Pirelli World Challenge is one of the fastest growing series right now, and they've got their second race of the season coming up this weekend at St. Petersburg. So, who's racing there, besides the already famous dudes like Eversley and Estré? We sat down with a few drivers to ask how they got into PWC at their season opener.
The Old Hats
PWC is certainly the media darling this year with the explosive growth that's occurred in part from the upheaval from merging the American Le Mans Series with Grand-Am and in part from PWC's embracing of the international GT3 spec—but let's not forget that it's been around since 1990.
Nick Esayian is right there with Realtime Acura owner/driver Peter Cunningham as one of the longtime names in World Challenge. In fact, Cunningham was Esayian's first driving coach back in 1989.
Esayian credited the economy's bounce-back and World Challenge's easy point of entry for young racers as part of the reason for its recent growth. Like Randy Pobst, Nick Esayian started out doing autocross.
Esayian's first pro race was the Neon Challenge. Remember that series? It was a spec series for the Dodge Neon, of all things. Forget the Neon's modern-day reputation as a car most likely to be found with four flat tires in a Juggalette's yard. Back in its day, it was a competent racer. Like PWC, Neon Challenge was run as one of the Sports Car Club of America's Pro Racing series. Plus, the prize money and exposure from Neon Challenge was great, particularly since they occasionally tossed celebrities into the cars with the racers. Some races could net racers more prize money than the cars were worth! He ran that from 1994 to 1999, and it served as a springboard to bigger and better things.
He drove a little bit of everything before eventually settling down with Capaldi Racing in PWC: club racing, Grand-Am, NASA, open-wheelers, and even one circle track race (which he won). He tried out World Challenge in 2002 in an Acura Integra Type R. In 2004, Esayian was reunited with his first coach, Peter Cunningham, at RealTime Racing. He spent some time driving at RealTime as well as for Bimmerworld and The Racers' Group before ending up at Capaldi Racing in a Ford Mustang Boss 302.
The Mustang is much different from the Aston Martin he'd been running with The Racers' Group. According to Nick, the Mustang works best in turns when you "jam the throttle, turn in, and work it out." Sounds like a blast.
The New Guys
That springboard to bigger-and-better things isn't a thing of the past. Now that World Challenge is getting a lot more attention, it's become what Neon Challenge was for Esayian: a place to be seen and get noticed, even in the lower classes. GT may be the fastest class that gets the most attention, but the fact that you're running on the same weekend for much less than you could run many other pro series is a huge plus.
Nick Esayian's teammate at Capaldi Racing, Dan Martinson, is one of the newbies. The season opener at Circuit of the Americas was his first race in a GTS car. He did a race in
Martinson invented the GearTie, a reusable tie system, so he did what any smart person who's been even sort of successful would do: he got into race cars. His first race after doing one of the Skip Barber schools was in a Mazda MX-5 in 2011. Since then, Martinson has been doing Porsche Club of America races and track days for the past two years, alternating between a Spec 944 and a 996 Cup. These two options gave him the opportunity to pick and choose the races to do that looked like more fun. Before that, he was running a Cayman and a 911.
When it came to hopping over to pro racing, he knew Pirelli World Challenge racer Jack Baldwin through Cayman racing in PCA. Baldwin eventually hooked Martinson up with Leo Capaldi in the PWC paddock, and the rest is history. Traxxas is one of Capaldi's big sponsors in PWC, and Martinson's son loves their remote-control cars. The two bonded over that.
Plus, the Ford Mustang Boss 302 was just a good car for the GTS class in PWC, and the series was going nowhere but up.
World Challenge as a series struggled to find an audience in the mid-2000s, and entries dwindled down fast when the economy went in the crapper between 2007-2009. Since then, the WC Vision team behind it took over the business and marketing side of it to give that more exposure, and rules were put in place to make the series easier to afford. The FIA GT3 and GT4 specs are now both legal to run here. Cost controlling measures were placed on the GT classes so that manufacturers couldn't price out privateers from being competitive.
As such, World Challenge's entry lists blew up as soon as the economy recovered. Martinson said the fact that it's now the third most popular American racing series behind NHRA and NASCAR made it a no-brainer when it came to hopping into Capaldi's Mustang. (I'm not sure what metrics they're using to come up with that ranking, but it's interesting that at least one list ranks PWC as higher in popularity over IndyCar and United SportsCar. PWC often appears as a support race for IndyCar. This would be akin to saying that GP2 is the new hotness over Formula One.)
According to Martinson, the facts that there isn't a lot of confusion on the classes, the standing starts are exciting, there aren't any complicated driver changes, they race in any weather and they use recognizable production-based cars make the series easy to watch and follow. The strategy gets interesting, too: you have to pick a fuel load at the start, and the tires you race on are the ones you qualified on. The racing is so close that if you accidentally go out with too little fuel or need to come in for a tire, you're almost always out of the win right then and there.
The sprint race format makes following a World Challenge race a lot easier than a longer endurance format for even NASCAR's hundreds upon hundreds of laps, so I get it. It's easier to follow, and the short races are all action.
Another relatively new driver this year had perhaps the race of the year so far in the second TC race of the season: Adam Poland. Poland is further proof that you should beware of the Texans at Circuit of the Americas. He's from Mt. Vernon in northeast Texas, but he's sponsored by Edge Addicts, a track day group who frequently runs Circuit of the Americas.
