The Inaugural United States Touring Car Championship (USTCC) season started on the Phoenix International Raceway's road course. The new series uses modified production sedans to replicate the European touring car races. The rules for the series call for slightly modified engines and highly modified suspensions with 17 inch Hoosier race tires with a lightweight chassis. The combination makes the cars fast, reliable and inexpensive which is relative in the world of racing.
<small>"Becky BMW." Becky Arsham was the only woman who raced in the USTCC this year with her Gogogear BMW 325i. Photo by www.headonphotos.com.</small>
Many teams brought their cars to Arizona to be a part of this new series but some did not have enough time to prepare their car as well as they wanted. The Gogogear team was very well represented with a three car team. The TRS/Group4 Racing team was supposed to have three cars entered but only managed to have one car present. The Metric Motorsports team has three cars and had two entered for the event but at the last minute they were down to one car. The Lucas Racing team brought their newly acquired Acura Integra Type R for its first race.
After practicing on Friday, many teams found themselves with a lot to learn. The track's oval section was trickier than many had anticipated. By the time the qualifying race had started, many were starting to get accustomed to the track. The qualifying race was a short sprint race to determine the order of the start of the main race. At the finish of the qualifying race, Richard Holdener's Extrude Hone/Ram Air Tech Honda Del Sol was up in front, next to the TRS/Group 4 Racing Honda Accord station wagon of Peter Miller. Third was the Metric Motorsports Honda Civic of Billy Kwan.
Things got interesting as the Del Sol of Holdener was disqualified from the session with mechanical irregularities. That meant that Miller's Accord would start from the pole position with Kwan in second place and Scott Lucas' Acura Integra Type R in third. Holdener would have to start in the back of the grid.
Sunday's main race was full of anticipation. This was the big moment that many had planned for months. At the drop of the green flag, the Accord of Miller took the lead with the back of the grid shuffling positions by the second. A few cars got a little loose at the first few turns and locked up those sticky Hoosier tires but fortunately, everyone stayed clean.
Two cars were on the move from the back of the pack. One was the Del Sol of Holdener which was making up positions in large chunks and another was the Gogogear Honda Civic of Ali Arsham. Arsham missed most of practice, and all of qualifying after debris flew into his eye early on Saturday. He had to spend most of the day in the local hospital getting checked out and was not even sure if he could start the race on Sunday. Arsham's Civic was up to fifth after lap one but the Holdener Del Sol was already up to third.
After a few laps had passed, everyone had settled into a comfortable position with Miller still leading in the Accord, Holdener now in second in the Del Sol, and Arsham was up to third place in the Civic. The top three were about 10 seconds apart. The fight for fourth was even closer between the Type R Integra of Lucas, the Motorsport Dynamics Acura Integra of Jonathan Meris and the Honda Civic of Kwan. The battle for eighth was between the Gogogear Honda Civic of Gordon Pun, the BMW M3 of Sean O'brien, and the Gogogear BMW 325i of Becky Arsham.
The fight up front soon heated up as Holdener passed Miller to take the lead and started to pull away. At the same time Arsham was reeling in Miller's station wagon. As Holdener started to stretch his lead, Arsham and Miller started having a fight. The two Hondas traded positions several times per lap as each showed their strength in a particular section of the race track. The two quickly realized that during their duel, the Del Sol was getting quickly out of reach. Miller said, "All of a sudden I realized that we were just slowing each other down and the hope of a victory was being washed away." Miller, who has won everything from Tecate street races to Toronto street races, wanted to add this race to his resume. The war calmed down a little bit and everyone once again settled into their position. "I was working the car so hard that the water temperature was starting to climb and I was concerned about the engine. I also didn't want to chew my tires up early on in the race." said Arsham.
Holdener was a tough one to catch due to his extensive experience in World Challenge, Bridgestone Supercar, F2000, and shifter karts. He was using every ounce of his extensive background to move the Del Sol.
