September 12-13, 2014 – The incomparable Pirelli World Challenge Championships wrapped up its 25th anniversary season with a double header weekend at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah. While the weekend saw first time winners in the in both 50-minute races, at the top of the points standings, when all the Utah dust had settled, it was much of the same.
Race One Recap – The storyline coming into the weekend centered around the intensely close points race between 2-time defending champion Johnny O’Connell in the #3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V and Mike Skeen in the #2 CRP Racing Audi R8 LMS Ultra. O’Connell came in with a 42-point lead and there were a number of scenarios that could have played out which could have crowned either of them champions by the end of the weekend.
Unfortunately, for Mike Skeen at least, it all became a moot point when he broke an axle after not getting off cleanly at the start of the first race. Skeen then had to watch from the pits as O’Connell brought his Cadillac home in second to clinch his third straight GT championship.
“What a year,” O’Connell said. “It is everyone at Team Cadillac. I am just the quarterback. We have a whole team that makes this CTS.V.R go. If you don’t have the whole package from the car to the crew to these great Pirelli tires you are just not going to win here. Andy is a great teammate and he was on fire today, he drove a great race. I couldn’t be more proud of what we accomplished as a team this year. This one is probably the most special of the three. We had to overcome a lot of obstacles this year and we did as a team. We did not make a mistake all season long.”
Right away on Friday it was apparent that, even though the driver’s championship was going to come down to two drivers, the rest of the field was not about to roll over and let them have all the glory. Guy Smith in the #88 Dyson Racing Bentley Continental GT3 was quick right off the truck. Smith posted the quickest lap in the morning practice session ahead of Ryan Dalziel in the EFFORT Racing Porsche 911 GT3R and Andy Pilgrim in the other Cadillac CTS.V.R. Then, in qualifying, Smith took the Bentley to the top of the time sheets again securing the pole position for the first race and setting a new lap record in the process.
At the start of Friday’s race chaos ensued throughout the 41-car field. Mike Skeen, who started second in the #2 CRP Racing Audi R8 LMS Ultra, broke an axle at the start and could barely limp past pit out and Alex Figge in the #9 K-Pax Racing McLaren MP4-12C GT3 stalled after starting in sixth position. The resulting full-course caution period negated stellar starts from Robert Thorne in the other K-Pax McLaren, Ryan Dalziel in the #31 EFFORT Racing Porsche 911 GT3R and both of the Cadillacs. All of whom jumped ahead of the pole-sitting Smith who had a less than stellar start.
On the restart Smith quickly erased his mistake dispatching both of the Cadillacs and climbing to third by the fifth lap behind only Thorne and Dalziel. He moved past Dalziel a few laps later and set his sights on Thorne and the lead. Thorne was able to hold onto the lead for 13 laps but on lap 14 contact with a slower car and subsequent spin dropped Thorne to fifth and allowed Smith to take the lead and he never looked back.
“I knew the Bentley was going to be good on tires during the race,” Smith said, “and I knew from racing in Europe that the McLaren could go off a bit, so I was just biding my time a bit. When I got behind Robert, he was quick, but I knew my opportunities to pass him would be in traffic. When you get to my age, one thing you get is that you can see something before it really happens. I could see he was taking a dive so I just hit the brakes and was able to get around him. He drove really well, but unfortunately for him he had contact.”
Behind Smith an epic battle raged between O’Connell and Butch Leitzinger in the second Bentley. They ran nose to tail throughout much of the race until the final corner when Leitzinger got a great run on O’Connell and made his move to the inside. He came up 0.1 seconds short and had to settle for third.
“[O’Connell] gave a master class in defending his position cleanly,” Leitzinger said, “and in a way that kept me at bay for a long time. I always like racing with Johnny. We had a dice on the last lap and he could have been aggressive with me but he was fair.”
Rounding out the top 5 in the GT class was Pilgrim in fourth and Anthony Lazzaro in the #61 R.Ferri Motorsports Ferrari 458 GT3.
In ninth overall, Mike Mills in the #41 EFFORT Racing Porsche GT3 R secured his sixth GT-A win of the season. Mills took the lead on Lap 8 after Tim Pappas, of Boston, Mass., in the returning No. 54 Black River Caviar Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3, had a mechanical issue resign him to the pits.
Marcelo Hahn in the #0 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo FL2 was second with third in the #76 GMG Racing Audi R8 Ultra.
The GTS race, like the GT race, saw the dominant driver early run aground of trouble not of his own doing.
