A Brand and A Dream: A Hard Fought Year (2007 Grand-Am KONI Sports Car Challenge)

I hope you all enjoy this recounting of Karl’s hunt for that elusive professional racing championship.  If you enjoy this telling tale of a brand and a dream, please rate/comment and pay it forward by sharing it.

My Thoughts Enclosed…Rb

2003 – The Birth of a Brand

2004 – The Up-Start Crew

2005 – Building Upon a Dream

2006 – A Partnership of Sorts

2007 – A Hard Fought Year

2007 would mark a breakout year for Compass360 now running under the banner Kensai Racing with Compass360/Racing. The racing season started off with the announcement of an extended partnership between the two teams. Skunk2 engineering would provide the engines and mechanical backbone to their Acura program.

Karl had found his ultimate Crew Chief in Ray Lee and he wanted to build upon that foundation. Together, they would be fielding two new Acura TSX with last years RSX-S making a return appearance. Having helped Acura win the Manufacturer’s Championship and showing much promise in 2006, they set their goals high for the year.

Karl paired up with Billy Johnson in the #76 for a full season schedule. This brought Karl his much sought after consistency with his weekend pairing. Travis Walker continued to run the #75 and was joined by equally fast Beau Buisson. Last year’s RSX-S would now sport the #74.

The series saw a name change to the KONI Challenge. Despite the name change, it was still run by Grand-Am and sanctioned indirectly by NASCAR.

Fresh from Florida 200 (January 25 – 26, 2007)

As with every year, the series kicked off supporting the Rolex 24 at Daytona. I made my way down to Daytona looking forward to seeing the new cars and the improved driver lineup challenge the field. Daytona was never kind to Karl and after missing last year, he was looking forward to seeing the green flag. I was very fortunate to spend the race in the pits with the team. Watching a race unfold surrounded by the energy of the team beats watching from the grounds anyday.

Qualifying saw Beau Buisson land pole position in the #75. With much fanfare, Karl qualified the #76 in second spot. Kensai Racing with Compass360 would be starting the race on the front row. Matt Pritiko found himself in twelfth in the RSX-S (his first closed cockpit race car).

Sadly, as is the case with Daytona and Karl, a front row start was not to be. Post qualifying inspection would send him to the back of the field due to an infraction on the trunk lid of his #76. He would once again start Daytona from the rear of the field.

This was starting to be a recurring situation for Karl and he was getting tired of it. