Brett Sandberg’s 2016 racing campaign took a dramatic turn with a last-minute phone call.
The 27-year-old saw his scheduled road racing ride fall through in February. The veteran driver wasn’t sure what might happen as the Pirelli World Challenge season approached. But a day later, Sandberg’s racing year changed with one phone call.
“I was feeling pretty down after my proposed ride fell through for 2016,” said Sandberg, the 2016 PWC GTS drivers champion.
“But, a day later, the guys from ANSA Motorsports (team owners Alain Nadel and Patrick Otto Madsen and marketing director Emmanuel Lupe) called me about driving the new KTM X-Bow (Crossbow) in the Pirelli World Challenge.
“To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about the car but it sounded exciting and I needed a ride.”
Entering the 2016 PWC season, the series had opened the GTS class to the unique GT4 vehicles which were properly homologated.
Many manufacturers were expanding into the GT4 customer racing format and the likes of KTM, Ginetta and Sin Car were entered for GTS action.
“The KTM X-Bow was an interesting car and we didn’t have much time to prepare for the season opener at COTA,” said Sandberg. “We basically had no real testing, just a few laps before COTA. But the KTM was fast right away.”
In fact, Sandberg won the pole for the second race of the weekend at COTA and dominated the action with a victory and new single-lap track record.
“I knew the car was fast initially but it was a handful at times,” he said. “You had to drive the KTM on the ragged edge to be fast. And sometimes it went over the edge.
“Without any testing, we used the information from our technical partners, Reiter Engineering from Germany, and they were a big help. Every week, Reiter continue to help us on the development of the car.”
But Sandberg knew a couple of things were going to be difficult for he and his ANSA team if success came quickly in the GTS division.
“We were aware that the BoP would change on the X-Bow and we were on a limited budget too,” he said. “So we were afraid we would be behind the ‘Eight Ball’ a bit in the middle of the season. And after the St. Petersburg event, that happened to us.”
From rounds five to 11, Sandberg made the podium only twice as the Reiter staff and the ANSA worked hard on developing the KTM for the GTS category.
“We were learning more about the car each week and we thought the car was pretty good at Road America,” said Sandberg.
“Unfortunately, we had trouble in the first GTS race of the weekend but came back to win the pole and lead every lap in the second race.”
After the mid-season slump, Sandberg was back in the hunt for the GTS drivers’ point championship.
The former International junior golfer, who played against future PGA stars Rickie Fowler and Morgan Hoffman, was anxious for a strong run at the next rounds at Mid-Ohio in July.
“After Road America, we felt good about coming to Mid-Ohio,” he said. “However, after winning the pole of the first race, we didn’t get to run the race due to a heavy rain storm.
“It was unfortunate but we came back for the second race and took third. Our car was not bad on standing starts but Lawson (Aschenbach) and Nate (Stacy) got great starts with their Camaro and Mustang. I got close to them but couldn’t get by for the win.”
Sandberg scored two podiums at Utah Motorsports Park and lengthened his GTS points lead with four rounds remaining.
“I was happy to see Anthony Mantella win at Utah in the KTM X-Bow because his team had been working so hard on the new car,” he said. “He and Martin Barkey had been so close to winning a race and they deserved to get to the top of the podium.
“We were close too but we were racing hard against the Sin Car, the Ginetta, the Lotus, the Camaro and the Mustang. Many of the GT4 cars were getting faster and becoming factors in each race towards the end of the year.”
Competitive was the word for the GTS division with ten different drivers claiming victories in 2016 and Sandberg knew he had to get back to the winner’s circle heading to Sonoma Raceway in September.
“We wanted a big weekend at Sonoma and we felt the car would be good,” he said. “We had Hugh Plumb come to the team that weekend and Hugh won the GTS pole immediately.
“In the first race at Sonoma, I felt I had my best car of the year. I started third but Nate got a great start and I had to pressure him the whole race. I couldn’t get clean air in that race. And Martin spun me as we had a four-car battle for the lead.
“In the second Sonoma race, I got a good start and Nate was there again. And my car felt better in the clean air on Sunday in the morning and I was able to take the victory. That win opened up our points advantage too.”
For the final two GTS races of the year set for Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Sandberg and his team owner Nadel began a little more self-engineering on their KTM as they prepared for a stressful and competitive season finale.
“Alain didn’t bring the Reiter Engineering staff for the final weekend,” said Brett. “He felt we could do our own engineering on the car. And we had a pretty good car.
“I finished third in the first Laguna Seca race and we wrapped up the title that day. It was very exciting.
“I don’t think it hadn’t really set in yet on winning the championship. I was focused on trying to run a clean and smart race. I didn’t want to get into any fights with anyone, as we knew the situation with the point championship.
“Overall, ANSA Motorsports, Reiter Engineering and KTM did an incredible job developing the car and making it a contender throughout the year. The crew guys worked their rear ends off all year to improve the car. So, this title is credit to the team’s hard work.”
For the season, Sandberg finished on the podium eleven times with three wins, five second places and three third place finishes for an impressive title-winning performance.
It’s hard to imagine that Sandberg was close to not competing in the 2016 PWC season. That last-minute phone call turned his fortunes around and ultimately led him to a championship run.