This year has been another nail-biter of a season in Grand-Am's KONI Street Tuner Championship. As in year's past, it'll likely come down to the last few laps of the last race of the season, which takes place at Virginia International Raceway...
This year has been another nail-biter of a season in Grand-Am's KONI Street Tuner Championship. As in year's past, it'll likely come down to the last few laps of the last race of the season, which takes place at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in early October. Before that, though, the series heads west to Utah for our penultimate event at the beautiful Miller Motorsports Park just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.
The year's been another good one for the Compass360 Racing team (which we shorten to C360R, especially convenient for web use: C360R.com). Going into the second-last round, our driver Christian Miller sits first in the Driver's Championship, 25 points up on second- place duo Andrew Aquilante and Christian Skavnes. Similarly, we're ahead by the same margin in the Team's Championship over the Subaru team. The Manufacturer's Championship is even tighter, with Honda leading Volkswagen by 16 points, largely on the recently strong pace of APR's VW GTI's.
It's been a tremendously interesting year in Street Tuner, with plenty of ups-and-downs along the way. Starting with the season-opener back in January as part of the 24 Hours of Daytona, when Georgian Bay Motorsports began this season the way they ended the last one, by delivering a dominant victory. The Subaru was second and our #76 car was third, driven by the Canadian duo of Matt Pritiko and Travis Walker. Our #74 car, with Miller and Randy Pobst at the helm, finished twelfth, while #75 was tenth piloted by Jose Leroux and Bo Roach. Not a bad start to the season, but our goal is always to have three cars in the top ten, and so we obviously had some work to do to deliver on that.
Homestead/Miami proved that we were on the right track, with Miller and Pobst taking our first win of the season, with Leroux and Roach improving up to ninth. Pritiko and Walker, unfortunately, retired and were classified 25th.
It was the next race, at New Jersey Motorsports Park, where it all the pieces fit together for us, and allowed us to make history. We tapped the talented Eric Curran to drive #75 with me, while the Miller/Pobst and Pritiko/Walker duos remained intact. Crew Chief Ray Lee played the strategies for each car perfectly, and with ten minutes to go our orange Honda Civics were running nose-to-tail, racing for the lead. At the checkered flag it was Pobst ahead of Walker who narrowly edged out Curran, for a Compass360 1-2-3 finish, something that no team has ever done before in the series, which dates back to the Firehawk days in the 1980's. It was an impressive feat that I frankly wonder will ever happen again. But it was a huge celebration in our paddock that night, as we'd served notice that after two solid second-place Championship finishes in 2007 and 2008 that we were making 2009 our year!
Even though the performance levels of the different cars in KONI are very, very close, with a command performance like that, we expected Grand-Am to give our Civics some performance adjustments, and they didn't disappoint, adding some weight and reducing our fuel capacity. We'd see how those changes played out in the coming races, as we moved into the tightly-packed race schedule of the early summer.
For the Laguna round, Randy had other commitments, and we asked last year's Street Tuner Champion, Jamie Holtom, to drive with Christian. Bret Spaude, who'd been driving with Bill Fenton's team (who also field Hondas) and who was right the the hunt for Rookie of the Year honors, joined me in our #75 car, as Fenton had decided not to do the long west-coast swing. Travis and Matt took the helm of #76 in what turned out to be their last run together as co-drivers.
Miller and Holtom had a good run, finishing fifth, while Rookie Spaude and I finished sixth, all four of us battling with those guys and girls at the front end of the stick. Pritiko ran a strong first stint, but a few laps after their driver's change the exhaust header on #76 broke free, which brought Walker into the pits. It was an eerily familiar event, bringing back memories of the 2007 event at Laguna, where my then-co-driver Billy Johnson suffered a similar failure. Unfortunately, unlike the '07 event, which ended with a race win for Billy and me, in '09 it meant a few laps in the pits, during which Travis jumped out of his seat, meaning Matt effectively started and finished the race. He took the checkered flag in 16th, but Walker earned no points as he hadn't spent the required thirty minutes in the car.
