USTCC: Portland race notes

Sheehan beats Vanni to the line to score first win of the year at Portland Raceway. The United States Touring Car Championship (USTCC) cars visited the beautiful Pacific Northwest as they arrived in Portland, Oregon's Portland International ...

Sheehan beats Vanni to the line to score first win of the year at Portland Raceway.

The United States Touring Car Championship (USTCC) cars visited the beautiful Pacific Northwest as they arrived in Portland, Oregon's Portland International Speedway on May 3-4, 2003. The weather immediately showed that it will be a factor with intermittent rain showers throughout the weekend. Two cars looked very strong the entire weekend and the battle was between the two as expected. One of the two was the Subaru WRX of Gary Sheehan who is used to being a front runner at USTCC races who took the win with a terrific duel over Neil Vanni's Hopkins Honda who seems to do very well at Portland Raceway. Taking the third place on the podium was the winner of the first race Tom Lepper in the Eagle Awards Honda Accord.

The Saturday qualifying session set the stage with Neil Vanni putting the hammer down and setting a blistering 1.19.149 lap. That was too big of a mountain to climb for Sheehan who qualified second with a lap of 1.19.932. Third fastest time went to Tom Lepper's Accord with a lap of 1.21.832. This meant that for the second race in a row a Honda was the fastest qualifier.

Sunday's qualifying session was a different story as the skies opened up and the track was wet with a few small puddles her and there. With no way to improve their time the teams may have had no reason to really go fast. But they did all try to go as fast as they could because the weather did not look like it was clearing up and as one driver put it "I need to prepare for a wet race so the trick is to figure out how to drive this track in the rain which is totally different than when it is dry." The fastest in the wet session was Tom Lepper with a lap of 1.32.962. Second in the dry as well as the dry was Gary Sheehan with a lap of 1.34.828. Third fastest in the wet was the Special Projects/Pro Drive Honda Integra R of Jeff Owen with a lap of 1.36.156.

A few minutes before the race, the weather again decided to provide some excitement. The track was wet but it looked like it was starting to dry. To complicate matters, there were some dark clouds approaching that made it look like it would rain soon. Because of all this, it made the race very interesting. Some teams elected for a dry set up while others elected for an intermediate set up with full tread tires. One of the drivers who qualified near the back was even thinking of opting for a full wet set up. As the team manager put it, "When you are in the back, you have to take a few chances."

At the first turn, the heat turned to sizzle as the Sheehan tried a pass on Vanni. The two made contact which resulted in Vanni spinning. Most of the field made it around except for Jonathan Meris' Skunk2 Honda Civic who despite taking to the grass hit Vanni. The multiple collisions made a mess of the track which caused the pace car to come out to clean up the track. Before the pace car could come out, Patrick Sharp' Sharp Cellers Winery Honda Civic would spin going into turn 10. So at the end of the first lap it was Sheehan leading with Meris second, despite the incident, and Owen third. Meris, who was the 2001 Rookie of the Year, was driving a brand new car without much testing. The dispatch of the pace car was the worst news for Sheehan who had clear track in front and his biggest threat Vanni nowhere in sight. It was also bad news for Ali Arsham's Acura Integra who had worked his way up from near last to fifth place. But one man's garbage is another man's treasure. The pace car was a gift from heaven for Vanni as well as for Sharp. Both had a chance to catch up to the pack and soon started passing cars. Vanni made it past everyone including Sheehan and soon was leading the race. But Sheehan was not giving up and the two were glued to each other's bumpers. Both were turning virtually the same lap times of 1 minute 20 seconds. But a small mistake by Vanni gave room to Sheehan to make his move. Now with Sheehan enjoying a 4 second advantage, it was up to Vanni to catch up. He did try too as he set the fastest lap of the race in his last lap beating Sheehan's best time by about 5 hundreds of a second. Finishing third place was Lepper who was all by himself but still enjoyed taking the third place points. The A'Pex Integration top rookie award went to Patrick Sharp who despite the spin charged his way up and finished fifth.

So with a great race at Portland, the teams will head for Southern California's premier race track, California Speedway in Fontana on July 12- 13. This is a NASA HyperFest weekend so it will probably be one of the biggest USTCC weekends ever complete with everything HyperFest has to offer such as import car show, drift contest, bikini contest, and many other features. If you make it to one race this year, consider this one.


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Series General
Drivers Neil Vanni , Ali Arsham , Gary Sheehan