With Turner Motorsport’s Paul Dalla Lana and Bill Auberlen finishing on the podium in the first three races of Grand-Am’s 2011 Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, the rest of the teams had some work ahead if they wanted to derail the Turner Motorsport freight train for the championship. Heading into the fourth round at Virginia International Raceway (VIR), the closest challengers were Joe Foster and Scott Maxwell. Winning the previous race at Barber Motorsports Park, the #15 Mustang drivers brought Ford Racing the Boss 302R’s first victory, and kept Ford’s hopes of snatching the manufacturer’s title from BMW alive.
The legendary 3.27-mile, 17-turn circuit at VIR hosted the latest round of Grand-Am’s 2011 Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge May 13-14. With twisty bits and long straights, many describe it as a real “driver’s track.” When asked why he likes VIR, Rehagen Racing’s Dean Martin replied, “It has sections with flowing corners where you need good rhythm, and it has scary high-speed sections where you need big balls.”
Typical for springtime in southern Virginia, the threat of rain meant teams kept a set of rain tires mounted and ready at all times. Thursday’s test session was shortened by heavy rain, the remnants of which made the track slick for Friday morning’s practice. Billy Johnson and Jack Roush Jr. made the most of the drying track to post the quickest time ahead of Joe Foster and Scott Maxwell to put their Mustang Boss 302Rs in the top two spots.
The #61 Roush Performance Boss 302R of Johnson and Roush was again quickest in the second practice at mid-day, followed by the #21 Mustang FR500C of Todd Snyder and Scott Panzer. Qualifying commenced late Friday afternoon, and the dry, cool track meant the session would be fast and furious. When the dust settled, Al Carter had his #45 Fall-Line BMW M3 on pole, followed by Joe Foster (#15 Mustang Boss 302R) and James Clay (#79 BimmerWorld BMW M3). Jack Roush Jr. qualified in a solid sixth.
Race day was dry but heavily overcast, with weather reports indicating rain might be more likely as the day progressed. After the ever-popular fan walk prior to the race, it was time to get to business. At the drop of the green flag, the 60-car field thundered to turn one. James Clay in the #79 BMW snatched second from Joe Foster in the #15 Mustang, though Foster gained it back on lap eight, and two laps later fought to the lead. Then, an ST-class Honda had engine trouble, and bathed turn one with oil. The slick conditions necessitated a full-course caution to clean it up and fetch Scott Panzer in the #21 Mustang out of the tires at turn fourteen. In order for a driver to receive points, they must drive at least 30 minutes, and with less than that time elapsing since the start of the race, the leaders elected not to pit yet.
At the restart, James Clay (#79 BMW) grabbed second from Al Carter (#45 BMW), and challenged Joe Foster (#15 Mustang) for the lead. Foster held him off for three laps until a multi-car accident in turn one brought the field under yellow again. Air guns buzzed and pit crews crouched on the pit wall, waiting for the field to descend upon pit lane for fresh tires, fuel, and driver changes. Al Carter’s #45 BMW suddenly stopped running out on the course, which promoted Jack Roush, Jr. to third place before the field reached down pit lane. The Fall-Line Motorsports crew worked feverishly to solve the issue with the #45 BMW, and the car went several laps down before the crew traced the problem to a tripped circuit breaker. The drivers that stayed out leapfrogged those who pitted, with the lead going to Robert Stout in the #6 Mitchum Motorsports Camaro. Stout lost the lead to Guy Cosmo in the #83 Porsche on the restart, and Matt Plumb in the #13 BMW moved from third to the lead seven laps later.
Another full-course caution came out on lap 30, and those that didn’t pit previously came in for service. Matt Plumb (#13 BMW) was running 10th just ahead of Scott Maxwell in the #15 Mustang. When the race went green, Maxwell made contact with Plumb while braking for turn one, crunching the Mustang’s nose and sending Plumb’s BMW off track and into the wall. Though Plumb was unhurt, his BMW was finished for the day, and the incident initiated another full-course caution. Maxwell was given a drive-through penalty for what was deemed “avoidable contact,” shuffling him back down the order.
With fifteen minutes remaining, 2010 series champion Charles Espenlaub in the #48 Fall-Line BMW was leading at the restart. Grand-Am failed to give the field the “one to go” signal, which caught Espenlaub at the front on cold tires—and the field bearing down on him. At turn one, Billy Johnson in the #61 Mustang Boss 302R easily drove around the outside of Espanlaub, who was struggling for grip while the leaders freight-trained past.
The order was Roush, Auberlen (#96 Turner Motorsport BMW) and Borcheller (#46 Fall-Line BMW). With a couple laps remaining, Auberlen was able to slip past Johnson and into the lead at turn one. However, Johnson was able to regain the lead when Auberlen slid wide at the “Oak Tree Turn.” At the checkered flag, Johnson claimed his and Jack Roush, Jr.’s first win of the season, and Ford’s second consecutive win for the Boss 302R. Points leaders Paul Dalla Lana (#96 Turner Motorsport BMW) finished second, and Mark Boden and Terry Borcheller (#46 Fall-Line Motorsports BMW) rounded out the top three.
While it was a great result for the Roush Performance team, Turner Motorsport’s runner-up finish added to their points lead, making the task of unseating them even more difficult. Lime Rock Park in Lakeville Connecticut will host the fifth round of the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge on Memorial Day weekend. The short, 1.53-mile track will be a bull-ring of activity as the Mustang teams try to topple Turner Motorsport’s BMW.