The Changing Face of World Challenge


Story By Sahar Hassani

Just a few years ago, the SCCA’s World Challenge series was considered one of the best road racing venues in the country. It provided plenty of close racing while showcasing the latest cars on the market.

The manufacturers eagerly used the series to promote their latest wares, with factory-supported teams coming from Acura, BMW, Mazda, Cadillac, Dodge and others. Grids and the talent pool quickly deepened.

However, that factory support became a double-edged sword. As the manufacturers helped build better and more reliable cars, costs escalated. Although the racing improved, these highly modified, production-based cars eventually cost about $500,000 to build and develop—simply beyond the budgets of many privateer teams and drivers. While the independents started to leave the series, the factory teams bolstered their ranks. Some even campaigned three or four cars.

Then the recession hit. The factory support and sponsorship dollars dried up, and the car counts dwindled. By 2009, paddocks became sparse as big efforts like Team Cadillac and Tri-Point Racing dropped out.

World Challenge Vision, the group that runs the series, went back to the drawing board in an effort to rejuvenate the once-popular road racing program. The result: Things are very different for 2010, and there are some new opportunities for those operating on a budget.

A New Year, a New Philosophy

The Touring Car class will have a new look for 2010, as closer-to-stock sedans and coupes will replace last year’s bespoke, quarter-million-dollar racers.

“Last year, World Challenge Vision met with the existing team owners and drivers to learn how we can make World Challenge a better series,” explains Nick Esayian, driver of the RealTime Racing Acura TSX and also a World Challenge Vision member. “We wanted to create more opportunities for drivers and teams by reducing costs while increasing competition.”

One way to do this was to return to their roots and require that cars stay closer to showroom stock, he adds. The Touring Car rules, for example, no longer allow relocated suspension mounting points. Horsepower figures have been reined in, and World Challenge Vision will also take measures to welcome cars from other series.

The new rules allow cars from NASA, SCCA, BMW CCA, Porsche Club and Grand-Am, often with just a few simple modifications. “For example, if you are racing a T1 Corvette in SCCA,” Esayian explains, “you may only need to change your tires to the mandated Toyo Proxes R888, drop some weight, and add a few World Challenge stickers.”

Cars from the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge—a series currently enjoying very healthy fields—can also join World Challenge with few changes. For example, a Grand-Am Street Tuner car can become legal for World Challenge’s Touring Car ranks by simply running the approved tires and displaying the correct stickers on the bodywork. It’s that easy.

The new rules package made its debut at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Fans seemed to enjoy the the influx of new makes and models, and the car counts looked healthy. Where entries had been declining, this year it’s looking rejuvenated.

Revamping the Rule Book

The old Touring Cars aren’t totally forgotten, however, as they’re eligible for the series’ new GTS class.

Once World Challenge set new goals for 2010, they had to look at their class structure. A third class was added, while the existing two received new direction.

The revised Touring Car class—the first rung on the performance ladder—keeps the cars close to stock by using rules similar to those mandated for Touring 2, an SCCA Club Racing class for cars sporting relatively mild modifications. The Touring Car class features coupes, sedans, wagons and hatchbacks such as the Honda Civic Si, Mazda RX-8, Scion tC and Volkswagen Jetta. Power outputs are modest: around 180 to 200 horsepower.

The next step up in performance can be found in the new-for-2010 Grand Touring Sport class. This one is based on the SCCA Club Racing Touring 1 and FIA GT4 rules.

The Grand Touring Sport class allows more modifications than the Touring Car class. It also welcomes some faster cars, such as the BMW M3, Ford Mustang GT, Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro. Touring Cars built under the old rules can also compete here.

The Porsche GT3 Cup is the new standard for the GT class, while the Touring Car class has been radically simplified. The GTS class fits somewhere between the two.

The GT class, the fastest of the three offered in World Challenge, gets a slight realignment for 2010. The Porsche 911 GT3 Cup will be used as the new baseline for the class, meaning power outputs will now range from 425 to 525 horsepower. Eligible cars include the Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper, Ford Mustang, Volvo S60, Porsche 911 GT3 Cup and Aston Martin DB9.

