SPEED GT is the only U.S. racing series that mirrors Europe's successful FIA GT3 championship format, and the parallels are striking. Multiple brands (Corvette, Porsche, Ford, Viper, Aston Martin, Lamborghini, and others) compete in both series, leading to heated on-track competition. Both sanctioning bodies also apply a "balance of performance" method to keep each brand competitive. Not surprisingly, Corvettes are usually found at the front of both series in spite of this balancing method.
In SPEED GT, two red-and-white Whelen Engineering Corvettes are the cars to beat. They're built and crewed by Marsh Racing in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Eric Curran drives the No. 30 C6, while teammate Sonny Whelen pilots No. 31. Curran won four races in 2007 until a string of bad luck hit him for the remainder of the season. Then, at the opening round in Sebring in 2008, he hit a large pool of water in the rain and crashed heavily in Turn 1, ending his day. He went on to take Fourth at Watkins Glen, Second at Road America, First at Mosport, and Fourth at the final in Road Atlanta, but he finished at the bottom of the order in the other six races.
During the winter season, the Marsh Racing crew rebuilt and extensively tested both cars. They even came to Sebring two weeks before the race to perform additional testing for the 2009 season opener. The effort paid off, as Curran had the quickest car in practice and qualified 0.186 seconds behind the pole-sitting No. 4 Porsche 911 GT3 of Dino Crescentini. Other Corvettes in the order included Brian Kubinski (seventh), Sonny Whelen (10th), Tony Gaples (11th), and Andrew Aquilante (14th).
Twenty-five cars lined up for the standing start under sunny skies on late Friday afternoon. Two Porsches used their rear weight bias to great advantage at the launch and led Curran into Turn 1. Curran quickly passed the No. 97 Porsche of Tony Rivera and tucked into Crescentini's slipstream. On lap 4, Curran made his move and passed Crescentini for the lead. For the next 12 laps the thundering red Corvette led the field.
Then, on lap 14, a yellow flag was displayed due to debris on the track at Turn 7. New for SPEED GT this year is a side-by-side restart. Rivera's Porsche and Curran's No. 30 Corvette raced next to each other all the way to Turn 3 before the 911 squeezed by to take the lead. The Porsche maintained that lead for the remaining five laps and finished 2.049 seconds ahead of Curran. Tony Gaples made an impressive move up from last place to finish Fourth. Andrew Aquilante also had a good day, starting 14th and finishing Sixth in his first SPEED GT race. Sonny Whelen ran as high as fifth until he was hit from behind and lost his rear wing on lap 15. Whelen soldiered on to finish 11th, while Brian Kubinski ended up 16th.
After the race, we caught up with Curran. "Things could not have been more extreme for me during the past two years," he said. "I can't complain about being Second. The Whelen Engineering guys have worked so hard. The car is fairly new, and so far it's reliable. I told [series announcer] Tom Hnatiw that I want to see 10 consecutive checkered flags this year. Ultimately, I'd like to see a championship for Whelen Engineering." If Curran and company can keep up the blistering pace they set at Sebring, that seems a distinct possibility.