Kleinubing flips, then wins at Virginia SPEED Touring Car finale
Acura and Cunningham win season championships
October 27, 2002 - Alton Virginia
RealTime Racing's drivers and crew did everything perfectly in a slam-bang season finale of the SPEED Touring Car Championship at VIRginia International Raceway today, handing the race win to Pierre Kleinubing, the season Drivers' Championship to RTR team leader Peter Cunningham, and putting an exclamation point on the weekend with Acura's fourth World Challenge Manufacturers' Championship.
Cunningham started the #42 Integra on the pole and finished sixth, winning the championship by a slim seven points over teammate Kleinubing, who started ninth in a similar, but decidedly second-hand #1 machine. After a spectacular turn of events, Pierre moved to the front quickly, first by vaulting to third soon after the restart of the event's only full course caution period, and then to the lead when Cunningham and BMW 325Ci driver Ken Dobson went flying off the road battling for the lead on Lap 10. Cunningham fortunately recovered to keep his championship fight alive, rejoining the fray in seventh position, before moving up one more spot before the finish.
Rookie of the Year Marc Kirberg's BMW 325is had followed Kleinubing through the melee, running second for seven laps, never more than a car length behind. If he had maintained position, BMW would have repeated as Manufacturers' Champion. But with two laps remaining in the 19-lap contest, Jeff Altenburg's third place Mazda Proteg? used lapped traffic as a pick, and demoted the BMW to third, thus handing the coveted Manufacturers' Award to Acura. Kleinubing held on by .209 seconds, in a race that saw many drivers spending almost as much time off the racing surface as they did on.
The finish was so close that the top eight finishers were separated by only three seconds. Acura nosed-out BMW for the Manufacturers' Championship by the slimmest of margins - one point. Acura came into the final event three points behind BMW, and only two points ahead of Mazda.
"RealTime Racing is especially proud to deliver another Manufacturers' Championship to the Acura Division of American Honda," Cunningham said. "We continued to improve our Integra fleet all season, while working hard behind the scenes to bring out the new Acura RSX. To win the championship for Acura, with the top three manufacturers separated by only four points, makes us feel very good, because BMW and Mazda are two of their top competitors in the consumer market."
The Drivers' Championship trophy was the eighth World Challenge title for the RealTime team. It was Cunningham's sixth SCCA Pro Racing title, and his third in World Challenge competition.
That Kleinubing even started the race was an amazing tribute to the RealTime crew. During Saturday's special one-lap 'shootout' by the ten fastest qualifiers, Pierre rolled the car three-and-a-half times, after dropping a wheel off track in the high-speed esses and sliding into the wet Virginia clay. "We were fortunate Pierre was uninjured, but the car was a mess," Cunningham said. "To an outsider, nothing about it looked like a potential race winner 22 hours later, but these Acuras are tough! Our guys build a strong roll cage, and as I told the media right after qualifying, Pierre has won races with cars that looked a whole lot worse than that. Maybe they believe me now," he chuckled.
Cunningham and Kleinubing have been 1-2 in the Drivers' Championship points since mid-season, thanks to the fact that checkered flags waved over eight different drivers in 11 races, including each of the top-seven points finishers. "Pierre won three races this season and likely would have been the champion, had he not had mechanical problems at both Washington, DC, and Quebec," Cunningham said. "As it turned out, we had the luxury of coming here knowing that only the two of us had a mathematical chance of winning the championship. Our focus was on the Manufacturers' Championship for Acura."
Former RTR driver Hugh Plumb returned this weekend to drive the team's new Acura RSX, bringing the #43 entry home in 10th place after a 16th place start.
"Hugh’s fastest race lap was only a second slower than mine," Cunningham said. "The RSX is Acura's future in the Touring Car Championship, and I fully-believe there is another second to be found in that car over the winter. Maybe even two seconds, because the competition will improve their cars, too. When you get to feeling content with the status quo in the Touring Car Championship, you're toast."
American Honda Techline specialist and multi-time racing champion Bob Endicott drove the team's #46 Acura Integra this weekend, in an attempt to stack the deck for the Manufacturers' Championship. While running toward the front of the pack on lap 11, Bob had to take evasive action, as Taz Harvey's third place-starting but errant Honda Civic was off the road, then vectored precisely into Bob's path. In the process Bob avoided the incident but tore off the front splitter and undertray, which relegated him to a 15th place finish. Taz instead clobbered Paul Bonaccorsi's Mazda Proteg?, forcing both cars into retirement.
Long-time RTR stalwart Fred Meyer bowed out of professional racing in grand fashion with the #45 Integra. "Fred qualified 33rd and finished 23rd," Cunningham pointed out. "That means he gained more positions than any of the rest of us 'young guys'. For a man who turns 75 in December, or even Pierre, who turned 28 on Thursday, that's heads-up driving. We're going to miss Fred, but everybody on the team is better off for having had the chance to work with him these past seven years."
The VIR SPEED Touring Car race will debut on the SPEED Channel on Saturday, November 9 at 8pm EST, with a re-air on November 10 at 1am EST.