After a ten-year absence, Grand-Am Road Racing made a much-anticipated return to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin’s Road America the weekend of June 23-25, 2011. One of the oldest permanent road race tracks in the United States, Road America was built in 1955 to hold races that were previously run on the public streets of Elkhart Lake. In the early 1950′s, numerous spectator fatalities led to laws prohibiting races on public roads, including in Wisconsin. Thus, a permanent race track just south of Elkhart Lake was constructed so the races could continue.
Road America’s four-mile layout has remained essentially unchanged since its construction. With a decade-long gap from the last Grand-Am race at Road America, 2011 marked many competitor’s first visit to the legendary track. With an open layout that includes three long straights, the fourteen-turn course traditionally favors cars with big horsepower…but each of those long straights terminates with a sharp bend—emphasizing braking performance, and offering good passing opportunities.
The Grand-Am Continental Tire Challenge Series race was scheduled for Friday, as an “opener” to Saturday’s headlining Grand-Am Rolex and NASCAR Nationwide series races. Unfortunately, Wednesday’s testing and Thursday’s practice sessions were more about dodging rain puddles than other competitors. Since the race day forecast called for sunshine, little of the setup information learned on a wet track would apply to the qualifying or the race.
Qualifying commenced on Friday morning, with Nick Longhi capturing the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Grand Sport pole position for the evening’s Road America 200. Longhi ran a lap of 2:24.547 (100.817 mph) to capture his third pole position of the season—tying him with Multimatic Motorsports’s Joe Foster—in the No. 13 Rum Bum Racing BMW M3 co-driven by Matt Plumb. The fastest in a Mustang was Foster, driving the #15 Mustang Boss 302R. He qualified eighth behind four BMWs, two Camaros, and a Subaru WRX.
Though clear skies were forecast for the race, the green flag dropped under clouds. Robert Stout in his #6 Mitchum Motorsports Camaro out powered pole-sitter Longhi to the first turn. Jack Roush Jr. in his #61 Roush Performance Mustang Boss 302R nosed into points leader Paul Dalla Lana’s Turner Motorsport BMW M3 heading into turn five, which also spun Charles Putman in his Fall-Line Motorsports BMW. Grand-Am officials gave Jack Roush Jr a stop-and-go penalty for the incident, deeming it “avoidable contact.” Much of the race was a duel between Camaros for the lead: the #9 Camaro of Matt Bell and John Edwards, the #6 Camaro of Robert Stout and Jeff Bucknum, and the #62 Camaro of Joey Atterbury and Lawson Aschenbach all shared time at the point.
Polesitter Nick Longhi pitted early to hand over the Rum Bum Racing BMW M3 to Matt Plumb, and Billy Johnson took over the #61 Roush Performance Mustang Boss 302R from Jack Roush Jr. While Johnson and Plumb periodically broke through, the straightaway power of the newly unrestricted Camaro engines was too much for the BMW and Mustang to overcome.
As has been the case with Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge races lately, the second half of the race was dominated by extended caution periods following heavy crashes. Fortunately, the few green-flag laps between cautions featured a spirited dogfight between John Edwards in the #9 Stevenson Auto Group Chevrolet Camaro and Billy Johnson in the #61 Boss 302R Mustang. They ran side-by-side on several occasions—Jeff Buchnum (#6 Camaro) made it three wide at one point—and swapped the lead four times over the final twenty laps.
Edwards’s winning pass came on a power slide in turn one. He managed to keep control and pull ahead in turn three. Johnson and Edwards were running nose-to-tail when the final caution waved, caused by the ST-class pole-sitting BMW crashing at turn two, heavily damaging the wall. The Road America 200 ended under the yellow flag, blazing headlights piercing the early evening darkness. John Edwards in the #9 Camaro he shared with Matt Bell took the win, followed by Jack Roush Jr./Billy Johnson in the #61 Roush Performance Ford Mustang Boss 302R and Nick Longhi/Matt Plumb, No. 13 Rum Bum Racing BMW M3.
The win was the first for the #9 Stevenson Auto Group Camaro. Billy Johnson and Jack Roush Jr. continued their climb in the Grand Sport points standings. They are now second, fifteen points behind Bill Auberlen and Paul Dalla Lana. While it seemed unlikely anyone could topple Paul Dalla Lana and Bill Auberlen’s Turner Motorsport BMW M3 in the championship hunt, Billy Johnson and Jack Roush Jr. are certainly making a run of it. Road America marked their sixth consecutive podium finish after their disastrous early race crash at Daytona.
Monterey California’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is the next stop on the Grand-Am Continental Tire Challenge schedule. As the season winds down, the championship battle is heating up!
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