The doubleheader on the streets of St. Petersburg represented the debut of the V6-powered Acura TSX in World Challenge competition, a move the team hoped would give it the fire power to compete with a large and diverse GTS category grid. At the season opening weekend, that grid included a slew of Ford Mustang Boss 302s, Chevrolet Camaros, Nissan 370Zs, Porsches, a pair of factory-backed Kia Optimas and a Mitsubishi EVO.
The new V6 power in the RealTime Acura TSXs hit the mark straight off the transporter, as Cunningham and Esayian set the GTS pace in the first practice session, running one-two on the time sheet. In qualifying, Cunningham narrowly missed the pole position. Instead, it was the Chevrolet Camaro of Andy Lee that just nipped Cunningham by 0.097-second for the top spot. Esayian qualified fifth in an ultra-close GTS grid where the top eight cars were separated by less than 0.9 seconds.
“It’s a testament to the RealTime crew, Acura and HPD that the transition to the V6 engines has gone so seamlessly,” driver and team owner Cunningham said. “I think the straights are going to seem a lot shorter this year!”
Saturday - Race One
Though Cunningham and Esayian qualified second and fifth in the GTS category, that put them smack in the middle of the 50-car World Challenge field in St. Petersburg. The pair made good use of the new power on the standing start, with Cunningham rocketing into the lead and Esayian picking up one spot and slotting into fourth place.
Both RealTime pilots did a tremendous job avoiding the chaos that comes with the opening laps of a street course race. A full-course caution was issued shortly after the start for a four-car incident in turn five. It would be the first of four full-course caution periods in the 50-minute race. Cunningham timed the lap six restart perfectly, never coming under threat from a herd of Ford Mustang Boss 302s lined up behind him.
Esayian also held his ground on the first restart, maintaining fourth place, but on the following lap the No. 34 RealTime/Acura/HPD Acura TSX went door-to-door with a Mustang through turn one while battling for position. The hit sent Esayian into the tire wall, ending his day and bringing out the second full-course caution.
On the lap 12 restart, Cunningham continued to hold the GTS lead with a pack of Mustangs crowding his rear-view mirror. Just when the No. 42 TSX was able to build a comfortable gap to the rest of the GTS field, a third full-course caution was issued, again bunching everyone back up.
When the green flag re-emerged on lap 19, Cunningham found himself trapped behind a lapped Touring Car, which enabled the Mustang of Justin Bell to get the better jump and sneak by into turn one. The six-time World Challenge Champion had something up his sleeve, however, and began to click off a series of fast laps as he kept the Mustang in his sights. With less than five minutes remaining, lapped traffic gave Cunningham the perfect opportunity to slide his TSX past the Mustang, but Bell slammed the door. Shortly thereafter, a fourth full-course caution was issued. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as the clock ran out, forcing the race to end under yellow with Cunningham in second, unable to claim the win.
“The final yellow was very frustrating because it prevented us from racing for win today,” Cunningham said. “But I think we’ve proven that the V6 Acura TSX is better suited to GTS competition and is fully capable of going head-to-head with the fastest cars.”
More positive news coming out of the first raced included a pole position for Cunningham in Race Two thanks to his fast race lap of 1:21.771 (79.239 mph), the quickest of all GTS competitors by a scant 0.003 of a second. It was his record-extending 42nd pole position in World Challenge Series competition.
Sunday – Race Two
Race Two began with another strong standing start from the RealTime Racing duo and their Acura TSXs. Cunningham held the GTS lead confidently as the massive World Challenge field funneled into turn one. Meanwhile, Esayian rocketed from 14th on the grid to fifth on the opening lap – a remarkable comeback for the No. 34 TSX which was being repaired by the RealTime team until 2:15 a.m. on Sunday morning.
Two early full-course yellows put the pair’s charge temporarily on hold, but on the lap 10 restart, Esayian looked determined to make it a RealTime one-two finish, pulling alongside the Mustang of Jason von Kluge at every opportunity. Another full-course yellow on lap 13 paused Esayian’s bid for second. The lap 16 restart provided a prime opportunity to make another move, but Esayian’s fight with von Kluge only enabled the Californian to fall prey to Saturday’s race winner, Justin Bell, who moved past Esayian and was into second a handful of laps later.
It was suddenly déjà vu for GTS leader Cunningham, who had already battled with Bell for the win in Saturday’s race. The Acura ace held Bell off for the better part of five laps, but without a car to draft along the long front straight, the V8 Mustang finally beat Cunningham in a drag race to turn one, taking the GTS lead by turn two. With only a few minutes remaining in the 50-minute race, an opportunity to re-take the lead did not present itself and Cunningham crossed the line in second, extending his record of podium finishes to 106.
Esayian was not far behind in fifth, a net gain of 21 positions in the race! His stunning performance earned him the Sunoco Hard Charger Award.
“What an amazing job by the RealTime crew,” Esayian said. “I got hit hard in Race One and these guys were up all night getting the car back together. They deserve a trophy today. We didn’t have a warm-up or anything before the race, but the car was fast and by the time the first yellow flag came out I was thrilled to be in fifth!
“It would have been nice to put both RealTime cars on the podium today, but I’m really proud of what we accomplished at St. Pete and I’m looking forward to Long Beach. Hopefully, we’ll come through that street race unscathed.”
RealTime leaves the opening round of the Pirelli World Challenge Championships with a strong position in the point standings. Cunningham is second in the GTS Drivers’ Championship, with 267 points, only 35 points out of first. Esayian leaves St. Petersburg 9th in points with 124, recovering nicely from his DNF in Saturday’s race. Acura currently trails Ford by three points in the GTS Manufacturers’ Championship, 18-15.
“St. Pete was a great points weekend for RealTime,” Cunningham said. “It was frustrating to be so close for pole position and both race wins, but that frustration was reduced knowing that the TSX is ready to win races and that we walked away from a street race doubleheader with both cars intact, which is a win in itself.”
Rounds One and Two of the Pirelli World Challenge Championships at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will air on the NBC Sports Network, Sunday, April 8, at 4:30PM ET. The Pirelli World Challenge Championships now travel to the streets of Long Beach, Calif., for the Long Beach Grand Prix presented by StopTech, April 13 – 15. The race will air live on www.world-challengetv.com at 7:15 p.m. ET, with live timing and scoring available at www.world-challenge.com.
The 2012 season for RealTime Racing is brought to you by Acura, HPD, Red Line Oil, Eibach Springs, Sparco, BOSCH, Brembo and Total Auto Body.