Pirelli World Challenge heads into a crucial event this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, needing to put the onus back on its on-track competition rather than off-track controversy.
The series is coming off the incident-filled Round 5 at Long Beach. Following the weekend, no less than 17 drivers were fined for a total of $61,000, 18 were docked points, and two more were issued additional penalties heading into Barber.
Issues such as understanding why penalties were assessed the way they were, or figuring out proper accountability for actions in the wake of Long Beach appeared to remain unresolved as of end of day Thursday.
One driver’s meeting occurred Thursday and lasted more than an hour, with another one then set for Friday afternoon for further updates.
With the Barber weekend off and running, World Challenge provided the following statement to Sportscar365:
“Series officials noted the unprecedented level of penalties and incidents to be reviewed following Round 5 at Long Beach. Series officials and the competition board continue to review additional information received from teams.
“The series has invited drivers and teams who wish to have one-on-one meetings with them do so Saturday or Sunday at Barber, as schedules allow.”
Unsurprisingly, paddock opinions are varied as to what the next course of action is for the series.
“There’s a lot of people that have emotions and are frustrated,” James Sofronas, GMG driver/owner and a longtime World Challenge entrant, told Sportscar365. “Once people are calm, they’ll see who the instigators are on track.
“SCCA just said you have been asking for us to be firm and consistent and lay down the law, that’s what they’re doing and I applaud them for that.
“I got penalized – I didn’t like it – but I’m taking it, paying for it and moving on.”
Sofronas was among the group of drivers both fined and docked points.
He noted the absence of chief race steward Brian Till, who was unavailable at Long Beach due to two prior TV commitments, didn’t affect the fact the driving standards at Long Beach were poor.
“I hope [Till] missing Long Beach was an anomaly,” Sofronas said. “I don’t know what his schedule is like. But it’s important that we his presence.
“He’s not in the car. I don’t care you who have as a race steward; they’re not going to control the drivers.
“All we can ask for, all we can expect is for Pirelli World Challenge officials to lay down the law, be consistent, and make sure they have adequate information backing up their decision. That’s what they will have to remind everyone coming into Barber.”
That’s a point of contention noted by DragonSpeed team principal Elton Julian, who feels the communication from series officials has been at best, mixed.
“We have no clue what’s going on,” Julian told Sportscar365. “There’s no panel, there’s no appeals process, there’s no concept of justice or even understanding of the penalty process.”
Julian’s drivers have been in the crosshairs this year, with Frankie Montecalvo (Round 1) and Eric Lux (Rounds 4 and 5) both issued penalties already. Julian’s returning driver from 2014, Henrik Hedman, had his name added to the list with a 20-point penalty assessed for driver conduct from Long Beach.
With a 17th place finish Sunday, ninth in GTA, Hedman witnessed his points haul of 41 drop to 21 with the penalty.
His was an example of multiple GTA drivers who fell victim to a higher percentage of points deductions compared to the overall winner, Olivier Beretta.
Despite a 50-point penalty, second most in the field to 60 for GT Cup driver Lorenzo Trefethen, Beretta’s 101 points scored was still the most in the field.
“The penalties levied on some of the GTA guys, for example… Hedman who scores 50 points a weekend gets a 20-point penalty is draconian. It’s massive,” Julian said.
Sofronas and Julian both want the officials to provide a clearer standard of officiating.
“I told Scott [Bove, WC Vision President/CEO], ‘You need to maintain a consistent standard of officiating and stick by your guns,’” Sofronas said. “‘But make sure you have adequate support to get as much information, video and data to make these decisions.’”
“There’s things like Marcus [Haselgrove, competition director] and his team put together the penalty proposals on Monday and Scott Bove overriding it,” Julian said.
“He’s making up his own penalties as he goes. I have been told this by individuals within the series. By Monday night, we were demanding what was going on [with the penalties] and I was told it had reached Bove’s desk and he had overridden something.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know who the race director is.”
Julian’s continued concerns with series management has led Hedman, who finished second in GTA points a year ago, to withdraw from four of the remaining seven race weekends – a move which will now have an adverse effect on Julian’s business.
That may be the beginning of more pullouts. Mike Hedlund is also withdrawing after Long Beach, and several other teams or drivers are also considering their future in the championship beyond this weekend.
Chris Dyson, who finished runner-up at Long Beach, shared similar concerns in regards to the situation in Race Control, calling for action to be made in-race and not post-race.
“I don’t think it’s good to have a vacuum period after an event,” Dyson told Sportscar365. “I think sometimes Race Control laying down the law pretty firmly sends a pretty clear message.
“There was a lot of disquiet amongst the competitors because they maybe felt like calls weren’t being made quickly enough in the event.
“You have to look at the knock-on effect of how are you trying to detour and modify behavior and nothing says ‘stop doing that’ like being parked or being forced to drive through the pits.
“We have to be supportive of Race Control’s attempts to do it more quickly.”
Dyson, a second-year competitors in World Challenge with the factory supported Bentley operation — which is down one car this weekend due to accident that eliminated Butch Leitzinger from the race at Long Beach — also felt Till’s absence in California.
“I think Brian [Till] being here is a steadying hand,” Dyson said. “He and the rest of the members of Race Control are themselves individually one set of eyes.
“I’d like to see incremental investment be made to bring in people like Brian, with that kind of depth of experience and reason and rationale.
“At the end of the day, those are the calls you end up respecting, are the ones made from the guys who have been in the trenches and fire fights. The hard decisions have to be made by Race Control.”
Julian, meanwhile, isn’t confident the series will move forward after the pair of incident-filled weekends.
“Absolutely not, zero,” Julian said. “We’re looking at alternative options for the future in North America.
“We’re spending the same money we’d be spending anywhere else in the world. We can all get on planes and go anywhere. Within a few hours, we can be in Europe.
“We can race these cars in beautiful one-off events and have the most amazing time doing it without any bull**** with people that are grateful to have us.”
Sofronas has weathered several storms in the series’ 26-year history, and through his own decade-plus long tenure in the championship.
“There’s no doubt the potential for the series is at its highest level,” he said. “I think SCCA sent a message as much as they could, to their extent, but it was the worst timing with the quick turnaround.
“They didn’t have a chance to call people in and explain the situation. I think this may have been an inevitable situation that had to happen.
“And now SCCA is like, you wanted it, you asked for it, you’re gonna get it, or you’ll be severely penalized.”