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Grand-Am: Circuit of the Americas, Race Report

The first ever Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, turned out to be a great success with some excellent racing in all three classes.

The track layout promoted close racing and plenty of overtaking opportunities, although every such manoeuvre was fiercely contested. The result in both the DP and GT classes was in doubt until the chequered flag flew, with penalties also playing a part in the outcome.

The DP was closely bunched as the lights changed green, with the result that pole-sitter Jon Fogarty was squeezed by Memo Rojas on one side and Jordan Taylor on the other at the left-handed Turn 1 and dropped to third. The Ganassi Riley BMW led the field round the remainder of the opening lap, with Taylor second in the VelocityWW Corvette second. Further back, Enzo Potolicchio had dropped back at the start following contact at Turn 1 but was running okay.

The GT start was a more orderly affair, with the top three retaining their order; Alessandro Balzan leading in the #63 Scuderia Corse Ferrari from the #62 AIM Motorsport 458 of Max Papis and the #59 Brumos Porsche of Andrew Davis. Balzan quickly began pulling away, while the fight for second began to add more cars – most notably the #31 Marsh Racing Corvette of Boris Said and the #73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche of Patrick Lindsey. Matt Bell, meanwhile, suffered a spin in the #52 APR Audi after contact with an unidentified DP.

Back at the head of the field, Rojas found himself unable to break away by more than a few car lengths in the opening stages and indeed soon found himself being pursued by the #90 Spirit of Daytona of Ricky Taylor (who had no doubt taken great satisfaction in passing his father’s DP a short while earlier).  With ten minutes of the race run, Jordan Taylor closed back up on Ricky and were side-by-side. The Velocity Corvette almost found a way past, but as the duel continued Jon Fogarty saw his chance and went up to third. A few moments later he also took second from the SDR Corvette, but ran over the kerbs in the process and the ensuing wobble dropped him back to third.

We now had seven DPs nose to tail in the fight for second and the action continued, with Fogarty dropping back to fourth as the #99, #10 and #90 Corvettes again went three abreast. Moments later, Burt Frisselle caught the kerb in the #9 Action Express Corvette and pushed Alex Popow wide in the #2 Starworks Riley. The Venezuelan driver came back across the track and collected the #9. Both cars suffered damage but were able to get to the pits, where it became apparent that the AER car had suffered right-rear suspension damage. Despite the debris, no caution period was needed.

The fight for second allowed Rojas to break free and the #01’s lead was seven seconds after 15 minutes. Fogarty meanwhile dropped another place after contact with a GX-class Mazda; Gustavo Yacaman moving up to fourth in the #6 Michael Shank Racing Riley as a result.

While attention was focussed on the DP dramas, changes had occurred in the GT order with Said up to third at the expense of Davis. Balzan’s lead had also been pegged at just over a second by Papis.

And there was fight going on the GX class too, with Jim Norman leading in the #38 BGB Porsche Cayman by just two-thirds of a second from the #70 SpeedSource Mazda6 of Tom Long, while Tristan Nunez was right behind in third in the #00 Mazda. Long nipped through to the class lead just before the 25 minute mark – the first time ever that a Mazda had led the new category.

Scott Mayer was an early stopper in the race, handing the #8 Starworks Riley over to Brendon Hartley after just 20 minutes. Further up, Fogarty and Ricky Taylor rubbed paintwork as the #99 went up to third on 25 minutes; and just a few minutes later, Yacaman and Ricky Taylor were doing the same as the #6 MSR Riley went up to fourth.

With half an hour gone, the order was 01, 10, 99, 6, 90 and 5 in DP; 63, 61, 31, 59, 57 and 73 in GT; and 70, 00 and 38 in GX. John Edwards was making good progress in the Stevenson Camaro – up to fifth after starting last in class due to an engine change. Unfortunately, the #57 was soon in the pits following a collision with the Porsche of Lindsey, and four laps would be lost before Robin Liddell was able to bring the car back into the race.

