After a Down 2009 Season, K-PAX Racing Stormed Back to Win Its Third Title in Four Years
The 2010 World Challenge GT Championship will likely be remembered as one dominated from start to finish by K-PAX Racing, winner of the class drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships.
Coming off back-to-back GT championships in 2007-08, K-PAX came back to the pack in 2009, finishing fourth and sixth in the drivers’ championship and third in the manufacturers’ category, and netted just three victories combined between Andy Pilgrim and Randy Pobst.
The results were not entirely unpredictable, as the team had transitioned from Porsche 911s to new Volvo S60s following the 2008 campaign, and the first year with new machinery is often earmarked as a developmental year – time needed to develop and refine a new platform in competition.
Results matter, but learning how to get the most out of the equipment and improve performance and reliability matter just as much, if not more.
With the developmental year of 2009 out of the way, K-PAX embarked on the 2010 campaign confident that improvement was in the offing.
“I predict that 2010 will be the year of the K-PAX Racing Volvo S60,” Pobst said in a team statement prior to the season opener at St. Petersburg.
“It was all about the K-PAX racing team and the work they did all winter on our Volvo S60s. We had very little test time, because they worked their butts off all winter. We just got the cars together a week or two ago. We’re just thrilled, this was really just our test session today,” Pobst said afterwards.
Pilgrim gave a good account of himself that weekend as well, with two podium finishes (second and third).
Next up was Long Beach, another tight temporary street circuit that can be hard on the equipment, especially tires and brakes.
Despite qualifying second and fourth, neither Pobst nor Pilgrim had the sort of race they were hoping for, and had to settle for sixth and ninth place results, respectively.
With a doubleheader round coming up at the challenging and often unforgiving Mosport International Raceway road circuit, both drivers felt that better things lay ahead for K-PAX.
“Our Volvos are good cars and we need to regroup, take a good look at our strengths and weaknesses and move on. Our next race is at Mosport, a very high speed and challenging track for all of the drivers. We will do better next time out,” Pilgrim remarked after Long Beach.
While Pobst enjoyed a stellar weekend at Mosport with two poles and a win in the first race (his 100th World Challenge start), and a close runner-up finish in the second, the trip north of the border was not a pleasant one for Pilgrim in the number 8 car.
After qualifying on the outside of the front row for the first race, a fluid leak ended forced Pilgrim to retire after only a handful of laps.
Things looked better on Sunday, but after starting fourth, Pilgrim once again was forced to retire early after his car died on Mosport’s Mario Andretti straightaway late in the race.
“It’s bittersweet when you run a two car team, but it’s hard to come away not being happy leading the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championship,” team manager Bob Raub said, summing up a weekend that epitomized the highs and lows of racing.
The scenic 3.4 mile (5.25 km) road course at Watkins Glen International in the Finger Lakes region of New York provided the next challenge for the K-PAX team, and like Mosport, it was a good news-bad news affair.
Pobst captured the pole and engaged in a spirited battle with veteran Corvette pilot Ron Fellows and Dodge Viper driver Kuno Wittmer in the race. In the end, his tires and brakes got so hot that he was unable to keep pace with Fellows and Wittmer and finished third.
For Pilgrim, it was another frustrating weekend. After missing the qualifying session due to an engine change, he was relegated to starting from the back of the GT field. Once the race began, a fluid leak forced a third consecutive retirement, this time after only 10 laps.
By the time the scene shifted to the streets of Toronto in mid-July, the pressure to break the streak of bad results was palpable. Although Pilgrim qualified well (second behind his teammate), he wasn’t taking anything for granted. In fact, post-qualifying he told PRN that, after what he had been through at Mosport and Watkins Glen, he just wanted to finish a race.
He did finish the Toronto race, and in earning the third spot on the podium, he earned the pass of the race from World Challenge officials.
“It’s really a team thing now because the K-PAX guys work their butts off and to get basically 4 DNFs in a row, it was just breaking their hearts. They were absolutely on their knees. I’m really happy to get them back on the podium,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pobst collected his third win of the season, lead every lap and helped to further solidify his hold on the drivers’ championship and Volvo’s lead in the manufacturers’ category.
As the season entered the home stretch at the tricky 2.25 mile (3.65 km) Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the K-PAX team held a healthy advantage in the drivers’ championship (112 points), but the lead in the manufacturers’ standings was much more tenuous (14 points).
Mid-Ohio, with its long straights and few tight corners, is well-suited for K-PAX’s Corvette, Viper and Porsche competition which run with more horsepower and are lighter than the Volvo S60.
The K-PAX team knew they’d be in tough at this track, and in the first race, it definitely played out perfectly for the competition.
Both K-PAX cars started a little further back than they were accustomed to (third and fifth), and had a hard time holding their position against the competition, gave ground and finished deep in the GT field (Pobst 7th, Pilgrim 9th).
“As long as there are enough corners, it’s a good race and we can turn a good lap time here. I was only a tenth of a second off the pole, but in the race, horsepower is easy to pass with. So the guy behind us passes us on the straight, and we get stuck behind him through all the corners,” Pobst said after the Saturday race.
Overnight set-up changes, combined with a strong start, helped the team earn second (Pilgrim) and third place (Pobst) finishes in the second race, but by the time the weekend was over, Volvo’s lead in the manufacturers’ standings was down to three over Porsche.
The penultimate rounds at Virginia International Raceway would be crucial, and despite some concern about the track expressed by both drivers to PRN, the team shone brightly at the 3.27 mile (5.31 km) road course.
After starting from the pole, Pobst led all 22 laps to record a dominant win in the first race, his fourth victory of the season, while Pilgrim rounded out the podium with a third place result.
As good as things had gone on Saturday for K-PAX, Sunday was even better.
In the morning, Pilgrim clinched his first pole of the season for the number 8 team, and followed it up with an emphatic, dominating win in the afternoon race, leading all 22 laps en route to his first win of the season.
Afterwards, the emotion of the day (and the season) was evident in Pilgrim’s voice, despite the long distance phone call.
“I really want to dedicate this win to Jeremy Smallwood, my crew chief. He never gave up on the car, he never gave up on me and he’s had a wonderful attitude. It meant so much to him, he was very emotional after the race and I knew he would be because he cared so much,” he said.
An interesting – and rather remarkable – aspect to Pilgrim’s victory was the fact that it came in the team’s 2009 car, which was pressed into service after the crew elected to forego a lengthy repair on the current car after Saturday’s race. The car hadn’t been tested and no one knew what to expect from a car that hadn’t seen competition in almost a year.
Pobst, meanwhile, gave a good account of himself with a second place result, which clinched the drivers’ title (his fourth in GT) and the manufacturers’ crown. His emotions, exuberance mixed with relief, we’re clearly in evidence afterwards as well.
“I’m thrilled, absolutely thrilled. As a team, we’re climbing a mountain, and the mountain is rocky and you slip and fall back, and you have to struggle to get back up. Today we’re standing on the top. On top of Mount Everest looking down with a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” he said.
For the finale at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah in early October, the team seemed relaxed and proud of their accomplishments.
Preparations for the race felt businesslike, but without the added stress of championship implications hovering nearby. The presence of family members, many of whom made the relatively short trek from the team’s base in Denver to Salt Lake City helped to keep the mood light.
Despite having both championships wrapped up, the K-PAX cars finished second and third to close out the season on a high note.
A fitting end to a memorable season.