• Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix

Racing Roundup: 4 NASCAR Trucks Stars Turn Heads in IMSA Sports Cars  

Jarvis and Nunez win WeatherTech race at CTMP marred by bad crash; Haley first at Daytona; Honda Indy next weekend and all the racing news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald July 8, 2019

Sunday was gorgeous at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Not a cloud in the sky and there was a nice breeze to take the edge off what could have been another hot-‘n-sweaty day. The place was packed, as it usually is for the big events.

The racing in the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix presented by Acura had been spectacular, in that with four classes all racing balls out on what is really a very tight and twisty circuit (thank  goodness for the Mario Andretti Straightway, where everybody gets a chance stretch their legs), one false move by anybody could have resulted in disaster.

But then somehow, and as of this writing I have no idea if Victor Franzoni was hit from behind, lost his brakes, completely misjudged the corner, or  whatever, but he went pretty much straight off at the crest of Corner 2 and into a tire wall at the bottom of the hill at an extremely high rate of speed. When rescue vehicles got to him, you couldn’t see the car, which was wedged in – and covered by – the tires.

When he was finally removed from his Cadillac DPi race car, and put into an ambulance for the trip to hospital in Bowmanville, he was described by IMSA as being awake and alert. That could mean just about anything but usually is an indication that a full recovery is expected.

It was yet, of course, another reminder that auto racing is a dangerous, dangerous game. You can only make it so safe. Those tires are there to protect a wall that’s there to keep racing cars from going into trees. At one time, it was an unprotected cement wall much closer to the racing surface and was where German F1 and endurance sports car driver Manfred Winkelhock met his end in 1985. Thank goodness the Brazilian Franzoni appeared to be okay.

The No. 77 Mazda of Olivier Jarvis and Tristan Nunez won the 2-hour, 40-minute timed event (that was temporarily red-flagged while Franzoni was rescued) and the P2 Class winner was the No. 52 ORECO wheeled by Matt McMurray and Toronto’s Dalton Kellett. Kellett will be racing in the Indy Lights class at next weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto and will be featured in next Saturday’s Toronto Star Wheels.

The GT-LeMans class victory went to the No. 912 Porsche 911 GTR of Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor while the GT-Daytona class was won by Bill Auberlen and Robby Folley in the No. 96 BMW M6 GT3.

When two drivers from each podium car line up for a photo, you can count 36 of them. Sports car racing is the most interesting and exciting of all the motor-car sports, I believe, but when you tell someone who’s not a fan that 36 (or 34, in this case, as there were only two cars in P2 Sunday) they can’t believe there can be that many “winners.”

So when motor sport aficionados complain that their favourite sport doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the major media, that – right there – is one of the reasons.

Now, there was lots of interesting stuff that went on in racing this weekend but, to my mind, this was the most interesting:

Although the 2019 NASCAR Gander Truck Series race won’t be held at CTMP until Aug. 25, four drivers in that championship got in some practice this weekend, compliments of the Ford Motor Co. and Multimatic Motorsports of Markham.

Veterans Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter, Grant Enfinger and a youngster, Ben Rhodes, drove Multimatic-prepared Ford Mustangs in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race Saturday in support of Sunday’s main event, the SportsCar Grand Prix, the seventh race in the 12-round IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

And at least one of those four good ‘ol boys experienced some serious culture shock, primarily because mechanics do the setup work on the trucks in the NASCAR series and aeronautical engineers are in charge of the Mustang GT4s that the trucks racers were driving.

“I came in after a practice run,” Rhodes told me in an interview, “and I said, ‘Let’s drop the track bar and put a little wedge in this thing,’ and they looked at me and said, ‘Wha-a-at?’ And then they asked me if I had understeer or oversteer and I went, ‘Do you mean is it pushing, or is it loose?’ We had some work to do understanding each other,” he laughed.

Rhodes is 22 and looks 16.  A kart racer who moved into stock cars when he was 14, he won the NASCAR U.S. K & N Series East championship and has had a series of one-offs in the Xfinity Stock Car Series and the trucks going back to 2014, winning six poles, two races and recording a total of 43 Top Ten finishes. He’s ambitious about his racing.

Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix

“Although this is really just a practice session,” Rhodes said before the Saturday race, “it’s very serious for me and I want to give a good account of myself. Ford Performance (part of the automaker’s racing division) supports us on the trucks side and they brought us here to prepare for the race next month. I hope to give them a good return on their investment.”

That was an understatement, if ever there was one. Rhodes qualified his Mustang third fastest and by the time he went to the pits on Lap 27 to  hand over to co-driver Enfinger, he was leading the 38-car field made up of 24 Grand Sport (GS) racing cars – translation: they’re brutes – and 14 Touring Cars (TCRs) – translation: not brutes.

Unfortunately, time lost during the driver change and some on-track contretemps involving Enfinger meant the duo dropped to 13th at the finish but the performance turned in by Rhodes was impressive and it’s safe to say he will be a star of the future in whatever car and series he enters.

Crafton is a wily veteran – he’s 43 – who’s made his career in trucks and has run more than 400 races, winning 14 and scoring 15 poles. He’s also wracked up 226 Top Tens. He was a little more laid back about the whole experience than the exuberant Rhodes.

“We’re just here to get some seat time,” he said Saturday morning. “We don’t road race that much in the trucks series, so it’s good practice. It’s a Ford (the Multimatic Mustang he co-drove with Sauter), I drive for Ford and they stepped up and got us some practice.

“We didn’t qualify as well as we’d hoped (Crafton’s time was 19th fastest) but I’m not usually one to lay down a really fast lap. But I do well in the races (he and Sauter finished 14th, although Crafton had the team up to eighth before the driver change), so I expect that will be the case here. It’s an honour for me to drive a Multimatic-prepared car and I keep learning each and every time I go out.”

Like many primarily-oval track competitors who get a taste of road-course racing and find themselves hungry for more, Crafton thinks there should be more road races in the trucks series. “It’s a shame they only have one road race (the Chevrolet Silverado 250 at CTMP in August),” he said. “It costs a lot of money to build a truck for just one race. There are great road courses out there and you just have to look at the number of fans who come out.

“It’s a lot of fun being here, too. I’m really looking forward to coming back in August. This (CTMP) is a tricky place to get around and so I’m really pleased to have had this opportunity. We were close (to winning) here in the past; hopefully, this experience that Ford gave us here, driving these Mustangs, will give us a step up on the rest of the (trucks) field.”

With his performance this weekend, Rhodes might find himself in demand as a sports car racer – but NASCAR will continue to be his focus in the short term.

“I have an absolutely open mind about things,” the youngster said. “As a race driver, I want to be in a car every single weekend. If I’m not doing this (IMSA sports cars), I want to be in a dirt car or in NASCAR.

“But this is a blast. I would do this in a heartbeat and if the opportunity presents itself in the future, I’d be more than happy to come over here and run some more races and compete for a season. But I still have a long way to go in my NASCAR career and I want to focus on that. Maybe, later down the line, I could come over here and compete for a championship. But that will come later.

“I want to come back here in August and win the trucks race first.”

Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix

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Between practice, qualifying and racing, 31 Canadian drivers saw action in the four championships holding races at CTMP this weekend: the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – which headlines the weekend with Sunday’s two-hour and 40-minute Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix Presented by Acura – the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, the IMSA Prototype Challenge and the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Yokohama.

Three of those Canadians – Cameron Cassels from Coldstream, B.C., Scott Hargrove from Vancouver and Marco Cirone from Bolton, Ont. – planned to compete in multiple races this weekend.

The WeatherTech Championship entry list included four Canadians – Hargrove and Zacharie Robichon (Ottawa) in the No. 9 Porsche 911 GT3 R for Toronto’s Pfaff Motorsports; Cassels in the No. 38 Performance Tech ORECA in the LMP2 class; and Kellett (Toronto), who made his IMSA debut in the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA, also in LMP2.

