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Pirelli World Challenge: Miller Motorsports Park, Weekend Report

Capping off a banner season for the Pirelli World Challenge, Miller Motorsports Park played host to the final two rounds of the championship, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary. Utah Jazz supremo Larry H. Miller’s original plans were to build his own personal racing playground of sorts, but enormous outside financial support saw the design of a sprawling, top-flight motorsport facility rivaling the very best in the United States. Miller Motorsports Park is located a short drive west of Salt Lake City, Utah, and lies just south of the Great Salt Lake Desert.

After the penultimate weekend in Sonoma, Johnny O’Connell had a solid lead in the GT standings with 1376 points to second-placed Mike Skeen’s 1334. Anthony Lazzaro was a distant third, with a championship mathematically possible but highly unlikely. In GT-A, three drivers were in the hunt for the class title: EFFORT Racing’s Michael Mills held a solid 48 point lead over Swedish American Henrik Hedman, with Dan Knox in turn behind 7 points to Hedman’s total points tally. Finally, in GTS, Toronto’s staple sportscar driver Mark Wilkins held an 80-point lead over Lawson Aschenbach going into Utah, 1333 points to 1253.

Practice and Qualifying

After three initial test sessions on Thursday, Pirelli World Challenge competitors hit the track early Friday morning to set their first official times on the 4.876-kilometer Outer Course. Although Guy Smith had limited testing time due to a delay in parts delivery, the Yorkshireman threw together a 1:48.431 in his #88 Dyson Racing Team Bentley Continental GT3.

“The car is quite good here so far,” Smith told Dailysportscar’s North American correspondent Gary Horrocks. “It’s nice to be back here again. I’ve spent so much of my career here in the States, I’ve been feeling like a foreigner when I’ve been racing back in Europe. I’ve lots of good memories racing here and I’m glad to be back again.”

Smith’s nearest rival, the #31 EFFORT Racing Porsche GT3R of Ryan Dalziel set a 1:49.011 over third-placed Andy Pilgrim, driving the #8 Cadillac Racing CTS-V R.

Meanwhile, GT-A points leader Michael Mills drove his #41 EFFORT Racing Porsche GT3R to a 1:51.183, good enough for overall honors in class and a slim advantage over the #76 GMG Racing Audi R8 of Alex Welch. In third place was the #80 Lone Star Racing SRT Viper GT3R of Dan Knox. The #73 RESET-MD Porsche Cayman S of Jack Baldwin was on top in GTS, while the #17 Watson Racing Ford Mustang of Alec Udell sat second and the #02 TRG-AMR Aston Martin GT4 of Drew Regitz placed.

Unlike the majority of World Challenge events in 2014, teams at Miller were only given one single practice session before setting the grid in qualifying. Guy Smith continued his domination and took his Bentley to pole over the #2 Hawk Performance Audi R8 of Mike Skeen, while Smith’s teammate in Butch Leitzinger qualified third.

“It’s great to get this for Rob, Chris and for Bentley,” said polesitter Smith. “The car was quick this morning in cooler conditions but we opted to leave it as it was, not play with it and it paid off. I’m delighted too for Lewis Pinto, he’s one of the M-Sport assistant engineers and this is his very first time lead engineering a car. If we can get it off the line well we have a good race car.

Michael Mills was once again fastest in GT-A, over half a second quicker than his nearest competitor, the #54 Black Swan Racing Mercedes SLS AMG GT3. Alex Welch took third. In GTS, Jack Baldwin was in a Kia sandwich: points leader Mark Wilkins in first and his Swedish American teammate Nic Jönsson in third.

GT/GT-A Race 1

It was a sunny and clear Friday afternoon to kick off the first of two races at Miller Motorsports Park. Chaos ensued almost immediately after the drop of the green as Mike Skeen, lying in second place on the grid, suffered a terminal axle failure at launch and could not get off the line. Along with calamity for two GTS contenders further back on the grid, Alex Figge also stalled his sixth-placed #9 K-PAX Racing McLaren MP4 12C GT3, and these accidents prompted a five laps under the safety car.

From there, the race was properly underway, with the #6 K-PAX Racing McLaren MP4 12C GT3 of Robert Thorne in the lead after a fantastic start. Guy Smith’s start was quite the contrary, as the Bentley Continental GT3 chassis, originally built for GT3 racing in Europe with rolling starts, has not yet been tuned for standing starts as seen in the Pirelli World Challenge. After dropping from first to sixth place at the green, the newly 40-year-old Yorkshireman battled up to third in only a lap after the restart.

What was then a second-placed Porsche of Ryan Dalziel pitted for both a tire puncture and a later diagnosed clutch problem on lap 9, promoting Smith up to second. Thorne held his lead for 13 laps, but dropped back to fifth with a quick spin following an incident with a GTS car. Smith inherited the lead and was able to drive comfortably to an emphatic victory for the Bentley squad with Johnny O’Connell and Butch Leitzinger in tow.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time so far in Pirelli World Challenge, the series has welcomed myself, Bentley and Dyson Racing with open arms,” said birthday boy Smith after the race. “I knew the Bentley was going to be good on tires during the race 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,” continued Smith. “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.”