Oh, and he pulled out a drive that places him in good company with the likes of Will Hardeman (local who ran away with the weekend's Pirelli GT3 Cup Trophy races), Michael Johnson (local who muscled up from the back of the pack to a fifth-place finish at last year's Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge race), Mark McKenzie (local whose company not only helped build the track, but constantly runs near the front of the Ferrari Challenge and Porsche GT3 Cup races), and James Wilson (local who jumped ahead fourteen spots in the last B-Spec race of the weekend).
The locals will ruin your day at COTA: fact.
Poland's story is even wackier than any of the above. He finished third in his TC-class Mazda MX-5 at the first race of the Pirelli World Challenge season opener weekend, but a rear main seal needed to be replaced between the first and second race of the weekend. The clutch master cylinder turned out to be a dud, too, so they replaced that as well. They couldn't get fluid in that system at all. It was all hands on deck to get the car ready for the race. One of Poland's community college instructors was on hand to help out with wrenching, but Adam himself got his hands dirty trying to put everything back in working order. With three minutes to go before Race 2 of the weekend, they were still under the car and absolutely certain that they would miss the race.
Then the car fired up, and everything seemed to be working just fine.
One of Poland's support guys, Trevor Zimmerman, mentioned, "Lewis Hamilton won a race from pit lane."
That settles it: the race was on.
The outlap had started. Technically, Poland was late. He sped to join the pit lane for the race, where he'd have to start now. The grid marshal let him out behind the slowest class in the entire series: TCB. That didn't seem to be much of a challenge, as Poland worked his way through all of TCB and quite a bit of the faster TCA class by the end of the first lap.
A full-course yellow came out for a Cayman screw-up when Poland had reached eighth place. He then went from 8th to 2nd on the restart.
Ultimately, the Porsche Cayman of Cody Ellsworth had more power that helped on the long straights of COTA, allowing Ellsworth to keep Poland behind him. Poland was right behind him whenever he could catch up in the twisty sections, though, following only a tenth of a second off the Cayman's rear at several points in the race.
Poland admitted that he'd played it safe in that race, passing up a couple probably doable, but probably sketchy opportunities to pass the Cayman because he didn't want to tarnish his reputation as a clean racer.
He said that this race was "one of the most fun races I've ever had, and the most focused I've ever been in a car for sure."
But how did he get there? Well, he started out tracking an automatic Mini Cooper in 2004 with his family, and then the family moved up to a pair of Porsche 944 Turbos. The 944s had bigger turbos and a host of other modifications done that made them a total blast, but pretty unreliable. The 944s were soon swapped for a Mustang GT, and then he started racing Spec Miatas. He's driven and raced for six years total, but this is only his second year in PWC, also in a Mazda.
IT CAME FROM PLANE—err, ANOTHER SERIES
One of the biggest reasons, for better or for worse, why people are paying more attention to the Pirelli World Challenge races this year are all the teams who've come over from the Grand-Am/American Le Mans Series merger this year. The cost of running the merged TUDOR United SportsCar endurance series has gone up for many teams and there have been myriad growing pains from blending the two series' rules, classes and overall cultures over the past two years.
As a result, names you'd previously see running full seasons in the endurance series like Turner Motorsports and Flying Lizard are now playing in Pirelli World Challenge. So, we sat down with a racer who made the jump to PWC after spending time in Grand-Am: Jack Roush Jr.
For Roush, switching over to run the ROUSH Perforance Ford Mustang Boss 302 in PWC made logistical sense. He started running PWC in 2014 after the Grand-Am/ALMS merger out of the Roush-Fenway shops in North Carolina, but Capaldi was more local to Roush Performance's own office in Detroit. Roush had known team owner Leo Capaldi forever, from when he started karting at age 6. Leo had a business that serviced go-karts at the time and had worked on Roush's road-racing teams in the seventies and eighties.
Capaldi and Roush teamed up to run the Roush team in 2015 and already felt like old friends (because they were). The two teams could share costs under one umbrella, making it even easier for Roush's new PWC entry to run.
For Roush, the move was about trying something different. "I was ready to do something new," he said. World Challenge presented a good show with intense races and decent coverage. Moving GTS to its own race meant that their cars wouldn't be caught up in accidents with the GT field, making it even more economical to run the season. Like in Grand-Am, faster GT cars getting around slower GTS cars is a huge challenge and often leads to smash-'em-up action if drivers can't figure out how to pass the slower cars cleanly.
Like all the other drivers I spoke with, Jack Roush Jr. has a varied driving history. He started in karts, but moved up to drag racing, more karts, and even rally and circle track racing. His team participated in Grand-Am from 2006 until the end of the series in 2013.
Roush is synonymous with Fords, but that doesn't mean the Mustang isn't a challenge to drive. It's a heavier car, which makes all the turns and esses more difficult because of its higher center of gravity. Saving tires is also a challenge due to the car's weight. They often qualify with a slower time to save the tires for the race where they need that extra rubber-meat to power through for a win.
Where does the Mustang shine, then? Straight-line speed, naturally. The slightly SpongeBobby yellow-and-blue Roush car was a rocketship down COTA's long straight.
I was impressed with the number of drivers who'd tracked or raced Porsche 944s, Spec Miatas and other fairly mundane cars up until getting into Pirelli World Challenge. It's truly become the everyman's pro racing series, accessible to amateurs wanting to make that crucial jump to a pro series with more exposure.
Pirelli World Challenge has their second race weekend of the year this weekend at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. To say it's worth the watch would be the biggest understatement that could come out of my [online] mouth.
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