Forget Noogies: Brothers Brian and Robert Casella Take It to the Track in the NASA Honda Challenge Series

Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

[Editor's note: This article originally ran in the April 2012 issue of Grassroots Motorsports]

 

Kids and sports are inseparable. From hide-and-seek to BMX, flag football and beyond, there are plenty of rule-based activities out there to keep kids dirty, healthy and happy. 

And having a sibling means you’ve already got a one-on-one competitor built in, or a loyal ally should the need arise. Brothers Brian and Robert Casella grew up around race cars, and they quickly became teammates.

Their dad is the regional director for NASA’s Northeast region, so they spent many weekends at the track before they could even reach the pedals. Brian has been racing for several years now, and his younger brother, Robert, recently enjoyed his rookie year as a NASA road racer.

This past year they attended their biggest show yet, the 2011 NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires. It was hard to miss the Casella brothers on track; they drove identically painted Acura Integra Type Rs in the popular Honda Challenge H2 category. 

These aren’t just race-converted road machines, either: These Type Rs came to the Casella family as part of a three-pack of cars that have pro racing Grand-Am Cup history.

Roots in Racing

The boys’ father, Joe Casella, was a club-level racer from 1972 until the birth of his first son, Brian, in 1988. Joe had to put his racing hobby on hold after the arrival of an infant son, so he sold his race car. 

However, you can’t simply shelve an addiction as powerful as racing, so Joe, who founded the Z Club of America back in 1971, stayed involved in the sport in various ways; he even became the director of NASA’s Northeast Region in 2004.

At the time, the region was primarily running autocrosses and a few HPDE events, but with Joe steering the ship NASA Northeast has grown considerably. It now hosts multiple race events at tracks including Lime Rock Park, Watkins Glen and New Jersey Motorsports Park. It’s no surprise that young Brian was immersed in motorsports from the very start.

“I was waving checkered flags at Lime Rock at the age of 5,” explains Brian, now 23. “I was always a track rat.”

By the time he was 15, Brian was ready for the challenge of driving a real car on track. The only circuit in the region that would allow such a young participant was Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“One of our longtime instructors let me drive his Corvette Z06 for a few weekends. I barely knew how to shift; I’d fudge it into third gear and just go around in third. I learned how to shift, and eventually used the car on the long course at Pocono.”

Brian’s passion for motorsport grew quickly after that first taste of the track. He and a friend split the cost of a track-ready Mazda RX-7, and he used that to get his racing license at 16. Next came a 1991 Honda Civic hatchback. It was fun, but in rough shape and not quite quick enough for his growing addiction. Then the Casella family came across a deal that was too good to ignore.

Photography credit: Scott R. Lear

Family Size

When fellow racer and friend Andy Linder moved to BMW M3s for his pro racing effort in the Grand-Am Cup series—the series now known as the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge—he put a trio of Acura Integra Type Rs up for sale. 

Two of the cars were somewhat beat Grand-Am Cup veterans, having raced through the early 2000s. One was a spare chassis with a non-running engine, another was an honest racer that had seen a lot of bodywork—it had actually been rolled once. The third was the gem of the bunch, relatively unabused and in very solid shape. They all came equipped with several pro-level features, including remote-reservoir Ohlins racing coil-overs.

Younger brother Robert’s Integra wears 36 on the side, and it’s currently the slower of the two machines. Robert plans to improve his odds by building a B18C5 block to the extent of the Honda Challenge H2 rules, nudging the wheel horsepower closer to 190. Robert took the NASA Northeast H2 regional championship in his rookie year in 2011. Photography credit: Scott R. Lear

The cars had been campaigned under the Power Racing Team banner; supposedly one has RealTime Racing heritage, too, and its preproduction VIN is a non-roadworthy ST7-0002015. (All legal U.S.-market Type Rs begin with JH4DC231). 

Joe was interested in getting back behind the wheel, and with Brian’s growing interest and Robert nearing driving age, the family decided to purchase the lot. “After coming out of a clapped-out ’91 Honda Civic, these cars felt like F1 cars,” admits Brian. 

Brian, the older sibling, runs the No. 37 car. This one reportedly has RealTime Racing roots, and it has seen its share of abuse—it was rolled at one point in its pro racing career, and with Brian at the wheel it had a run-in with a Corvette that necessitated replacing the complete front clip. Brian scored the Honda Challenge H2 regional championship with NASA NE in 2010. Photography credit: Scott R. Lear

Even in street trim, the Integra Type R is a pure sporting joy, with a high-revving engine, fairly low weight and a truly racing-inspired suspension. After a Grand-Am team has finished massaging it and installing a top-tier coil-over package, however, it’s even more visceral. Integra Type Rs were popular with touring car racers in several series, and they scored many class wins and championships at the height of their popularity.

