Three Automatic Racing BMWs in Top Seven in KONI Challenge Opener
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Automatic Racing started the 2008 Grand-Am KONI Challenge season in style, with finishes of fourth, fifth and seventh for three of the team's BMW M3s.
Grand Sport title defenders Jep Thornton and Jeff Segal finished fourth in the No. 09 Fresh from Florida/Automatic Racing BMW M3, followed across the line by Jon Miller and David Russell in the No. 99 Fresh from Florida M3. Charlie Putnam and Charles Espenlaub had a solid run, moving from 36th on the starting grid to seventh over the course of the three-hour race.
Miller, one of the most impressive drivers in the race, was the top qualifier for Automatic Racing after posting the third-quickest time. After the green flag, he moved into the race lead on the first lap and held onto the top spot for a long 28 laps.
Finally, after an hour of racing, Miller had to pit to refuel the No. 99, which carried the Weeden Consultants banner this weekend, and he turned the controls over to Russell. Russell ran as high as third during the remainder of the race before finally finishing fifth. With only two laps to go, Russell managed to keep the car in control despite a violent hit from another car, narrowly avoiding late-race disaster.
"Given our drama at the end I just wanted to see the car make it to the checkered flag," said Miller. "I'm ecstatic to have led so long at the start. The cautions didn't go our way but that's racing."
"I'm really happy we were able to get a great finish for the Fresh from Florida representatives and the Commissioner," said Russell, referring to Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Bronson, who was on hand for the race. "It's great to get a solid standing in the points early. The next track is much better for BMWs and we'll be aiming for the podium."
Thornton was only able to qualify 25th because of rain during the qualifying session, but he got to work moving the No. 09 through the field and led the race for three laps before pitting under caution to hand over to Segal.
Segal ran as high as third, lapping without a hood after a mounting bracket broke. The loss of bodywork didn't slow him down, and he and Thornton got an excellent start to their championship defense by earning fourth.
"I'm very happy with fourth today," said Thornton. "This is traditionally a Mustang track and to be the top BMW is great for the team. As a team owner I'm extremely pleased to have three cars in the top seven. Everybody did great today."
Putnam and Espenlaub are making their debut with Automatic Racing this weekend, but their flawless teamwork handed them seventh in their first outing in the No. 91 M3. Espenlaub, who drove the second stint, was up to 11th before a stop and go dropped him to 20th. Undaunted, he got to work making up positions before finally breaking into the top ten.
"It's fantastic to get this result for our first race in the car. Charles did a fantastic job. I'm happy I could get the car to him in a good position and in good shape. I can't say enough good about the car and the team," said Putnam.
The No. 90 Automatic Racing BMW M3 of Joe Masessa and Nick Longhi were plagued by a fuel pump failure that forced the car into retirement. It was a disappointment to both since the drivers were steadily working their way toward the front.