Pirelli World Challenge and Mazda Road to Indy Weekend Concludes with New Champions

Operation Homefront, Mazda and Chase go above and beyond for military family.Johnny O'Connell wins fourth consecutive Pirelli World Challenge Championship.Photo by www.bobheathcote.com

The third and final day of the Pirelli World Challenge and Mazda Road to Indy had a little bit of everything: five races, great weather, great fans, intense sports car and open-wheel competition, spins, wins and 10 champions crowned. Here’s a recap of the racing and very special surprises and honors for military families.

Mazda Honors Military in Very Special Way

Operation Homefront, Chase and Mazda teamed up to surprise one military family with a house and three families with a brand-new Mazda, each. Staff Sergeant Jose Louie Ruiz and his wife, Esmeralda, were in attendance at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on Saturday for what they thought was just a day at the track in honor of Military Appreciation Day. What they didn’t know was that Chase Auto Finance CEO Thasunda Duckett and Operation Homefront Chief Development Officer Margi Kirst was going to award them a mortgage-free home in Murrieta, Calif., through the Homes on the Homefront program. Similarly, retired Navy Petty Officer Aaron Timm, active-duty Private First Class Uriel Poblano and his wife, Krystal, and Marine Sergeant Anthony Booth II were all there for what they thought was a one-in-three chance to win a brand new Mazda, presented by Mazda Senior Vice President of U.S. Operations Robert Davis. However, when they got in the cars to see which one would start, to their elation, all three of them started! 

Fourth Straight GT Championship for O’Connell Despite Corkscrew Incident

Alessandro Balzan, of Rovigo, Italy, won in GT at the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix of Monterey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca Presented by Cadillac while Johnny O’Connell of Flowery Branch, Ga. clinched his fourth straight title in a dramatic race. In GTA, Eric Lux of Buffalo, N.Y. won the race with Frank Montecalvo of Highlands, N.J. taking the Championship. In GT Cup, Colin Thompson of Doylestown, Pa. won both the race and the GT Cup title.

With O’Connell and Olivier Beretta of Monte Carlo, Monaco, separated by just a handful of points all eyes were on the Championship contenders as the lights went off on the standing start. It was Balzan, however, getting a jump from the outside of the front row into the Andretti Hairpin in the No. 29 NGT Motorsport MOMO Ferrari 458 GT3 Italia. O’Connell and his No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-VR GT3 took advantage of the clean start by rocketing to second place on the opening lap from his fifth grid position. Pole sitter Alessandro PierGuidi, of Tortona, Italy, in the No. 30 NGT Motorsport MOMO Ferrari 458 GT3 Italia found himself third after the opening lap. Rival Beretta, in the No. 61 R. Ferri Motorsport Ferrari of Ontario/Toronto/Alberta Ferrari 458 GT3 Italia, also made moves on the opening lap, charging from 12th on the grid to eighth, earning him the Optima Batteries Best Standing Start Award.

By lap 25, Beretta had reeled in O’Connell and attacked going into the Andretti Hairpin in a bid for third place. Corners later, the two Championship protagonists made contact in the Corkscrew. Beretta was able to continue and took third place but O’Connell was momentarily stopped, dropping him to 14th and provisionally handing the Championship to the Ferrari pilot.

While O’Connell mounted his rebound effort, Beretta had to serve a drive-through penalty for the contact in lap 25. Beretta was able to emerge from the penalty into seventh place, well in front of O’Connell who had only mustered up to 12th position. However, with just three minutes remaining on official race time, Beretta made contact with the wall coming into turn 11, rendering the Ferrari undriveable and forcing Beretta off course. The DNF for the Beretta and the Ferrari meant O’Connell and Cadillac Racing had captured four consecutive Pirelli World Challenge Championships.

Wilson Wins Race, Cooper Clinches GTS Championship 

Kris Wilson, of Monument, Colo., was victorious in GTS Round 17 at the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix of Monterey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca presented by Cadillac. Michael Cooper, of Syosset, N.Y. finished 10th to clinch the GTS Drivers’ Championship.

