The fact that Nick Tandy is one of the most skillful, quick, and aggressive drivers on the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship circuit is one of sports car racing’s worst kept secrets. The reality was exposed back in June, when the Englishman despite limited prototype experience joined Formula One regular Nico Hulkenberg and fellow Porsche GT driver Earl Bamber to take the overall win at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. On Saturday, with a Hurricane Joaquin-induced downpour affecting the proceedings at Road Atlanta, Tandy did not let the fact that he was driving a GT Le Mans division car hold back the possibilities of success that he could achieve. Even facing a multitude of quicker Daytona Prototypes, Tandy outdueled all of them and the best that his own division had to offer to join Patrick Pilet and Jorg Bergmeister on the top step of the overall podium at the end of the 18th running of the Petit Le Mans, an event that was stopped two hours short of the full distance when the wet conditions made track conditions too unsafe to continue.
That last fact did not decide the winner. After dropping to the back of the grid prior to the 11 a.m. start on Saturday morning, due to the car failing post qualifying technical inspection, Tandy quickly cleared all the opposition in both GTLM and GT Daytona in the opening laps. Following an early caution brought out when Ben Keating’s GTD Riley Viper and Chris Cumming’s RSR Racing Prototype Challenge both lost control in the challenging Road Atlanta Esses, Tandy immediately stunned the crowd following the restart as he made his way past multiple Prototype class Chevrolet Corvette DPs and the Ford EcoBoost-Riley to move into the top five overall.
The difficult track conditions made it difficult for the Prototypes to put their normal power advantage to the track and perhaps as well an advantage in wet rubber between the GTLMs, which utilized Michelins and the other three divisions which use Continentals, propelled Tandy further forward. Add to that issue was the fact that some of the Prototype class runners also began to stub their own toes along the way too. After dominating the first two and a half hours of the race, Prototype class championship leaders Visitflorida.com Racing spun out twice at the very quick turn 12 on back to back restarts. Despite Michael Valiante and Mike Rockenfeller avoiding wall contact on both occasions, the No. 90 Corvette DP would lose two laps and despite the race being hampered by nine caution flags and two red flags, the Daytona Beach-based runners could never bridge the gap to rejoin the fight for the win.
Eventually, despite the low horsepower GTLM cars handling the low grade traction conditions better, Action Express Racing looked to still be in position to secure the overall with one of its two Corvette DPs. Due to the strong driving efforts from Dane Cameron, the No. 31 Whelen-sponsored Corvette DP held the overall lead with pressure applied by the sister No. 5 Mustang Sampling machine, driven by Sebastien Bourdais and Joao Barbosa in the late stages. Once Cameron handed off to teammate Eric Curran however, the momentum shifted when the race was red flagged for the first time due to poor track conditions.
When the red flag was pulled back, Curran, both Corvette Racing GT Le Mans’ entries, and one of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan BMW Z4s stayed on the track. All the other Prototype and GTLM contenders pitted. Although tire wear for wet weather tires is not as rapid as dry tires normally are, the fresh rubber put on Tandy’s Porsche 911 RSR seemed to make a difference. He quickly cleared the Prototypes he pitted with, then made a surge through the three non-pitting GT cars in just one lap. With the rain falling down harder on the Road Atlanta surface, Curran suddenly started to fall off the pace, made even worse as the American veteran caught traffic at the wrong time on several occasions. Eventually with Tandy on his tail. Curran was held up again by slower traffic exiting the Bus Stop chicane at turn ten, allowing Tandy to sneak inside Curran to take the overall lead as they went under the bridge before the famous Road Atlanta downhill at turn 11. Once in front, Tandy left Curran behind building a large lead of nearly ten seconds prior to the final caution of the race, brought out when PC rivals Alex Popow of Starworks Motorsport and Bruno Junqueira of RSR Racing got together on the backstretch.
With the Action Express Racing forced to pit for fuel prior to the yellow flag, Tandy held the lead, but appeared ready to give it back to pit likewise when the weather conditions greatly deteriorated. With standing water at multiple parts of the Road Atlanta circuit and darkening skies now in place, IMSA race director Beaux Barfield elected to bring the race to an early end two hours before the planned ten hour distance. The call secured the win for Tandy, Pilet, and Bergmeister, the first time a non-Prototype entry has won the Petit Le Mans event. Ironically it is also the first win for Porsche in this event.
