Indianapolis Raceway Park. Pomona Raceway. Gainesville Dragway. Englishtown Raceway Park. These track are synonymous with drag racing, names that every quarter-miler knows. Conversely, there's Eau Rouge. Parabolica. Arnage. Sainte Devote. These are corners from famous road-racing circuits, places across the globe that the average road-racing aficionado knows, corners they dream of in their sleep. Now add Daytona to that list.
Most racing fanatics find it hard to believe that one of the most famous endurance races, similar to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, is held right here in the United States, at the hallowed ground of NASCAR, the Daytona International Speedway. Coupled with that race (which has been held since 1962, just a couple of years after the Superspeedway opened) has always been the 3-hour support race on Friday-a race designed for production-based road racers, cars that are modified but sans exotic ground effects and big-budget manufacturer backing.
The Koni Challenge Series (formerly the Grand-Am Cup) is just that-a series that affords grassroots-level racers the opportunity to compete at a professional level, complete with television coverage on Speed Channel. The series runs under the Grand American sanctioning body, is split into two classes (Grand Sport and Street Tuner), and features 3-hour timed events, with a mandatory pit stop and driver change. The rules are similar for both classes, but the cars are different in terms of speed. Both classes run simultaneously (which makes for some serious speed differentials) but for separate class honors.
The Grand Sport class features high-horsepower, GT-type machines, currently from five manufacturers. This is where you find the venerable Ford Mustang FR500C, a car that since 2005 has claimed no less than seven wins, including a drivers' and constructors' championship in 2005. The FR500C is almost a carbon copy of the Mustang GT that is offered in dealerships across the country, with a Ford Racing Perform-ance Parts-designed rollcage and seam-welded body. The 5.0L Cammer R50 engine found in the FR500C is homologated for Koni Challenge racing and makes over 400 hp and 365 lb-ft of torque (you can also buy this engine direct from FRPP). You will also find the Porsche 911, the Nissan 350Z, and the BMW M3 in GS competition.
The Street Tuner class includes lower-horsepower machines such as the Acura RSX-Type S, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, and the Dodge SRT4 Neon. The rules (rollcage, suspen-sion specifications, and so on) are the same as in GS.
The season-opening Fresh From Florida 200 set a record for the most entries in the 3-hour timed event, with 103 cars taking the green flag. A split start between the GS and ST fields helped spread the cars over the 3.56-mile Daytona Inter-national Speedway road course, which uses part of the NASCAR oval and a section of the infield.
The GS contest saw the BMW M3 of Don Salama and Will Turner get off to an early lead over the Mustang GTs of Tom Nastasi and polesitter Joe Foster. It proved to be a short-lived affair after Salama spun entering Turn 1, giving the lead away to Foster. The field settled into a rhythm for much of the middle portion of the race, but the last five laps proved to be an all-Ford shootout. Foster gave way to codriver and Ford specialist, Scott Maxwell, for the second half of the race, and Nastasi to '05 GS Champion David Empringham. The two Mustangs battled it out until lap 61, when Empringham passed Maxwell, holding him off over the next three laps to win by just 0.475 second. The FR500C, in true form, finished in the top two spots, and five of the Cammer-equipped machines finished in the top 11.
"We knew it was going to be a long race," Nastasi said after notching up his second victory in three years at Daytona. "My job was to keep the brakes and tires under [the car] and avoid any incidents on the track. David did a great job to bring home the win."
In the ST class, the No. 76 Kensai Racing Acura TSX of Karl Thomson and Billy Johnson won from the back of the field, beating 44 other ST entries to the finish line. The No. 76 qualified Second, but after a routine technical inspection, it was found to have illegal bodywork-specifically a lightweight trunk-a part the team didn't even know existed. After the change, the team charged from the back of the field to claim ST honors. "There was so much traffic out there it was like a freeway, and it was just awesome racing," Thomson said after the race.
With a dominant opening round in the GS ranks, look for the Ford FR500Cs to have another successful year of road racing-just another arena where the Blue Oval excels.