“There is no sense looking back on the season.  I knew what the plan was at the beginning.  I wasn’t going to run all of the races this year,” said Wilson. “Of course, to win five races and the most in the series is great and it speaks very highly of the race team.  I would like to put together a program that we can go for a championship. The Aston Martin is a sensational car.  And today it was fun to drive.  It’s a great way to finish the year with a win.”

“Today I was sitting on the grid and looking at the back of the Kia (Wilkins) and saying,  ‘He’s going to stall. I need to go right.’ And of course, that happened and I didn’t get a good start,” said Cooper. “After that I what just the manage our position and grab enough points for the championship.  I wasn’t with Black Dog in their first two championships but this team is a dynasty. There know what they are doing.  They have a consistent and reliable car always.  I want to thank Black Dog Speed Shop and Chevrolet.  This championship feels different than in Touring Car.  This comes after two years of being in and out of racing. It’s definitely sweet.  After I won the title in 2012, I thought I had a ride but things switched.  And I changed my focus too.  I was getting some calls but nothing on a regular basis.  I was getting in and out of a car about every six months for a year and a half was tough going.  Just getting a car cold is hard.  Especially something that’s faster than you have driven is a challenge.  Clearly I did well enough to get this ride this year.”

PIrelli World Challenge Crowns Champions in TC-TCA-TCB 

Ernie Francis, Jr., of Davie, Fla., took the Round 18 TC victory at the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix of Monterey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca presented by Cadillac, while Corey Fergus, of Columbus, Ohio, finished second to secure the TC Drivers’ Championship title. In TCA, Jason Wolfe of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, took the victory to take the TCA Drivers’ Championship, while Joey Jordan of Fallbrook, Calif., swept the weekend in TCB with his third straight win. Johan Schwartz, of Huntersville, S.C., scored the 2015 TCB Drivers’ Championship.

“My championship run was all about consistency,” said Fergus. “We didn’t have too many wins this year, just three out of 18 races. We finished in the top five when we could this year. It proves that consistency wins championships. I have to hand it to our team guys this weekend. They worked 16 hours straight after Friday’s turn two incident (in Round 16). We had about two hours of sleep. And that’s what got us the win on Saturday (Round 17). It’s a special win for the championship.  My dad, John, has won so many championships as a driver but this is his first one as a team owner. And with me as his driver is very special.  It’s a double championship for us and it’s my mom’s birthday today too. It’s just an amazing weekend for our family.”

“We were just trying to keep our nose clean and collect the points today,” said Wolfe. “But then the two lead cars (Holton and Rivera) ended up taking each other out. It’s unfortunate for them but it worked out well for us. I hate to see it end like that but we’ll take it. It has been a good year with the Kia Forte Koup and it’s exciting to win another championship.” 

“We had a great year with nine wins and the championship,” said Schwartz. “John Heinricy and the Chevrolet folks have put together a great car and it’s been tremendous to work with them. This is the first TCB championship for an American manufacturer.  We never gave up despite some of the weight adjustments throughout the season.  It was about consistency through the year.  It was very successful promoting ZERO Cancer this year and prostate cancer awareness.  Having come here as a youngster to go to college, pro racing was just a thought.  It took some years but we finally got here. And winning a championship is pretty amazing.”

Pigot Doubles Up to Earn Fourth Mazda Road to Indy Title

Spencer Pigot and Juncos Racing swept to victory in this afternoon’s Indy Lights Grand Prix Presented by Cooper Tires at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The 21-year-old American took the lead on the first lap and remained in charge throughout the 38-lap contest to claim his series-leading sixth win of the season and, even more importantly, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship title along with the $1 million Mazda Road to Indy scholarship which will guarantee him a ride in three Verizon IndyCar Series events in 2016, including the historic 100th Indianapolis 500.

Fellow American Sean Rayhall finished second for 8Star Motorsports, while Englishman Max Chilton posted a new Indy Lights race lap record of 1:16.1633 (105.783 mph) en route to third place for the Carlin team. 

