Rookie Driver Leads SPEED GT Into Long Beach Debut
16 Year Old Makes Debut In Porsche
Rookie Driver Leads SPEED GT Into Long Beach Debut

For the first time in its 16-year history, SCCA Pro Racing’s SPEED World Challenge will make an appearance at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. And, for the first time since 1994, a rookie leads the SCCA SPEED GT Championship, with Lawson Aschenbach coming off his maiden victory at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday.

The 22 year-old from Gaithersburg, no doubt aspired to one day compete at Long Beach, but never imagined that it would come behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 GT3 instead of an open-wheel car in either Atlantics or Champ Car.

“I always watched the race because it was such a prestigious event, but I figured I was never going to get there, never going to get to [Champ] Cars,” Aschenbach said. “When I finally started driving cars and realized I had some potential and then I thought ‘maybe this might happen.’”

SCCA Pro Racing defines a rookie as someone who has competed in no more than three SCCA SPEED World Challenge races in any given season or five in his career. Additionally, drivers with a combined 10 starts in any of a number of recognized professional racing series are not eligible for rookie status, which means SPEED World Challenge rookies are truly new to high-level professional racing.

Not since 1994, when Olimpio Alencar Jr. won the opening round of the World Challenge Championship in a Miami deluge (his only-ever series start), has anyone of that status led the SPEED GT points. Back then, you could even be a pro from another series and qualify for rookie status in World Challenge, as it was only based on participation within the series. It wasn’t until 2001, after former British Touring Car star David Leslie spent a season being called “rookie,” that the rules were tightened up to make the term reflect a newcomer to this level of professional racing. For that reason, when Max Papis, a winner at the highest levels of open wheel and sports car racing, drove in the series in 2005, he did not carry the “Rookie” designation.

Aschenbach’s career began as many aspiring open-wheelers do, in karts. By age 16, he was racing in SCCA Club Racing driving Formula Fords. Still a teenager, Aschenbach made the move to Formula 2000 cars, considered to be an entry level rung on the professional open-wheel ladder. Aschenbach experienced a modicum of success, winning the oval series Championship within a Championship. A top Atlantic ride looked possible for 2004, but it didn’t materialize. Like so many young open-wheel drivers, his career seemed to stall out when trying to jump to the next level.

“I was trying for something in Atlantic, didn’t care where or with who, but it just didn’t happen,” he said. “At the end of 2004, I sat down and had to really think about where my career was going. At that point, the open-wheel feeder program was not going anywhere. I figured I might as well try something different.”

At the beginning of 2005, Aschenbach hooked up with the east coast-based Farnbacher Loles team in the newly created Porsche GT3 Cup series that runs in conjunction with the American Le Mans Series and SPEED World Challenge at several venues throughout the country. He and teammate Ricardo Imery made their presence felt immediately. The series is designed for “gentlemen” racers. After two races, Aschenbach and Imery paced themselves right out of the series, and were encouraged to move to a series more suitable to their abilities, such as the ALMS or SPEED World Challenge.

Luckily, Farnbacher Loles was also fielding a car in SPEED GT, and both drivers had an opportunity to run twice in SPEED GT. While Imery had mixed initial results due to mechanical issues, Aschenbach shined, qualifying and running third in his debut at Denver, finishing immediately behind reigning worldwide Porsche Supercup Champion Wolf Henzler and renowned Porsche pilot Robin Liddell. Aschenbach had arrived, and quickly regained the nickname “Awesome” Lawson within the series.

In the offseason, Farnbacher Loles announced that they would not return to the series in 2006, but Liddell vacated his seat at Jon Groom Racing due to conflicts with another ride. Aschenbach met with team owner Jon Groom and took over the lead seat at the two-car team sponsored by AXA Financial. Ironically, fellow rookie Imery, 29, would once again join Aschenbach as a teammate with support from Cavenas Elevators.

“I couldn’t be happier with the switch,” Aschenbach said. “I figured that if I was going to make a career out of driving, then I had to find a new way to make it happen. If this is the way it’s going to go, then I’m all for it.”

Racing against such seasoned sports car veterans with multiple wins and championships as Tommy Archer, Ron Fellows, Lou Gigliotti and Andy Pilgrim may be intimidating for some, but 22 year-old Aschenbach, whose career seemed to be in limbo a year ago, is comfortable in his role thus far as both a rookie and the point leader.

“It’s still early in the season. You like to be leading the points, but we’re still going after race wins,” Aschenbach said. “It’s not really an intimidating situation. I’ve always been a calm person. You’ll rarely see me hyped up. I think it makes me a good race car driver. I don’t think about things like that.

“I was always open to any path that I would have to take to make it [into professional racing]. Three years ago, if you would have asked me what I would have been driving this year at Long Beach, I would have said ‘Champ Car’ because that’s where I thought I was headed. I’m happy with where I am though, I feel very fortunate.”

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