Previewing Sunday’s Trans Am Series race

Brainerd International Raceway.  Three words that have signified Trans Am’s historic pilgrimage northward to the land of lakes.  It is an enigma on the Trans Am schedule and has been since 1969 when the Series made its first appearance on the northern track.

Brainerd signifies different things for different teams and different drivers but is marked by its uniqueness as a track, steeped in an alluring complexity that cannot be expressed properly in words alone.  Nevertheless, the enigma that is Brainerd is more complex than ever.

Gone are the days of the abrasive, tire-eating surface that earned the track its label of being a “survivor’s course.”  Now a fresh, clean and improved surface awaits teams and drivers—scraping their painstakingly calculated setups from years past.

Now teams that head north are left with more questions than answers on what awaits them, but they cannot avoid the inescapable truth that a win at Brainerd goes a long way towards the point standings and even a Trans Am Championship.  Seasons can be made in the north, but dreams can just as easily be shattered at this historic home of Trans Am.

This year has been a turning point for Trans Am—the winds of change have blown; bringing with them full fields, growing classes and neck-and-neck racing.  The Trans Am Series is now far different from 2010 when it made a return to Brainerd after a 21-year absence—just as it has changed from even last year when Trans Am held its first of two doubleheader weekends at the end of the year.

It is only fitting that a track so ingrained in the history and character of the Series should go through its own metamorphosis at the same time as the Series that had engraved itself into the old track surface, one lap at a time, year after year.  It’s a renaissance for both track and series, and it just feels right that they go through it together.  Because, in reality, there will only ever be one Brainerd, just as there will only ever be one Trans Am.

Joining the pilgrimage north will be a cast of competitors, ready to leave their mark on Brainerd’s new surface at the 26th Annual Muscle Car Shootout on September 1st.  The 2013 Trans Am Series will be partaking in its seventh race of the season and is now well within the time window when championship races take their shape and eyes intently wander towards the point standings.  The heat is on for the defending champs; do or die is setting in if their championship trophies are going to have any company on the mantle.

Enter Simon Gregg, defending TA champion.  Gregg and the aptly numbered #1 Gregg Motorsports Chevrolet Corvette have been remarkably consistent over the course of the season, making the podium four out of six races and never finishing lower than fourth.

But now Gregg finds himself precariously perched on a tipping point, down 40 points—exactly two wins off of Doug Peterson, current TA points leader.  Nothing is impossible yet, but the point of no return may be rapidly approaching.

The good news is the defending champ knows he’ll be there when it counts.  The Gregg Motorsports Chevrolet Corvette has finished every race it has participated in since Trans Am visited Road Atlanta in 2009—a total of 41 grueling 100-mile sprint format Trans Am races.

“It’s been a fantastic experience to go 41 races in a row without a DNF,” Gregg said.  “Jim Derhaag doesn’t miss a detail at the track or in the shop.  He meticulously prepares the car and is a perfectionist; something you always want from the man preparing your racecar.   It’s great to be able to work and partner with him—he has a lot of experience, he’s been there, done that and we’ve been working well together.”

“It’s going to take a lot to defend my championship—that’s a fact,” Gregg continued.   “There have been a few of the races this year where I haven’t been satisfied with the result or my performance.  I really need to pick it up in the second half of the season.  I’m committed and ready, so we’ll see what happens.”

Yet there is more immediate glory to be found this weekend.  While Doug Peterson, in the #87 Chevrolet Corvette, may have his eyes fixed on Gregg’s title, other driver’s will be more than happy with a victory at the historic track.  Tony Ave is back in the drivers seat of the #4 Lamers Motor Racing/PME Engines/RPX Chevrolet Corvette for the first time since Round Two at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.  Not only is Ave a two-time Trans Am Champion, he’s won more Trans Am races at BIR than any other driver, the Hurley, Wisconsin native will gladly increase that tally if given the opportunity.

