BACK IN BLACK
SpeedSource RX-8 takes top step of GT podium in busy Grand-Am weekend for Mazda at Barber Motorsports Park
The Grand-Am season may begin before most—with the late-January running of the iconic 24 Hours of Daytona—but usually there is a pretty long break sandwiched between the kickoff and round two of the road racing series. This year, for instance, there was essentially two months from Daytona until the late-March Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, the second round for both the Rolex Sports Car and Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge (CTSCC) championships.
Such a lengthy stoppage in the course of a racing schedule can be both blessing and curse for competitors. On the plus side, the pause gives everyone more time to sort out race cars and strategy heading into the meat of the season; on the minus side, if you started well, the break can seem interminably long, effectively putting any positive emotional momentum on ice.
Mazda Rolex Series racers SpeedSource seemed to make the right calls in their time away, finishing first in the Porsche 250's GT Class after a strong sixth-place showing at Daytona eight weeks earlier; two additional RX-8 finished top ten in class, the No. 41 Dempsey Racing entry in eighth and the No. 42 Team Sahlen car in ninth. The CTSCC's Street Tuner (ST) division featured two more Mazda in the top ten, the No. 03 CJ Wilson Racing MX-5 in fourth and the No. 25 Freedom Autosport roadster in sixth. Rounding out the weekend of Mazda motorsports was the open-wheel Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear doubleheader, part of the Mazda Road to Indy driver development program, which saw Jack Hawksworth win his second race in a row and Martin Scuncio pick up his first series victory of 2012.
SpeedSource was back in black at Barber—the weekend marked a return to the iconic matte-black paint scheme for the No. 70 Castrol Edge Mazda RX-8 after the car ran an updated black-and-white scheme at Daytona. On track midday Saturday, March 31, the return to racing since January's opener was equally welcomed and the No. 70 Castrol Edge RX-8 driven by Sylvain Tremblay and Jonathan Bomarito cruised to victory in GT. The result delivered Mazda its first victory for the 2012 season in just the second race of the championship.
The SpeedSource crew knew early on in the weekend that the No. 70 was excellent in preserving tires for extended runs; this key strength proved pivotal on race day, the team electing to conserve its allotment of Continental tires. Tremblay started the car from eighth on the grid and steadily followed the lead pack of cars in class.
During the race's second caution period, the No. 70 RX-8 took the lead in GT. Great race strategy and a quick pit stop allowed Bomarito to beat the rest of the field out of pit lane, leapfrogging into first place.
He continued to push the pace and extend his mid-race lead. As teams approached their final fuel windows and pit stops began to cycle, the No. 70 Castrol Edge Mazda pitted for four tires and fuel, maintaining its class lead thanks to a quick, flawless service by the SpeedSource crew.
A last-minute yellow by Grand-Am created momentary drama and stacked up the GT field for a three-lap shootout; however, opportune track position actually meant that the No. 70 Mazda would get a free 9/10th of a lap on the field. Bomarito breathed a little easier as he coasted the No. 70 Castrol Edge Mazda RX-8 across the finish line first in class.
"Having Castrol back is huge for us, but the added support from ModSpace allowed us to be at the level that we know this team can operate at consistently. This win is all the crew, with great pit stops and flawless strategy; we truly beat much faster cars because of this fantastic team. Thank you Castrol, ModSpace and Mazda for being the best at what they do," Tremblay said after the checkered flag.
Later that day, CJ Wilson Racing took advantage of the twisty circuit at the CTSCC Barber 200 to make a statement in only their second start as a team. Jason Saini and Chad McCumbee finished fourth in the team's No. 03 ModSpace/Construct Corps/CJ Wilson Children's Charities Mazda MX-5. Marc Miller and co-driver Bruce Ledoux led the 40-car ST-field for 39 laps in a bid to give CJ Wilson Racing its first ST-class victory before a late-race penalty for passing the pace car forced the team to a 27th-place finish in their No. 04 ModSpace/Guardian Angel Motorsports Mazda MX-5.
Miller started the No. 04 from second position and battled for the lead before inheriting it during the second caution period after going off-sequence with pit-stop strategy. From there the rookie driver led 39 straight laps, pulling away with each green-flag run. With severe weather coming, the pairing's only hope was to push hard and hope for weather to put Ledoux out in rainy conditions on wet-weather tires, something he excelled at in the early laps of the opening round at Daytona. The plan was compromised by a late-race penalty, however, for passing the pace car prior to their pit stop.
