LEEDS, Ala., April 22, 2017 - The young racing driver, Kris Wright, turned heads Friday and Saturday with two thrilling performances during the debut of the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda series at Barber Motorsports Park. The 22-year-old driver from Pittsburgh, Pa., qualified second in the Mazda Prototype Challenge (PC) class for both 45-minute races, led three laps, and spent most of both races in second place before crossing the finish line in seventh on Friday and fourth on Saturday. He might very well have been on the podium in both races had he not spun on the last lap of the first race going for the lead, and the second race had not ended under a full-course caution flag.
Wright qualified only 0.251 off the class pole for Friday's race around the 17-turn, 2.38-mile road course near Birmingham, Ala., in his JDC Motorsports No. 7 Élan DP02, which is sponsored by PPG. He ran in second place in class for the first six laps, and then took the lead on lap seven by passing the polesitter and eventual class winner, Kyle Masson. The latter has much more experience in PC than Wright has, as he finished fifth in this series last year and he won his class (PC) at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and at Sebring earlier this season.
Wright, who was competing in only his third Prototype Challenge race ever, held the class lead for three laps until Masson regained the lead on lap 10. Wright continued to hold second place until the very last lap, lap 28, when he slipped to seventh in class.
"I made a move to get the lead on the last turn of the last lap, and just spun," said Kris Wright during a post-race interview. "I wish we could have finished a bit higher but sometimes that's the way it goes in racing."
On the previous lap he had passed the LM P3 car of Lonnie Pechnik to put him right on Masson's car's rear, and two other LM P3 cars were wedged between Wright and third place in the PC class. The podium finish was certainly deserved and looked certain, but he had to settle for a top-10 finish of seventh.
He started second in class again on Saturday, and Wright, who is coached by veteran Nic Jonsson, held that position comfortably for the first 19 laps. During most of the 27-lap race he was only about a second behind the class leader and more than 12 seconds ahead of third, which was his JDC Motorsports teammate, Tazio Ottis.
The first full-course caution flew on lap 14 for a car that had spun off course. On the ensuing restart on lap 19 many competitors abandoned the lines they'd been taking in an effort to get ahead when the green dropped and the field was packed up, causing others to go off course to avoid being hit. One of those drivers was Wright, who slipped from second to seventh in class in the melee to avoid a collision.
He didn't give up, however, and moved from seventh to fourth in class on lap 21 right before another full-course caution was displayed on lap 22 that made the race end under yellow when time ran out on lap 27 of the 40-minute race. One of those positions was due to attrition (Gary Gibson's car was stuck in a gravel trap), but the other two were gained by passing Brian Alder and Michael Chlumecky. Wright very well could have been on the podium if the race had restarted, but he still had a top-five finish of fourth during his second Prototype Challenge weekend ever.
Wright also competed in two 30-minute races at Barber in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. For that doubleheader he drove the No. 34 John Cummiskey Racing (JCR) entry sponsored by PPG Paints, American Financial, and MasterTech.
He bettered his starting position by four places in the first USF2000 race on Friday afternoon. He started 17th and finished 13th in the 19-lap contest.
He advanced one position when another driver received a penalty, and he moved into 15th position on lap six when he passed Moises de la Vara. He rose two positions to 13th place on lap 14. His teammate, Bayley Mickler, who had been 11th, got off course in Turn 5 due to contact, which gave him one position. He advanced the other position when Lucas Kohl was penalized for the contact with Mickler.
The first lap of Saturday's USF2000 race was marred by three separate accidents involving five drivers. Wright started 15th but he dropped to the rear, 19th, in order to not become involved in the fracas. Half of the timed race was lost due to that yellow, but he moved up to 17th on lap 14 before dropping back to 19th on the last lap, lap 17.
"Being a rookie in this series, it's very beneficial to run with people constantly, work on racecraft, and look for weaknesses," Wright said. "I was always putting pressure on the drivers in front of me. It's all a big learning curve for me, but progress keeps being made. It's all good experience. It was a really busy weekend and I learned a lot. I'm excited to do another double weekend if I get the chance. It was really good, hard racing. We learned a lot."
All four races supported Sunday's Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Verizon IndyCar Series race.
Delayed television coverage of the IMSA Prototype Challenge races will air May 4 on Fox Sports 2 (FS2). The broadcast will also be available on YouTube 24 hours after it airs on television.
The next USF2000 doubleheader is on the road course at the Indianapolis (Ind.) Motor Speedway May 11-13. The next Prototype Challenge event is June 29-July 2 at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, N.Y.