Ah, Spring Break in Florida. Sunshine, hot girls and hot cars. And no, we didn’t hit the beach. For motorsports junkies, the “beach” is the track and we were there for the first SPEED World Challenge TC race of the season at Sebring International Raceway as part of the 56th Mobile 1 12 Hours of Sebring. The off-season produced a number of driver and team changes, but when the checkered flag flew a familiar face claimed the top podium spot – RealTime Acura TSX driver Pierre Kleinubing.
Thursday’s 20-minute qualifying session in sunny and clear 79-degree conditions had Seth Thomas in the BimmerWorld BMW 325i posting the quickest time to grab top spot on the grid. But a post-qualifying tech inspection revealed a ride-height non-compliance and the penalty pushed him to the back of the pack for Friday’s race, giving the pole to second-place qualifier Pierre Kleinubing. And with that, Kleinubing claimed his record 31st career pole. RealTime teammates Kuno Wittmer and Peter Cunningham qualified second and third, respectively.
Here’s how the top 10 qualifiers lined up for Friday’s standing start:
1. Pierre Kleinubing, Acura TSX Acura/RealTime/Eibach/Red Line 2:21.047
2. Kuno Wittmer, Acura TSX Acura/RealTime/Eibach/Red Line 2:21.309
3. Peter Cunningham, Acura TSX Acura/RealTime/Eibach/Red Line 2:21.702
4. Nick Esayian, BMW 325i BimmerWorld 2:22.582
5. Chip Herr MAZDA6, Mazda North America/Tindol 2:22.661
6. Charles Espenlaub, MAZDA6 Mazdaspeed/Stoptech/Racinghart 2:22.679
7. Dino Crescentini, Acura TSX Acura/RealTime/Eibach/Red Line 2:22.863
8. Jeff Altenburg, MAZDA6 Mazdaspeed/Stoptech/Racinghart 2:22.884 93.222
9. Michael Galati, MAZDA6 Mazda North America/Tindol 2:22.915
10. Glenn Bocchino, Acura RSX Acura/RealTime/Eibach/Red Line 2:22.968
Heading into Friday’s race, fans were still getting used to seeing Chip Herr in the Tindol Motorsports front-wheel drive Mazda6, Charles Espenlaub in the blue and white Tri-Point Motorsports Mazda6 and Nick Esayian in the blue and orange Bimmerworld BMW 325i. Under clear skies and 65-degree weather, the RealTime three protected their positions off the standing start with Kleinubing taking the hole shot and Wittmer and Cunningham running in behind. Espenlaub, Herr and Altenburg got good jumps off the start and after lap one it was Kleinubing, Wittmer, Cunningham, Espenlaub, Altenburg and Herr. For the rest of the 18-lap, 66.6-mile race, the three RealTime cars ran up front with the two Tri-Point Motorsports racers chasing. Kleinubing was never seriously challenged, claiming his first win since he took top spot at Miller Motorsports Park in 2006. RealTime swept the podium.
Kleinubing is optimistic 2008 will be a better season for him and his RealTime teammates after he went through 2007 without a win, the first winless season of his career. “I’m very optimistic. This team is really tight,” Kleinubing said. “We know that until we get to Road Atlanta (the last race of the season), nothing’s been decided and we’ll just keep doing our jobs, one race at a time.”
With teams and drivers still getting used to the new series spec tire Toyo R888s, the best lap of the day was posted by Thomas at 2:22.018, close to two seconds off the race lap record set at Sebring back in 2006. But as Kleinubing said afterwards, “the new tires stayed consistent throughout the race. I was able to run the last lap and the first lap at the same pace.”
The best quote of the post-race interviews came from Cunningham, who commented on Thomas’ post-qualifying penalty: “What happened there is not a deliberate thing. We feel bad for him. It’s happened to our team more than once, too. You either meet the minimum ride height or you don’t. You know… you’re either pregnant or you’re not.”
Teams head to Virginia International Raceway next for the second race of the season April 25-27. Catch the race from Sebring on SPEED this coming Friday, March 21 at 12 p.m. (EDT). And for more on the SPEED World Challenge, pick up Modified Magazine.