“It’s always frustrating to put in all the time and money into a weekend and just get punted by someone in your race,” said Edwards later. “It was especially brutal for me because I spent the whole weekend sick, skipped practice, and my whole purpose of doing all that, resting and drinking fluids was to get ready for the race. We had a good car – the best it’s been all weekend. I don’t think we had the pace to really win the race, but I think we could have—especially with the way the race went at the end—we could have had a podium, or at least a top-five to salvage some good points.”

A lurid spin for Paul Dalla Lana in the #94 Turner Motorsport BMW led to his stalling the car at Turn 1 and a caution was needed to recover the stranded GT.

As ever, the caution allowed the field to pit and a wholesale change of drivers ensued. Things worked out well for the #60 MSR Riley, which had taken its first scheduled stop just before the caution, meaning Ozz Negri suddenly found himself second behind the safety car.

The restart came with an hour and 52 minutes, with the DP order being 5, 60, 10, 01, 99, 6, 90, 42, 76 and 3. Max Angelelli challenged Negri at the first turn but lost momentum when the Brazilian resisted and Rojas went by into third. Christian Fittipaldi was the new leader.

Pat Long now led GT in the #73 Porsche, from Balzan, Leh Keen (#59), Andy Lally (#44), Eric Curran (#31) and Mike Hedlund (#03)

Rojas was soon back up into second, while Dane Cameron was going well in the #42 Sahlen’s Riley – up to fifth soon after the restart. The Ganassi Riley BMW was soon with the leading Corvette and the two cars produced an entertaining duel around the flowing Austin track. Angelelli had also fought his way past Negri in the Velocity Corvette and saw his opportunity to close on the lead battle.

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, Rojas tried again at Turn 1 with 97 minutes remaining. It looked like he had the inside, but Fittipaldi responded and the two touched as the fight continued. Rojas yielded, while Angelelli was himself looking for a gap through to the lead.

In fourth place was former F1 racer Antonio Pizzonia, who was making his Grand-Am debut, and he was very soon challenging for third (although he also had Alex Gurney’s #99 Corvette right on his tail).

While this excellent DP battle continued, the GT class found itself with a new leader after Pat Long was instructed to pit for a 30-second stop/go penalty; Patrick Lindsey’s earlier clash with the Stevenson Camaro being deemed by the officials to be avoidable contact. The penalty dropped the Park Place Porsche to 14th in class. To his credit, Lindsey did not try to shirk blame for the incident.

Rojas finally made a move stick with 93 to go and was clear in the lead through Turn 1.

The battle for the lead had allowed the field to close up and just six seconds covered the top ten DPs as the lead changed. Angelelli wasted no time in mounting his own challenge and took Fittipaldi for second on the next lap – again at Turn 1 – despite being forced into the pitlane exit as the #5 tried to defend.

The #31 Marsh Corvette’s excellent run came to an unfortunate end when front-right suspension failure forced Eric Curran out of second place in GT and into the pitlane. The class was now led once again by Balzan, with Keen seconds and Johannes van Overbeek third in the #03 ESM Ferrari.

Another aggressive defending move by Fittipaldi forced Gurney wide, tempting Pizzonia to make a move on the Red Dragon. Before he could, though, Brendon Hartley went by in the #8 Starworks Riley after the New Zealander had made up a lot of ground since the caution. Ryan Dalziel was also on the scene and tracking Pizzonia closely in the #2.

Huge clumps of cars – DPs mixed with GTs – were arriving at various corners around the circuit, with the wide track encouraging passing and lapping manoeuvres. With the high closing speeds between the classes, it was a surprise that there hadn’t been more contact so far in the race. Rojas was pulling clear of Angelelli, leaving the fight for third as the main battle.

Richard Westbrook took over the #90 SDR Corvette with 80 minutes to go, kicking off the second round of stops.

The GT and DP class leaders both pitted with 65 minutes to go – Rojas handing over to Scott Pruett and Balzan handing over to Alessandro Pier Guidi.