The German auto manufacturer has had multiple near misses at Road Atlanta, most notably including when Yannick Dalmas flipped his Porsche 911 GT1-98 on the backstretch, while holding a two lap lead on the field in the inaugural running of this event. Roger Penske also just missed out on overall victory when his organization ran the potent Porsche RS Spyder prototypes in the mid to late 2000s.
The win also secured the 2015 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans driver’s title for Patrick Pilet, who ends the campaign winning four of the final five races. Behind Porsche North America, Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s BMW Z4 of Lucas Luhr, John Edwards, and Jens Klingmann finished second in GTLM and in the overall. Like Porsche, the BMW Z4s and Corvette Racing C7.Rs took advantage of the wet weather as well to run with and sometimes even outrun the Prototypes. Each of these entries held the overall lead at some point during the race. While Porsche and BMW each reached the overall podium, the Doug Fehan-run Corvettes faded in the final hour of running when both cars were forced to make unscheduled pit stops to deal with alternator problems.
While not claiming overall honors, Action Express Racing’s No. 5 entry of Sebastien Bourdais, Joao Barbosa, and Christian Fittipaldi finished off the overall podium as the winner of the Prototype division. The result was enough to allow Barbosa and Fittipaldi to win the 2015 TUSCC Prototype driver’s title, their second straight title in succession. When the series switches to its new name: the IMSA WeatherTech Championship for 2016, Action Express will look for a three-peat, in the final year the current Daytona Prototype option will be eligible to compete.
The Chip Ganassi Racing Ford EcoBoost-Riley DP of Scott Dixon, Scott Pruett, and Joey Hand finished fourth, while the sister Action Express Racing entry of Cameron, Curran, and Max Papis rounded out the top five.
In an attrition riddled Prototype Challenge class, PR1-Mathiasen Motorsports dominated the action for most of the way, but still had to fight to secure the win prior to the early conclusion. After getting the bad end of contact late two weeks ago at Circuit of Americas, Starworks Motorsport’s Alex Popow zoomed past PR1’s Tom Kimber-Smith in the final moments Saturday at Road Atlanta, but would again succumb to late contact when Popow collided with RSR Racing’s Junqueira in the previously mentioned incident. The contact gave the victory back to Kimber-Smith and his co-drivers Andrew Palmer and Mike Guasch. The win is the third in the four-race Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup series for the Bobby Oergel-led team, securing that title, yet the win was not enough to deny perennial PC frontrunners CORE autosport from successfully defending their TUSCC title from a season ago.
Following Performance Tech Motorsports’ Conor Daly’s practice crash on Thursday, which forced the Brent O’Neill team to withdraw from the event, all CORE’s Jon Bennett had to do was run the required two hour and five minute minimum drive time to ensure he and teammate Colin Braun would score points for the event. Once that was achieved, Bennett gave way to Braun and the title was secured. Although a late crash, when third driver Anthony Lazzaro found the wall in the Esses, relegated CORE to a fourth-place finish in PC, the title win was not affected.
Finally in GT Daytona, a highly competitive race went in favor of Park Place Motorsports’ Spencer Pumpelly, Patrick Lindsey, and Madison Snow, as Pumpelly drove the No. 73 Porsche GT America past Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally just minutes before the final caution flag. The victory is the second in 2015 for Park Place, who won earlier this season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California.
Magnus Racing’s Lally, Robert Renauer, and John Potter also fielding a Porsche held on for second, with the Riley Dodge Viper of Cameron Lawrence, Al Carter, and Marc Goossens completing the top three. The result secured the North American Endurance Cup crown for the No. 93 Viper squad, who won two of the four major enduros in 2015 and podiumed in the other two.
Right behind Riley, the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 of Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell, and Jeff Segal came home in fourth in GTD, gaining them enough points to make Bell and Sweedler the 2015 TUSCC GT Daytona champions. Despite only winning one race this season in Virginia, the two American pilots used the same consistency that they utilized with AIM Autosport a season ago to stay in the title hunt all season before falling short to Turner Motorsport.
The effort by Scuderia Corsa denied TRG-Aston Martin Racing’s Christina Nielsen from becoming the first female champion in IMSA history. Nielsen and her TRG teammates Kuno Wittmer and Brandon Davis struggled for pace throughout the rainy action on Saturday and finished ninth.