ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – “Exciting.” That was the word that overall and GT class winner Patrick Long, from Belleair, Fla., GTS class winner Jason von Kluge, from Ann Arbor, Mich., and Touring Car winner Lawson Aschenbach, from Darnestown, Md., each used to describe Saturday’s Acura Sports Car Challenge Presented by Pirelli, featuring 49 Pirelli World Challenge Championship cars battling on the temporary street circuit in St. Petersburg. The season-opening race was part of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Long, an accomplished sports car racing veteran but making just his second career World Challenge start, started on the pole in his No. 45 TruSpeed/Privacy Star/Entrust Porsche 911 GT3 and battled early in the race with defending GT class champion, and early leader,Randy Pobst, Mike Skeen and James Sofronas.

The four used the early part of the race to get a feel for the race and the crowded race track that featured all three Pirelli World Challenge classes running on Pirelli slick tires for the first time, a dramatic change from the treaded DOT-approved tires the series traditionally used. The intensity picked up for the front runners after race’s only full-course caution flew on lap seven for two separate incidents – a single car accident that ended the day for 15-year-old Alec Udell in the GTS No. 06 Momentum Autosports Chevrolet Camaro, and a three-car accident that collected a trio of Touring Cars (Eric Meyer’s No. 32 XOWii/Samaritan’s Feet/Delvira Mazda RX-8, Shea Holbrook’s No. 67 Lucas Oil/MyPluggz.com Honda Civic Si, and Brett Sandberg’s No. 28 Monticello Motor Club Honda Civic Si).

By the time the clean-up was finished, the scheduled 34-lap race had bumped up against the 50-minute time limit, and only eight minutes remained when the green flag flew again on lap 18.

Long brought the field to the flag followed by Skeen’s No. 2 Crager Wheels Chevrolet Corvette Z06, and the pair left third-running Pobst’s No. 6 K-Pax Racing Volvo S60 and the rest of the field behind.

Long and Skeen ran essentially nose-to-tail through traffic until the white flag came out on lap 23. Coming through the right-handed turn nine onto Bay Shore Drive, the No. 63 Venodrome Honda S2000 of Tom Felt spun just in front of the leaders. While Long narrowly avoided it, Skeen had nowhere to go and was collected, leaving him to limp home for a ninth place finish and giving Long a 4.110-second victory.

“Mike was running very strong and certainly keeping me honest,” Long said. “As we came into the back of the traffic on the last lap, the black S2000 lost it just coming out of the first of the double rights in the back session. I missed him narrowly, literally by inches, and unfortunately that left Mike with a blocked racetrack and I was able to just slither through. It was unfortunate for him, good for us, and that’s what it’s all about with multiple classes.”

Long was happy to escape with a win in the opening round and was already turning his attention to Sunday’s second race.

“It’s an exciting series, and I think World Challenge has progressed since then last time I raced here in 2006,” Long said. “The tires are one thing, the multiple class structure adds an endurance element to the track and to the race series. I think it’s a lot of fun, but its certainly challenging, especially on a street course. It’s unbelievably busy, but I have a lot of respect for the GTS and Touring Cars who have their own battle going on. There were a lot of yellow flags today, and that’s not the way we want to put on a show but hopefully we’ll run a little bit cleaner out there. It’s tough going out there, everybody is doing their best out there and we’ll try to put on a better show tomorrow.”

Skeen’s bad luck created a podium sweep for Porsche, with Global Motorsports Group teammates Dino Crescentini’s No. 4 Centric Parts/Stoptech/GMG Porsche 911 GT3 and Sofronas’ No. 4 GMG Porsche 911 GT3 finishing second and third.

Crescentini, who was running fifth under the caution, shot past Sofronas and Pobst on the restart and into turn one, leaving him in a prime position to inherit second when Skeen fell back.

“Frankly, I was stunned,” Crescentini said. “I was fine where I was and debating what gear to be in. I saw Patrick [Long] really slowed down, and I figured he was trying to pull a move on the Volvo. I went down to first, and I think that was my lucky call right there. I launched from first gear and just put the hammer down right there when the green flag came out. Before I knew it, I was like geez, I’m in third. I just rolled with it. I had warmed up my tires well in advance and my brakes were warm, and I was pretty hooked up. I just wanted to hang with the leaders for a little bit. Unfortunately for Skeen, he got hit, and what was I supposed to do? I got around the carnage, and I was in second. It was taking advantage of some bad luck that turned into a good break for me.”