Pruett found himself battling for position from the instant his car was released from its box. The Wayne Taylor Racing crew turned round Angelelli’s Corvette very quickly and the Italian made t to the track ahead of the Riley. However, he then ran wide at Turn 1, allowing Pruett to pull back alongside. Moments later – as the two cars ran side-by-side through the twisting Turns 3, 4 and 5 – the Riley hit the kerbs hard and the Ganassi car reared up into the air, losing its front bodywork in the process.

Pruett was forced to pit for a new nose and dropped down the field.

The DP order after all stops had been completed was Angelelli (#10), Dalziel (#2), Gurney (#99), Hartley (#8), Fittipaldi (#5), Pizzonia (#6), Negri (#60), Westbrook (#90), Cameron (#42) and Pruett (#01).

The dramas hadn’t finished, however, as Westbrook tapped Negri into a spin at one of the slower corners. Both cars ended up facing other for several seconds before resuming – the SDR Corvette seemingly okay, but the #60 left with a rear puncture. The Riley pitted, but a few minutes later it suffered a spin after the tyre gave way at speed.

The GT order with 50 minutes to go was Pier Guidi (#63), Jeff Segal (#61), Lally (#44), Keen (#59), van Overbeek (#03), Ian Baas (#52), Anthony Lazzaro (#69), Dion von Moltke (#18), Mike Skeen (#72) and Long (#73).

Alex Gurney made his final stop with 50 to go, after the team needed the assistance of a black flag to call the driver in due to radio failure.

As it turned out, this was perfect timing as the unfortunate Negri found himself stranded on track as he tried to bring the #60 back to the pits after its blow-out. The car was in a dangerous position and a caution was called. Pizzonia also managed to pit just before the caution, as did Scott Pruett, who must have been crossing the pit-in line as the course went yellow.

Brendon Hartley found himself in the lead at the restart, after Starworks had calculated that he would not need to stop during the caution, and his first task was to defend from a determined Richard Westbrook – the SDR Corvette just failing in its bid to go round the outside at Turn 1. This was actually an attempt by Westbrook to get back on the lead lap after his contact with Negri had cost him a penalty prior to the caution. Gurney was second, Pizzonia third, and – amazingly – Pruett was fourth and well in contention. 30 minutes remained.

Andy Lally now led GT in the Magnus Porsche, from Mike Skeen’s #72 Park Place Porsche and Pier Guidi’s Ferrari. Jeff Segal was sixth in the #61 AIM Ferrari, but suffered a puncture soon after the restart. Soon after, the Scuderia Corse 458 was back into second.

The sun was now very low in the sky, making visibility difficult for all drivers – possibly a factor in Dalziel taking fifth from Angelelli with 27 to go. Five minutes later, the Italian was back ahead of the Scot after an assertive more at Turn 1 which pushed the Starworks car wide.

Bill Auberlen had taken over the #94 Turner BMW near to the back of the GT pack, but had done well out of the caution and was fifth in class with 20 minutes to go.

Hartley was quick and confident in the race lead – his advantage over Gurney being some four seconds – as the final quarter-hour approached, but Pizzonia wasn’t so happy; the #60 Riley being turned around by Angelelli at Turn 1 after Pruett had taken third. Mad Max was handed a 60-second stop/go for his trouble.

And then there was more drama – and this time it was the leader on the receiving end; Hartley unable to turn as the rear suspension collapsed on the #8 Riley following contact with the APR Audi and sent him into the gravel.  Just 14 minutes were on the clock!

This left Alex Gurney leading with Scott Pruett right behind in second and Ryan Dalziel third. Seemingly from nowhere, the #3 8Star Corvette of Stéphane Sarrazin was up to fourth after suffering  stop/hold earlier in the race, and Nic Jönsson fifth in the #76 Krohn racing Lola.

And the fight for the GT lead was equally close, with Pier Guidi on the tail of Lally’s Porsche.

The two leaders were side-by-side through the twisty portion of the track with ten minutes to go and the Ferrari was through as the Porsche got loose. Auberlen was now third and five seconds behind Lally.

