LONG BEACH, Calif. — James Sofronas scored an overall and class win in his “hometown” race, taking round three of the Pirelli World Challenge Long Beach Grand Prix Presented by KIA.
Lawson Aschenbach took his, and the Blackdog Speed Shop team’s, first GTS-class win. Andy Pilgrim and Mike Skeen finished second and third in GT, respectively. Peter Cunningham and Jack Baldwin completed the top three in GTS.
Driving the No. 14 GMG/Mobil 1 Audi R8, Motul Polesitter Sofronas lost the lead early, but stayed near the front of the pack heading into the waning laps of a race, at the 11-Turn, 1.968-mile street course. A full-course caution came out on lap 27, of the 31-Lap, 61.01-mile race, for then-leader Alex Figge suffered a brake rotor failure, pitching his No. 9 K-PAX Racing Volvo S60 into the turn one wall.
At that point Johnny O’Connell assumed the lead behind the pace car, needing to finish only two laps under caution for the win. As the field approached the white flag, small wisps of smoke came from the No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V.R as it navigated Turn 10. After passing the line and making it through four turns, the smoke increased and the car came to a rest after turn five, less than a lap before the checkered flag would be displayed. After the race, the Cadillac crew discovered a three-inch piece of steel lodged in O’Connell’s radiator, presumably from Figge’s car.
O’Connell’s retirement promoted Sofronas to the lead and the win.
“The car’s obviously been running strong, and is very competitive,” Sofronas said. “We are there at the end. Like the first two races (at St. Petersburg), we just wanted to be there to fight for a good finish. And then, coming to Long Beach, pretty much accepting a third place. At the end, our car actually got better. At the beginning of the race I just didn’t have enough front grip, and I was struggling to hit my marks. And it was kind of how we set up the car, but I expected it to come to me a little sooner in the race.
“Then, when we had the restart, I thought that was our chance. I closed up on Johnny and then Figge. Johnny and I had a good battle. I think we had three laps we were nose to tail. We were just waiting for something to happen and boy, did something happen.
“Obviously, Figge just all of a sudden going into turn one, loses it and bounces off the wall, I am literally looking left and right around Johnny’s Caddy, deciding where to go. And then I noticed a sheen of oil through turn one and I saw Figge fly off. And there was debris everywhere. When I got through turn one, I ran over shrapnel, carbon fiber bits, there was junk everywhere. And I kind of just wanted to tippy toe through it. And then, I noticed Johnny’s car blowing water out the side. And I thought ‘well he just ran over something and popped a radiator.’ I thought when we would go back to green, he was going to have issues. And then once I got the lap count at the end, I realized race is over, this is great I’m going to podium, second place, can’t ask for more. And then the next thing I know, Johnny’s car is smoking out the side pipes and I am giving our guys a play by play saying ‘this thing is smoking a bit more, I’m seeing a little oil come out. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ Then all of a sudden boom! He pulled over, and I kind of slowed down and took a look at him and said, is this really happening. I’ve never won a race in this style, but it’s a testament to the GMG guys.”
As a result of O’Connell’s retirement, his teammate Pilgrim ended up second in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V.R. Pilgrim also scored the Invisible Glass Clean Pass of the race, for his pass on Skeen.
“Johnny hit some debris,” Pilgrim said. “I think Alex [Figge] spun in some oil going into Turn One. Really unlucky for the K-PAX guys. When Alex hit the tires [in Turn One] it jettisoned some junk and some of that went through Johnny’s radiator and unfortunately that was what cost Johnny the win.
“For Cadillac, I’m really glad I’m here. We got a second place. It was a strange race. It was just a strange race. Congrats to James on the win. We were kind of like Mike [Skeen], we were thinking top five. Second place for us was a real bonus.”
Skeen completed the podium in the No. 2 Hawk Performance Chevrolet Corvette. Skeen had an excellent jump on the start from his eight place starting spot getting up to third on the first lap. Skeen then battled with O’Connell and then Pilgrim as the Cadillacs made their way to the front of the pack.
Bret Curtis was the final part of a GMG majority near the top of the standings in fifth. Curtis, in the No. 32 United Steel Supply/Spectra Resources Audi R8 was the third of the team’s R8s to occupy a top-five finishing position.
Aschenbach, in the No. 10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro, was in a see-saw battle with Cunningham for most of the race. The two traded positions a couple times including a restart on lap 21, where Cunningham blew by both Aschenbach for second place and polesitter Andy Lee for the lead on the run to turn one. One lap later, Lee’s No. 20 Best IT Chevrolet Camaro came to a rest between turns nine and 10 with suspension damage.
Aschenbach, closed the gap to Cunningham, attempting to out-brake the driver of the No. 42 Acura/HPD/RealTime Racing Acura TSX into turn one on lap 23, but couldn’t make the move stick until a lap later, getting the job done on lap 24, earning him the Cadillac CTS-V Move of the Race.
“The start was actually pretty good,” Aschenbach said. “I got off really quick. Surprisingly quick. I thought I was going to be second going into turn one but then got boxed out by a couple of slower GT cars.
“Fortunately enough, when you race against guys like Peter [Cunningham] and Jack [Baldwin], they give you all the room that you need and fortunately I was able to out-brake them into Turn One. The last caution was what did it for us. We were quicker than Andy but he gapped me there pretty good on the start and I was slowly reeling him in, finally that caution was what caught us all back up. I actually got a better start than he (Lee) did, but Peter blew by me, and I was able to kind of follow him around and push as hard as I could.”
Cunningham finished second in GTS, adding to his streak of three-straight podiums.
Baldwin, in the No. 73 Motul/StopTech/Foametix Porsche Cayman, had a positive points day as well finishing third in GTS after a sweep in St. Petersburg.
“I am real happy with a third place,” Baldwin said. “We didn’t qualify as well as we wanted to. I got a pretty good start. Ran hard all day. My hat is off to Lawson and Peter, they are great drivers. They drove a good race and we finished third today. I wasn’t sure we had a third-place car going into today. I’m happy, the guys worked really, really hard. On to Austin. I’m just thrilled to be here, it’s great.”
Former Long Beach winner Brandon Davis ended up fourth in GTS after the dust settled, in the debut of the No. 27 HP/Adobe Road Winery Aston Martin Vantage.
Mark Wilkins ended up in the fifth position in the No. 38 Kia Motors America Kia Optima.