Sofronas also got past Pobst on the restart and landed on the podium for the third time in as many starts at St. Petersburg.

“It came down to the restart and Patrick was going real slow, which I thought was a strategic move on his part,” Sofronas said after the race. “The Porsche is really good on the throttle, and he knew he could get a jump when it was up to him. It caused Randy to bog down on the boost, and I knew that was going to happen. I got a great run and got by Randy, and the next thing I know I look up and Dino is just hauling ass past me!

“Anyone else, I would have shut the door, but he had a great run and got by me. I was going to let Dino go after the top two guys, and I thought there were more laps left so I was just going to bide my time. Then I saw the white flag come out and I thought that was fast. I’m trying to chase down Dino, and he never put a wheel wrong the whole run. The next thing I know it’s the last lap, Skeen is turned around, I see the [local] yellow flags and jump onto the back of Dino. We got through the carnage, and finished two and three, and that’s pretty good for GMG and the Porsche sweep.”

Long pointed out that, while it certainly paid off for the Porsches, the pace of the restart was dictated by World Challenge rules and not strategy.

“It wasn’t very strategic. I had a meeting with the race director and the starter this morning to make sure I had the procedures correct in how things work here. I’m the new guy and I didn’t want to screw things up if I did lead the field around, and that ended up happening. I was told to maintain the pace of the safety car until I reached the green acceleration cone and that’s what I did. I might have caught some guys off guard, but that’s my job. There’s an array of different types of cars out there, and obviously the Volvos and the Corvettes have a lot of horsepower and I wasn’t about to give the race up. Unfortunately my teammate [Rob Morgan] got a little bit caught out by it, but I want to make it clear that it wasn’t strategic; I wouldn’t have wanted to bog his race. But it worked out great for the GMG boys, and it’s a great one-two-three for the Porsche 911 GT3.”

Johnny O’Connell, driving the No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, finished fourth in the return to the Pirelli World Challenge for the manufacturer. Cadillac was the 2005 and 2007 Manufacturers’ Champion, with Andy Pilgrim clinching the 2005 Drivers’ Champion in the previous iteration of the CTS-V racecar. Pilgrim is also back in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V Coupe and finished eighth in the opening round.

Pobst was the fifth to take the checkered flag during Saturday’s race.

In GTS, von Kluge drove his No. 19 Varsity Ford Ann Arbor/Steeda Ford Mustang Boss 302S to a 0.893-second win in his first appearance in World Challenge. Von Kluge also took advantage of the lap 18 restart, rocketing past defending GTS Champion Peter Cunnigham, Eric Foss and Paul Brown to move from fourth in class to the lead.

Brown gave chase in his Lucas Oil/K&N Filters Ford Mustang Boss 302S during the remaining five laps of the 23-lap race, while Foss and Cunningham battled for third.

With a mostly clear track after the caution period, von Kluge held off Brown and took the checkered flag.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better today,” von Kluge said. “The car worked great, the Pirellis worked great. The restart was a little bit crazy, they said there was going to be lights but there was no lights, so I just went when I saw tire smoke. The guy in front of me didn’t go anywhere and I managed to make it around him so that was nice. Unfortunately there was a lot of cautions today, but I think that helped me.

“When you come to a series like this, you have to expect the competition to be fierce. RealTime and Peter come with very well prepared vehicles, and that’s what you have to expect. The Boss Mustang really came through for me today, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

The jump on the restart earned von Kluge the Cadillac CTS-V Move of the Race award.

The battle between Cunningham’s No. 1 Acura/RealTime Racing/HPD Acura TSX and Foss’ No. 73 Traxxas/St. Jude Hospital/SPX Ford Mustang FR500S was reminiscent to World Challenge fans of several battles the pair contested in the Touring Car class during the 2009 season when Foss was on his way to the Rookie-of-the-Year title. Cunningham, the all-time World-Challenge leader in wins and a six-time champion, slipped past the muscle car on the final lap to earn the podium finish.

