Just 0.2 Seconds Separates the Top 4 Racers in a Thrilling 2023 East Series Finale
Millville, NJ – In a fitting finale to an electric 2023 season, the top 4 finishers in the USTCC ST and SP classes finished the Feature Race in style, while recording fast laps within a razor-thin margin of 0.2 seconds.
A season highlighted by triumph and heartbreak received a spectacular sendoff as ST and SP class racers braved the autumn chill and 45 mph winds at NJ Motorsports Park’s 2-mile Lightning Circuit.
The event would not be without its challenges. Overnight rain had soaked the fast and flowing South Jersey circuit, and a dry line had only just started to appear by the time the USTCC racers rolled out for qualifying. Series newcomer Brandon Lewis and SP points leader Roger Maeda tip-toed around the cold track as they scrubbed the slippery mold release compound off their new brand-new Hankook racing slicks. Martin Szwarc tested the limits of the new brake setup on the Braci Racing Team Civic Si, while ST points leader Andrew Conner put in well-controlled laps on the same set of Hankook F200s as he had raced in Round 1.
Subaru pilot Anthony Piselli chose to skip Qualifying entirely due to the conditions. This decision would prove to be a shrewd move on Piselli’s part. Thanks to the growing size of the East Series field, the USTCC racers were set to get their own split start this round. That meant that, despite failing to set a qualifying time, Piselli would be able to start right behind his USTCC competitors.
Heat Race 1 started with a bang on the chilly track. Polesitter Brandon Lewis was caught off guard by the sudden crosswinds and cold tires, spinning his silver BMW M3 into the grass on lap 1. This triggered a pass-through-the-grass evasive maneuver from Braci Racing Team’s Martin Szwarc. Andrew Conner saw the opening and took full advantage, putting the On Q Racing 325i into the lead with Roger Maeda’s Honda Prelude and Anthony Piselli’s WRX STi close behind. The trio quickly caught the back of the Big Bore pack and started slicing through the field, until Conner was baulked by the enormous rear end of Robert Benson’s powerful 1966 Dodge Dart. Maeda pounced on the opportunity and lunged down the inside through the ski-jump Turn 5, reclaiming the overall USTCC lead on behalf of the Sportsman Class contingent.
Maeda attacked the kerbs and bounced his VTEC engine off its rev limiter in an attempt to desperately hold on to the lead. He succeeded for 6 laps – until Conner unleashed the might of his BMW S54 engine on the last corner of the last lap to take the checkered flag first.
Heat Race 2 brought a new challenger to the fore. Anthony Piselli removed the intake and turbo inlet restrictors from his Subaru’s EJ25 flat four and roared to the front of the field using the increased torque from his all-wheel-drive rally rocket. Brandon Lewis took the Sportsman class lead after a clean start, as Martin Szwarc’s Civic Si sedan climbed the Turn 5 hill sideways due to a sticky rear brake caliper. The USTCC racers fought cleanly through the late-afternoon race as they raced into the sunset. Piselli narrowly beat Conner to the line on the very last lap while Lewis outran Maeda to take the top spot in the Sportsman class. The afternoon Heat was markedly quieter than frenetic battling in the morning – All of the drivers knew that it was the Sunday Feature Race that truly counted.
And so, it would. Sunday’s Feature Race was a battle worthy of a USTCC finale. The ST and SP racers all had strong starts, which enabled a fierce battle between the top cars as they worked together to catch up with the Big Bore pack. Ford Factory Mustangs, Twin-Turbo Nissan ZXs, and E90 chassis BMWs were no match for the USTCC leaders as they started slicing through the back of the multi-class Big Bore group. Piselli’s Hawkeye GD WRX led the charge with Conner in hot pursuit while Lewis, Maeda, and Szwarc pushed their cars to the limit in a fervent fight for the SP class lead.
Then came the event that would change the complexion of the whole race – the Safety Car.
Jim Benson’s GT Camaro had spun at Turn 7 and become entrenched in the muddy runoff. The safety car came out to collect the pack, inadvertently splitting Piselli and Lewis from the rest of the USTCC field. When the field was released, Piselli and Lewis were at the back of the pack but almost a full minute ahead of the rest of the USTCC racers.
Lewis closed in on Piselli’s thundering WRX, while Maeda pushed to build a gap on Conner’s fiery red 325i. Martin Szwarc’s Civic Si started to close on the leaders, only for his engine to sputter and lose power. It later transpired that the Braci Racing team had miscalculated their fuel consumption and had run out of fuel. As the green Civic pulled into pit lane, Conner produced a well-timed attack on the StudioVRM.Racing Prelude, and Lewis closed right onto the rear bumper of Anthony Piselli’s blue Impreza.
Anthony Piselli would eventually finish first of the USTCC racers while Brandon Lewis took the SP class win with a sizeable margin. They may, however, have just been lucky. A quick look at the timesheets showed just how close the racing was – Piselli, Conner, Lewis, and Maeda all recorded fast laps within a tiny 0.2 second window. If it were not for the untimely appearance of the Safety Car, any one of them could have finished on top.
Thanks to their season-long reliability and consistent speed, Andrew Conner and Roger Maeda were crowned Super Touring and Sportsman class champions.
For the rest of the USTCC East Series teams, the development race is on. Several new teams have announced their intent to make their Pro Racing debuts in the upcoming 2024 season. Will the incoming class challenge the reigning champions for the East Series crown?
Watch this space.
Check out the Media Gallery for more photos from our 2023 East Series Finale