Dec 24, 2013, 11:00 AM EDT
Perhaps 2013’s best sports car racing in North America on a race-to-race basis was the Pirelli World Challenge series, with drama usually ensuing in at least two of its four classes on a given race weekend. Seven of the nine weekends were contested alongside IndyCar events, to give fans a dash of sports car variety and provide them more bang for their buck. The series continued to make strides as it heads into 2014, its 25th anniversary season.
While Johnny O’Connell secured his second straight GT class driver’s title in his Cadillac CTS-V.R, it was no cakewalk. If anything, this one required renewed focus and a bit of luck to overcome deficits at two points during the season. O’Connell was in a hole out of the gate from the first seven races, despite two wins, as failures to finish in Long Beach and Austin cost him substantial points. James Sofronas picked up three early season wins and led the points in his GMG Racing Audi R8.
But Sofronas’ car often took longer to get its tires up to optimal working temperatures; the car was always at its best near the end of the race. O’Connell’s came in quicker from the midway point, and two further wins at Lime Rock and Toronto boosted him into the points lead. The tide shifted once again though with back-to-back DNFs for O’Connell at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, and podiums for Sofronas moved him into the title lead heading into the Houston finale. There, qualifying was set by points after the track delays and weather compromised the schedule, so Sofronas had the pole. The Audi had the measure of the Cadillac in Sunday’s wet race before the conditions turned, and a seesaw battle eventually ended with O’Connell taking both the win and the title with Sofronas a very hard luck second.
O’Connell’s Cadillac teammate, Andy Pilgrim, along with the two K-PAX Racing Volvo S60s (Alex Figge, Randy Pobst) and Mike Skeen’s Corvette also won GT class races. Expect the number of winners to grow in 2014 as the GT class will feature a swath of FIA GT3-spec machinery, which was homologated for Pirelli World Challenge, and an additional outlet for gentleman drivers with the creation of the GT-A subcategory. Big things are ahead here.
If GT was good, you could argue GTS was better for the course of 2013. Jack Baldwin led the points from start to the second-to-last race in his Goldcrest Motorsports-prepared Porsche Cayman S, on the strength of three wins and 10 podium finishes in the first 13 races. But while Baldwin sought to add the GTS crown to his stacked road racing resume, younger chargers Lawson Aschenbach and Mark Wilkins had other ideas.
Aschenbach won a class-high five races heading into Houston in his Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro, while Wilkins took two wins in his Kinetic Motorsports Kia Optima. They each had a mathematical shot at the title heading into Houston and Aschenbach seized the win there as Baldwin fell far enough back to lose the points lead; Wilkins had his own shot too if the race lasted another roughly 5-10 minutes. It was a stellar effort from all three over the year.
Elsewhere in class, Andy Lee (Camaro), Dean Martin (Ford Mustang Boss 302S) and Brandon Davis (Aston Martin Vantage GT4) also won races. Defending class champ Peter Cunningham fought through a difficult season in his RealTime Acura TSX but still secured six podiums, and Ford’s top driver on the year, teenaged Alec Udell, showed promise for the future. Car counts generally ran in the mid-to-high 20s, save for Toronto.
Ryan Winchester took the year’s only truly dominant class championship, with a commanding performance in the Touring Car class for Karl Thomson’s Compass360 Racing team. The Iowa native excelled as a rookie and put together a much better second season with six wins and podiums in all but one of the 14 races in his Honda Civic Si. Full season teammates Brett Sandberg (four wins) and Remo Ruscitti (none, but top rookie) were often his closest challengers.
Defending class champion Michael Cooper missed the season opener in Austin, which dented his title hopes before they even began. Still, Cooper had the measure of the field in the midseason with four wins. Jon Miller also impressed over the year with a number of exciting passing maneuvers, but luck was simply not on his side. All told TC had the lowest car counts throughout 2013 and the series is examining how to move forward with the class beyond 2014, as a new TCA class for SCCA T4 and similar machinery is set to be introduced to help cut costs.
The entry-level class grew by leaps and bounds in 2013, with car counts jumping from roughly half a dozen to often north of 20 in TCB. An incredibly tight title battle ended with Robbie Davis taking the class championship in his MINI Cooper ahead of Joel Lipperini (Honda Fit) and Ernie Francis Jr. (Mazda 2). Francis won the most races but had several points penalties over the course of the year; Davis picked his spots well and survived Lipperini’s late charge to take the title.
Tyler Palmer swept the season finale at Houston in his MINI and emerged as a potential future star from this class beyond the top three. More than 30 car and driver combinations appeared at some point during the year and always helped keep this class interesting.