Jumping on the Pirelli World Challenge Bandwagon!
The Pirelli World Challenge has been operated by the SCCA for 25 years. Despite this fact, and the fact that for many years it was televised on SpeedTV, I did not pay attention to the PWC until this year. It seems I am not the only one who is guilty of this, as use of their online streaming service has increased dramatically this year. Why? Two reasons. Firstly the ALMS/Grand Am “merger” and the issues it has created have made some people look for a non-Daytona owned alternative to sports car racing. Secondly the PWC allowed GT3 cars to enter unmodified for the 2014 season. The combination of these two changes have resulted in new teams, drivers, cars, and fans. The fact that this has resulted in some superb racing doesn’t hurt either. Nor does the fact that the Pirelli World Challenge has acted as an Indycar support series throughout most of the 2014 season. I did not pay much attention to the Pirelli World Challenge until after Barber. In the gap between the Indycar race at Barber and the Indy Grand Prix I watched the livestream replay on YouTube of the St. Petersburg race. What I saw shocked me. During the fifty minute PWC race I saw more passing at St Pete than I’ve ever seen before. I quickly watched the races from Long Beach and Barber afterwards. I may have been slightly late to the party, but I did arrive.
The first thing to understand about the Pirelli World Challenge is that it has five car classes and six driver classes which run in two groups. The GT, GTA, and GTS run as the premier series, while the touring car based TC, TCA, and TCB run together as a smaller series. At most of the Indycar street races the GT series runs alone, while at some natural terrain road courses the touring cars join them. These two series still do not run on track at the same time. The touring cars also head out to smaller tracks such as Mosport and Donnybroke. One note on the coverage; PWC races are shown live via an online stream which is then posted to YouTube. After awhile they are broadcast on NBC Sports, which is also then put onto YouTube. Eventually the races can be seen a third time at MavTV. The livestream, though it is very good at the main races, sometimes is of very low quality at the stand alone touring car events. Currently Mosport is not even posted onto YouTube, and according some of what I have read was not really worth watching as they only had a couple cameras.
As for format, the races are sprint races. The GT series run fifty minute races, while the touring cars run forty minute races. Usually the series attempts a race Saturday and Sunday although this year weather has led to a few events being canceled. Canceled races are made up at a latter date, often during stand alone race weekends. As such the touring cars made up races at Mosport, while the GT series will make up races at the season finale at Miller Motorsports Park. Starts changed this year from rolling to standing starts which have gone very well, except for some issues the Mclaren GT3 cars have with stalling on the grid. Local yellows are often used, but full course cautions can happen. There are no pit stops unless a driver has a problem or penalty, and as they are sprint races there are no fuel mileage races. Since it is a sprint race tire management does come into play; the Pirelli tires do a very good job at wearing at just the right rate. They fall off but not so much that it causes problems.
The GT and GTA class run GT3 and some other cars. The GTA class is distinct from the GT in only one way; it is for amateur, or gentleman drivers. This is a brilliant decision as otherwise many of the non-professional drivers would not have a chance to have any success. With the expansion to include GT3 cars this would be particularly problematic as more teams and drivers, professional and non-professional have joined. Drivers entered as GTA compete for their own trophy and get their own podium; drivers who finish on the podium overall (RE: for the GT category) lose their GTA status and instead get entered as regular GT drivers. This is what happened to Nick Mancuso, a young driver who won a pole and finished on the podium at Barber driving a Ferrari. He was happy to be upgraded, however, and currently sits sixth in GT points. Nineteen year old Andrew Palmer actually did this in the first race of the year (he finished 3rd). He then won at Barber as a GT driver. The GTS class runs a combination of muscle cars, sports cars, and a few other cars including a super competitive Kia team.
The touring car classes include Touring Car, Touring Car A, and Touring Car B. Touring cars are typical touring cars which mostly are hatchbacks with a couple roadster sports cars thrown in. TCA are touring cars with rules that keep a large number of the parts stock and thus lower the cost of competing. Female driver Shea Holbrook races in this class, and she won the Barber race. TCB are very close to stock cars which allows entry into the PWC at a low cost, and the cars in this class are of a similar spec to other SCCA series. This allows club racers a chance to race at a national level. In both touring cars and GT the different classes are very distinct in speed. This means that the lower classes get lapped by the main classes fairly often. This in turn results in some great racing, as the leaders of the second class are fighting for the lead while the leaders in the first class attempt to pass them. This makes both classes even closer and more competitive. Sometimes the leaders of the GT class will start to spread out, only to hit the GTS cars (especially their leaders) which causes them to get close again.
