LITCHFIELD, Ariz., Oct. 27 -- Fifteen-year-old Colin Braun became the youngest driver in United States history to win a professional auto racing championship when he earned the Fran Am 1600 Pro Championship Sunday at Arizona M otorsports Park.
The teen from Ovalo, Texas also won the series' Rookie of the Year award for his stellar season in which he won more races than any other driver, posting eight victories in the 11 events.
He also won more poles (six) and set more fastest laps of the race (five) than any of his rivals.
After winning the first half of last weekend's doubleheader by six seconds over John Knudsen on Saturday, Braun needed only to complete half the race distance on Sunday to nail down the title. Despite the fact that Fran Am 1600 races can be wild and wooly affairs, Braun not only finished the race but he placed second Sunday to more than achieve his goal.
After the tire supply problems the series faced at the doubleheader at Buttonwillow, Calif. the previous weekend, the series organizers were able to get new tires for all the teams at AMP. A different problem cropped up in qualifying on Saturday, however, as right before the session a sedan car oiled the entire track for two laps, so Braun and everyone else were slipping and sliding during quals. Braun ended up second to Knudsen at the end, missing the pole by only 0.2 of a second.
When the race started Braun got the jump and had the lead coming out of turn one. He stretched that lead to 3 seconds by lap five but then maintained that interval so he'd have some rubber left in case Knudsen made a late-race charge.
That never materialized, however, and Braun had a 6-second lead over Knudsen at the checkered on lap 16, setting the fastest lap of the race to boot. Darryl O'Young took the final podium position followed by Brad Coleman and C.R. Crews II.
On Sunday Braun needed to post two more points than Knudsen to win the title. The way the point structure is formulated he would have done that by winning the pole, but Knudsen got that distinction as he was 0.3 of a second faster in that session.
That kept Knudsen's chances alive for the race, but Braun just needed to complete eight laps to take the title. Staying out of trouble was the obvious goal, but at the drop of the green Knudsen and Braun went side by side, giving Braun's family palpitations when the pair locked wheels several times.
Braun took the lead in turn five by diving to the inside of Knudsen with a slight twitch from his car's rear as the rear tires locked slightly. He held the top spot for three laps until a full-course yellow waved to retrieve a stalled car.
Braun maintained his lead on the restart and led for half a lap, but Knudsen got by on the exit of turn 12. They ran in that order with Crews a close third until another full-track yellow waved. At this point Braun had already recorded enough laps to take the title.
On the restart there were only four laps left, and with two to go the pair had a 6-second advantage on the rest of the field. Braun mounted a challenge with one to go but Knudsen made no mistakes, and they crossed the line head to tail at the checkered. O'Young was third again followed by Coleman and Derek Sabol this time.
Although Braun certainly wanted to win the finale he was also happy for Knudsen, who finally ended up on top of the podium after 17 second-place finishes and won the two-race shootout this weekend by virtue of his fastest lap in Sunday's race. Knudsen helped Braun various times during the year and also loaned Braun's team parts, and the two enjoy racing against each other.
At the season-ending banquet later on Sunday Braun received both the championship trophy and the Rookie of the Year trophy. In his acceptance speech he thanked the series' director, Steve Henry, and his staff for putting on a great series. He also thanked Jerry Kunzman, president of NASA, for allowing 14-year-olds to compete in the NASA-sanctioned series. (Braun became the youngest driver ever to win a professional open-wheel race earlier this year at the age of 14 years and 8 months.)
He also thanked George Latus for allowing him to borrow his car several times this year. Ross Bentley and the Speed Secrets Driver Development Camps also got a big mention, as Braun said they helped him make the transition from karting to cars and helped him improve his driving skills all year.
Braun also thanked Tony Coello for teaching him to never stop trying to make the car better and to use every second to practice.
He also thanked Ron Mahugh, the tire and fuel specialist on the Quantum Autosports Fran Am 2000 team, who helped him in the pits and paddock this weekend.
In closing the teen told the crowd that he wanted to have a career in racing. The level-headed youngster added that he knows he has a lot to learn yet, but that many people have helped him this year to learn more about his sport, which was as big a prize as the trophies he received.
Braun's plans for 2004 are up in the air because he's still only 15. To see what develops in the off-season, check in regularly at www.tracc5.com. For details on the Fran Am series see www.fran-am.com.