For Bobby Oergel and his PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports squad, it’s amazing what a difference a year can make.
After an unlucky inaugural TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season, which saw the Prototype Challenge squad go winless and only score a single podium finish, PR1 has emerged as the early championship favorite in 2015, having come off wins in the two biggest races of the year.
A class victory in January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona was backed up with a commanding run in last weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring for Tom Kimber-Smith, Mike Guasch and Andrew Palmer, marking the team’s second Sebring triumph in the last three years.
“Winning Daytona was fantastic. But having won Sebring before, we knew it would be harder, point blank,” Oergel told Sportscar365.
“For me and our program, every race is [treated] individually but Sebring is definitely one of the hardest events. We went into it with more cautiousness and humbleness than ever, just because we knew we had a good shot at it.”
Yet with one of the strongest all-around driver lineups, the trio held control for much of the race, highlighted by an intense closing double-stint by Kimber-Smith, who was pitted up against CORE autosport’s Colin Braun in a reversal of the closing laps at Daytona.
While Braun crashed out in dramatic fashion at Daytona due to a broken suspension component from contact with another car, Kimber-Smith kept cool, stayed out of trouble and took the win by less than 15 seconds.
“I’m amazed that it was a fight as hard as it was for the last three hours,” Oergel said. “The quality of driving in the categories across the board was great. It was an amazing weekend, in my opinion, on the cleanliness of the racing and just how hard the fights were.
“The first and second place cars were fighting each other the whole time. Neither of us had issues to pin point it on. It was just a sweet victory.”
One of the contributing factors for the team’s turnaround has been chemistry, with 2013 PC champion Guasch returning for a full-season campaign, as well as the addition of Kimber-Smith, a three-time Le Mans class winner, as a late replacement for Andrew Novich.
“It was pretty cool having the program lined up from Jan. 1,” Oergel said. “Obviously we had a change with the [Andrew] Novich program but it was really nice to have Mike, which was a known item.
“We’re a small team and we like being a small team as far as quantity as people. But it doesn’t mean the quality of the people are down. Tom is really one of those guys you’d put in the top box and someone you’d want to work with for a long time.”
Coupled with a previous class win at the Petit Le Mans, Oergel’s tight-knit organization has quietly become one of the powerhouse teams in endurance racing, something that’s perhaps been overlooked due to the year-in, year-out success of CORE.
While Oergel doesn’t consider a rivalry to be brewing with the four-time and defending PC champions, he does see them as their toughest competition as they take the fight to the Jon Bennett-owned squad this year.
“In the end, I look at it as clean, hard competition,” Oergel said. “I love racing those guys and racing hard with them. They’ve kept everybody on their toes for the last four years.
“I think it’s an opportunity for them and us to rise to bigger occasions and push each other harder. I’m looking forward to it every time.”
PR1 doesn’t plan to be sitting still between now and the next PC round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in early May, with at least one test planned, with a focus on building the team’s chemistry even further.
After all, 2015 could be Oergel’s best shot yet at breaking CORE’s stranglehold in the class, something PR1 came close to in 2013, with Guasch taking the drivers’ title, but coming up short in the coveted teams’ championship.
“For what it would mean for me and my program, it would be awesome and incredible [to win the championship],” Oergel said. “The efforts in the beginning [of the year] is not going to change whatsoever from the standpoint of what we’re capable of.
“It’s a humble program and we just have to keep pushing hard.”