The drivers in the series are a bit unknown except to hardcore fans, but there are some very interesting drivers and personalities in the series. There’s a huge spread in terms of age, with some drivers in the fifties and some in their teens. Both age groups can produce winners. Johnny O’Connell, former Corvette GT driver, races for the factory Cadillac team. He won Long Beach and sits second in points. Teenaged Palmer beat him at Barber. Mancuso is a in his late twenties and while originally an amateur driver has a ton of promise. Alex Figge, former Champcar driver, won a race last year and currently drives the Mclaren GT3 car. He’s had a rough start to the season but should turn it around as that car gets used to PWC racing. Tomas Enge entered the St. Pete with a Lamborghini GT3 car and won; he hasn’t been back since, but it was still a pretty cool win. Anthony Lazzaro is the points leader with his Ferrari. Jack Roush Jr. races a Mustang in GTS. Ryan Eversley has entered a couple races in a Suburu WRX in GTS. as well.
The cars are the stars of this series. There are a ton of interesting cars and a fairly close balance of performance. GT and GTA are my favorite. Cadillac won last year and the CTS-V is a very competitive car. Ferrari has the strongest GT3 car at this point; they currently hold the drivers championship. The Audi R8 LMS Ultra is also very strong, and while most of the time the Lamborghini’s are being used by amateur drivers, with Enge in it they won their debut race. There are also Mercedes, Mclaren, Viper, Porsche, BMW, and Aston Martin GT3 cars entered at various stages of competitiveness. If that is not enough, Dyson racing is going to bring a Bentley Continental GT3 car to Road America, and plans on expanding to a 2 car team afterwards. Acura was supposed to enter a car at Detroit, but testing problems delayed their debut. Kia has two wins in the GTS catagorey which also has seen a Porsche Cayman and Chevrolet Camero in victory lane. Aston Martin, Ford Mustang, Nissan, Audi TT, Porsche 911, Subaru Imprexa, and a Scion are also represented. TC is mostly Honda and Mazda, while TCA has those two plus Kia. TCB has Ford, Honda, Mini, and the occasional Fiat. There is also a manufacturer championship where points are given to the highest finishing car per maker per class, with points only going to top six finishing positions. Car manufacterers have to be part a corperate sponsor for SCCA to get points, which most auto manufactures are. Pirelli World Challenge could be described as Forza, Grand Turismo, or Top Gear made real.
As has been hinted throughout this article, the on track action is fantastic. The first four GT races featured four different winners representing four different automakers. St Petersburg and the second race at Barber were incredible and featured great racing for the lead and some late race action which has to be seen to believe. Long Beach also featured some very close racing, as did the first race at Barber. What makes the racing so great? A combination of factors. As mentioned earlier it appears that the combination of multiple classes and sprint racing are two major factors in creating a ton of action. These factors help keep the racing for the lead competitive. Tires fall off, but since pitstops are not a standard part of the series and there are no fuel mileage races drivers who want to win have to push. The tire wear, and the way different cars wear tires at different rates helps as well. Overall the PWC has done an excellent job with the balance between GT3 and non GT3 cars. Cadillac has a car which is better on the street courses than the GT3 cars, but due to lower downforce struggles a bit at some of the natural terrain road courses. They wear tires a little faster and tend to be fastest on the starts and restarts. Ferrari is the oppisite; these GT3 cars have more downforce, wear tires less, but also take longer to heat up the tires. As the GT3 cars start to adapt it appears likely that more and more of them will become competitive. All of the other classes are also close. This series creates some incredible races on tracks which are not typically known for great racing, and I am incredibly excited to see them at Road America.
The Pirelli World Challenge Series is basically going through a honeymoon phase right now. It remains to be seen if they can continue to keep this momentum when things inevitably go wrong, but at the moment the signs suggest they will. The rules make sense. This is a minor point, but compared to the mess that Tudor United has been facing this year is a big deal. When and if teams (especially GT teams) get upset with Tudor, the PWC presents an alternative place for them to go. The online stream works, and the races do get televised eventually on two channels. As the series moves forward live TV would be nice, as would better coverage for touring car stand alone events. Maintaining the balance of performance between the cars, and especially the GT3 and non GT3 cars will be incredibly important. Keeping everyone happy will be tough. The PWC is heavily tied in with Indycar which is a good thing; it will be interesting to see if new Indycar events such as Nola and the Indy GP get worked into the PWC schedule.
As a side note, this article was wrote on Friday, May 30th. As the PWC will be racing twice at Belle Isle today (day of publishing) and tomorrow some of the facts will change. If you are attending Belle Isle I highly recommend watching these races. If you like road racing, or really if you like exciting cars and racing, you have to check it out. The races are streamed live online and if you miss that then get posted online. I cannot guarantee it will be a great race, but based on the last four races I think its likely. For Indycar fans, the PWC will join Indycar again at Toronto, Mid Ohio, and Sonoma, as well as race with Nationwide at Road America and NASCAR West series at Miller. As a side note, this series has some crossover with the Blancpain series in Europe. By the way, if you, or someone you know, complains about the lack of diversity in racing, or about how racing is no longer stock, they have got to watch this series. Seriously, if you are reading this article you most likely are a race fan. And if you are a race fan, you need to watch the Pirelli World Challenge Series.