At the latter stages of the race, more new developments occurred. Scott Lucas in the Integra Type R had a spin which fortunately didn't cost him any loss of position and Jonathan Meris did the same. As soon as it looked like the top three were going to finish with Holdener leading, Miller in second and Arsham in third, things changed. Something was wrong with Holdener's Del Sol and he was being caught up in a hurry. This occurred as the white flag was being waved. The TRS/Group 4 crew were yelling at Miller to step on it and make his move. And Miller did just that. On the last turn leading on the oval, Holdener got a little loose as Miller stuck the nose of the Accord on the inside and made the pass.
At the finish, it was Miller in the Accord, followed by Holdener's Del Sol, and Arsham's Civic. Scott Lucas finished fourth in the Integra Type R and Meris finished fifth in the other Integra.
After the tremendous race at Phoenix, the second round of the new United States Touring Car Championship was held at the legendary Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, CA on April 22-23. Some new faces were on grid at this race showing some great promise.
The day started off with no surprises as the teams spent time dialing in their cars. By the time the qualifying session started, a surprise rain shower had developed making things very tricky for the teams. The track was dry in some spots but very slippery in other areas. This made car set up a huge challenge. Do you set up the car for the wet, dry, or an intermediate set up? Ed Klippi, Crew Chief of the Lucas Racing Acura Integra Type R approached it this way. "The track is mostly dry except for the back section. If we were to set up the car for that section, we would lose too much time in the front part of the track. So we are just going to go with our dry set up but going to reduce tire pressures a little bit for a little bit better bite at Turn 6 which is an important turn and at the moment is very slippery." Commented Klippi.
Some of the teams tried to outsmart each other by waiting until the last moment possible in the hopes of a dry track. Unfortunately, that strategy backfired as the rain kept coming down harder and harder. By the end of the session, the Holdener/Sheehan Extrude Hone Honda was leaps and bounds above everyone else. The orange Honda was 3.671 seconds faster than the second place car. Qualifying second was Mike Courtney's Nology Prelude which had a good shot to beat the Del Sol but had engine problems after only three laps and had to retire. Ali Arsham put the Gogogear Civic on the second row in third place.
At the start of the race the Woo/Arsham Gogogear BMW took the lead into the first turn with Peter Miller's TRS/Group 4 Accord right on his rear wing. By the end of the first lap, Miller was leading with the Lepper/Kwan H&R Civic right on his tail. The Woo/Arsham BMW was now in third. By lap two, the Lepper/Kwan Civic had found a way to pass the Accord as had the Del Sol of Holdener/Sheehan. The Del Sol was now in second place and was lapping a second faster than the Lepper/Kwan Civic. Finally, after four laps, the Del Sol made its move and went past the Civic into the lead. Apparently, this move pressed some buttons on the H&R Civic driver as he suddenly turned up the wick and was now lapping faster than the Del Sol and was right on the Del Sol's rear bumper. The two put on a great show each setting fast lap and the other immediately answering back. By lap 8, the two had identical lap times, down to the 100th of the second. The two were glued to each other and were waiting for the other one to make a mistake.
But soon problems arose for the Lepper/Kwan Civic as the muffler fell off the Civic. This meant that the Civic was to receive a black flag which put the Lepper/Kwan car in the back and took the pressure off the Holdener/Sheehan Del Sol. Other problems befell some of the other competitors. Jonathan Meris' Motorsport Dynamics Integra spun and lost a few positions. Ali Arsham, who was the third fastest qualifier had an overheating problem and had to pit. Mike Courtney, who was the second fastest qualifier had even worse problems and could not even take the green flag as his Prelude VTEC engine had terminal problems.
At the end, the Holdener/Sheehan Del Sol crossed the finish line first, with Neil Vanni's Civic in second and Scott Lucas' Integra Type R finishing in third.