Things were different for Travis at Lime Rock, a week after Laguna. He teamed with John Kuitwaard, who'd impressed in his MX-5 Cup outings over the past few seasons. Pritiko took second stint for Glenn Bocchino in #76, Bocchino having done very well with his Grand Sport BMW M3 this year. Ironically, Glenn spent 2008 as one of our fiercest competitors as owner of the i-Moto TSX team. Randy was once again back with Christian in #74, so it was "game on" all around. Bocchino set the early pace, clearly comfortable in his first outing in one of our new Hondas (I'm pretty sure he liked the Civic a lot more than his old TSXs!). Christian was right there, as well, while Kuitwaard in #75 was finding that KONI is sometimes somewhat of a contact sport!
After a few rough-and-tumble moments in #75, Kuitwaard pitted, doing a driver change and putting Travis in. Our other cars also took advantage of this stop, and so it was going to be a battle to the finish. Walker drove an inspired race, fiercely battling with one of the VW GTI's, and coming out on top in the last few laps. It was his first KONI win after four years in the series, which he shared with Kuitwaard in his first-ever KONI start. Miller and Pobst finished 4th, just off the podium, while Pritiko suffered a rather substantial crash in the closing stages of the race, he and Bocchino classified 17th after a very strong early run.
Pritiko was given an opportunity to move to local Ontario circle-track races for the rest of 2009, which meant Walker was paired once again with Kuitwaard for the sixth KONI round at Watkins Glen. What ensued was an astonishing battle up front, with veteran talent Pobst unable to keep up with youngster Dion von Moltke in his Volkswagen. This made for great television coverage on SPEED, but it was clear that the APR cars were the class of the field, and even the vast talents of Christian and Randy were unable to best the GTI's. Walker was caught up in a wreck mid-way through his stint, which brought an end to another promising result. Miller and Pobst finished second, which I'll admit was a little disappointing, since Compass360 Racing had finished first at that track in 2008 and 2007. I know it's a little petty to be unhappy with a solid podium, but we all felt Watkins was ours to lose.
At this point, even though the VW's were strong, we expected our closest competitor would be Georgian Bay, last year's Championship- winning team who had come out of the box in very strong form. But after Watkins Glen, they announced they'd be pulling out of the championship. This was a shame, as their two Chevy Cobalts were sitting in second and fourth place at the time (our three Hondas were first, fifth and 13th). They'd finished 3rd at Watkins. I know they'll be back next season, and I expect their new GS-class Camaros will be a very strong package out of the box. I, for one, look forward to their return.
Mid-Ohio's a favorite track of mine. Although I didn't pilot one of our KONI cars in the race, I had been invited to drive the Mustang Challenge series' Media Car. It was my second Media Car ride of the year, having been in the SPX-sponsored Ford at Mosport, finishing a pretty creditable sixth place there. The marketing arm of Compass360 had been hired as the agency of record for the series, which meant we were tapped for our expertise in extending the brand and telling the story of the Mustang Challenge season. It also meant I'd been asked to deliver some solid media coverage for the Mosport event, and we delivered, with a slew of great stories in print and on the web, including videos on YouTube and a full-page article in the Toronto Sun. Mid-Ohio was my chance to have another solid finish, which I did despite some rather stout competition and an unfortunate issue with the braking system. I had great battles and look forward to a chance to race a Mustang again soon!
Meanwhile, our Hondas were running very competitively in the Mid-O KONI event. As ever, one of our cars was top of each practice session, or very close to it. Walker was on form, with co-driver Kuitwaard improving his times each session in his third consecutive outing with the team. Miller and Pobst were strong, as expected, with Christian notching third place in qualifying. Our pleasant surprise of the weekend were our Mustang Challenge transplants, Ted Anthony Jr. and Jamie Slone. Both have proven their front-running ability in the heavy, rear-drive Fords, with Jamie having finished second in the 2008 championship, and Ted in a tight battle for the top spot in 2009. I'd expected them to do well, but the fact that they were both on the pace, and right with the front-runners, was refreshing.