All three classes will share the pavement. “Three classes together is what racing is all about,” grins Andy Pilgrim, the series’ 2005 champion and driver of the K-Pax Racing Volvo S60. “We started the year with two street races at St. Pete, and most people were very worried about carnage and bodywork issues because of three classes. But, the weekend went incredibly well, which says a lot about people’s skills and patience.”

Going Pro Without Breaking the Bank

Most drivers would like to race in the professional ranks. In addition to the possibility of winning money for a top finish, there’s the associated prestige and TV coverage—World Challenge just inked a deal with the Versus TV network.

“I think World Challenge is a series where a new driver can be comfortable making the jump into professional racing,” Pilgrim explains. “There are a bunch of seasoned pro drivers, and all of them are happy to give advice or help new drivers.”

This is not the same in other pro series, he adds. “The respect people give on the track to the smaller cars probably comes from the fact that the GT drivers have mostly all been in a smaller-class car at some point and know how hard it is to drive in your mirrors all the time.”

Plus, the SCCA Pro Racing department works to level the playing field. Cars are handicapped throughout the season via REWARDS weight: Those who finish up front have to carry extra weight, while those farther back in the pack are allowed to shed some pounds.

SCCA officials can make additional competition adjustments to cars that seem a bit too gifted or lacking. “If we ever have a big discrepancy in a car, then SCCA is very quick to even things out,” Pilgrim adds. Rather than waiting two to three races to make adjustments, SCCA officials take action right away.

As World Challenge continues to evolve, expect plenty of new cars in the field and new drivers on the podium. “The competition and fans are great in World Challenge,” says series rookie Todd Buras. “The standing starts are very unique to me, and I’m still getting adjusted to it. World Challenge is a great series, and I’m very happy to be part of it.”

Go 4 It Racing Pontiac Solstice GXP

Mike Pettiford’s Pontiac Solstice GXP only needed a few small changes to go from SCCA club racing specs to World Challenge racer.

When Mike Pettiford, owner of the Go 4 It Racing Schools, heard about the changes in store for the World Challenge series, he quickly jumped on board. “I got a call from the SCCA officials about their new rule changes and the great opportunity to compete in the World Challenge series,” he explains. “It sounded like a great fit for me and my company.” Go 4 It Racing is based in Louisville, Colorado, and specializes in teaching competition techniques; they serve both the two- and four-wheel markets. Like most business owners, Pettiford is always seeking new places to promote his business. As he explains, the school can also now boast of being involved in professional competition.

Pettiford returns to World Challenge after a 10-year hiatus. “I ran a Camaro in the GT class, but as costs began to escalate in the World Challenge series I focused on SCCA Club Racing,” he explains. His accomplishments include 24 Rocky Mountain Division national championships. He is also the first driver to win three SCCA Divisional titles in the same year.

“The new rule changes are great for me and many SCCA Club Racers who currently run in the T1 and T2 classes,” he explains. “Their car can easily be competitive in World Challenge with just some minor changes and minimal costs.”

Pettiford is running his Pontiac Solstice GXP in both the SCCA Club Racing’s Touring 2 class as well as the new World Challenge GTS class. The conversion from club racer to pro racer is relatively easy: He drops 150 pounds of ballast, mounts up the mandated Toyo Proxes tires, and removes the restrictor plate. “We are using a stock engine, we don’t have a fuel cell, and we are using the same exhaust,” he boasts.

Besides paying for the entry fee and new tires, the current costs are a fraction of what has been charged in years past. “Joe Aquilante from Phoenix Performance built our cars, which cost roughly $50,000 each,” Pettiford explains. “He is one of the best car builders. We have five of Joe’s cars.”

At this season’s World Challenge opener, Pettiford finished fourth in the GTS class. He scored a podium finish at the season’s second race weekend, held during the street race at Long Beach, California.

It’s an impressive feat considering one of his competitors is RealTime Racing’s Peter Cunningham, five-time World Challenge Champion. Pettiford, however, hopes to continue his success and win the GTS championship.

