Sports Car Driving Legend in “Must Win” Situation This Weekend at MRLS
SALINAS, Calif. – Sports car driving legend Johnny O’Connell enjoyed a wild finish in last year’s Pirelli World Challenge Championships at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca when the Cadillac Racing driver scored his fourth consecutive GT point title.
O’Connell recalls that it was not easy as he was in a fierce battle with former Corvette Racing teammate Olivier Beretta, who was driving a Ferrari last year.
“I got a great start last year and I knew Olivier would be coming up to challenge after he had a disappointing qualifying run,” said O’Connell, the four-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champion. “He made a wild move entering the ‘Corkscrew’ and his car hit mine from behind. I wasn’t sure if my Cadillac was damaged but I had to keep going to finish the race. He felt he had to win the race to win the championship. He made another wild move later in the race and he didn’t finish. But I did finish and we won our fourth straight crown. It was a crazy race.”
Now, the Flowery Branch, Ga., driver needs another crazy race this weekend (Oct. 7-9) in the PWC season finale at the famous 2.238-mile, 11-turn Northern California permanent road racing circuit. Johnny is in third in the current GT point standings behind leader Alvaro Parente and second place Patrick Long.
“I’m in a ‘must-win’ situation this weekend,” said O’Connell, who trails Parente by 104 points entering Sunday’s 50-minute GT sprint event. “It will be hard to match the drama of last year with Olivier, but we aren’t mathematically out of the title chase yet. We’ll need some luck to win the title but, hey, I’m Irish. Who knows?”
O’Connell, who’s tied with his Cadillac Racing teammate Michael Cooper at 1451 points, vaulted back into the GT points hunt with a sensational double win weekend last month at Sonoma Raceway. Now Johnny needs another win for a shot at a spectacular fifth straight GT championship in the highly-competitive Pirelli World Challenge.
“We had a very strong car at Sonoma and (Mazda Raceway) Laguna Seca has always suited me very well,” he said. “I have won there and have been on the podium a lot over my racing career. We’ll need that performance again and some tough luck for the point leaders. But it’s racing and anything is possible.”
At age 54, O’Connell proved at Sonoma that age is not a factor as he defeated a driver three times younger in talented Austin Cindric (age 18). And the New York native is looking to add to his PWC victory total of 20 when the green flag drops this Sunday (Oct. 9) at 1:05 p.m. PDT.
“It has been a season of some great competition and I am proud of how everyone at Cadillac Racing has risen to the challenge all year,” said Johnny. “Michael and I have five wins for Cadillac this year and I thought I had another one at Long Beach. We both want one more before the 2016 campaign is complete.”
With O’Connell attempting to continue his title reign this weekend, Parente and Long, two factory drivers with solid operations behind them, are just nine points apart (1554 – 1545) when official practice runs begin Friday (Oct. 7) at 10:15 a.m. PDT.
Parente, the factory McLaren driver with K-PAX Racing, has been sensational as a GT rookie in PWC with five wins and six pole positions in 2016. And the 31-year-old racer from Porto, Portugal had not seen any of the PWC tracks previously except for Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. In 2007, Parente drove in the A1GP event at MRLS.
“I was in a single seater at Laguna Seca several years ago,” said Parente. “It was a A1GP race back in 2007. Then I drove to Las Vegas to see that city. Until this year, I had never been at another race track in U.S. It will be fun to return to (Mazda Raceway) Laguna Seca now.”
For Long, the 2011 PWC GT champion, he returned to the GT series for a full season for the first time since his title run and scored three wins despite a mid-season team switch.
After winning at the Circuit of the Americas in March for Effort Racing, the Manhattan Beach, Calif., factory driver for Porsche saw his team close down operations in May. But the determined two-time 24 Hours of LeMans champion was able to join Wright Motorsports later in the month and continue his championship fight.
“The level of competition in the Pirelli World Challenge has vaulted since I was here in 2011,” said Long. “The drivers, cars and teams are so competitive now and it has been a real fight to race for wins and championship points. I look forward to returning to (Mazda Raceway) Laguna Seca for the season finale and the battle for the championship.”
With Parente, Long, O’Connell and Cooper all still with a chance for the GT title, other GT drivers could throw a wrench in their quest for the crown this weekend.
Nissan and Always Evolving brings the duo of Bryan Heitkotter of Fresno, Calif., and Australian JD Davison to the GT action at MRLS along with the Acura and RealTime Racing pair of Ryan Eversley and Spencer Pumpelly both of Atlanta.
Parente’s K-PAX teammates, Cindric of Charlotte and Colin Thompson of Doylestown, Pa., figure to be in the GT mix on Sunday as well as Canadian Kyle Marcelli with Audi, Gunnar Jeannette of Salt Lake City, Utah, with the WeatherTech/Alex Job Racing Porsche and Switzerland’s Fabian Hamprecht in the popular Team Absolute Bentley.
Practice for the 122 Pirelli World Challenge (8 classes) entries begins Friday morning (Oct. 7) with racing set for Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 8-9) to complete the 26th season for North America’s leading production-based sports car series.