Sebring: Series round one preview

Locked and Loaded: World Challenge Season Number 20 SEBRING, Fla. (March 17, 2009) -- The anticipation has been building over the cold winter months but now, in the heart of sunny Florida, it's finally time to take the cover off of the SCCA Pro ...

Sebring: Series round one preview

Locked and Loaded: World Challenge Season Number 20

SEBRING, Fla. (March 17, 2009) -- The anticipation has been building over the cold winter months but now, in the heart of sunny Florida, it's finally time to take the cover off of the SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge Championships. The Toyo Tires SPEED World Challenge Season Opener at Sebring gets underway Wednesday, part of the 57th Annual Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring Presented by Fresh From Florida.

Many familiar faces return to the 2009 World Challenge Touring Car Championship, but by no means will this season be a repeat of last year. Defending Drivers' Champion Peter Cunningham will pilot the new body-style No. 1 Acura/RealTime/Red Line Oil Acura TSX. Without any testing before arriving at Sebring, another Acura podium seems unlikely. Sticking with last year's TSX, Pierre Kleinubing and Canadian Kuno Wittmer will certainly be gunning for a win at Sebring on Friday. The RealTime team will be joined by former SCCA National Champion and KONI Challenge regular Toby Grahovec in the No. 43 Acura/RealTime/Red Line Oil Acura TSX. Friday's race will be Grahovec's second World Challenge start.

Tri-Point Racing brings back 2008 World Challenge Touring Car Rookie of the Year Jason Saini to pilot the No. 74 Mazdaspeed/Stoptech/ProParts MAZDA6 and will once again partner him with Mazda-ace Charles Espenlaub, who finished fourth at Sebring last year. The duo is joined by 2008 SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup Champion Eric Foss. The trio hopes to take the fight to Acura and BMW this weekend to start Mazda out on the path to a Manufacturers' Championship.

Meanwhile, BimmerWorld arrives in Sebring the only team to make no changes to their 2008 lineup. James Clay, Seth Thomas and Nick Esayian are all back to pilot the same BimmerWorld/GearWrench BMW 325is that came into their own last season, propelling both Clay and Thomas to career-best finishes. The continuity could prove beneficial, allowing the team to rise above the rest and start the 2009 season off with a win.

A new face joining the World Challenge Touring Car crowd this week is 2007 SCCA Touring 1 National Champion Andrew Aquilante, who will pilot the No. 35 Phoenix Performance Inc. Subaru WRX. Aquilante and the Phoenix Performance team are planning to pull double duty at Sebring, campaigning a Chevrolet Corvette in World Challenge GT as well.

Round One of the World Challenge GT Championship poses many of the same scenarios as Touring Car. Defending Drivers' Champion Randy Pobst is back, but instead of climbing behind the wheel of the Porsche that brought him so much success in 2007 and 2008, a Volvo S60 will be his weapon of choice. That's right, in case you've been living in a cave for the past month, K-PAX/3R Racing has made the switch to Volvos for the 2009 season and they've brought 2005 Drivers' Champion Andy Pilgrim into the mix. Pilgrim, who makes the switch to K-PAX and Volvo after five years of driving a Cadillac CTS-V, finished runner-up to Pobst in the Championship the past two seasons. Like the new TSXs, the Volvos will be pulled off the trucks at Sebring with minimal testing, making for a stressful weekend for the K-PAX team, but you couldn't ask for a better driving pairing than Pobst and Pilgrim to get the cars up to speed and ready to fight for race wins.

So without K-PAX, who will lead Porsche's Manufacturers' Title defense? That responsibility may fall on James Sofronas and GMG Racing's shoulders. Sofronas' maiden World Challenge victory at New Jersey Motorsports Park last year clinched the World Challenge GT Manufacturers' Championship Presented by RACER Magazine a race early for Porsche. Now that he's got that race win off his back, Sofronas is fired up to make a run for the Championship in 2009. He'll have a solid wingman at his side in series veteran Dino Crescentini and a fresh face with rookie William Ziegler.

A new team, Brass Monkey Racing, may also have a hand in a repeat Championship for Porsche. Working in conjunction with former series Champions Kelly-Moss Motorsports, Brass Monkey Racing has brought in 2008 IMSA Challenge Gold Cup Champion Tony Rivera to pilot the No. 97 Tax Masters/Mirage Group Porsche 911 GT3.

To take back-to-back Championships, Porsche will likely have a tough battle with Ford on its hands. In his first full World Challenge GT season, Brandon Davis had a big impact on the 2009 Championship in his No. 10 Applied Computer Solutions/Sun Micro Ford Mustang Cobra. It was at Sebring last year that the paddock first became aware of Davis' speed in the new Mustang. When qualifying was cancelled due to an engine failure that coated the front straight in oil, Davis claimed the top spot on the grid thanks to his lighting-quick practice times. If it hadn't been for three DNFs mid-season, Davis could have had a real shot at the Drivers' Championship and is certainly a lead contender for the 2009 Title.

Eric Curran too is hoping his reliability woes of 2008 will be solved. Many a finish slipped through Curran's fingers last year, but when his No. 30 Whelen Engineering Chevrolet Corvette did make it to the finish line, it was always a top-five finish. Curran was the 2007 World Challenge GT winner at Sebring, if the rain stays away, perhaps this weekend he'll add another Sebring trophy to his case.

Could Viper be the surprise of the weekend? World Challenge GT 2008 Rookie of the Year Gunter Schaldach has returned for his sophomore season in the No. 9 Lala Motorsports Viper. This season his Lala Motorsports crew has hooked up with Alchemy Motorsports Group to work on chassis setup and development, so look for Schaldach to reset his career-best finish several times over this season.

Viper pilot Jason Daskalos could very well be on the podium at Sebring. Now in his third year of World Challenge GT competition, Daskalos demonstrated tremendous improvement in 2008. He led a lap in the Sebring rainstorm last year and finished a career-high fourth at New Jersey Motorsports Park. His No. 5 Daskalos Developments Viper will definitely be a factor in Friday's World Challenge GT race.

Two exotics are scheduled to make their World Challenge debut this week. Former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini has brought a five liter V10 Lamborghini Gallardo to Sebring. It will be the first time the Italian marque has raced with World Challenge. Also mixed in amongst the giants of GT will be a small and nimble Louts Exige S. Campaigned by Hypersport with Joe Foster behind the wheel, it will be interesting to see how the Lotus stacks up against cars twice its size.

New cars, old rivalries, new names, but the same great racing -- the SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge Championships are getting ready to green at Sebring International Raceway. Live timing, lap notes and photo galleries are available all week at Broadcast times on SPEED will be announced shortly.

-credit: scca pro racing

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