ST. PETERSBURG — Scott Sharp overcame some harrowing moments on a slippery Turn 1 early in the race, then put teammate David Brabham in strong position Saturday to take home the overall victory in the Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg.
It was Brabham's 17th career victory, Sharp's fifth in American Le Mans Series and their first of the season for Highcroft Racing in their Acura ARX-02a race car in the Le Mans Prototype 1 Class. The outcome also marked a breakthrough for the duo in St. Petersburg, where they finished second in 2007 and 2008 in the LMP2 class.
"The team did a tremendous job," said Sharp, the all-time leader in IRL starts. "We expected the track to get pretty loose and chose to step up to a harder left rear tire, but we didn't get to try it. I don't know if that contributed to it or what but the first three or four laps were horrifying down in Turn 1. I almost thought something was wrong … but the longer we went the better our car got."
The team of Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz finished 32.150 seconds behind the winners in their Acura ARX-01b for Lowe's Fernandez Racing to win the LMP2 class — coming on the heels of their class victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring two weeks ago.
In GT2 Patrick Long, a resident of Belleair Beach for three years, and Jorg Bergmeister triumphed in their Porsche 911 RSR for Flying Lizard Motorsports.
Sharp had a moment in the first 10 minutes of the race in which he nearly lost control, but recovered nicely and kept his team on track — despite all the problems with Turn 1, located on a painted stretch of Albert Whitted Airport in the braking zone.
"No one expected Turn 1 to be like that," he said. "There was about a three-quarter car width you had to get through there or you would go into the wall. If you got through that okay, then you can really have a good lap."
Nearly 50 minutes into the 1 hour, 55 minute race, Sharp took the lead from Gil de Ferran, who pitted for tires and fuel as Simon Pagenaud took the wheel. A variety of car troubles soon slowed Pagenaud as Sharp stayed in command. With 44 minutes left Fernandez briefly moved into the lead over Brabham.
"I had to get past Fernandez and nearly went off at Turn 1 and saw what Scott had been talking about," said Brabham, the only driver in series history to win races and pole positions in all four classes. "I didn't panic and knew the grip would come. I had to push, but not push too hard."
After quickly overtaking Fernandez, the outcome never seemed to be in doubt.
"This championship has proven that you have to be consistent, otherwise it makes it very difficult to come back," Brabham said. "The guys never missed a beat. It's great for us in terms of the championship and gives us a cushion."
Fernandez and Diaz were thrilled with their second straight class win.
"(Diaz) gave me the car from the lead and we had a really good stop that put me in front of the Highcroft car," Fernandez said. "Once their tires came in I knew they would go by. … But this proves we are tough competitors."
For Long and Bergmeister, who won the championship in 2005, Saturday was their first victory this season. It was Long's 10th win and Bergmeister's 24th.
"This was a big one for us after having a little bit of a rocky start at Sebring," Long said. "This has really helped us to open up our championship stride for the coming season."
NOTES: Fernandez and Diaz won the Green X Challenge — an award for best in overall performance in fuel efficiency and environmental impact. … The fastest laps were by Dirk Werner (GT2 — 1:14:373), de Ferran (LMP1 — 1:06:959) and Marino Franchitti (LMP2 — 1:08:789).