelli World Challenge in 2014, as ROUSH Road Racing enters the series with Jack Roush Jr. of Livonia, Mich., driving the No. 60 ROUSH Road Racing Ford Mustang Boss 302R. Roush and Ford are synonymous, and Jack Jr. will be one to watch in 2014, starting in St. Petersburg.
The rest of the Ford contingent is deep. It includes veterans Brad Adams, of New Orleans, La., in the No. 96 Voodoo/DatDog/Yo MTV Raps! Ford Mustang Boss 302S and Mitch Landry in the No. 97 VersaCrane/DeepSouth Ford Mustang Boss 302S, both of Capaldi Racing. Tony Buffomante, of Naperville, Ill., makes a welcome return to the series as their teammate in the No. 33 Capaldi Racing/Ford Racing Ford Mustang Boss 302S.
Detroit Round 7 winner Dean Martin, of Westland, Mich., is in the No. 50 Picture Cars East/Rehagen Racing Ford Mustang Boss 302.
Always Evolving Racing returns with two Ford Mustang Boss 302S's, in the form of Erik Davis, of Burbank, Calif. in the No. 75 Always Evolving Racing/Autotopia, LLC Ford Mustang Boss 302S and David Sterckx, of Brussels, Belgium, in the No. 52 Always Evolving Racing/Autotopia, LLC Ford Mustang Boss 302S, a Rally America champion. The team continues in tribute to the late Roger Rodas, who passed away at the end of 2013.
There are also two series newcomers, in Will Hunholz of Seattle, Wash. in the No. 18 Speedtrixx Ford Mustang Boss 302S and Chris Outzen, of Sudbury, Mass., in the No. 87 iTrackZone/DWW Motorsports Ford Mustang.
But Chevrolet also has strength in numbers this year too, beyond Blackdog and Best IT. Breathless Performance steps up to GTS, with 16-year-old phenom Ernie Francis Jr., of Davie, Fla., in the team's No. 98 Breathless Performance Chevrolet Camaro. Francis Jr. won a Touring Car B-Spec class-high seven races in 2013, and finished third as series rookie-of-the-year.
Fernando Seferlis, of Miami Lakes, Fla., also steps up from TCB in the No. 29 Compulab-Panama Chevrolet Camaro. Breathless has a third car entered for GTS veteran Mark Klenin, of Lonetree, Col., in the No. 62 Premiere Copier/SCHOMP Aston Martin Vantage GT4.
The variety of cars in GTS also includes entries from Scion, Nissan and Audi. Former Touring Car class champion Robert Stout, of Brownsburg, Ind., has now had a full offseason's worth of development on the No. 86 Scion/Lucas Oil/TRD Scion FR-S.
Nissan has a pair of 370Zs in action this year. Ric Bushey, of Virginia Beach, Va., will be back in the No. 51 Nissan/Motul/SPL/OSGiken/Sparco/Sunoco Nissan 370Z, after posting a best result of seventh at Sonoma in 2013. Brian Kleeman, of Baltimore, Md., makes it two Nissans with the No. 07 Nissan/DXD Clutches/Aeromotions Nissan 370Z on track for Monsoon Motorsports. Lastly series veteran Don Istook, of River Oaks, Texas, will race in the No. 01 Forge Motorsports/Recaro Audi TT RS for RS Werkes Racing.