Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg

The SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge lost Speed as a title sponsor for 2010, but they've picked up a new class of racing and a new schedule that features four double-header events with back-to-back racing on Saturdays and Sundays. 2010 will also see GT, GTS and Touring Car classes in mixed on-track action for the first time since 1999.

This weekend was the first (and second) race of the season, the Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg, run on the streets of St. Pete's. While the top-billed IndyCars have had their race postponed until later today because of torrential rains, the WC boys and girls were able to squeeze two action-packed events into the weekend.

Follow the jump to see how rounds one and two of the 2010 World Challenge championship went down.

[Source: SCCA World Challenge | Images: SCCA Pro Racing, Inc.]

We're going to be following this series all season, as we: A) Like the cars B) Like the tracks and C) Personally know one of the drivers running in GT – the latter of which having promised us exclusive info throughout the season. Hopefully you'll find it as interesting as we do.

World Challenge, for the uninitiated, is an SCCA Pro series that features factory homologated vehicles with relatively few modifications. It is the descendant of Showroom Stock racing, which has seen the likes of Tommy and Bobby Archer, Lou Gigliotti, Andy Pilgrim, Steve Saleen, John Heinricy, Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Pierre Kleinubing, Price Cobb, Peter Cunningham, Bill Auberlen and Randy Pobst scoring titles since its inception in 1972.

The top-rung GT class features cars like the Porsche 911 GT3, Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper, Ford Mustang GT and the... Volvo S60, go figure. The Touring Car class changed a bit over the off-season to limit the modifications allowed. The older TC cars are now eligible for the new GTS class. Whereas the GT cars have 425-525 horsepower, TC and GTS contenders are four-seaters with roughly 235-275 hp. Cars like the Acura TSX, Honda Civic Si, Mazda RX-8, Scion tC, BMW 325 and Mazda6 make up the bulk of the field.

Going into 2010, last year's GT runner-up, James Sofronas, in the No. 14 Global Motorsports Group Porsche 911 GT3, is expected to be this season's front-runner with last year's champ, Brandon Davis, dropping down to TC this year. His teammate, Dino Crescentini, is our man on the inside this year, and he is coming off of a ninth-place finish in last year's championship having missed a few rounds after an early-season accident. Dino and James were two of the seven drivers who nabbed a win last year in the ten race schedule. Crescentini will pilot the No. 4 Centric Parts/Stoptech Global Motorsports Group Porsche 911 GT3 in 2010.

Qualifying for St. Petersburg ended with K-Pax Racing's Randy Pobst on pole in his Volvo S60. Crescentini put his Centric Parts/Stoptech/GMG 911 GT3 in second, just ahead of Sofronas. Andy Pilgrim (K-Pax Racing Volvo S60) was fourth with Jason Daskalos (Viper), Kuno Wittmer (Dodge Motorsports Viper), Tony Rivera in the brand-new Nissan/Brass Monkey Racing GT-R, Patrick Lindsey (Horton/Sloan Securities 911 GT3), rookie Steve Ott (Nissan/Brass Monkey Racing GT-R), and Brian Kubinski in the Carlisle Companies Chevrolet Corvette rounding out the top ten.

The small GTS field lined up thusly: Peter Cunningham gridded his Acura/RealTime Racing TSX first in class, 17th overall, followed by teammate Nick Esayian, rookie Kevin Helms (DBA/Carbotech/AST/Exedy Honda Civic Si), Michael Pettiford (Go4It Racing Schools/Hawk) Pontiac Solstice GXP, and freshman teammate Tom Lepper in another Solstice. Davis lined up at the back of the field in his Acura/RealTime Racing TSX after posting no time in quali.

TC had the final nine spots on the grid with Mark Hein (Morgan Stanley Smith Barney Honda Civic Si) grabbing the top class qualifying time, followed by rookie Todd Buras (Irish Mike's Racing Volkswagen Jetta GLI) and fellow rookie Robert Stout in the DG-Spec/Scion/TRD/Lucas Oil Scion tC.

Saturday's race hadn't even started before Crescentini was out with an electrical glitch, but teammate James Safronas was still in the hunt, trying his hardest to haul in the Volvos. Traffic was a new issue for these guys to contend with, the other classes providing enough interference to keep the whole pack bunched up through the majority of the race. Jason Daskalos' Dodge Viper was ahead of Safronas for much of the race, but wasn't ever able to challenge the Volvos. On a lap-16 restart, Sofronas made his move, squeezing past Daskalos and earning the Invisible Glass Clean Pass of the Race. In the end, Randy Pobst held off teammate Andy Pilgrim for the win, the 23rd in his World Challenge career.

In GTS, Peter Cunningham never looked back once the race started, going flag-to-flag in his No. 43 Acura/RealTime Racing Acura TSX. The big surprise was Brandon Davis, who had missed qualifying after signing at the eleventh hour with Acura/RealTime Racing, relegating him to the back of the pack at the start. Although he used the yellows to help close the gap, and finished a very respectable second, Davis never really challenged Cunningham for the lead. Their teammate Nick Esayian, made it a clean sweep of the podium for the team after Kevin Helms had the steering in his No. 04 DBA/Carbotech/AST/Exedy Honda Civic Si give out. Michael Pettiford and Tom Lepper finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in their Pontiac Solstice GXPs.

