The seventh round of the World Challenge “Sports Car Wars” championship stormed into Toronto and was greeted by adoring fans. Toronto hadn’t hosted the World Challenge machines since 2007 and they were excited to see them return. We saw some familiar faces in Toronto, folks who had come to Mosport Raceway just a short time ago. They made a point of heading to the streets of Toronto to cheer their favorite cars and drivers again.
With Toronto being the third and final street race venue on the schedule, I was already looking forward to the end of the weekend when we could hopefully load an unscathed race car in the trailer. The Toronto circuit has high speed straights with big braking zones, perfect for creating close racing with lots of passing. Unfortunately, like all street circuits, the track is lined with concrete barriers and tire walls that aren’t very forgiving if you want to explore the limits of the car… or your own talent.
Thursday was a bit of a boring day for me since we weren’t on track. John Horton and Andris Laivins were busy pouring over our #57 Porsche and making sure everything was perfect for our first practice session the next morning. I decided to be a team player so I promptly left the convention center where our World Challenge rigs were parked and made my way to the Delta Chelsea Hotel for some pool time with fellow drivers Eric Meyer and Robert Stout. We hit the water slide and then enjoyed a club sandwich downstairs. Robert’s dad, Ken, and T.V. “personality” Tom Hnatiw were there to provide us with ample entertainment.
Back at the track my Horton Autosport Porsche was nearly buttoned up and ready for action. After a quick driver/crew chief meeting followed by a much needed track walk with my teammates Rob and Charles Morgan, we put the cars to bed for the night. It was about that time I remembered that it was John’s birthday and that I had not mentioned anything to the rest of the team! Warm birthday wishes were sent John’s way by all and we were off to the hotel. We had an awesome steak birthday dinner that evening and I got some much needed rest.
Friday morning we loaded up in the van to head to the track and immediately noticed that it was wet! “Great”, I thought, now I would have to drive on a tight street circuit that I laid eyes on for the first time yesterday and it’s going to be extra slippery. Well, I cruised around the track in the first practice and to our surprise we were second quickest, right behind defending race winner Randy Pobst. We had not been particularly optimistic about the race weekend and were hoping just to keep the car in one piece and maybe squeeze out a top five finish. Needless to say we were quick to reset our sights a bit higher and were hopeful for a podium.
Fans were already pouring into the Direct Energy convention building which housed our World Challenge paddock. The Canadian fans were very intrigued with our cars and had lots of questions for us. It was a real treat to be able to see the reaction on their faces when they got full access to our cars and their questions answered by the guys turning the wrenches or in my case the steering wheel.
The afternoon practice session saw our Horton Autosport/Sloan Securities Porsche fifth quickest. The track conditions had changed considerably and we had to adapt if we were to improve. At the top of the time sheets Randy Pobst and Andy Pilgrim were enjoying the Volvo all-wheel-drive, but a group of Truspeed and GMG Porsche’s were close behind. In GTS, Peter Cunningham was busy putting on a clinic with teammate Nick Esayian. The Touring Car battle started to heat up as Nick Wittmer mixed things up with series point leaders Robert Stout, Eric Meyer and Dan Gardner. Nick brought a big gun to the fight with a Honda Civic Si that was prepared by Realtime and Honda Performance Development. Not only was Nick in good equipment, but the Québécois is a veteran of the Toronto circuit.
We were confident that the next day’s qualifying session would be a good one for our Porsche. I even mentioned as much to fellow GT driver Jason Daskalos. He got a big kick out of my confidence and we shared a laugh on our way out of the convention center that evening.
Saturday morning was gorgeous in Toronto and the fans were excited to see the World Challenge cars tear up the track in our short, but thrilling qualifying session. The GTS and Touring Cars were on track first and they put on a great show. I sat in the #57 Porsche on pit road and watched some of the best talent in North America drive their hardware deep into turn one, trying to get every hundredth of a second out of their cars. The GT cars were up next and point leader Randy Pobst lead the field out to start the session. Teammate Rob Morgan lined up behind me and we started our first timed lap. I got a good clean lap right out of the gate, but the tire pressures weren’t quite up so I started a second hot lap. Traffic balked me, but the car was getting better with every corner. I setup for a big run onto the front straight for lap three, I knew this next one could be front-row material. Well I got a little greedy with the throttle and bounced my right rear quarter panel off the concrete wall as I entered the front straight. That quickly put an end to our qualifying effort and I cruised back around the 1.75 mile track and into the pits. Fortunately the damage wasn’t too bad and my first timed lap was good enough to put our Porsche 3rd fastest, inside the second row. The Volvo’s of Pobst and Pilgrim took the first two spots and that all-important manufacturers point. Then a host of Porsche’s filled the 3rd through sixth spots with my teammate, Rob Morgan just a few tenths back and in 6th position.
