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Lopez Keeps Title Hopes Alive in Wild SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am Series Race at VIR

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ALTON, Sept. 13, 2010: The battle for the 2010 SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am Series championship will go down to the season finale at Road Atlanta on Oct. 1 following a wild finish in the series’ penultimate round at Virginia International Raceway on Sunday.

RJ Lopez, of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, took the lead after making contact with race- and championship-leader Tony Ave, of Maiden, N.C., in Turn 14 on the final lap of the 28-lap race and went on to take the victory by 2.713 seconds over Ave.

After the race, however, series officials penalized Lopez 10 points and $500 for what was determined to be an unsafe pass, and Ave was also fined $500 for body contact between his car and Lopez’s after the checkered flag. As a result, Ave now leads Lopez by 135 points in the driver standings, 1,146-1,011, and needed a lead of 139 points following the VIR weekend to clinch the title.

Driving the No. 6 Disco 106/ECR Engines/Chevrolet Corvette, Lopez started second and picked up the second victory of his Trans-Am Series career after scoring his first win earlier this summer at Toronto. Today’s victory was Lopez’s seventh podium result in nine races this season.

“It was definitely exciting,” Lopez said. “The crew did a helluva job getting the car together. We tried a pretty different setup than we’d run all year and it really seemed to work. I mean, the car really responded differently than it has all season. It was just a different driving style and I could really make it do whatever I wanted.

“In the race, basically, I was just running a pace behind Tony. He was able to pull away a little bit and we were just able to stay at a certain pace. I was conserving tires. I could feel the rears going away from pretty early on in the race. I just kept adjusting my bars accordingly. It just came down to conserving tires and it seems like Tony may have been spinning tires a little bit more than I was. We were able to catch him. The last six laps or so, we were gaining on him. On the last lap there, getting onto the back straight, we had a pretty good run on him. It was a racing incident. I got up next to him under braking and we both got on the brakes at the same time. I already was probably half a car length behind him. The road goes a little bit to the left and neither one of us were going to give each other an inch. He obviously had to get through the corner and I wasn’t going to budge, either, so we got into each other. Unfortunately for Tony, he spun out and I was able to kind of keep going.”

Prior to the last-lap incident, Ave led every lap after starting from the pole position. He was poised to score his sixth victory of the season in the No. 4 Lamers Racing/McMahon Group/Optech/PME Chevrolet Corvette and wrap up the 2010 title. Instead, he was forced to settle for his eighth podium result in nine races this season and needs to score just four points to clinch the championship at Road Atlanta.

He could do that as early as the qualifying session for the season finale. Ave has qualified on the pole six times this season and started from the pole at VIR based on championship points when Saturday’s qualifying session was rained out.

“I could definitely feel through the esses and the downhill onto the pit straight, we were using the tire more than I had hoped,” said Ave. “After I led halfway, that was three more points (for leading the most laps), so I thought that was good. I thought he was actually going to catch me before he did, but I was able to keep that gap until three to go. I was having a hard time, doing the best I could to just sort of keep in front of him. In fact, out of the Oak Tree (Turn 11), the tires spun pretty hard.

“My dad was back there spotting, and we thought we’d be OK, but I guess I had to be further away to keep him from running into me. That’s the way it goes. It was exciting for everybody watching, and that was more important, I guess, than our feelings. I’m a big, big proponent of Trans-Am. I want people to like it. They’ll probably like that kind of stuff, so we’ll work our issues out. Hopefully, everybody had fun watching it anyway.”

Making just the second Trans-Am Series start of his career, Doug Harrington, of Kemah, Texas, earned his first podium result with a third-place run in the No. 00 Pinnacle Autosports Chevrolet Corvette. Harrington worked his way up from eighth on the starting grid and took over third place from Amy Ruman, of Kent, Ohio, with four laps remaining when Ruman pulled her No. 23 McNichols/Goodyear/Cenweld Chevrolet Corvette off course with mechanical problems.

Harrington finished 14th in his lone previous Trans-Am Series start at Road America in June. He became the eighth different driver to finish on the top-three podium in Trans-Am competition this season.

“It felt really good just to be able to race,” said Harrington. “We were concerned up until late last night that we weren’t going to get on the track. We had a lot of mechanical difficulties, but my crew worked late and put the car together well. They put a good car together. Getting out on the track, it was slick. I tried to just be consistent, which was the key. There was a lot of dirt thrown up on the track. I was trying to stay in front of some guys and not look in my rearview mirror too much. One by one, I saw the guys in front of me either having a problem or off the track and I knew we had a shot if we could just hang on. I was real happy that the engine made it. I was happy that our brakes held on well and we held onto our tires and just stayed on the track and stayed focused and didn’t get too hot.

“I actually was debating if I was going to run the Atlanta race or not, and of course this is like anything else, once you get a taste of it, you get a bigger appetite for it. I’m pretty psyched about it.”

Bobby Sak, of Kalamazoo, Mich., finished fourth in the No. 17 The Pita Pit/The Grotto at Capone’s Chevrolet Corvette in his second Trans-Am start of the season. He finished sixth last weekend at Brainerd. Simon Gregg, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., finished fifth in the No. 59 Derhaag Motorsports Chevrolet Corvette for his third straight top-five result and his sixth top five in nine races this season.

Tomy Drissi, of Hollywood, Calif., finished sixth in the No. 5 Unstoppable Jaguar XKR, which eliminated the 2009 Trans-Am Series champion from scoring a repeat title. Ruman, who was going for her fourth-straight podium result, wound up eighth.