There was a new buzz in the air as the US Touring Car drivers and teams arrived at Sears Point on June 3-4, 2000 for round three. The buzz was from American Honda who became the second manufacturer (after Mazda lead the charge) to support the program by offering cash prizes to the teams. Furthermore the amount that Honda added to the pool made things very lucrative for the teams. Honda's carrot of $3000 for first, $2500 for second, $1000 for third and so on made the win worth close to $7000 in overall cash and prizes. This included cash and prizes from Hoosier Tires (four new tires), KAAZ limited slips (free $1000 unit) and $300 from Wheels America.
The new cars present at the third round brought about a sense of pure speed. With Mike Courtney's Prelude listed as the fastest car in every practice session, others were eager to catch up. Coming into the race, the ever confident Killer Bee team of Richard Holdener had to be the favorites. They were the points leaders and had proven quick at every race.
As the time came Sunday afternoon to place the cars on grid and get ready for take off, hearts were pounding. The Audi of America Audi A4 Quattro pace car lead the field. As stated, Mike Courtney had the honor of placing the Nology Prelude on the all important first place spot. The H&R Springs Civic took the number two spot and was followed by the Extrude Hone Del Sol.
Problems started on the warm up lap for Lepper (again) as he a broken spark plug caused him to pull into the pits of the warm up lap for repairs. His grid position would remain empty. As soon as the green flag dropped, the Prelude was off to the lead with a big fight behind. Holdener took the second position while Kirberg got a great start and took over third place. Scott Lucas' Integra had to work his way through the field passing slower cars. Others had their share of problems during the race. Lepper's problems were never fixed so his day ended prematurely in the pits as he made at least two pit stops. Chan also never regained his qualifying form as his car had electrical problems and the best he could finish is 16th. Dave Jolly brought the Red Line Oil Pontiac Sunfire to the battle but he too had to pit despite setting a competitive lap time.
Kirberg soon made a pass on the Extrude Hone Del Sol and set out to chase after the Prelude. But the Prelude was not within reach. Kirberg just had to be happy with a second place finish when the Holdener reminded Kirberg that the race was anything but over. Holdener didn't let Kirberg's Gogoear Racing Civic get too far and after a few laps made a solid pass on the Civic. Kirberg wanted to retaliate but the handling of the Civic was deteriorating. There were still a few laps left in the race so he had to make sure that he would not get passed by Betesfandiar's Mazda which was running in fourth place.
At the finish line, the Nology Prelude did not disappoint and took the checkered flag first. Holdener's Extrude Hone Del Sol finished in second place and Kirberg's Gogogear Civic managed a third place finish. Justin Betesfandiar's Mazda 626 took the fourth place spot in his first USTCC race and Philip Clayton's Hotei Motors Integra finished fifth in Clayton's first USTCC race.
Now everyone is setting their sites on the next round of the USTCC which is in two months at the longest and one of the most famous road race facilities in the United States, Road America. The USTCC cars will visit the famed Road America four mile track in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin on August 12-13, 2000.
Six USTCC cars made the trek across the plains of the Midwest to the rolling hills of Wisconsin for the Road America round. As Race Director, David Balingit said, "This place is incredible. Four miles long, fast straights, heavy braking zones, blind corners, a long sweeper, hills, clean bathrooms, and lots of trees and grass - green trees and grass. The scenery is sort of like a golf course - only it's built for racing."
It took a few laps for the UST drivers to get their nerve up to go full speed through "the kink" and down into Canada Corner in the first practice session, but soon they had a change of heart. Holdener's Del Sol had some transmission problems and they had to swap it out for the afternoon qualifying session. In qualifying, the USTCC drivers showed they could hold the pedal down as well as anybody and we had all 6 cars in the front half of the field. Most everybody was running lap times between 2:50 and 2:55. On a 4 mile track, that's screaming.
At the start of the race, the Mazda of Betesfandiar and the Del Sol of Holdener went into Turn 1 neck and neck. The UST field stayed fairly bunched until they got into the slower cars at the back of the 57 car field. Each of the six cars sliced their way though the field in the order of: Holdener, Betesfandiar, Vanni, Woo, Shick, and Arsham. The race stayed this way pretty much the whole time up to the checkered flag. Arsham's car suffered a "tortured tranny" and he was forced to watch the last few laps from the backside of the track.