Jack Baldwin in the #73 GTSport Porsche Cayman S led away cleanly following the restart with Nick Esayian in the #34 TRG-AMR Aston Martin Vantage GT4 holding steady in second behind him.
Esayian’s opportunity came on Lap 19, the#20 BestIT Racing Lamborghini Gallardo FL2 GT car driven by Andy Lee made contact with Baldwin. Baldwin recovered but Esayian made it through for the lead and never looked back.
For Esayian, it marked his second career win, and first since the first race at Virginia International Raceway in 2010.
“Today was a challenge to say the least,” said Esayian. “Chasing Jack for the better part of the first 8 or 10 laps and he got tangled up in some traffic and I was able to get around. The season has been a challenge. The team has worked hard and we’ve had some mechanical gremlins so to be able to put together a winning effort today was big.”
Baldwin finished a hard-luck second, 3.592 seconds in arrears, for his third straight podium result.
Race Two Recap – The second race, held the next day, had a lot to live up to in order to match the intensity of the first, and it did not disappoint.
With the starting positions decided by the fast laps set in the previous day’s race, Guy Smith found himself again starting from the pole and again he got off to a bad start because of an overheating issue in the Bentley and quickly dropped down the field. However, this time around, unlike in the first race, there was no caution period to save him.
The 50-minute race ran caution free and featured an incredible dual for the lead between Robert Thorne in the #6 K-PAX Racing McLaren 12C GT3 and Ryan Dalziel in the #31 EFFORT Racing Porsche GT3R. Lap after lap they laid down nearly identical lap times with each driver getting the most out of their cars.
Early on, it seemed Thorne was going to run away with the victory. After a spectacular start, he opened a sizeable gap in the opening laps. Dalziel, on the other hand, was stuck behind Johnny O’Connell who was clearly not as quick as in the Cadillac. It took Dalziel 20 minutes to get around O’Connell but once he did he quickly chased down Thorne and a 30-minute nose to tail shootout to the end was on.
Dalziel made several attempts to make a pass for the lead and even had a good chance with about 10 minutes left when they encountered traffic, but Thorne was able to hold him off to claim his first GT class victory by the slimmest of margins, a scant 13 hundredths of a second.
“It was quite a battle, especially towards the end,” Thorne said. “I had radio issues and lost communications to the pits and I wasn’t sure actually how many laps were left. Every time I drove by and trying to hold off Dalziel, I was waiting for the 1 more lap and finally it came out. It was a great day and a great day for the end of the season. We had some struggles this year with the car and trying to get the launch to work. Getting the launch and going right to the front shows we are going to be a big contender next year.”
Taking the GT-A class win, and finishing twelfth overall, was Tim Pappas in the #54 Black Swan Racing Mercedes AMG SLS GT3. After running into mechanical issues in the first race Pappas ran flawlessly in the second race to score his second win of the season.
GTS saw the Kia Racing drivers star early before mechanical issues struck them both.
Polesitter Nic Jonsson in the #36 Kia Optima led the first seven laps before falling back with a half shaft problem. Meanwhile Mark Wilkins in the #38 Kia Optima turned in a storming drive to climb from 17th to sixth by Lap 8, before overheating and retiring.
“It was a great day for GTSport Racing, our sponsors and Porsche. The way the guys were able to adapt and overcome all of what we have endured this season is remarkable,” Baldwin said. “The guys never gave up and to finish second overall with a win is a fantastic achievement.”
Season Champions Crowned
In the top GT class Johnny O’Connell scored his third straight championship for Cadillac Racing after putting together two flawless performances at Miller Motorsports Park. The consistent performances from O’Connell and teammate Andy Pilgrim also wrapped up the manufacturers championship for Cadillac.
“[It was a] Big team effort, and I could not be more proud of the guys,” O’Connell said. “The driver is just the quarterback. If you don’t have a great team, good things won’t happen. There’s a saying where you should surround yourself with good people and at every level of Cadillac racing we have that. We’re very fortunate, Andy and I, to represent the excitement that happens on the race track.”
In the GT-A sub-category Mike Mills took home his first championship for EFFORT Racing, while Lawson Aschenbach completed his second straight GTS title (fourth overall) in the Blackdog Speed Shop Camaro.
“It’s an honor to be here with Johnny and Lawson,” Mills said. “Chuck and I started this team basically for a one-off race deal and it turned into a full season in 2012 and full season in 2013 and we missed the championship by one point last year. It’s an honor for me to bring home the championship for EFFORT.”
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