But the real victory was for Johnny O’Connell. Quietly going about his business and never truly challenging the leaders, the decorated sportscar racing veteran secured his points lead over the non-finishing Mike Skeen, unofficially clinching his third straight World Challenge GT class title.

In GT-A, Michael Mills continued his dominant streak, taking his third first place of the weekend and his sixth class win of the season, further solidifying his points lead.

“There’s enough points out there where if I DNF tomorrow (Saturday), I can still lose it, but for sure, this is a step in the right direction to sew this thing up to get a championship for EFFORT and championship for Porsche and get one for my family and me and MSR Houston,” said Mills. “It means a lot to all of us.”

The #0 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo FL2 of Marcelo Hahn finished second while Alex Welch placed third.

GTS Race 1

Baldwin inherited the GTS lead only a few seconds after the green flag dropped. After polesitter Mark Wilkins broke a half-shaft and stalled on the grid, his then third-placed teammate Nic Jönsson had nowhere to go and the two made contact.

Baldwin would lead until lap 19, when he came into contact with the #20 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini FL2 of Andy Lee, making his GT class debut. Baldwin would quickly recover but the lead was handed to the #34 TRG-AMR North America Aston Martin GT4 of Nick Esayian. Esayian would take his second career win after a four year drought.

“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’s worked hard and we’ve had some mechanical gremlins so to be able to put together a winning effort today was big.”

Baldwin would finish second while Esayian’s teammate, Drew Regitz, ensured a double podium for TRG. Notably, the #1 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro of Lawson Aschenbach finished fourth, taking a chunk out of Mark Wilkins’s points lead.

GT/GT-A Race 2

As always, grid spots were set by the fastest times in the first race. Therefore, Guy Smith once again had the advantage after setting the quickest time in Friday afternoon’s race, putting him at the front of the pack with Robert Thorne alongside him in second.

Once again, Smith faltered on the start, stalling his car and dropping to the very back of the 39-car train. He would never be in contention for the race win in spite of setting the fastest lap of the race again.

The race would run caution-free for the full 50 minutes, with Robert Thorne out in front for its entirety after taking the lead at the start. After another excellent launch, Johnny O’Connell managed to hold second in the early stages of the race while Dalziel struggled to find a way by. Once the Scotsman finally got around the series champion, Thorne would withstand tremendous pressure from the EFFORT Racing Porsche to take his maiden GT victory and the first for McLaren as a marque in North American. It was by no means a typically straightforward flag-to-flag victory.

Thorne’s breakthrough win also marked K-PAX’s first victory of the season after an immensely tough year.

“I’m really pleased with that,” said Thorne. “I’m still learning and it was a tough race all the way through. To say that I’m delighted for K-Pax and McLaren would be an understatement. I hope it persuades the team to continue this programme and be back in 2015, and I hope I’m part of it.”

Ryan Dalziel and the #8 Cadillac Racing CTS-V R of Andy Pilgrim filled out the podium. Pilgrim’s teammate at Cadillac, champion Johnny O’Connell, finished a distant seventh, but that hardly dampened his spirits.

“That was really, really tough, almost everywhere this year the car has been perfect but today the car was pretty hard work today,” said O’Connell. “It’s great to take the title, particularly with the big step forward that the World Challenge has taken this year. I hope to be back next year when I am absolutely sure it is going to be even tougher.”

In GT-A, Tim Pappas rebounded from his Friday woes to take his second class victory of the season. Marcelo Hahn drove his Reiter Engineering Lamborghini to a solid second while Michael Mills was crowned class champion after placing third.

“It’s an honor to be here with Johnny (O’Connell) and Lawson (Aschenbach),” 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.”

GTS Race 2

Kia’s bad luck would only continue on Saturday as Nic Jönsson would fall back with a half-shaft problem after leading the first seven laps from pole. Additionally, a spirited drive by Mark Wilkins from 17th to sixth was stopped in its tracks by an overheating engine.

Jack Baldwin would the win after narrowly missing out on Friday by no fault of his own. Lawson Aschenbach would finish second while Drew Regitz finished out a solid weekend with another podium finish in third.

While Kia still held on to the GTS Manufacturer’s Championship despite a miserable weekend for both drivers, Lawson Aschenbach would take his second successive class title for Blackdog Speed Shop and Chevrolet.

“Never say die. I really have to say thanks to everyone at Blackdog Speed Shop,” Aschenbach said. “This season we had some ups and some pretty hard downs that basically took us out of the championship. But we kept fighting and that became our motto and we kept fighting and kept pushing and at the end of the day I am really proud to say that I am proud of what we accomplished this year, especially considering what we’ve been through.”

And with that, the 25th anniversary season of World Challenge racing comes to a momentous close. The 2015 season is slated to begin at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas from March 6-8, and although the winter doldrums can be hard to get through, Scott Bove and all involved with the World Challenge can look back at 2014 as a frontline year for the series.

Beck Duggleby