|Michael Hartley not only equaled Jim Stout’s pace, but clawed his way back into the GT-U championship fight with two wins during the ALMS weekend. © NARRA
Michael Hartley has broken Jim Stout’s recent stranglehold on the GT-U class, taking back to back US GT Championship wins in front of large crowds at Virginia International Raceway during the American Le Mans Series Oak Tree Grand Prix, Oct 2-5. Nathan Stokey (GT-1), Kathy Stout (GT-2), Dan Raver (GT-3) and ALMS GT-C winner Ben Keating (GT-X) also did the double. However, it was Scott Welham (GT-1) who stole the show after making heavy contact with the upper esses tire wall and landing upside down during Friday’s race. Also taking a tumble was a number of class records.
The US GT Championship is known for fielding some of the nation’s fastest cars, and that fact was reiterated this weekend with VIR’s speed trap regularly seeing the top GT-U cars in excess of 180mph. In comparison the ALMS GT cars peaked at slightly over 160mph, while even the exotic P1 prototypes only recorded 175mph. In qualifying it quickly became apparent a number of class lap records were under threat with Stout (GT-U, 1:52.615), Stokey (GT-1, 1:55.467), Raver (GT-3, 2:09.340) and Keating (GT-X, 1:56.040) all bettering the existing benchmarks. However the key lesson from the session was that Hartley appeared to have the equipment to genuinely match Jim Stout, after he missed the pole by a mere three hundreds. Come Friday’s race Hartley confirmed he expected be on Stout “like white on rice”, but as the green flag flew he went one better, leading the field into turn one after Stout’s car broke into wheel spin.
GT-1 pole sitter Stokey found himself under pressure after getting stuck behind Marc Montour (GT-U) with his mirrors full of archrival Frank Lussier (GT-1), who had quickly dispatched Keating. On lap three Harry Blazer’s Porsche (GT-1) had a monumental brake lock up into turn one. That commotion allowed Scott Welham (GT-1) to make a move on Dave Moore (GT-1) and the trio ran nose-to-tail through turns two, three and four. Into the lower esses Blazer realized he had bigger problems and slowed to let Welham and Moore though, but they concertinaed with contact occurring between Welham and Moore.
Smoke soon developed from the rear of Welham’s car as damaged bodywork began rubbing a tire. A lap later the tire deflated in the high-speed upper esses causing him to leave the circuit. Welham’s Viper made heavy contact with the tire wall and end up on its roof, but thankfully Welham walked away unharmed. A safety car period followed.
As soon as the race resumed so did the battles for GT-1 and GT-U. Stout pressured Hartley until the very last lap when, in a final attempt to take the lead, he pushed too hard and spun. Trouble restarting the car dropped him to fourth in the GT-U class, and promoted Marc Montour and Tom Antonelli to second and third.
Stokey soaked up the pressure to win GT-1 from Lussier and Moore. Keating, who also won the GT-C class in the American Le Mans Series race, was victorious in the GT-X class for spec SRT Viper ACR-Xs, with Dan Knox and David Mazyck completing the podium. Kathy Stout won GT-2.
GT-3 winner and Subaru STi WRX driver Dan Raver reset the GT-3 lap record by a staggering seven seconds to 2:06.559. In fact he was one of three drivers to smash lap records on Friday, with Lussier (GT-1, 1:54.767) and Stout (GT-U, 1:52.346) also rewriting the history books.
Jim Stout should have started from pole position, but a faulty alternator caused him to stall twice on the grid, and he limped back to pitlane as the field took the green.
With a gap in the grid, Montour managed to out drag Hartley to lead momentarily, but Hartley rectified the situation by the end of lap one. Stokey also made things right, immediately overtaking Lussier for the GT-1 lead, while Blazer found himself behind Dave Moore in a battle for third.
As the race continued second placed Lussier closed in on but never seriously threatened Stokey, who broke the GT-1 lap record with a 1:54.943 and gained his second win of the weekend. Moore, on the other hand, relinquished third place to Blazer’s Porsche. Keating was another to have a moment, but again took the GT-X victory easily over Dan Knox and Dave Mazyck. After coming in early, Mark Montour went from second behind Hartley to the third step of the GT-unlimited podium. This promoted Tom Antonelli to a deserved second place. All three were driving Dodge Viper Competition Coupes.
GT-2 and GT-3 winners, Kathy Stout and Daniel Raver were also deserved of their trophies, after each impressively set new class lap records on their way to victory. Stout pushed the GT-2 benchmark down to 1:57.442 while Raver recorded a 2:05.852 on his final tour to better his GT-3 record from Friday.
Jim Stout’s demise at VIR has given Michael Hartley new championship hopes. The fight for GT-U, along with all the other classes, will now come down to the season finale at Sebring International Raceway, November 22-24, when the US GT Championship will feature alongside NARRA’s Whelen US TimeTrial Championship.
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