Can We Keep Them?

A stable of three race cars may sound like a dream garage, but they don’t exactly feed themselves. To offset the costs, the Casellas decided to keep the two roughest cars and sell the nicest one. This would provide enough operating overhead to get the spare car, No. 36, running.

The No. 37 car, meanwhile, was off to a running start: It served Brian well in its first season in 2006, competing in the NASA Honda Challenge H2 category. Robert wasn’t yet old enough to drive, but he was also getting hands-on with the cars.

“I was always at the track, too,” says Robert, “but off the bat I was more of a mechanical guy. I was with my brother going over the cars, changing the tires, putting in gas.”

Brian hit a bit of a snag with No. 37 at the start of his second season. In fact, the snag hit him, in the guise of a Corvette. “The car got collected by a Vette that lost control and hit the driver’s front wheel, shifting the nose about 8 inches. We found a front clip from a 1994 Integra and put the body shop to work.”

Both cars were ready for action in 2007, and Brian attended his first NASA Championships that year. “We had some good early finishes,” Brian says of the multi-race championship weekend, “but a brake line exploded [in the main race], sending us into the tire wall on the exit of Turn 1 while we were in third place. It was a tough and quiet tow home to New Jersey.” They returned in 2008, where Brian finished seventh.

Meanwhile, Robert had grown to his mid-teens and was itching to get behind the wheel. He rose through the ranks of NASA’s HPDE program. Brian served as his brother’s competition school instructor, and Robert secured his competition license in time for the 2011 season. Meanwhile. Brian also locked down the regional H2 championship in 2010. 

Before the 2011 season, they repainted the cars white and orange to show the family connection. It was the first year the brothers would be taking green flags together.

Go Play Outside

It can take a few years for a younger sibling to catch up in any given sport, and racing is no different. “The cars look identical,” explains Brian, “but Robert’s No. 36 has the motor I put in three seasons ago. They don’t compare. There’s about a 20-horsepower difference, which is a lot in this class.”

Robert’s lap times may not yet be on par with Brian’s, but the younger brother is obviously learning the ropes. In their Northeast regional championship points battle, Brian missed a number of races when his car was down for repairs. Robert scored his first win during that time, plus a string of other solid finishes. As a result, Robert was able to secure the 2011 NASA Northeast regional championship by 140 points over his brother in second place.

Photography credit: Chris Clark

They also made the trek to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the 2011 NASA Championships. Mechanical issues soured their qualifying efforts: Robert’s car had a distributor component break off and rattle around inside the engine’s head, and Brian’s snapped an axle. 

As a result of missed races, they started the title fight in 21st and 22nd, the final spots on the H2 grid.

“I knew people were going to be going off and being really aggressive, and I knew I wasn’t going straight to the front,” says Robert of the 50-minute championship race. He picked up some positions as other cars fell by the wayside. “I had a battle with a CRX and an older Honda Civic driven by Stephanie Belski. I had to use the lapping H1 field to pass Belski, but the CRX got back around and I finished 11th.”

Photography Credit: Chris Clark

After a slow start to ensure everything was put back together properly, Brian started picking up spots. “I got up to 14th pretty quickly, between my spotters and my crew chief giving me time reference and spacing information to the cars in front. I was able to pick off six or seven cars. I finished seventh. No one hit me and I didn’t hit anyone,” he notes, “though about 20 minutes in the spherical bearings I had just reinstalled started to back out, so the handling got squirrelly. I inherited sixth due to a disqualification.”

Future Family Fun

With both cars relatively sorted, the Casella brothers are looking at some minor improvements for 2012. Robert’s No. 36 car is due for a fresh engine. He’s going to take a stab at building it himself, though they’ll use the expertise of sponsor R/T Tuning to make sure everything is sound and to tune the new B18C5 block.

Brian, meanwhile, is thinking about handling. “We have those remote-reservoir Ohlins, but that comes with a 75-pound weight penalty in H2. Everyone who finished in front of me finished with Koni yellows,” he notes. Obviously, the Konis are now high on his potential shopping list, though he’s also shopping Eibachs. A simple splitter setup and some other aero tweaks may also be in order, and he’d like to tune his engine up a touch to around 195 wheel horsepower for regional competition.

The Casella brothers seem keener on supporting each other than competing against one another. That said, each has a regional championship to his name, and as their cars get closer in performance and Robert catches up in the experience department, there could be some great on-track battles in their future. If they end up swapping paint, no worries: the The orange-and-white liveries are already quite close, and they’ll know where to find the other guy after the race.

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