"Our strategy changed constantly over the race and we were very unlucky with the timing of the yellows," said Miller. "Our pace was great even on old tires, and if the rains only came five minutes earlier I am positive you would have seen Bruce able to go out and put the car on the podium. Before our driver change, officials informed us to go around the pace car, so we did and by the time they corrected us, it was too late and we had to serve a penalty. While we are disappointed with the final result, we had a great showing for the team, partners and the Guardian Angel Motorsports charity."
The duo of McCumbee and Saini utilized a more conventional strategy, and with the many cautions gained good track position by the end of the race. Saini fought his way to the top five and was fighting for a podium finish before having to settle for fourth across the stripe.
"Now we are looking forward to developing the cars a bit more before the next race, and asserting ourselves as one of the teams to beat in Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge ST racing," said Saini. "We've got great partners and supporters, and it's an exciting time with CJ starting his new tenure with the [Los Angeles] Angels."
On Sunday, Englishman Hawksworth—fresh off a win from the pole in race two of the Star Mazda Championship season opener at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg a weekend earlier—won his second race in a row, again from pole. Driving his No. 82 Team Pelfrey / TORGOEN Swiss Watches / EXA Networks Mazda, Hawksworth crossed the finish line 6.9 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Sage Karam in the No. 88 Andretti Autosport / Comfort Revolution Mazda.
This was Karam's first podium of the season after winning two races last year but getting off to a rocky start with mechanical problems in Round 1 at St. Pete.
Rounding out the top three was European F3 and GP3 racer Gabby Chaves, who also scored a podium finish in St. Pete, driving the No. 19 JDC Motorsports / OMP Mazda. The top finishing Expert Series driver, as he was in St. Pete, was top AMA SuperBike racer Larry Pegram, who periodically trades two-wheels for four when he races his No. 72 AIM Autosport Foremost Insurance / Tampa Bay Jaw Surgery Mazda.
"The team and I are just over the moon about our results so far, but you can't reasonably expect this kind of thing to continue, so you just have to make the best of it and keep working as hard as you can," says Hawksworth. "The minute you start taking the results for granted, they'll stop happening. Fortunately Team Pelfrey is a very professional organization, and even though the level of competition in this series is actually quite high, I'm confident that I have a winning car every time I roll out on track."
The contest was short on drama: a lazy spin-and-continue on Lap 6 by Zach Veach in the No. 77 Andretti Autosport / Zakoski Data Backup Mazda, a mistake that dropped him from 7th to 15th, and about 15 feet of off-roading by Connor De Phillippi, which produced no harm. When all was said and done, the race was "clean and green," with only one brief local yellow.
A second 30-minute race ran immediately after the conclusion of Sunday's IZOD IndyCar Series' Grand Prix of Alabama; the race was originally scheduled for Friday but major storms in the area forced a postponement. Grid positions for race two were set by each car's quick time in race one, the front row for the second race featuring Hawksworth on pole alongside Chilean Scuncio.
In the No. 22 Juncos Racing / Pullman Bus Mazda, Scuncio crossed the finish line 0.651 seconds ahead of Hawksworth and 1.601 seconds ahead of Juncos Racing teammate De Phillippi in the No. 2 Juncos Racing / ModSpace Racing / One24 Mazda. Pegram was again top-finishing driver in the Expert Series, finishing 14th overall.
The stage seemed set for a dramatic two-lap shootout when a full-course yellow in the closing laps bunched the field and left just enough time for two extremely hot laps. But while the racing was very much wheel-to-wheel, particularly in the first couple of turns after the re-start, the order at the front of the field remained essentially unchanged to the checkered.
"I'm very happy for myself, my team and all the people who've helped me over the years, this one is for them," said Scuncio, an F3 champion in Chile and veteran of both European and U.S. open-wheel racing. "The Juncos Racing team gives me a good car every time, but I have not always made the best use of it, until today. My car felt very strong and I was able to pass Connor in Turn 11 on the third lap and stay ahead of him. It wasn't easy, but I felt very much in control and now that I know this feeling, I believe I will experience it again soon."
The next race for the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series is the Grand Prix of Miami on April 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, where the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge will also run its Kia 200 on the 28th. The next race for the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear is the "Night Before the 500" at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis; this first oval-track race of the Star Mazda season is held May 26, the Saturday night before Sunday's running of the Indy 500.