Miller qualified third behind the two VeeDubs, who were clearly in their own class, with Anthony close behind in fourth, and Kuitwaard just outside the top ten in 13th. Excellent early-race battles ensued, with Miller and Anthony doing their best to keep in touch with the astonishingly fast GTIs. Our two lads had a spirited battle, which saw Ted pass Christian in the early stages, with good, clean racing that this team owner always likes to see. Meanwhile, Kuitwaard had been tagged going into the Madness complex, dropping him down the order and putting paid to what should have been a promising result. At the checkered flag it was, as we'd expected, an APR VW rout at the front, with Pobst bringing #74 home in third place, and Jamie Slone doing a great job in his first time with the team by finishing sixth. While we were thrilled with another podium for Championship leader Miller, we were truly impressed with the Anthony/Slone pairing, who were close to the top spots all race long. So much so that Ted Anthony Jr. will be with us again at the Utah event this week, where he'll share one of our Honda Civics with another Mustang Challenge driver, D. Rick Edwards.
After Mid-Ohio, the series moved to the lovely, picturesque Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. Honestly, although I love the manicured grounds and absolutely epic motorcycle museum at this track, I've got to admit that it's not one of my favorite circuits. The track surface is very granular, and the temperatures -- and worse, humidity -- are less than comfortable for the drivers. This year was no exception and we struggled to find a good compromise between the cool, morning set- up, and one that worked in the mid-afternoon temperatures during which the ST race would be held. Note to Grand-Am: the Mustang Challenge event in April is the -best- time of year to be at this track!
Matt Bell joined us for this race, having impressed in a late-season test in 2008 and another one earlier this year. Matt's been something of a phenomenon in KONI GS-class qualifying, having put his BMW M3 on pole more times than anyone else all season long in 2009. Unfortunately, his race results haven't always shown the kind of pace we know he's capable of, and so we were keen to have that happen in the ST race. We paired Rookie Spaude with Bell for this race, while Benoit Theetge was teamed with Bocchino, who we tapped to do the closing duties in #76. This was Benoit's warm-up before he was to drive with Christian in his home event at Trois-Rivieres, a few weeks hence.
Barber was a great event, despite the APR GTI's and the lone Phoenix Subaru Legacy running away from the rest of the field. Christian fought valiantly at the beginning of the race, remaining in a solid third, before our 100lb weight bonus began to wear his tires and brakes. He held on as best he could, while we tried alternative strategies for the other cars. At the flag, the best we could do was seventh place for Christian and Randy, with the Spaude/Bell duo a not- too-shabby 10th. That result kept Bret solidly in the hunt for the Rookie Championship, and meant that Christian was still leading in the Driver's. Compass360 was still top spot in the Team's points as was Honda's for Manufacturer's.
And so we moved on to Trois-Rivieres, a favorite spot on the schedule for the drivers and teams, and the lone Canadian date this year. Again, we did our best to stack the deck driver-wise, with Theetge standing in for Randy in #74, and Marc-Antoine Camirand joining me in #75. Camirand is one of the most winning drivers at the circuit, despite his young age, and was also very competitive in his BMW Z3 Coupe (a reminder of our early KONI days) in the Canadian Touring Car sessions. The Toronto-based Kwok brothers, Gary and Tom, drove #76, making our line-up all-Canadian, except Christian. The two Quebec drivers were huge fan favorites and generated a lot of great press and local tv appearances. Once again, we tried different strategies that resulted in remarkably similar mid-race positions by mid-race, with Theetge in fourth just ahead of Camirand in fifth, and Kwok seventh. Unfortunately, Kwok tagged the wall coming onto the front straight, destroying the front shock, which left the two Quebeckers trying valiantly to get to the podium.
In the end Camirand was fourth and Theetge sixth, two solid results that we'd ordinarily be quite happy with. But after a second place in 2007 and first in 2008, we really felt we should at least be on the podium (shades of Watkins Glen!). It was great to have a Freedom Mazda on the top spot (and also in third), after the hard-fought battles we've had all year, but the VW's had another strong finish by placing second. Perhaps we didn't need that extra 100 pounds after all?
Still, the Subaru of our closest competitors finished 13th after having some contact with a tire barrier, which meant we extended our championship lead to 25 points, with two races to go. As always in KONI competition, the battle is tight and fierce, so it's far from in- the-bag. The VWs have been extremely strong over the middle part of the season, and you know both of those cars, along with the Subaru, will be fighting us tooth-and-nail.
As always, it promises to be a good fight. And we wouldn't have it any other way.
Keep the rubber side down, -Karl