Each year St. Petersburg, Florida, hosts its Grand Prix weekend event. The organizers build a temporary 1.8-mile street circuit that threads its way along a beautiful marina overlooking Tampa Bay. In some ways the finished course—which includes an airport runway that serves as the main straightaway—resembles the famous Monaco Grand Prix circuit without hills. The Long Beach Grand Prix is the only other street course in the U.S. with a similar layout.
For the second consecutive year, the SCCA World Challenge began its season in St. Pete as part of a race weekend headlined by the Indy Racing League (IRL). The series has undergone a major revision that includes a new tire sponsor (Pirelli) and three classes starting at the same time. The cars all wear Pirelli racing slicks instead of the street- compound tires used previously. GT is the top class, and it includes Corvette, Porsche, Viper, Cadillac, and Volvo. The next rung down is the GTS category, in which you'll find Camaros, Mustangs, Acuras, and Porsche Caymans. Touring is the slowest class, and Hondas, Volkswagens, and Mazdas are its most popular entries.
Three Corvettes were among the 49 total World Challenge entries. Black Dog Racing entered one C6 (No. 11) with Tony Gaples driving. CRP Racing entered two C6s for sponsors Cragar wheels (No. 2) and Hawk Brakes (No. 12). The No. 2 Corvette was driven by Mike Skeen, and No. 12 was the responsibility of Patrick Lindsey. In 2010 the CRP Racing team ran a limited schedule but was rewarded with three overall wins at Mosport (Ron Fellows), Watkins Glen (Fellows again), and Mid-Ohio (Skeen).
New to the series are two Pratt & Miller Cadillac CTS-Vs piloted by long time Corvette drivers Andy Pilgrim and Johnny O'Connell. These non-supercharged, LS3-powered coupes attracted a lot of attention in the paddock and on the track. The SCCA placed heavy engine restrictions on the new cars to slow them down, but the Caddys should become competitive once these are lifted.
Qualifying for Race One was an epic battle between factory Porsche driver Patrick Long and Skeen in the Cragar Corvette. Long won by 0.158-second to capture pole position. For Race Two Skeen qualified fourth, 0.23-second behind the top-placing Volvo S60.
Forty-nine competitors in three classes took the green flag in Race One. The AWD Volvo jumped into the lead initially but was quickly gobbled up by Long's Porsche and Skeen's Corvette. Each time the duo would extend their lead, a big crash would put the pace car out and bunch up the field. Long and Skeen ran nose-to-tail until the white flag was extended on Lap 23. As the two Corvettes entered Turn Nine, a Touring car spun in front of them. Long barely missed the spinning car and took the victory, while Skeen made heavy contact and limped home Ninth. O'Connell finished Fourth, Gaples was Seventh, Lindsey Eighth, and Pilgrim was 11th.
Once the No. 2 C6 was returned to the garage, the CRP Racing team determined that it could be repaired for Sunday's race. After an all-night thrash, the Corvette—complete with a new engine and a fresh, white nose—was ready for Race Two. But because of the engine change, Skeen was forced to start at the back of the GT field.
A total of 46 cars started the second race after three competitors pulled out due to damage suffered in the previous day's event. At the green flag the Volvo again jumped into the lead, thanks to its AWD system. It wasn't long, though, before two Porsches—including the previous day's winner—passed the Swedish entry. Skeen, meanwhile, began systematically carving his way through the field.
A crash between two cars on Lap 11 closed the gap for Skeen's Corvette. When racing resumed, he was fourth on Lap 24 and closing in on the leaders. By Lap 30 he had moved into third when the Volvo ahead of him tagged the wall. At the checkered flag Skeen took a hard-fought Third Place finish, along with the Cadillac Move of the Race award.
Speaking of Cadillac, the CTS-Vs finished Seventh and Eighth, with Pilgrim's car showing some front-end damage. Gaples brought his No. 11 Corvette home a respectable Fifth, while Lindsey, driving the No. 12 Vette, was eliminated by a crash on Lap 17. The 2011 series is off to a great start, and the C6s once again look to be real contenders.