With today’s title success Pigot now has won four Mazda Scholarships – the Skip Barber Karting Scholarship in 2009, which allowed him to make the move from karts to the Skip Barber Race Series, another scholarship to progress into USF2000 after winning the BFGoodrich/Skip Barber National crown in 2010 and last year’s Pro Mazda championship, also with the Juncos Racing team. 

Pigot started on the outside of the front row for today’s championship decider after regaining the championship lead by virtue of his victory yesterday. He knew a podium finish would be enough to secure the championship. Title rival Jack Harvey, who started directly behind Pigot for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian, made it three wide as the field accelerated toward the green flag, then over the left-handed crest at Turn One and downhill into the braking area for the Mario Andretti hairpin. 

Miraculously, everyone made it through unscathed, although after Chilton, who started on the pole, and Harvey each left their braking a fraction too late, it was Pigot who emerged with the early advantage ahead of Rayhall, who somehow found his way into second from sixth on the grid. Soon afterward, Harvey was assessed a penalty after being adjudged to have jumped the start. He rejoined at the back of the pack, his title aspirations virtually at an end. 

After a pair of early full-course cautions due to Schmidt Peterson teammates Scott Anderson and Ethan Ringel both running into difficulties, Pigot once again took off into the lead with Rayhall in hot pursuit.
 Pigot, who also took home the RePlay XD Move of the Race award for his heads-up maneuver at the first corner, displayed admirable consistency as he focused on maintaining his advantage. When Rayhall eased his pace a little in the closing stages, Pigot finally took the checkered flag some 2.0542 seconds to the good. Shelby Blackstock, who started eighth for Andretti Autosport, took over in fourth following Harvey’s penalty, and held it until the final lap when Ed Jones (Carlin) found a way past. Blackstock had to be content with fifth ahead of RC Enerson (Schmidt Peterson).

Grist Sweeps Pro Mazda Weekend, Urrutia Crowned Champion

The middle step of the Mazda Road to Indy was the first to reach the conclusion of its 2015 season today at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, with Canadian Garett Grist securing a weekend sweep in the Allied Building Products Pro Mazda Grand Prix of Monterey. The double victory propelled Grist from sixth in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires points chase to third and allowed his Juncos Racing team to clinch the coveted Team Championship in style.

Santiago “Santi” Urrutia, who yesterday clinched the championship title as well as a $590,000 Mazda Scholarship prize to assist in his graduation to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2016, finished second – his ninth podium appearance during a stellar rookie season in North America – while Neil Alberico (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) bounced back from a spin on Saturday to finish third. 

The 16th and final round of the Pro Mazda championship was interrupted by three full-course cautions due to a variety of one-car incidents. Grist, who qualified second behind Urrutia, made the decisive pass for the lead at Turn Two on the opening lap, then controlled the ensuing restarts to clinch his third victory of the season. 

Urrutia made a bold move to the inside of Grist entering Turn Two immediately following a restart on Lap Five, locking up under heavy braking and initiating contact between the two cars, but Grist managed to maintain his advantage. Despite damage to his car’s right-front wing, Urrutia held on to second ahead of Alberico. 

Will Owen (Juncos Racing) maintained his strong end to the season by finishing fourth ahead of Dalton Kellett (Andretti Autosport) and 16-year-old Texas-based Mexican Patricio “Pato” O’Ward, who bounced back impressively after being an innocent victim of an incident at the start of Saturday’s race. O’Ward took home the Quarter Master Hard Charger Award, having made up eight positions during the race, as well as the RePlay XD Move of the Race Award for the manner in which he vaulted from 14th to eighth on the first lap.

Jamin Perfect in Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

One day after clinching the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and a Mazda scholarship prize valued at over $380,000, Nico Jamin maintained his extraordinary run of success for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing by dominating this afternoon’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix Powered by Mazda at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The victory was his 10th of the season and sixth in succession. It was also the sixth race in a row in which the 19-year-old Frenchman had scored a maximum 33 points, including bonuses for pole position, most laps led and the fastest race lap. 

Teammate Aaron Telitz finished a lonely second, well clear of Pabst Racing’s Jake Eidson, who worked his way up from fifth on the opening lap. It was the eighth time in 16 races the trio had shared in the podium ceremonies. 

