For the second time this season, the United States Touring Car Championship (USTCC) competed at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California for the USTCC's seventh round.
The teams had raced at Infineon at this season's opener, when it was called Sears Point on a temporary course, during the $50 million dollar renovation of the track. This was the first race for the USTCC on the newly configured full road course.
This was also the deciding race for all of the categories of the USTCC. Taking his fourth win of the year, second straight race win, and the season's driver's championship was Gary Hutto in his Global Motorsport/Hutto Motorsports/Intrax BMW 328i.
The USTCC teams would have two qualifying sessions, one taking place on Saturday, the other Sunday. A new format meant that the number one qualifier on Saturday would be guaranteed a front-row starting spot.
Leading Saturday's qualifying was Hutto in his BMW. He was followed within half a second by Thomas Lepper's H&R Springs/Impact Engineering Honda Accord. This was an excellent showing for the Honda teams. Lepper was followed by USTCC returning competitor Neil Vanni in his Hopkins Honda Civic.
Sunday's qualifying session produced the same results with all drivers becoming much faster, and Gary Sheehan in his Subaru of America/StopTech/Serious Auto WRX, taking over the third spot from Vanni. Since Hutto was not contested for top time of the day, he earned the pole position, with Lepper completing the front row and making this the first time in a long time that a Honda was starting in second position.
A few SPEED World Challenge Touring car drivers, including 2002 Rookie of the Year Marc Kirberg and teammate Ken Dobson, joined the USTCC in their usual standing start. A total of sixteen cars took the green flag, making this the largest USTCC field of the year.
Going into the first corner, the all-wheel drive of Sheehan's WRX once again prevailed, propelling him into the lead, followed closely by Hutto and Lepper. Going into turn three, Lepper tried to make a pass for the lead and got along side of Sheehan's WRX. The Accord, on cold tires, got loose, dropping Lepper to ninth place, which put David Lang in his Miracle Auto Paint-Napa/Pier Market-SF Honda Prelude into third, followed closely by Daryl Chan's Autotronics Honda Civic.
A little further behind, Vanni got loose going into turn two and spun his Honda with half the field coming at him. Everyone managed to avoid a huge wreck and went around Vanni.
Going into turn seven, Chan made a bonsai move underneath Lang. With no chance of making the corner or the pass, Chan locked his brakes and plowed into the side of Lang's Prelude, ending any chance of a podium finish for both drivers. Sheehan continued to lead with Hutto hot on his tail. Hutto in his BMW was faster in many aspects of the course than Sheehan's WRX. Hutto was able to get along side Sheehan numerous times with both drivers banging doors through the entire braking zone of almost every corner. With a lap and a half to go, Sheehan braked a little too deep for turn seven, giving Hutto the gap that he needed to make the pass. After that move by Hutto, Sheehan had no chance of making a pass back for the lead, giving the Hutto the season's championship, as well as earning BMW the manufacturer's championship. Earning the FLUIDYNE Cool Move of the Race Award was Lepper who managed to come back and take the last spot on the podium by working his way through much of the field and making a great pass on Kirberg in the process.
With an eighth place finish, Thomas Pitre's Gogogear.com Acura Integra secured the A'Pex Integration Rookie of the Year award over Jeff Lepper's H&H Automotive Machine/Sponsorjeff.com Dodge Neon, by a margin of only twenty-seven points, which was the closest contested battle in the 2002 USTCC season.
Many new changes and regulations will be instituted in 2003, as well as some venues across the country for the USTCC to battle. We are also anticipating the arrival of some new teams including a factory backed Mini Cooper effort as well as Mitsubishi, Nissan, Mazda, and even Porsche who are talking about joining the party. For news and updates on the 2003 season, check www.ustcc.com.