Multiple Rolex Sports Car champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas started 2014 in a new series—the Tudor United Sports Car Championship—and with a new motor, a Ford EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 replacing the BMW-based Dinan V8 which had brought them so much success in the old series.
After winning at Sebring in March and Long Beach in April, Pruett, Rojas, and the once-dominant Telcel-Ganassi crew couldn’t seem to find success, while 2013 champions Wayne Taylor Racing and 2014 Rolex 24 winners Action Express Racing battled for the new TUSC title.
At the Tudor Championship Lone Stare Le Mans at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas Saturday afternoon, Pruett, Rojas et al proved that given a little luck, they still had the pace and the strategic awareness to finish first against all comers.
The #01 Telcel-Ganassi Riley-Ford wasn’t quickest in Prototype-class qualifying; that honor went to Alex Brundle in the brand-new #42 Oak Racing Ligier-Honda, followed by Ricky Taylor in the #10 Konica/Minolta WTR Dallara-Corvette. Rojas qualified third, just ahead of points leader Christian Fittipaldi in the #5 Action Express Coyote-Corvette.
With Fittipaldi and Taylor hot to lock up the championship, and the Oak squad eager to get its first series win, it might seem Rojas would have been well advised to lay back and let the others tear each other up at the start.
Brundle’s co-driver Gustavo Yacaman showed how very eager he was by jumping the start, which was waved off. On the restart, Rojas was anything but cautious. While Ricky Taylor tried to pass Yacaman on the outside into Turn One, Rojas dove down the inside, squeezing Yacaman right. The Oak driver slammed the back of Taylor’s car, sending it to the pits for repairs, while Rojas moved into second.
The new Oak Ligier-Honda benefited greatly from TUSC’s latest round of Balance of Performance adjustments, which gave P2 cars larger restrictors (for more power) and added weight (to heat up the tires more quickly.) Yacaman was quick from the start; he had the power to stay ahead of the Daytona Prototypes on the long straight, and still had enough cornering performance to gain in the turns. Yacaman was 16 seconds ahead of second-placed Christian Fittipaldi when the Oak pitted from the lead on lap 21, while Rojas had dropped to third, a further eight seconds back, after going off avoiding the #30 GTD NGT/Momo Porsche.
Rojas took the lead when Fittipaldi pitted on the next lap, then made his own pit stop—instants ahead of the race’s only caution period, caused by John Edwards in the slamming a curb and tearing of his #56 GTLM BMW Z4’s rear bodywork.
The short debris caution didn’t give everyone time to pit; Rojas rejoined in fourth, but with more fuel in the tank than his rivals.
Michael Valiante in the #90 Spirit of Daytona Coyote-Corvette was right behind Yacaman on the restart; the SDR driver tried to force his way past up the inside but ended up spinning the Oak and earning a drive–through penalty. This gave the lead to Joao Barbosa who had taken over for Christian Fittipaldi in the #5 Action Express car, leaving Rojas lying second.
This state of affairs remained until lap 48 when Barbosa pitted from the lead and rejoined in second. Yacaman had already pitted and handed off to co-driver Alex Brundle on lap 39; Rojas stretched his fuel until lap 50, with only fifty minutes left in the times 2:45 race—a distance Scott Pruett could cover in a single stint if he conserved (which he finds hard to do) while the rest of the leaders all needed to make another stop.
Pruett in the #01 patiently followed Barbosa in the #5 and Brundle in the #42, until Brundle pitted on lap 57, taking fuel and fresh tires—the Oak team knew they were the quickest car on the course in clear air, and hoped that come the end of the race, they would have made up track position and inherit the lead when the others had to pit.
It was a sound strategy—but it didn’t reckon on Pruett’s wisdom. The old dog had learned a new trick—he had learned how to stretch his mileage when it was the best way to win a race.
Barbosa pitted on lap 59, for fuel only, rejoining in second, six seconds behind Pruett and seven seconds ahead of the charging Alex Brundle.
Brundle was charging hard indeed. The Oak driver caught Barbosa in heavy traffic on lap 73, where the pair of prototypes tried to squeeze between the two GTLM BMWs in a left-had turn. Brundle was outside the #55 BMW of Andy Priaulx, with Barbosa to his right, just inside the #56 BMW of Dirk Mueller. Brundle had to run a bit wide to make the corner, squeezing Barbosa to the right, where he bounced off of Priaulx and back into Brundle. Somehow all four cars continued, but Brundle’s forcefulness had earned him second place.
Pruett had a four-second lead over Brundle with four minutes left in the race. Pruett had already been told by his crew that he had enough fuel—the wily veteran, so used to balancing his car mid-corner with a stab at the throttle, had changed his ways for long enough to get the green light, and go he did—right up until lap 75, when his crew suddenly announced that he was short on fuel and needed to slow down—without losing the lead of course.
Pruett again came through, managing to finish the final two laps still in the lead—but he ran out of fuel on his cool-down lap. A little luck, a lot of skill, adaptability, and smart driving had earned Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas the overall win.