Automatic storm to podium at eventful Michelin Pilot Challenge opener

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Stoner Car Care Racing and Automatic Racing launched the 2019 MICHELIN Pilot Challenge season with a strong showing at Daytona in Friday’s BMW Endurance Challenge. With three Aston Martins being fielded by the team, it was a big effort to be prepared for the four hour enduro to open the 2019 IMSA season.

Leading the charge for the Orlando-based squad was the No. 99 Stoner Car Care Aston Martin, driven by rookie Gary Ferrera and veteran Kris Wilson as the team came home with a second place finish after leading nine laps and making a daring last-lap pass to seal second at the finish. 

Each of the three Aston Martin Vantage GT4 entries took very different routes to the checkered flag in the four-hour, 101-lap endurance classic, part of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Rolex 24 At Daytona.

The No. 99 Stoner Car Care Aston Martin, driven by rookie Gary Ferrera and veteran Kris Wilson took the green flag in 26th position. Ferrera, in his first race at Daytona, managed traffic in the 35-car field while steadily moving up before handing the car to Wilson in 22nd position.

Wilson immediately began carving his way through the field, making calculated passes as he headed toward the front. Taking the lead on lap 81 before heading in for his final pit stop, Wilson came out of the pits in fifth and muscled his way back to the front by lap 85. The final 10 laps were a side-by-side, four-way battle that saw Wilson make an outside, nail-biting pass on the high banks of Speedway Turn 2 to take second position – the best finish for Wilson and for the team at Daytona.

“We did everything we could do with the old bird,” said Wilson, who earned the Spirit of the Race award from the listeners on IMSA radio for his performance. “This version of the Aston Martin is six or seven years old, but she ran great. I have to say; the new Michelin tires have transformed the car. It was a great battle – and Daytona is like that. I told Gary he had to run here, it makes for great racing. It was a big task (for the team), to take on three cars including the new car, and the team did a great job.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed that!” said Ferrera. “My 91-year-old mother is in the grandstands, and it would have been my dad's 95th birthday tomorrow so I can't tell you how excited I am right now. We like to keep things stealthy, but we moved into the position when it counted. And I really couldn't have picked a better teammate. All I wanted to do was take care of the car and give it to Kris in a good position, and we did that. The racing here on the high banks is so different, it was great.”

The No. 97 Invisible Glass entry, driven by Rob Ecklin, Brandon Kidd and Ramin Abdolvahabi, is the newest iteration of the Aston Martin Vantage GT4. The beautiful machine is the first of its kind to race in North America, and the team had a double effort to prepare for Daytona.

The team took delivery of the new car on Sunday and did a phenomenal job to have it prepared from the moment the car was unloaded for the weekend and ready to go for practice and qualifying.

Starting from 31st, the trio of drivers combined to steadily move the car forward, despite track debris that damaged the front splitter. Overcoming the resulting loss of aerodynamics, the team brought the car home in 13th position in its North American debut.

“First off, hat's off to the team,” said Ecklin. “We put the No. 99 Stoner Car Care Aston Martin in front in P1, P3 and P4 for most of the last hour, and finished with a second position. And also hats off to our car for starting 31st and finishing 13th. We got acclimated to the car and were able to go out there and do some good lap times and keep it competitive, and it's a great start to the season.”

“I'm really happy for Kris and Gary and everyone at Automatic Racing,” said Kidd. “Before I got in the car we unfortunately lost more than half of the front splitter and that affects the handling, especially at a high speed track like this, so that kind of hindered out ability to go as fast as we could. We brought it home 13th which was in the top half, so I'll take it. If you told me before the race that we were going to finish in the top half with 35 cars, I would have said I'll take it! But the new car is awesome and it's definitely going to be very quick. I'm really happy with the car and huge advancement forward.” 

“The car was amazing,” said Abdolvahabi. “To come off a plane on Sunday, go straight to the track and then finish 13th in a field of this talent, and to have our sister car finish second, it was a great day. This version of the Aston Martin is very aero dependent, so damaging the front splitter really hurt our chances, but it is such a well-balanced car that we were still able to drive it. But the job this team did to get the car ready to go was great – but then again, this Automatic Racing team has always been like this. The No. 99 car is an older lady and finished P2. For us, we had our problems but still beat half the field and that is a testament to the team.”

The No. 09 Invisible Glass Aston Martin saw the most circuitous route to the finish. Drivers Dale Katechis (in his first Daytona race) and Mikel Miller (in his third) worked what magic they could throughout the race, despite twice having to take to pit lane after suffering from contact early in the race. The pair fought their way through the field to bring the car home in 23rd position.

“I got hit from behind in Turn 3 on the start, then again in the Bus Stop on a restart,” said Katechis. “At that point, it was just matter of holding it together. The track got a bit gooey about an hour into, but the car still performed great. My goal was to bring the car back, have some fun and gain some experience and I’d say all three goals were met.”

Team manager David Russell, spotting for the No. 09, had a birds-eye view of the entire race, and was impressed with the entire effort.

“I was trying to keep an eye on the car I was spotting for, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the No. 99 car and that four-way battle over the final 30 minutes!” said Russell. “We were a sitting duck there at the end, because we just don’t have the pace of the McLaren, but we proved today just how durable and consistent the Aston Martin is. We’re so proud for the team, for Stoner Car Care and Invisible Glass, and for the entire team did in the cars’ preparation. It sounds cliché, but this was a result of the massive team effort at the shop and the effort they put into it. To add a third car, and a new car to boot, I’m so proud of this team.”

Next up - Sebring early next month.

Source material - Stoner Car Care Racing

Photo credits - IMSA

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