The 1.8-mile, 14-turn racetrack surrounded by a harbor full of yachts isn't Monaco or Long Beach; it's St. Petersburg, Florida. For the second year in a row, this popular tourist destination, located on the peninsula that separates Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, hosted round two of the SPEED GT championship.
It could be argued that the roots of the SPEED GT series reach all the way back to March 25, 1966 and nearby Sebring International Raceway. It was on this day that the SCCA sanctioned its first Trans-American Sedan race. Trans-Am vehicles were primarily modified versions of road-going production cars. Shelby-prepared Mustangs were early series winners until Roger Penske showed up in 1967 with a Sunoco-sponsored Camaro. Driven by Mark Donohue, the Camaro ended Ford's domination and established a formidable competition legacy for the Z28, winning 20 races and three series championships between 1967 and 1970. Early Trans-Am racing was tight, tough, and popular with race fans. Sadly, the manufacturers dropped out of the series a few years later, and the era of production-based Trans-Am racing drew to a close.
Fast-forward almost 30 years, and the introduction of a new SCCA racing series similar to the original Trans-Am. Titled the SpeedVision World Challenge, the series got underway in 1999. Although a change of ownership brought a fresh name for the network in 2002, the newly christened SPEED channel continued to sponsor the World Challenge series. Currently, Corvettes, Vipers, Porsches, Audis, and Cadillacs race head-to-head for the top spot in the GT class. The SCCA closely regulates the performance of each car, hitting race winners with a weight penalty to prevent any single team from dominating the series.
In 1999, Chevrolet built 20 special-production, frame-only Corvette race cars. They carried VINs GMM0001 through GMM0020-or General Motors Motorsports numbers 1 through 20-and were sold to race teams for $20,000 each. Each car included fixed-roof-coupe bodywork that was packed in boxes and shipped with the chassis. The cars were produced for two more years, during which time they earned the nickname "Boxcars." Many have since been reconfigured with C6 Z06 bodywork and continue to compete in the SPEED GT series today.
Which brings us back to the spring of 2006 and the streets of St. Petersburg. Twenty-seven cars qualified for the race, eight of which were Corvettes. Lou Gigliotti put his LG Pro Long Tube Header C6 on the pole with a time of 1:17.796. A Porsche 911, a Viper, a Pratt & Miller Cadillac CTS-V-piloted, incidentally, by factory C6.R driver Johnny O'Connell-and another C6, this one driven by Leighton Reese, followed closely behind. Other notables included last year's driver champion, Andy Pilgrim, who qualified sixth in another P&M Caddy.
Remembrance of Things Past
The race was flagged off at 4:45 p.m. under clear skies. Gigliotti won the standing-start drag race and went on to finish a contact-free first lap ahead of a 911 and Reese's Corvette.
Unfortunately for the Corvette contingent, things would soon change. During the second lap, Viper driver Tommy Archer clobbered the back of Reese's C6, badly damaging both cars. Although Archer was hit with a severe penalty, it was of little consequence, as neither car would finish the race.
Gigliotti led for the next 19 laps before surrendering the top spot to Pilgrim. When Pilgrim's engine quit just three laps from the finish, rookie Lawson Aschenbach grabbed the lead in his 911, while O'Connell settled into second. Gigliotti, meanwhile, faded back to third, a victim of overheating tires. Ultimately, another Porsche passed him, but he was still able to finish an impressive Fourth overall.
The names and makes may have changed, but fortunately for fans of production-based road racing, it looks like the true spirit of Trans-Am is alive and well in SPEED GT.
2006 St. Petersburg SPEED World Challenge GT Results
1. Lawson Aschenbach, Porsche 911 GT3
2. Johnny O'Connell, Cadillac CTS-V (-7.973)
3. Ricardo Imery, Porsche 911 GT3 (-21.726)
4. Lou Gigliotti, Chevrolet Corvette C6 (-24.251)
5. Bob Woodhouse, Dodge Viper (-24.540)