The Touring Car class was another interesting race-within-the-race, with a first-time winner crowned in the driver and manufacturer categories. A bit of comic relief came when rookie Todd Buras tried to line up for the standing start. When the car that had qualified ahead of him decided to start from pit lane, he felt he should move up to that open spot. The marshals thought otherwise. He backed up to his original slot with five seconds to go before the green. When the green did come, Buras launched his No. 49 Irish Mike's Racing Volkswagen Jetta GLI hard – shooting backwards down the grid. He had left the car in reverse, and struggled to find first long enough to be a few spots further back by the time he got rolling in the right direction.

Amazingly, the slip-up seemed to invigorate the rookie, pushing him up through the pack and eventually into first where he eventually finished. It was a first for Buras, a first for Volkswagen and a first for us – we've never heard of such a screw-up leading to a win in a major motor racing series. Buras passed polesitter Mark Hein's No. 38 Morgan Stanley Smith Barney Honda Civic Si after the restart, leaving Hein and Robert Stout in his No. 18 DG-Spec/Scion/TRD/Lucas Oil Scion tC to battle for second. When Hein had a tire go down, Stout was awarded the MTM Special Ops Best Move of the Race in avoiding the spinning Civic. Stout's teammate, Dan Gardner, captured third in the No. 36 DG-Spec/Scion/TRD/Lepper & Associates Scion tC, as well as the Sunoco Hard Charger for moving up nine places in the race.

On Sunday, Buras repeated the feat, minus the reverse action. Buras got away cleanly from his second-place starting position, but dropped to fourth into Turn One. Polesitter Mark Hein was again at the front, but as the Touring Cars came out of Turn Three, they found Patrick Lindsey's GT Porsche sitting sideways in their path. Buras chose his path wisely and shot into the lead. Hein and Robert Stout began a battle for second that saw them swapping positions several times until Stout finally put his No. 18 DG-Spec/Scion/TRD/Lucas Oil Scion tC ahead for good with Hein holding onto third.

Stout's pass of Hein on lap 24 in Turn 10 earned the Invisible Glass Clean Pass of the Race. Driving the No. 36 DG-Spec/Scion/TRD/Lepper & Associates Scion tC, Dan Gardner earned both the Optima Batteries Best Standing Start of the Race and the Sunoco Hard Charger award on his way to fourth place. Eric Meyer nabbed fifth in his Mazda RX-8.

GTS saw its own repeat performance, with Peter Cunningham completing another flag-to-flag win in his Acura/RealTime Racing Acura TSX. That extends Cunningham's record win total to 34 in the series. Brandon Davis was once again second, this time putting more pressure on his teammate, finishing just 0.544 seconds behind at the checkers. Their RealTime partner, Nick Esayian, finished third, giving the team another podium sweep.Kevin Helms (Honda Civic Si) and Michael Pettiford (Pontiac Solstice) completed the top five.

The GT class was the only group that saw a different winner between Saturday and Sunday. After pulling out with electrical problems on Saturday, Dino Crescentini made up for it on Sunday, powering away from his second starting position and leading the rest of the way in his No. 4 Centric Parts/Stoptech/GMG Porsche 911 GT3. Crescentini actually had a slow start, but had enough momentum going into one to get past polesitter Randy Pobst's No. 6 K-Pax Racing Volvo S60.

The win was Crescentini's third in the World Challenge series, this time beating teammate James Sofronas by 0.848 seconds at the end. Andy Pilgrim brought his No. 8 K-Pax Racing Volvo S60 home in third after getting passed by Sofronas on the race's second restart following Lindsey's spin. The race was actually slowed by a pair of caution periods and ended up time limited to 50 minutes, but that didn't dampen the excitement for the Centric Parts/Stoptech/GMG team. As Crescentini explained, it wasn't exactly a cakewalk either.

"The start was really scary for me because the launch control wasn't working and I had to do it manually," Crescentini said. "I haven't done that in a while. I had some luck on my side with Randy [Pobst, the polesitter] slipping up and I took advantage of that. The car was so beautifully set up by the guys at GMG, as we saw in practice and qualifying. It seemed like every time I hit slower traffic, I was able to get by and whoever was behind me seemed to get held up, so I got really lucky."

Pobst was fourth after pitting to deal with some overheating problems, followed by Jason Daskalos (Daskalos Developments Dodge Viper) in fifth and Kuno Wittmer in the No. 13 Dodge Motorsports Dodge Viper. Rob Morgan (Porsche 911 GT3), Brian Kubinski (Chevrolet Corvette), Tony Rivera (Nissan GT-R), Jeff Courtney (Dodge Viper) and Tony Gaples (Chevrolet Corvette) rounded out the top 10. Rivera earned the MTM Special Ops Move of the Race in the No. 97 Nissan/Brass Monkey Racing Nissan GT-R for his lap-26 pass of Courtney after following him for several laps.

Sofronas now sits atop the Championship standings after two rounds, with 210 points. Pilgrim is second, with 204, followed by Pobst (198), Crescentini (192) and Wittmer (155). Volvo leads the Manufacturers' Championship, with 16 points, followed by Porsche (14), Dodge (four) and Chevrolet (one).

The next stop for the World Challenge series will be the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, April 16-18.

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