Then there is Cliff Ebben.  Ebben is second in the point standings, behind Peterson, also stands in Gregg’s way of a repeat championship and just logged his first victory of the 2013 Season at Mid-Ohio.  Ebben never truly stands out from the crowd, a mild-mannered gentleman racer who prefers to let his racing do the talking, but now with a solid position in the points everyone will be taking notice of Ebben and the #36 Stumpf Ford/McMahon Group Ford Mustang.

In TA2, Bob Stretch is faced with a similar situation.  Yet, in many ways, it has been a year of achievement for the two-time defending TA2 Champion.  He’s built one of the largest TA2 teams in the paddock, with six different drivers participating in Wheels America Racing over the course of the year, earning four podiums.

Behind the wheel of the #98 Wheels America/Fix Rim Mobile Chevrolet Camaro, Stretch even accomplished something a TA2 driver had never done before.  He won a Trans Am race outright at Lime Rock Park.

Yet somehow, Stretch is behind 21-year-old Cameron Lawrence, pilot of the #11 Ctek/Motorstate/NorthStar Chevrolet Camaro, in the point standings—but BIR might be just the fix Stretch needs to get back to his winning ways.  Last year he won the second of two races at BIR; and in 2011 he won the race as well.  Simply enough, Stretch has a history of winning at BIR; and if he can repeat that history, the second half of the season could be looking up for the two-time defending TA2 champion.

Still, in order to secure another repeat Stretch will have to overcome Cameron Lawrence, the current TA2 points leader.

Lawrence has been a constant presence on the podium and on the track.  Track records have fallen in his wake and not only is he yet to miss a podium—he’s yet to finish lower than second.  If there is any solace to be found for Bob Stretch, it’s that every time Lawrence has come in second it’s been at the hands of a Wheels America car.

However, one fact cannot be ignored: Lawrence has his eyes firmly fixed on Stretch’s Championship.

“My ultimate goal this season is to win the Championship for TA2,” Lawrence said. “Things have gone so well for us so far; it would be a huge disappointment if I fail to do that.  I hold myself to the highest expectations.  We go out every weekend with the goal to win.  I know it isn’t probable to win the rest of the races, but it’s not impossible, so that is what we are going to try and do.”

“Usually to prepare for a race weekend I do a lot of resting and practicing on iRacing.  I try to work out or stay in shape the weeks in between race weekends and rest up the few days before.  iRacing has been a huge help for me.  I’ve used it to learn all these amazing tracks that we visit.  Last year was my first time at every track we went to, except Road Atlanta—which I had only been to twice before.  I just try to get into the zone and have a plan on what I want to happen at and on the track—then I just go out there and do my best.”

Regardless of whether Stretch or Lawrence or another driver walks away from Brainerd with a coveted Trans Am win, fans of the Series and TA2 will have far more answers leaving Brainerd than going to it.

The audience will also want to keep an eye on Gregg Rodgers, Robert Huffmaster and Pete Halsmer, all of whom are currently in the thick of the battle for an end of  theyear podium placement and are all more than capable of stealing a win.

TA3 will feature a battle between points leaders Chuck Cassaro and David Seuss, both of whom lead their respective subgroup in the standings, but compete for TA3 glory nonetheless.  Cassaro in the #76 Cassaro Enterprises/Stack Data/Aeromotive/Metallica Ford Mustang is the defending TA3 Champion, an accolade he won handily last year in the class’ first season in existence.  But Cassaro has faced plenty of competition this year and has seen his win reduced to two so far, which is still the most of any TA3 American Muscle Group competitor.

David Seuss, in the #9 Northern Light Prosche 996, currently leads the International Group in the point standings and has been a constant proponent of the TA3 class over the course of the year.

“When you are coming through a corner,” Suess began, “and you have a Porsche, Mustang and Camaro side by side, battling back and forth for an advantage—if you can’t enjoy that in a race, I’m not sure what kind of race fan you are.”

Trans Am will officially take to the track at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday August 31, at 10:00 a.m. CDT for practice as the drivers get a feel for the new surface and quickly return for the second session at 1:45 p.m.

Trans Am will return to the track at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday for qualifying in preparation for the 4:00 p.m. 100 mile, 40 lap, race later that day.