Murillo, Szymczak break through for first Pilot Challenge win
Kenny Murillo moved from third place to first in the space of a single lap 35 minutes into the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca 120 on Saturday, and co-driver Christian Szymczak preserved that lead in the No. 72 Murillo Racing Mercedes-AMG GT GT4 until the end of the two-hour IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race to claim the overall victory and Grand Sport (GS) class honors.
Fastest qualifier Austin McCusker led from the start in the No. 19 van der Steur Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT4 but encountered Touring Car (TCR) class traffic coming down the hill from WeatherTech Raceway’s famous Corkscrew on Lap 23. That allowed Murillo, who had passed Eric Filgueiras (No. 28 RS1 Porsche 718 GT4 RS Clubsport) for second place earlier the same lap, to make an over-under move on McCusker in Turn 11.
Murillo’s Mercedes exited the tight left-hand corner level with the Aston Martin, then he pulled ahead under acceleration up the front straight while Filgueiras followed Murillo past the compromised McCusker into second place.
Szymczak took over the No. 72 from Murillo for the final 55 minutes, reclaiming the lead with 35 minutes remaining when the No. 39 CarBahn with Peregrine Racing Porsche, running an alternate strategy with drivers Sean McAlister and Jeff Westphal, made a second planned stop during the only full-course caution of the event.
The No. 72 Mercedes was unchallenged in the closing laps, with Szymczak winning by 1.876 seconds over Stevan McAleer in the No. 28 Porsche. Daniel Morad drove a storming final stint to advance to third place in the No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes shared with Russell Ward. Mercedes-AMG also claimed fourth place with the No. 27 Lone Star Racing entry driven by Anton Dias Perera and Scott Andrews.
It was the first Michelin Pilot Challenge win for Murillo and Szymczak, who earned a pair of podium finishes in 2022. The duo led 29 of 41 laps of the Alan Jay Automotive Network 120 at Sebring International Raceway in March, only to be eliminated by contact in the final corner of the last lap, dropping them to 18th place in class. On Saturday at WeatherTech Raceway, they led 35 of 74 laps, including the last 23.
The victory vaulted them from sixth to first in the GS standings with a 40-point lead over Dias Perera, Andrews and the No. 27 Mercedes.
“The monkey is off our back!” exclaimed Murillo, the 26-year-old son of Murillo Racing team owner Ken Murillo. “Just really happy; the Murillo Racing crew really deserves this result. It’s been a long time coming, and hopefully we can follow these results. I’m just lost for words. My stint was exciting towards the end, and Christian did a great job to bring it home.
“What an incredible weekend,” he added. “I’ve been coming to IMSA races with my father for probably 15 years, and I’ve always dreamed of winning in IMSA. To get that monkey off our back is an incredible feeling.”
“No better place to win — this track is home to me,” added California native Szymczak. “I didn’t know we could win, honestly. But now I know.
“Those were the longest 40 or 50 minutes of my life,” he added of his climactic stint in the car. “I didn’t know this race would pan out the way it did without many yellows, and that helped our car and our platform shine. We did the best we could, and we just happened to do it right today.”
Wilkins holds off former co-driver Wickens for TCR victory
The battle for victory in Touring Car (TCR) came down to two familiar drivers and one familiar team.
Mark Wilkins held off a late challenge from his former co-driver, Robert Wickens, to claim the class victory in a battle between two Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian entries.
Wilkins and current co-driver Mason Filippi teamed to bring the No. 98 BHA Hyundai Elantra N TCR home in front of the No. 33 BHA Hyundai Elantra N TCR shared by Wickens and Harry Gottsacker. The victory put the No. 98 entry 60 points ahead of the No. 33 after three races.
“I’m proud of this team,” said Wilkins, who teamed with Wickens to win twice last year. “Robert was pushing me hard, and I wanted to try to keep a gap, but he kept closing in and trying to get a bit more. … It was cued up perfectly. This is special.”
After Filippi wrested the lead from Gottsacker near the end of their opening stints, Wickens pursued his former partner throughout the second half of the race, all while being chased by Ryan Eversley. Eversley held on for third place in the No. 37 LA Honda World Racing Honda Civic FL5 TCR, the car making its series debut that co-driver Mat Pombo had put on the TCR pole Friday.
For Filippi, the victory reiterated the bond between the new teammates.
“We’re super stoked that we got paired up together this year,” Filippi said. “We’ve got a bit of that mojo. We text each other every day. It just kind of follows into race weekend. We’re always ready, always prepping and competing with each other.”
The Michelin Pilot Challenge season resumes June 3 for the GS class at the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic in Detroit. Both the GS and TCR classes are in action June 24 in the Watkins Glen International 120.