Robin Liddell and Frank DePew won that Michelin Pilot Challenge race Saturday in a Camaro, with Canadian Kyle Marcelli of Barrie second (co-driver Nate Stacy) in a Mustang GT4 and Jesse Lazare of Montreal third (Corey Fergus co-driving) in a McLaren GT4. The all-Canadian entry of Scott Hargrove of Vancouver and Orey Fidani of Toronto finished 11th. They were driving a Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport.

In the IMSA Prototype Challenge race Saturday, Austin McCusker and Rodrigo Pflucker were first in a Norma M30.

In the first Porsche Series race of the weekend, Roman De Angelis of Belle River, Ont., scored his fourth victory of the season Saturday in the No. 79 Mark Motors Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car after a strong start at the drop of the green flag. By the time the checkers flew, he was 14.598 seconds ahead – and complaining.

“It was pretty difficult to be honest with you,” said De Angelis. “We struggled a bit with rear grip. We had a shock go bad yesterday (Friday) in qualifying and to replace that overnight, you never really know how these shocks are going to break in or how they’re going to act. So yeah, the left rear was a bit sketchy in all the right-handers, so I just kind of had to adapt to the way the car was.

“It was definitely not an easy one for us but once again I can’t thank Mark Motors enough. We’re pulling away in these points and we just need to keep doing that.”

While initially dropping to third place at the start, Kingsley bounced back to regain the runner-up position ahead of Patrick Dussault in the No. 77 Lauzon Autosport Porsche. This was the first podium for Kingsley since winning the first race of the season, also at CTMP. as part of the annual Victoria Day SpeedFest held in May. This was Dussault’s third podium of the year.

Meanwhile in the Platinum Masters class, Cirone finished first and was fourth overall.

Sunday, De Angeles won again – his fifth win of 2019. This time he was 20 seconds ahead. My thanks to IMSA and the CTMP PR staff for these details.

Other racing:

Justin Haley won the last Firecracker 400 for NASCAR Cup cars at Daytona. There was a Big One and then a rainstorm that didn’t let up and Haley, normally an Xfinity driver, was in front when the red flag was waved. As it looked like there would be another 90 minutes of rain, and then a couple of hours to dry the track, NASCAR opted to throw in the towel. It was the last Firecracker (or Coke something) because next year the NASCAR Cup cars will be racing at Indianapolis on the Fourth of July weekend. Too bad. I like tradition and the Firecracker has been around since Big Bill France built the Daytona Speedway. Nothing lasts forever, though. It was great while it lasted.

Steve Torrence won the NHRA’s Top Fuel race Sunday at the New England Nationals while Matt Hagan was first in Funny Cars.

This report was filed by Clayton Johns: A spectacular red sunset was the backdrop for a thrilling night of action at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations reserve Friday. It was Frankie Turkey Memorial night presented by O’Neil’s Farm Equipment and Case IH.  A total of 113 cars signed in for action across four divisions. Scott Kreutter scored his first win of the season with the Kool Kidz/Corr-Pak 360 Sprint Cars and Jesse McDonald won the Strickland’s GMC Crate Sprint Cars. For the stock cars, it was Trevor DeBoer claiming a second victory this season with the Middleport Mechanical Thunder Stocks. Fabio Olivieri won the June 28 make-up feature for the HRW Automotive Mini Stocks before the regularly scheduled event was rained out.

Thank you, Clayton. And don’t forget, folks: the annual Honda Indy Toronto will go to the post next Sunday afternoon at Exhibition Place. The NASCAR Pinty’s Series national stock car race will headline next Saturday’s action and there will also be races in the Road to Indy series – the USF2000, the Pro Mazda and the Firestone Indy Lights.

The annual Fan Friday sponsored by the Honda Dealers of Ontario takes place next, well, Friday. There is no admission to watch all the open-wheel series practice (including the Indy cars) but a cash donation at the door will be expected, and appreciated, with all proceeds going to Make-A-Wish Canada.

See you there!

Norris McDonald / Special to Wheels.ca