The US Touring Car drivers invaded Portland International Raceway for their next to last race of the season on September 23-24, 2000. The track was run without the Festival Curves chicane for this event which made the top speeds extremely high. But the main concern for the drivers was traffic management not ultimate speed.
After the first qualifying session, Tom Lepper's Metric Motorsports Honda Civic claimed the pole position with a lap of 1:23 and change. That was two seconds faster than most everyone else. The rest of the field qualified in the high 1:24s and low 1:25s. Lepper has always been fast throughout the season and it was no surprise to see his name at the top of the standings. The big surprise happened in the Killer Bee team as the Honda Del Sol of Richard Holdener had major engine problems and retired early managing only a mid pack time. Afterwards, it was diagnosed as a bad cylinder.
In the second qualifying session, Albert Betesfandiar was the biggest surprise as he put the Al's Auto Body Mazda 626 on the pole with a time of 1:21. That was two seconds faster than Lepper's best time. Suddenly, the Metric Motorsports team was worried about their new competition. The Killer Bees also ran their new 3 cylinder Honda with a best time of 1:38.
At the start, Betesfandiar took the lead with Jonathan Meris in the Motorsport Dynamics Integra right behind. On the Integra's bumper was Lepper's Civic and followed by the Gogogear Civic of Ali Arsham which was followed by the Hopkins Honda Civic of Neil Vanni. The five cars were bumper to bumper for the first few laps. After a couple of laps the pack started to come across race traffic. It was there that the first incident happened. Arsham's Civic hit a berm hard as he passed a slower car which loosened one of the spark plug wires. Suddenly, there were two 3 cylinder cars in the race! Arsham quickly pulled into the pits and was given a quick repair job. Unfortunately, once a car pits, it is down for half a lap and that was the margin that Arsham had to overcome.
Meanwhile at the front, Meris worked his way past Betesfandiar and was starting to stretch his lead. Lepper and Betesfandiar were busy having a terrific fight. This continued until the officials deemed that Lepper's Civic was too loud and had to be black flagged. Lepper obeyed the black flag and his race was pretty much done. Meanwhile, Meris' Integra which was one of the fastest cars down the long straight was burning gas at a rapid rate. Hitting 130 mph on the front straight for 21 laps really burns gas and the Integra started stumbling. Meris decided to back off to ensure that he can make it to the finish. Betesfandiar was the one that took full advantage of this and took over the lead. Meris ended up slowing down and using 5th gear as much as possible and also avoiding the VTEC high rpm operation to save gas. Catching up was Neil Vanni's Civic who was having a quiet race. At the finish line Betesfandiar took the win with Meris holding off Vanni for second place. Vanni finished third. Arsham finished fourth with Tom Pitre's Gogogear Civic fifth and Richard Holdener's Del Sol managed a sixth place.
The series now moved to its final race of the season on October 21-22 at Las Vegas Raceway. The teams were busy trying to find the correct set up for the cars during the practice sessions at Las Vegas while the drivers were just trying to figure out which way the track went. The track's challenging layout provided a few off track excursions. The combination of slow tight turns and fast wide open turns made set ups difficult. After the second practice session, the Extrude Hone Honda was on top of the charts with a time of 1:33.85. Second fastest was the Mazda of Betesfandiar with a time of 1:36.31 followed by Meris with a best lap of 1:36.79 and Arsham with a best time of 1:36.95. Tom Pitre's Bavarian Auto Recycling BMW 325i had a time of 1:42.32.