The three-way fight for the lead continued unabated as the trio threaded their way through the GT backmarkers; each of them conscious that contact would probably result in a penalty. With four minutes to go, the top three were covered by 0.7s.

Gurney was driving well to hold back Pruett, and had to hold his nerve when the #01 tried down the inside at Turn 1 with three minutes remaining. The #99 closed the door without contact and the battle continued.

There was disaster, though, for the GT leader, as Pier Guidi was handed a 60-second stop/go for contact with the Magnus Porsche during the lead change. This seemed harsh, but the team’s protests fell on deaf ears and the Italian was forced to pit. Auberlen wasted no time in passing Lally for what would very soon become the class lead.

Up ahead, Gurney managed to put a GT Ferrari between himself and Pruett and this allowed Dalziel to challenge for second as the #01 was momentarily slowed. The Starworks car managed to use the same Ferrari to box in Pruett and second was his. One lap remained.

Dalziel closed right up with Gurney and thought he was in with a shout as the two came up on Auberlen’s BMW. The leader got by without losing momentum and the duel continued for the final few corners – Gurney hanging on by his fingertips to take his, Jon Fogarty’s and Bob Stallings Racing’s first win since 2011.

“It was a very intense race,” said Gurney. “Man, that last half hour seemed to last forever with Scott behind me for a long time.  I knew how quick he was, even with the damage his car had on the front end, and then I guess Ryan got by him.  It was just so hectic there, I was just trying not to make mistakes and protect the inside a little bit when I could but, wow, what a battle.

“I think we created a lot of race fans today. We had 500 GAINSCO guests here and it was just a perfect day to win at our home race.  I couldn’t be more stoked.”

“We will have to invent a new word for ‘charge’,” said Ryan Dalziel. “I don’t think I have ever driven so hard in the last four laps of a race. The car was excellent and we came into the race full of confidence. We got involved in that incident at the start, but we got back on track.

“The car was damaged after the hit but it tells you how fast we could have been – to be that good with a damaged car. Alex and the whole Starworks crew did a great job and we are really proud of this result.”

Bill Auberlen was just as delighted as he took a remarkable GT win – the second of the weekend for he and Paul Dalla Lana after they had earlier won the Continental Tire race for Turner Motorsport.

“The Ferrari and Andy were battling out up front. I put my head down and pushed,” said Auberlen. “I didn’t see what happened with Andy and the Ferrari, but it slowed Lally down and he came back to me. I had a move ready and I put it into action. It got tight! It was a great win for Turner. This team is good enough to win races, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t try to win everything we get our hands on.”

“The guys put together a really fast Porsche today,” said second-placed Andy Lally. “We weren’t sure how today was going to go, so to be leading with just a few laps left, get knocked off the road three times, and still take second shows just how good our car was. I really wanted to show well for Flex-Box and our new partners at Boardwalk Porsche, so I’m glad we were at least on the podium. I’m frustrated with how aggressive some of the attempted passing has been, but if that’s how it’s going to go this year, we’ll just have to drive the same way. We clearly have an amazing group of people at this team, we just need to keep doing exactly what we’re doing.”

The GX class couldn’t sustain its earlier intensity as both Mazda6s hit trouble – the #00 retiring and the #70 losing several laps – but BGB Motorsports were still very happy with their first win.

“We knew we would have a fight on our hands with the Mazdas – they have come a long way since Daytona,” said Jim Norman. “But the BGB Motorsports Cayman was ready for the challenge. The team gave us a great car and it was great to race against the kids in the Mazdas, they really pushed me. Thanks to Jeff [Mosing] and Spencer [Pumpelly] – they did a great job in the car and I’m really excited to share this win with them.”

The 25,000-strong crowd (closer to 50,000, in the opinion of Regis Lefebure) went home happy with the entertainment that had been served up, while the sportscar fraternity was rubbing its hands at the prospect of what will be seen at both the WEC race in September and in future Grand-Am/ALMS (whatever the united series will be called) races.

The next round of the Rolex Sports Car Series takes place at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama on April 6th.