DG-Spec Scion tC

The DG-Spec Scions broke onto the national scene via NASA competition. The cars are also eligible for the new, simplified World Challenge Touring Car rules.

“The rebirth of the Touring Car class fit our Scion tC to a T,” explains DG-Spec team owner and driver Dan Gardner. “It has a long history, great exposure for our drivers and sponsor, and the competition is great. We think it will elevate our entire program.”

DG-Spec is based in Torrance, California, and was founded in 2005. Along with fielding their road racing effort, the team also provides hop-up parts for the Scion tC. “The goal of DG-Spec is to provide enthusiasts with parts that have been developed on the track and that have significant performance advantages at an honest price,” Gardner explains.

“It’s our fourth season as a Scion factory team,” he adds. “Things have accelerated at a great pace for us, but we are truly the everyman. We started with almost nothing—a $1700 shell I picked up a few years back.” Today it’s a two-car, full-season World Challenge Touring Car team.

Nearly all of the parts used to build the car can be purchased directly from DG-Spec, any Scion dealer, or the team’s sponsor. “Still, at around $70K built, it’s a great value compared with how Touring Car used to be, with cars going from $150,000 to $250,000,” Gardner figures.

After a few seasons with NASA as well as some Grand-Am Koni Challenge appearances, DG-Spec is running two Scion tC coupes in World Challenge this season. Robert Stout has joined Gardner on the team’s driver roster. The team finished second and third at the St. Petersburg opener; at Long Beach, 18-year-old Stout made history as the youngest World Challenge winner ever. The team hopes to score the manufacturer’s crown for Scion, as they’re leading in points over Volkswagen and Honda.

Gardner says he’s impressed with the series’ huge fan base, overall professionalism and new Versus TV package. Plus, the series shares high-profile weekends with the Izod IndyCar Series. It’s also a great opportunity to be challenged at the highest level of racing, he adds, as the grids contain ace drivers like Andy Pilgrim, Randy Pobst, Ron Fellows, Boris Said and Peter Cunningham.

Irish Mike’s Racing Volkswagen Jetta

How about a car that can run in two different professional series? The Irish Mike’s Volkswagens can easily run in both World Challenge and Grand-Am’s Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge.

The new World Challenge rules allowed Irish Mike’s Racing to expand their Volkswagen Jetta race program from one series to two. “We moved to World Challenge due to the sprint race format, the double-race weekends and, of course, the great contingency program,” explains team owner Mike Flynn.

Irish Mike’s Racing is currently running a Volkswagen Jetta GLI in both the Grand-Am Street Tuner class and the World Challenge Touring Car class. “The World Challenge rules are evolving and the officials have been great,” Flynn explains. The transformation from Grand-Am to World Challenge trim involves swapping tires and making some suspension adjustments. The appropriate stickers need to be added, too.

Based in Orlando, Florida, Irish Mike’s Racing was established in 2000 and has already built championship cars for SCCA Improved Touring competition. “We also raced previously in the World Challenge series with a Subaru WRX,” Flynn adds.

“To build the Volkswagen Jetta race car,” he explains, “we bought a water-damaged car and then blasted and painted it.” The running gear and electronics came from a wrecked car. “It took us about 250 hours and $70,000 to build the Volkswagen Jetta GLI,” he adds.

The Jetta quickly became a tough contender in the new World Challenge Touring Car class, as team driver Todd Buras swept the St. Pete double-header. As a multi-time series champion once told Buras, a win in World Challenge is a win in World Challenge. “World Challenge is still recognized across the world as some of the highest levels of competition,” Buras adds.

The TV coverage is also appealing, he notes: “All levels receive complete coverage, so the viewer gets to know the drivers and their cars. It gets the viewer into what is happening on and off the track.”

While Irish Mike’s Racing hopes to compete in most of the World Challenge races this season, their Grand-Am schedule may present a few conflicts. “Starting off the season with two wins is great,” Flynn adds, noting that they gave Volkswagen their first World Challenge victories ever.

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