SEBRING, Fla. – When the dust settled Saturday at Sebring Int’l Raceway, Kenny Bupp, Lee Saunders, Steve Kent Jr., and Mark Boden emerged victorious in their respective classes as round one of the Trans-Am Series season.
For Kenny Bupp, the TA class victory was a career first in his 14 years and 35 starts in Trans-Am as well as his first podium appearance since finishing third at Road America in 2012. The Florida native savored the win surrounded by friends and family, 31 years after he made his first Trans-Am appearance. The victory also makes Bupp the oldest race winner in Trans-Am history at 79 years of age.
“This is absolutely incredible,” said Bupp. “To be here with so many members of our family, and all of Trans-Am, which I consider family. I first raced here at Sebring in 1982. I’ve had a ton of fun here, and in Trans-Am, for a long time but never more fun than today. It was absolutely a survivor’s race and so much of this comes down to good fortune, but the car was consistent the whole race. We ran into a little brake trouble and ended up having to pump the brakes, but they came right back. The car was perfect; my crew does such a great job, not just today but every time.”
The feel good story continues for Bupp, who races in Trans-Am in 2016 with his son Jordan, who finished 15th out of 35 entries in the earlier TA2 race.
“It means a tremendous amount to be here racing with Jordan,” said Bupp. “Two years ago Jordan had acute kidney failure at the age of 25; he thought his life was over much less his racing career. But for him to come back here, doing nine hours of dialysis ever night, and get back in a race car is thrilling to me beyond what you can imagine. We’re so blessed.”
Bupp was joined on the podium by Kerry Hit and Claudio Burtin, who finished second and third, respectively. The podiums were Hitt’s and Burtin’s first, seeing the Trans-Am veterans off to a great start in 2016.
The TA class saw a myriad of leaders over the course of the race, with R.J. Lopez, starting on pole only to encounter transmission failure on the first lap. The incident was only the first of many, setting up a revolving door of TA class leaders that would lead to Bupp’s eventual perfect storm.
Amy Ruman, defending TA class champion and pilot of the No. 23 McNichols Company Chevrolet Corvette, led thirteen of 20 laps only to fall victim to track conditions on the 15th lap, spinning on track. Paul Fix, following closely in second position, tried to avoid the incident but was forced off course and made contact with the wall, ending his day.
Cliff Ebben would inherit the lead, but only momentarily as a flat tire ended his race as well. With four laps remaining John Baucom took over first position and held it for two laps before suffering a mechanical failure of his own.
A.J. Henricksen assumed the lead for two laps of his own before the No. 44 was contacted and forced off track, ending his day and the race with time and light expiring — leaving Bupp to capture the victory.
The Trans-Am Series also debuted its new production racing formats with the TA3, TA4 and TA5 classes making their first appearances on Saturday afternoon.
In TA3, Lee Saunders, 2015 TA3 International champion, captured his third consecutive victory at Sebring in Trans-Am. However, the effort was anything but straightforward for Saunders who started the race in third position and endured a race-long battle with Randy Mueller, who led the class for the majority of the race, and pole sitter Randy Kinsland.
Saunders took the lead with three laps remaining, overtaking Kinsland for the lead, while Mueller completed a surge on the final lap to secure a second place finish, leaving Kinsland to finish third while setting the fast lap for the class, a 2:13.664.
“I’m just so thankful for the win,” said Saunders. “Thanks go out to Kevin Smith with KSR and Jamie Frytech, and my family, my mom, my wife, and my two kids for being here. It’s always an honor to win here and thank you to all our troops for their service, making it so we can do things like this in our country.”
In TA4, Steve Kent Jr. outlasted the surprise entry of Ernie Francis Jr., a two-time champion, for the win. Kent began the race on pole but was overtaken on the fourth lap by Francis, who shot forward moving up seven positions in three laps. However, Trans-Am officials ordered a drive-through penalty for Francis, ruling he jumped the start of the race, leaving him with the task of moving up through the field once more.
Kent would manage to hold on to the lead despite battling a few mechanical issues of his own, swapping positions with Brian Kleeman over the final two laps before securing the lead one last time with one lap remaining and capturing his fourth career victory.
Francis completed a final surge, moving from third to second, overtaking Kleeman, with one lap remaining as well, securing second on the podium. Kleeman, making his Trans-Am debut, finished third; while Francis also set the fast lap of the race, a 2:16.471.
“It was a tough, busy race,” said Kent. “We had the clutch go out on us but managed to hold in there and bring the car home.”
In TA5, Trans-Am rang in the addition of its Porsche exclusive class, giving Trans-Am Porsche drivers the opportunity to race on Hoosier Racing slicks rather than the DOT featured in most Trans-Am classes.
For much of the race, TA5 was the center of a three-way battle between eventual victor and pole sitter Mark Boden, his teammate Tim Kezman and Conor Flynn — all making their Trans-Am debuts.
Kezman would overtake Boden for the first two laps, but the pole sitter was able to gain advantage over his teammate on the fourth lap and retake the lead, one he held until the end of the race. Flynn overtook Kezman for second position on the eighth lap, and the three drivers continued in that order until the conclusion of the race.
For Boden, who marked his debut with a victory, the win was a reason for celebration but also a glimpse at the potential future of TA5.
“I have to thank the Fall-Line crew, the car was great,” said Boden. “This was our first race in a new Series on a new tire, and the Hoosier Tire slick was great throughout the race. And thank you to SCCA Trans-Am for having us here; I’m really excited about the TA5 class and helping to grow it and getting some more folks out here running with us.”
In total, Trans-Am saw 78 cars take the green flag in two races this weekend, setting an event record for the Series.