The Riley Motorsports crew rode a roller coaster of emotions during Saturday’s four-hour IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Watkins Glen International which ultimately ended with the best emotion of all — joy — at the end of the Tioga Downs Casino Resort 240.
The race didn’t start off according to plan for the No. 35 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT4 as the car was collected in multiple incidents; but the team continuously bounced back to remain in the hunt for the Grand Sport (GS) win.
Running second with just over 40 minutes left, Dylan Murry brought the car to pit lane for its final stop behind leader Devin Jones in the No. 82 BimmerWorld Racing BMW M4 GT4. The Riley Motorsports team executed a flawless pit stop that swapped the two cars’ positions.
The deciding factor would be rain, which began falling all around the circuit just before the round of final pit stops. Both leaders opted to stay on slick Michelin tires, while much of the rest of the field didn’t and switched to Michelin’s rain tires.
Following a restart with 15 minutes remaining, cars with rain tires quickly moved up the running order, gaining multiple positions on the first lap over cars with slicks. A few minutes later, however, the rain stopped and the track dried quickly. In an incredible show of strategic driving, racecars searched for the lines on track that suited their specific tires.
The Riley Motorsports Mercedes plummeted down the order after the restart but slowly made up ground as the track dried. Murry battled through the field, ultimately passing the No. 69 Motorsports In Action McLaren GT4 of Corey Fergus -– which was running on rain tires –- with five minutes to go, and sailed away for the team’s first Pilot Challenge win.
It was also the first series win for all three drivers – Murry, James Cox and Jeroen Bleekemolen as well as team owner Bill Riley.
“It was really stressful at the beginning,” said Murry, whose father, David, is a two-time winner at Watkins Glen. “We went in and that first pit stop that I made while I was driving the car, we put on two new left side Michelin tires. I was like, ‘Okay, maybe it’s the right choice; maybe it’s not’ as we had a little over half an hour to go. But it turns out there was a caution in the rain and we didn’t put on rain tires. That was definitely the right choice. And, I’m blown away by Riley Motorsports — Jeroen, Jim and everybody. This is special for me. To be racing in my dad’s footsteps is even more special.”
“It’s great racing here in the Pilot Challenge,” said Bleekemolen, who also drives for Riley Motorsports in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona (GTD) class. “There’s a lot of cars this year, so it’s a big competition. Jim and I were really struggling to watch at the end.
“But, yeah, Dylan did an amazing drive at the end. You just know how hard it is for a driver to stay out of trouble knowing that the people on wets are going to be quicker for a few laps. And it might come your way, or it might not. There’s a lot of uncertainty there. You just don’t know what’s going to happen and you’ve got to stay on track and pick the moments when to pass and all of that. So, it was really tough to watch, but he did it.”
BimmerWorld’s Jones –- and co-driver James Clay, who left after his stint to catch a flight to Colorado Springs, Colo., to compete in tomorrow’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb –- wound up second after leading the most laps on the day at 49.
Jeff Westphal held on in the No. 39 Carbahn Motorsports Audi R8 GT4 for a third-place finish with co-driver Tyler McQuarrie, the third consecutive podium for the team.
With 35 minutes remaining in the Tioga Downs Casino Resort 240, it was hard to imagine the No. 73 L.A. Honda World Honda Civic TCR would salvage even a finish in the TCR class at Watkins Glen International, let alone a podium.
Mat Pombo proved otherwise.
Pombo’s Honda Civic TCR –- which he co-drives with Mike LaMarra –- was a victim of racing in the rain on slick tires, skating into the Turn 11 barriers alongside a GS car to bring out a full-course yellow.
Running second at the time, Pombo was able to gather himself up, rejoin without losing a place and carry on as the race restarted with approximately 15 minutes left.
Not having changed tires, the No. 73 Honda suffered early on the restart and Pombo watched the No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Veloster N TCR driven by Mark Wilkins pull away on wets. But, the track quickly dried, and conditions came back to favor L.A. Honda World.
After trailing the Hyundai by more than five seconds at one point, the No. 73 soon captured the lead and sped off to an impressive 21-second victory.
“I actually wrecked today and still won! You know somebody’s looking out for you when that happens,” said Pombo. “It caught me off guard on that last turn; it was just a lot of rain. I saw it in front of me and slowed down way more than I had before, but there just wasn’t any grip. The hardest part wasn’t the hit; it was trying to find reverse. Once I got going and we didn’t lose a lap, I knew we’d be in good shape. Today was more about everyone else than it was about me, to be honest.”
This is the third consecutive year that a Pombo has been atop the podium at Watkins Glen. Mat won in 2017 with the MINI JCW Team in the ST class, while his brother, Mark, took the same victory one year later.
Wilkins and co-driver Michael Lewis — the TCR-class polesitter for Saturday’s race — finished second just one race after collecting Hyundai’s and Bryan Herta Autosport’s first Pilot Challenge victory at Mid-Ohio in May.
Sneaking in to earn their second straight podium finish was the No. 61 Roadshagger Racing by eEuroparts.com Audi RS3 LMS TCR of Gavin Ernstone and Jonathan Morley.
The NBCSN television broadcast of the Tioga Downs Casino Resort 240 will air on Thursday, July 11 at 6 p.m. ET.
The IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge has a quick turnaround for its upcoming race, to be held next weekend (July 5-7) at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. The Saturday, July 6, race starts at 1:55 p.m. ET, and can be streamed live on IMSA.tv with IMSA Radio commentary.
For news and updates on Pilot Challenge, please visit IMSA.com or join the conversation on social media using the hashtags #IMPC or #IMSA.