Peter Cunningham Has the World Challenge Competition Numbered WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (June 4, 2008) - The numbers speak for themselves: 168 starts, 31 wins, 30 poles, four-time Champion. And those are just Peter Cunningham's World Challenge stats.
Peter Cunningham Has the World Challenge Competition Numbered
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (June 4, 2008) - The numbers speak for themselves: 168 starts, 31 wins, 30 poles, four-time Champion. And those are just Peter Cunningham's World Challenge stats. He's won three more SCCA Pro Racing Championships, ice racing championships, rally championships, the 2000 BMW Sports Trophy (first North American driver) and is generally recognized as the winningest driver in professional road racing in North America. So naturally, a sit-down with the RealTime Racing owner feels like a visit to the University of Sports Car Racing, where Intro to Racing is followed by the History of World Challenge and Team Management 101.
It would be difficult to imagine anyone topping Cunningham's record tally, thanks in part to the fact that he has been with the series from the very beginning, before the record books even existed. His professional career began with the Playboy Endurance Cup in 1985, which eventually morphed into what we now know as World Challenge.
"The World Challenge series has been going on since 1990, but even five years before that it was kind of the same series, it just changed its name in 1990," recalls Cunningham. "Before 1990 it was all endurance racing. It was called the Escort Endurance Championship and in 1990 they introduced some sprint races along with endurances races for the next few years. RealTime started competing for the first time in the 1993 season and that was the first season it was an all-sprint formula."
Does he miss the endurance format? After all, while continuing to run in World Challenge, he's been picking up a few Koni Challenge races as well. It depends on if you ask Cunningham the driver or Cunningham the RealTime Racing team owner.
"I like both [spring and endurance]. For our team, I like the sprint formula, because it's up to you. You're not relying on your teammate to mess things up for you. I don't know how many races I've been in, it's probably four hundred or something races, but the majority of them have been endurance races, so I like both. For RealTime, we just found this niche [in sprint racing] and gone with it. I think it's just worked out that way."
Still, as a factory-backed team owner, Cunningham acknowledges the responsibility to explore what the marketplace has to offer.
"On an ongoing basis, we look at what our options are, including endurance racing, and so far the answer has always been to do World Challenge. We like this series because of the sprint format, the rulebook, which keeps the cars production based and from getting too out of hand and the competition is very close amongst a variety of manufacturers."
Close it is. Three of the five races thus far have been decided by less than a second. In the latest round at Lime Rock Park, the top six cars on the qualifying grid were separated by less than half a second, and heading into Round Six at Watkins Glen, Acura and Mazda have led the exact same number of race laps.
But even with thrilling races like Round Three at VIR on the brain, it's hard to ignore that the SCCA SPEED Touring Car field appears to have been sitting in the dryer to long and, well, shrunk.
"I think there's a number of reasons the grid for Touring Car is smaller, above and beyond a questionable economy," responds the veteran. "I think that the cars are getting more expensive, which makes it harder for someone to enter into it. I think it's a coincidence too-it's just a cyclical thing. It wasn't that long ago that we had twice as many cars out there.
"As far as the top-level of competition goes, I don't think, with the exception of losing the Audi team this year, that the competition is any less than it's ever been. The competition is fantastic and the cars are unbelievably close."
In such a competitive field, the small things can make a big difference. After losing the Drivers' and Manufacturers' titles to Mazda last year, RealTime has rallied the troops and launched a full assault on the 2008 SCCA SPEED Touring Car season. The team swept the Sebring podium, has put at least one driver on every TC podium since, helped Kuno Wittmer score his first two career wins and, leaving Lime Rock Park, RealTime drivers occupied the top three spots in the Championship.
Cunningham points to the settling in of crew chief Paul Truess for the turnaround as well as the arrival of the new spec Toyo R888 tires.
"The team has improved its performance under the leadership of Paul Truess. Paul was new last year and coming into this year with a season under his belt, the guys respect him and are working better together than they ever have before. Really, the recipe between us and the other guys haven't changed, and we haven't found huge amounts of horsepower, but there are two things: how the team is working under Paul Truess and the tires. This new spec tire, apparently, has proposed more of a challenge to others than it has to us. Pre-season testing allowed us to have a leg up. That's what racing is all about: improving. If you're doing something just good enough, it's probably not going to cut it next time."
And what about Cunningham himself, how long will he be able to "cut it?" His most recent Championship in 2005 was followed by a winless 2006. After racking up 25 races without a win, Cunningham made a Brett Favre-esque comeback by scoring a dramatic win on the streets of Toronto (and possibly scored the Best Press Conference Quote of the Year Award for his description of the last lap battle between himself and Ian Baas: "I wasn't about to get Jorg Bergmeister-ed.") He then capped off the 2007 season with win number two at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Luckily for his teammates, Cunningham's down to earth personality and dry sense of humor soak up most of the boasting.
"I'm trying my best to beat those rascals [my teammates] and you don't have to go too far back to see that last year I was the only one that won any races for this team."
He may have won more races than his teammates, but he was still behind Pierre Kleinubing and Wittmer in the final points tally, which is where he finds himself presently as well. For someone as competitive as Cunningham, that has to sting a little bit, but perhaps the years have tempered the series-leading race winner. PD shrugs off such suggestions, deflecting personal introspections with humor as he so often does.
"I'm happy when Pierre wins and I'm only a little happier when I win, so maybe that's what's changed over the years."
In retrospect, while the series has changed, the competition has changed and his teammates have changed, Peter Cunningham remains constant -- a constant threat to the recordbooks.
The Top Ten Finish
1. If you couldn't be a race car driver what would you be?
[Oh, do you have a green thumb?]
"No, not really."
3. Favorite Cereal:
4. Favorite Corner in all of racing:
"The dip at Atlanta. It's not there anymore."
5. I can cook the best:
6. If your helmet had an MP3 player, who would be playing during the race?
Mark Knopfler (Dire Straights)
7. Olympic event you would be most competitive in?
8. Song you'd sing in a karoke bar:
"How Soon is Now by The Smiths"
9. First concert you ever attended:
"The Eagles with Joe Walsh"
10. After racing which sport do you watch the most?
"Football. The Packers."