John Horton and Andris worked fast back in the paddock. They had a control arm to replace (as a precaution) and an alignment to put back on our #57 Porsche. We were just a few short hours from presenting our car on pre grid and the pressure was on. John and Andris came through as always and the car was ready to go with a new control arm, new wheel and some new, eclectic colors on the right rear fender courtesy of yours truly.
Pre grid was a blast with all the fans taking pictures of the cars and drivers. It was fun to see everyone so excited to just have their picture next to a race car. Did I mention Canadian fans are awesome?
We finally strapped into our race cars and rolled onto the front straight. Driving onto the circuit and to our starting spots can be quite an experience. Pretty girls holding manufacturer flags line the front straight along with camera men, announcers, crew members and grandstands packed with fans. All of the pomp and circumstance creates such an amazing setting that one can nearly forget what chaos is about to be unleashed.
And unleashed it was! As the lights went out 26 World Challenge machines angrily came to life and blazed into turn 1 from a dead stop in a matter of seconds, leaving spectators’ hearts pounding until 75 seconds later when the field roared by once again.
I got a pretty good start, but spun the tires just enough that the figurative door was cracked open for James Sofronas to slice in front of me as we tore down the front straight. James has been racing for a long time and when a door opens he’s usually through it before the guy who made the mistake even realizes what events have transpired for that bit of opportunity to appear. I tried to cross the blend line and use pit lane in a futile effort to get back around him into turn 1, but it was too late. We all got in line for the exit of turn 1 as it tends to get really narrow there, then we were rocketing down the back straight and into the hardest braking zone on the track. I got loose on the exit of turn 3 thanks to some Canadian NASCAR gear oil and Dino Crescentini was there to pounce on the opportunity, making a move to the inside entering turn 4. He completed the pass somewhere on the outside of turn 5, leaving me somewhat impressed at his driving. We ran in line for the first few laps until a caution slowed things down for a while. The guns were silenced for only a short time before the Sports Car Wars were given the green light to resume.
Thankfully my teammate, Rob Morgan, was keeping hometown favorite Kuno Wittmer busy just behind me and I was able to gather myself and go after Dino for the fourth spot. I was able to get a run on him down the back straight and make it stick. I did the same move on Andy Pilgrim one lap later and then charged off towards the battle for the lead where fellow Porsche-mate James was on the attack. As it turns out my run up to the lead battle was all my tires could handle and I found myself struggling to keep pace. Andy’s Volvo was running considerably better by comparison and towards the waning moments of the race he made short work of my now ill-handling car. To Andy’s credit, it was a very nicely executed pass – he went inside me entering turn 4 and the resulting battle saw us side by side through the next two corners. Andy is a real gentleman racer and I felt comfortable sharing space with him even on the narrow street course.
The end result was a fourth place finish for our #57 Horton Autosport/Sloan Securities Porsche. A result we were pleased with considering there was merely a few scrapes on the car and nothing too serious. After the race I received a special treat, an MTM Special Ops watch for my pass on Dino. It is a gorgeous timepiece and I can’t wait to show it off. As I walked back to the World Challenge paddock I made my way through the crowd and a few fans stopped me along the way for photos. I was very happy to oblige them, especially one small boy who was a Porsche fan so we substituted “cheese” with “Porsche” before the shutter snapped. What a great time, I feel truly blessed to be able to participate in World Challenge.
In a few short weeks we will find ourselves contesting rounds 7 and 8 at the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. It is a track I’m familiar with and the Truspeed/Horton Autosport team is very excited about our chances there. The last five races on the schedule should be very good tracks for our Porsche. We’re keeping a close eye on the driver and manufacturer championships. Historically they have both come down to the last race of the season and I doubt this year will be any different. This really is Sports Car Wars!
Horton Autosport and myself would like to acknowledge the amazing support of our partners at New Synthetic Oil and Hawk Performance. We are also proud to represent Truspeed Motorsports who provide us with invaluable trackside support. We are also thankful for the additional support we receive from Porsche Motorsport North America and our partners at Wright Motorsports in Ohio.