Popow Takes 2nd In Rolex Race At COTA
By Team Ford Racing Correspondent
AUSTIN, Texas -- Starworks with Alex Popow's No. 2 Ford-powered Riley finished second Saturday in Grand-Am road racing's Rolex Sports Car Series event at The Circuit of The Americas -- drivers Ryan Dalziel of Scotland and Venezuelan Alex Popow shared the driving duties and finished less than a half-second behind Chevrolet Corvette drivers Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney and their No. 99 Gainsco Daytona Prototype.
In third place more than three seconds behind was Chip Ganassi Racing's with Felix Sabates' No. 01 Telmex BMW-Riley, with defending series champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas sharing that car's driving duties.
Popow, who qualified the car Friday and started from the seventh spot on the grid today, had to overcome an early race fender bender that until the race end was in sight had pushed the pair from the radar screens of the field's remaining 15 Daytona Prototypes.
The Circuit of The Americas' opening 2013 race weekend was one which welcomed fans and racers alike but left more than a few feeling as though the welcome mat had been yanked from beneath feet and tires.
A wide but tight, 20-turn track whose 3.4-mile course provided only two clear places to pass, and even then demanded a finesse many either lacked or just didn't care to exhibit.
As often as not, COTA left the unfortunate with flat tires and fractured bodywork that all-too-often spelled frustration and an early race end.
Michael Shank Racing's No. 60 Ford-Riley team of John Pew and Ozz Negri were among those who came out on the end of that short stick -- their day ending so badly that the team brought out the race's next-to-last flag after an anxious Richard Westbrook and his No. 90 Corvette rear-ended Negri as the pair were traveling through one of only two areas that nearly everyone agreed would provide the only passing opportunities on 5.55-km long track.
Forcing Negri's immediate spin and rearranging the Ford-powered Riley's rear bodywork, Negri got to the pits as quickly as was practicable, changed the tires and lost a new left-rear tire to uncorrected bodywork from the on-track incident.
"It's just so disappointing," sighed Negri, who had hoped to realize far more in his first full 2013 outing after a nearly healed but still tender fractured leg limited the Brazilian to one racing stint in the team's third-place Rolex 24 At Daytona finish in January.
Perhaps most surprising of the Ford-powered Daytona Prototype entrants was the sixth-place No. 76 Krohn Racing Ford-powered DP, which undertook Saturday's race mainly because team owner-driver Tracy Krohn is a native Texan.
"Other than at Daytona last year, we hadn't raced it in two years," co-driver Nic Jönsson said after he brought the car home.
Now at least a generation behind in suspension and aerodynamic bodyworks as compared to a clear majority of the competing Daytona Prototypes, the "antique" finished ahead of nine newer-generation DPs.
"The older, or Gen-2 DPs as we call them, tended toward more aerodynamic drag than the newer, Gen-3 ones," Jonsson said. "It was better suited for this track, frankly, and we believed as much."
The 60-year-old Krohn qualified 12th and drove the car for more than half the race, handing the car to Jonsson with a little more than an hour remaining in the 2.75-hour race.
In Saturday's Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, Shelby Blackstock led 8 laps before handing his Roush Performance-prepared No. 51 Starstruck Ford Mustang Boss 302R to co-driver Joey Atterbury and giving the Roush Performance team some hope in salvaging a respectable finish after Jack Roush Jr. and Billy Johnson, who likewise led 8 laps, but lost an engine and sent Johnson, in the car at the time, to the garage on Lap 47 of the 55-lap race, finishing 50th in the 60-car CTSCC field.
"It actually just didn't feel right from the beginning," a befuddled-looking Jack Roush Jr. said. "I just never really felt I could get all that I needed from it, especially when I needed or wanted to pass others."
Still, Roush was able to keep the car easily in the top-10 before handing it Johnson under a yellow and who, due to pit strategy, found himself in the lead when the track went green again.
"When I saw Billy and (BMW-driver and eventual winner) Bill Auberlen were first and second, my first thought went back to the 2009 race at Miller Motorsports Park (Tooele, Utah) where those two had one of the best battles I've flat-out ever seen in racing," Roush Performance engineer Kris Walker said.
"But with the speed differentials, we knew it was only a matter of time before Auberlen would blow by us -- they had been running about two seconds a lap faster than us earlier in the race. Billy was able to hold him back for awhile, but it was only a matter of time."
Atterbury was closing on a top-5 finish when a fuel issue doomed the No. 51 Boss 302R.
"I was going down the straight from 11 to 12 and knew it was trouble," Atterbury said. "We didn't have enough to make it to the end so I had to pull in for a gas-and-go just to salvage as many points as possible."
Blackstock and Atterbury settled for 14th.
While the sour engine had something to do with Johnson offering little fight in fending off Auberlen, according to team members the principal reason behind the Mustang being a veritable sitting duck nowadays is weight. Indeed, a lot of extra weight mandated by Grand-Am Road Racing officials who believe that the Mustang is so good that it must be held back. In so doing, they've chosen weight, or "ballast" to "balance" the action.
"We are 60 pounds heavier than any other car out here or, putting it another way," an angry Johnson said, "we're flat-out the heaviest car out there."
So heavy, in fact, that the least heaviest same-class car is a clear 500 lb. lighter than the Mustang, thus stressing everything necessary to build speed and to slow it.
"Every component in that car is getting stressed beyond what the rest of the field is encountering with their cars," Walker insisted.
"Billy is among the most talented drivers around today, and it's just not fair that we're being penalized as much for the driver as anything."
"It's time to let us compete squarely, at the weight we come off the factory line."
The next race on the Rolex Sports Car Series’ and Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge schedule is April 3-6 at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.