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Although fans of Grand-Am’s KONI Challenge are accustomed to seeing Compass Racing’s bright orange Honda Civic Si’s at the front of the field, they were treated to a rare sight as the team’s three cars swept the podium at New Jersey Motorsports Park’s Thunderbolt Raceway last Saturday.
Indeed, this is an historic event. The KONI Challenge traces its history through Grand Am Cup, which was Motorola Cup, which was borne from the Firehawk series in the mid-1980’s. During this time, no team has taken the entire podium.
C360R, which placed two different cars on the podium in each of the opening races of the 2009 KONI season, brought an exceptionally potent driver line-up to the New Jersey event.
“We definitely stacked the deck in our favor,” remarked Team Principal Karl Thomson. Season-long drivers include Canadian karting stars Matt Pritiko and Travis Walker, who share the team’s #76 Honda, while Californian Christian Miller starts for road racing legend Randy Pobst in #74.Indeed, Pritiko and Walker took third place at the season-opening race at Daytona this year, and the Miller/Pobst combination took the team’s first win of 2009 at Homestead-Miami. “Although our line-up is already the best in the paddock, we thought it would be fun to add another strong pairing and see if we could get a couple of cars on the box,” said Thomson. To accomplish that goal the team’s #75 car was run by Thomson and perennial front-running KONI driver Eric Curran.
The race started well, with Miller qualifying 2nd, Pritiko 5th and Thomson 8th. Pit strategy played an important role in the final result, with Pritiko and Thomson pitting under a yellow flag near the 50-minute mark, stopping for fuel, tires and a driver change. Miller, running a strong second, remained out, the team knowing it would have to pit #76 and #75 again for fuel. With 45 minutes to go, and all of the pit stops completed (Miller having stopped and swapped in Pobst), it was Compass360 cars 1st, 2nd and 3rd, with Walker leading Curran over Pobst. But as always with road racing, it’s never over until the checkered flag, and a Porsche, running in the faster GS-class, changed the outcome of the race when the 911 driver attempted an overtaking maneuver on #76 coming onto the front straight.
Walker, leading, was pushed off the track as a result of this, and fell back into the clutches of his C360R team-mates. At this point in the championship, it’s still anyone’s game and the three Hondas ended up going three-wide into corner one. This certainly made for some amazing racing and television coverage (watch SPEED TV on Saturday May 9th at noon for the full race), but also a very nervous Team Principal. In the end, Pobst prevailed over Walker, with Curran impressing in his first drive with the team.
“This is a dream result,” noted Technical Director Ray Lee. “It’s the culmination of years of work with the Hondas and Acuras we’ve built and run since 2005, and to have our cars all on the box is something we could only have wished for.”
“Today’s finish is the result of a lot of hard work by the C360R crew,” said Miller. “It’s an honor to be a part of this amazing team, and have something that will be in the history books.” Noted Thomson, “We’ve been working towards this for a number of years, and it’s gratifying to see it come to fruition. We did a lot of development work with the Civic last year, while we were also running Acura TSXs. We did our best to bring six strong drivers to New Jersey and it paid off!”
The Team returns to its Toronto base for a brief respite before heading to Laguna Seca for the next round on May 16th. Miller and Pobst are narrowly leading the points championship, with Pritiko and Walker in close pursuit.
The New Jersey KONI race airs Saturday May 9th as 12:00 noon ET on SPEED.