George Winkler piloted his No. 27 Winkler Automotive Service Ford Mustang FR500S to a fifth-place finish in the GTS class.

Aschenbach, the 2006 World Challenge GT Drivers’ Champion and 2006 GT class race winner at St. Petersburg, survived the attrition in the Touring Car field to win the race by 6.146-seconds in his No. 71 Compass360 Racing Honda Civic Si.

Starting third in class, Aschenbach spent the opening laps trailing polesitter Tristan Herbert’s No. 33 Brimtek Motorsports Volkswagen GTI and Chip Herr’s No. 07 Grid 1 Motorsports Mazda RX-8. While the two front-running Touring Cars trying to get an upper hand on the other, both ended up with flat tires that would remove each from contention. Herbert finished 13th in class, one lap down after a tire change, with Herr finishing 15th in Touring Car.

With the top two forced to pit and the three-car incident serving as a warning, Aschenbach used his experience to safely bring the car to the checkers for a season-opening win.

“It’s just great to be back,” Aschenbach said in his return to World Challenge. ”It’s an amazing series, it’s an exciting series. There’s nothing like sprint racing. It’s nice that it’s your car, it’s not two guys’ car. It’s fun. I enjoy it, especially street racing. There are so many factors in a race like this – the walls, the pavement changes, the other cars. There were so many cars on the track today, and I’m just super excited to be back. I can’t thank Karl Thompson and the whole Compass360 team for having me this year, and with this Honda I think we have a shot to race for the championship this year.

“The start was really smooth for us and the whole Touring Car class. There wasn’t much carnage where we were, a couple of GTS cars were mixing it up in front of us and that made it interesting. Chip and Tristan were going at it.Tthey were bumping each other pretty good. I was pretty happy with where I was, just watching what was going to happen. Sure enough, they ended up getting together enough to cause some flats. It’s a shame, obviously I would have liked to fight them for the race, but its part of racing. Sometimes you just have to cool down a little bit and take what the car will give you at that point and time and stay clean. It was a bit hectic, but we just tried to stay smart and keep at it.”

While Aschenbach used his series experience to earn the win, neither of the two drivers who joined him on the podium had a previous start in World Challenge. Ronald Zitza, who makes his home just a couple of hours away in Orlando, finished second in the No. 60 Zotz Racing Volkswagen Jetta. Ray Mason finished third, driving the No. 69 TLMUSA.com/Columbus Truck Honda Civic Si.

Defending GT class Team and Manufacturers’ Champion K-Pax Racing and Volvo have added the Touring Car class to their list of challenges for 2011 with a pair of K-Pax Racing Volvo C30s. Aaron Povoledo finished fourth in the No. 88 machine for K-Pax in the season-opener. Povoledo also earned the Optima Batteries Best Standing Start Award for making up the most places on the opening lap.

Patrick Seguin finished fifth in Touring Car behind the wheel of the No. 80 Theberge Homes/capsparts.com Honda Civic Si.

Devin Cates earned the Sunoco Hard Charger Award in the No. 23 Cutaway Creations/Cates Engineering Volkswagen GTI after improving 15 overall positions and finishing eighth in Touring Car.

In addition to the Pirelli tires that have lowered lap times all weekend for the World Challenge machines, a new qualifying rule for doubleheader weekends went into effect for 2011. During doubleheader weekends with just one qualifying session, the grid for the second race is set by fastest lap times during Saturday’s race.

With the fastest lap of the race in a time of 1:16.163 (85.080 mph), Pobst will start Sunday afternoon’s race from the overall and GT class pole, followed by Long, Sofronas, Skeen and Crescentini.

Brown earned the pole for the GTS class with a fast race lap of 1:23.232 (77.854 mph). von Kluge, Udell, Foss and Cunningham complete the first five in the GTS race.

Aschenbach is the only one of Saturday’s race winners to also earn the top starting spot for Sunday after a fast race lap of 1:26.653 (74.781 mph). Herr, Herbert, Sandberg and Zitza turned the next fastest times and will be the first five Touring Cars on the grid.

Pre-race ceremonies for Sunday’s Round Two is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m., with the lights out for the standing start at 4:55 (EDT).

For more information, please visit www.world-challenge.com.

Follow World Challenge on Twitter @WCRacing.

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