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O’Connell Gives Cadillac A Victory

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 1 2011

Johnny O'Connell wins one for the home folks. (File photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Hometown star Johnny O’Connell scored a pole-to-checkered flag victory in Friday’s Cadillac Road Atlanta Grand Prix in Flowery Branch, Ga., capping Team Cadillac’s successful road-racing return to the 2011 Pirelli World Challenge series.

O’Connell, driver of the No. 3 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, led all 29 laps/73.66 miles from pole in the season-ender to claim his second victory while also locking up second place to Porsche’s Patrick Long in GT Series points. Meanwhile, teammate Andy Pilgrim overcame a slow start to finish third in his No. 8 CTS-V Coupe to give Team Cadillac its first double-podium in the series sanctioned by Sports Car Club of America Pro Racing.

“It’s always great to win your home race,” O’Connell said after the 50-minute event. “This being my home circuit…gosh, I know how to get around this place and if I can’t get around here, I can’t get around anywhere. These guys at Cadillac Racing have been working so hard this year, and when you finish up the season with the best car you’ve had all year _ that’s fantastic. What an amazing hot rod it was.”

O’Connell clicked-off a lap at 1:21.896 around the 2.52-mile circuit on Thursday, pipping Mike Skeen’s No. 2 CRP Racing/Cragar Wheels Chevrolet Corvette at 1:22.243. It was O’Connell’s second pole of the season. O’Connell’s 29 laps-led gave Team Cadillac 30 for the season; the only other lap the team led was the final circuit during the second race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in August, which O’Connell also won.

O’Connell held second-place finisher Skeen at bay throughout Friday’s event, which finished under yellow behind the Volkswagen Golf R safety car after a crash in Turn 11 on Lap 28. “I’ve done 11 or 12 Petit Le Mans, and you have to know how to work the traffic,” said O’Connell, who finished 0.901-seconds ahead of Skeen while averaging 88.849 mph. “I was trying to work it to make Mike’s life miserable, and I think he dealt with it really well.”

O’Connell’s pole on Thursday gave him 15 points. By leading all the laps and winning the race he overcame an 18-point deficit to Skeen to secure second in the final GT standings. Skeen closed to within a half-second just once, in the middle of the race, but O’Connell was able to pull away.

Pilgrim lined up fourth on the grid after qualifying at 1:22.577. But his car stumbled during the standing start and by time he was able to get up to speed, he had lost three spots. “The car almost stalled-out completely,” Pilgrim said. “We’ve been launching really well, but it just died for about three beats before I could get it going. I was like, ‘Oh, man…’ I knew I had to be patient the rest of the way.”

Pilgrim picked-off James Sofronas’ No. 14 GMG Porsche 911 GT3 on the first lap and got past two more cars in the next 18 laps before hooking up in fourth behind Patrick Lindsey, Skeen’s teammate in the No. 12 Hawk Performance Corvette. The two had contact at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca two weeks earlier that didn’t work out well for Pilgrim, but the former Road Atlanta winner had a plan.

“It was a long process,” Pilgrim said. “I had to see what his car was doing. He was faster than I was for the first six or seven laps and he started to pull away, but he got messed-up in traffic and I got messed- up in traffic. Once we got going, he was slowing down in some sections and I wasn’t. He got loose out of Turn 5, a big slide, and I had a run on him. I kept in it and went around the outside going into Turn 6. He raced me very fair, and I told him that after the race.”

Pilgrim said putting both CTS-V Coupes on the podium after the manufacturer’s four-year hiatus from road-racing was a team goal all season. “That was awesome,” said Pilgrim, who won at Road Atlanta in a CTS-V Sedan in 2006 and for Volvo in 2009. “It was a nice end to the season.”

A 55-year-old native of England living in Boca Raton, Fla., Pilgrim gave Cadillac its first Driver’s and Manufacturer’s championships in 2005 with the CTS-V Sedan that competed in the World Challenge from 2004-07. During his first three-year tenure with the team, Pilgrim scored three wins, 10 podium finishes and 35 top-10s. Pilgrim’s resume also includes three wins in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, two in the Petit Le Mans and one in the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

O’Connell joined Team Cadillac after a successful career with the factory-backed Chevrolet Corvette American Le Mans Series team. A three-time ALMS GT1 champion, O’Connell scored 38 career ALMS victories and a record eight 12 Hours of Sebring class wins. O’Connell’s victory in GT1 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2009 made him the first American driver to score four class wins in the French endurance classic. O’Connell also posted an overall victory in the 24 Hours at Daytona in 2001 in his debut behind the wheel of the C5-R. That was followed by Corvette Racing’s first class victory at Du Mans.

O’Connell posted two victories – his first two in World Challenge competition – eight top-five and 12 top-10 finishes. Pilgrim placed fifth in points via seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes. He has 10 career victories in World Challenge competition, in addition to his Driver’s Championship.

Finishing behind O’Connell, Skeen and Pilgrim Friday were Lindsey in fourth and GT champion Long in fifth. Long, driver of the No. 45 TruSpeed/Privacy Star/EnTrust Porsche 911 GT3, won the title with 1,327 points, followed by O’Connell (1,222), Skeen (1,197), Sofronas (1,112) and Pilgrim (968). Porsche outscored Cadillac, 78-58, in the Manufacturer’s Championship followed by Volvo (31) and Nissan (1).

O’Connell gave credit to Team Cadillac for improving the CTS-V Coupe race-by-race. “[Team manager] Steve Cole, my crew chief Mike West…they do such an amazing job,” said O’Connell, 49. “And I have to thank all the Cadillac dealers, too. You couldn’t ask for much of a better day.”

Jim Vurpillat, Cadillac global marketing director, said the results exceeded expectations. “Steve Cole and the rest of the people on the Pratt & Miller (Engineering) team that handle everything for Team Cadillac are amazing,” Vurpillat said of a program that General Motors launched in June 2010. “They are the professional’s professionals. They work so hard, they put in so much time and they kept trying and trying and the proof is here at Road Atlanta. I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys and our drivers.”

Pole-sitter Eric Foss of Dallas won the GTS race in his No. 73 TRAXXAS/St. Jude Hospital/SPX Ford Mustang FR500S. Aaron Povoledo won in Touring Car from pole in his No. 88 K-Pax Racing Volvo C30, the Canadian’s fourth victory of the season.

The Cadillac Road Atlanta Grand Prix will be broadcast on VERSUS on Oct. 29, along with the Cadillac Sports Car Grand Prix from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 1 2011
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