Jamin immediately jumped clear at the start and controlled the pace of the 21-lap race before taking the checkered flag 8.4066 seconds clear of Telitz. Top rookie Anthony Martin (John Cummiskey Racing), from Kalgoorlie, Australia, made a fine getaway to briefly challenge the two leaders into Turn Two before settling into third place, which he held until sliding off the track on the exit of Turn Six on Lap 4. The incident dropped him to fifth, behind fellow Australian Luke Gabin (Team Pelfrey) and Eidson, who had found himself shuffled down two positions at the start. Gabin’s misfortunes continued when his car developed a misfire, causing him to make a visit to the pits and costing any chance of a strong finish. 

Eidson thereby took over in third, chased by the recovering Martin and Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin, who followed up his fine effort on Saturday with an even better performance today on the 2.238-mile road course. Lastochkin closed steadily on Martin in the closing stages en route to a season-best fifth-place finish. 

Peter Portante capped his return to USF2000 with a strong effort for ArmsUp Motorsports which netted a sixth-place result. The youngster from Plainville, Conn., earned both the Tilton Hard Charger Award for making up three positions during the race and the RePlay XD Move of the Race Award for his impressive maneuvers immediately after the start. Portante was followed across the line by Norway’s Ayla Agren (Team Pelfrey), German Keyvan Andres Soori (ArmsUp Motorsports) and China’s Yufeng Luo (Pabst Racing), who had been involved in a race-long battle for position.

Mazda Raceway Honors Justin Wilson with Painting by Bill Patterson 

A painting commemorating the late IndyCar Series driver Justin Wilson was created by renowned motorsports artist Bill Patterson during this weekend’s Pirelli World Challenge/Mazda Road to Indy event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and will be auctioned through Auction Cause (www.auctioncause.com) starting Sept. 21 to benefit The Wilson Children’s Fund. 

Mazda Raceway also honored Wilson by providing No. 25 helmet decals for all competitors, a check presentation by Mazda, and a moment of silence during pre-race activities for Sunday’s Indy Lights race. Wilson, 37, succumbed to injuries Aug. 24 sustained the day before during the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. He is survived by his wife, Julia, and two daughters. The Wilson Children’s Fund (http://justinwilson.co.uk)  was established to help facilitate donations being made on behalf of his children. 

Patterson is a world-class motion sports artist who is well known in the international motor racing world. He is the official artist at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and is seen at tracks and events around the world performing live art and showing his studio and live works. He will create the painting, based on the car Wilson drove to his open wheel victory in the Champ Car race at Toronto in 2005, throughout the weekend in an open air space located in the raceway’s paddock area for all to see its progress. 

Auction Cause is the leader in cause marketing campaigns, branding, and fundraising on eBay. Fellow IndyCar driver Graham Rahal spearheaded the auction that begins Sept. 14 with helmets donated by the competitors in the season finale IndyCar race last month in Sonoma. The painting and other motorsports memorabilia from around the world will be auctioned beginning Sept. 21. The goal is to raise more than $1 million for the Wilson Children’s Fund. 

KTM X-BOW GT4 on Display 

ANSA Motorsports, which fields the No. 13 Trefethen Family Vineyards Porsche GT3 Cup entry for Lorenzo Trefethen in the Pirelli World Challenge GT Cup class, had an exotic new car on display for the first time in the United States in its paddock area Saturday at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Last week, the Miami-based team announced it would compete next season in the 2016 Pirelli World Challenge GTS class with the all-new KTM X-BOW GT4 race car. The KTM X-BOW GT4 features the most advanced racing technology, which is usually only the case in higher categories. In matters of safety, the monocoque technology offers a never-before-seen, unique protection for this class to date. The vehicle showcases the typically futuristic KTM design. Not only is the overall design impressive, but the technology behind the completely redesigned exterior is state-of-the-art. Since the new car is based on its predecessor KTM X-BOW, essentially the customer gets a racing car with more than six years of accumulated data and experience on circuits worldwide.

It definitely caused a second look in a paddock full of head turners.