From the first qualifying session, it was obvious that Holdener was the one to beat. He was the fastest car in every session. The question was whether he could finish. The car showed signs of smoke from the tail pipe that worried the crew. This left the door wide open for second place which was a fight between Meris, Arsham, and Albert Betesfandiar's Al's Auto Body Mazda 626. The three had virtually identical times in both the practice sessions and the qualifying sessions. After Saturday's qualifying session, Holdener again topped the charts with a time of 1:32.49. He was followed by Meris who did a lap of 1:34.33, Betesfandiar who did a lap of 1:34.67 and Arsham who dropped out after two laps with suspension problems and could only do 1:35.52. On Sunday, the teams tried again in the second qualifying session to better their times. But Sunday's cold temperatures and high winds slowed everyone down. It was obvious to the drivers that they were going slower because the shift points were now different. The only driver to improve on Sunday was Pitre who now managed a time of 1:40.11. A new driver and car also was added on Sunday, Don Mock in a Honda who qualified with a time of 1:39.86.
At the start of the race, Holdener had a terrible time and dropped from first to fourth in two turns. Betesfandiar had a great start going from fourth to first in the same distance. Meris was now second and Arsham third. The pack of four cars stayed together for the first few laps until Holdener turned up the wick. He first made on Arsham after Arsham made a poor exit on the previous turn. Next he worked on Meris and Betesfandiar. The trio started pulling away from Arsham and were now bumper to bumper while trading the lead. Meris put a wheel off at Turn 1 after lots of pressure from Holdener but did not give up the position. A couple of laps later, Holdener again was working on Meris and this time they touched sending Meris into a spin. Meris did a complete 360 and lost very little time as he got back on the gas but was now in third. Holdener now set his sights on Betesfandiar. A few laps later the two cars were engaged in a heavy battle and again, Holdener tapped Betesfandiar causing the Mazda to get sideways and the Honda found a hole to get through. Betesfandiar's bumper was now dragging on the ground and the car showed signs of damage as Betesfandiar slowed down considerably. This gave Holdener the easy lead with Meris in second and now Arsham in third and Betesfandiar in fourth. With one lap to go Holdener's car started smoking once again and this time did not sound very healthy but it was enough for him to cross the finish line.
The race was not without controversy however. With his move on Betesfandiar, Holdener was being protested for spinning the Mazda. After the race, the USTCC stewards made a change to the race finish of the last round of the USTCC at Las Vegas. Richard Holdener's Killer Bee Honda was repositioned top fourth place after he took the checkered flag first.
The race was very controversial and everyone knew that a change could happen in the finishing order. Holdener was involved in minor body contact with Albert Betesfandiar's Al's Auto Body Mazda 626 while battling for the lead. With Betesfandiar leading, Holdener tried to make a pass under braking and bumped the Mazda. The tap resulted in the Mazda spinning in the dirt and damaging the front nose piece. Betefandiar went from first to fourth in seconds. Under the NASA rules, Holdener's move is an illegal way to make a pass.
The repositioning gives the race win to Jonathan Meris' Motorsports Dynamics Acura Integra. This is Meris' first win in USTCC and he was very excited when he heard the news. "I can't wait for next year and I am very anxious to install the much needed Kaaz limited slip unit that comes with a race victory" said Meris. Ali Arsham's Gogogear Racing Honda Civic also receives the team's best finish to date with a second place. The team has had plenty of third place finishes but could not seem to crack that barrier. Arsham said, "Now all we have to do is to win one of these. I think we have a great chance to do that next year with our new improved cars and driver line-up next year." Betesfandiar finished third.
In addition to Holdener's penalty, some other penalties were handed out at impound after the race. Holdener was penalized two (2) season points for not having logbook at impound and not having required passenger seat available. Meris was penalized one (1) season point for not having functioning headlights as required. Betesfandiar was penalized two (2) season points for not having shop manual at impound and not having required passenger seat available. Tom Pitre was penalized two (2) season points for not having NASA stickers as required.
2001 looks to be a great year for the USTCC class. There are lots of new cars being built and some new sponsors that will be joining as well, increasing the prize money. In addition, there are some guest "celebrity" drivers that will be running at some of the races as well. It should be a great season. Look for it at www.ustcc.com.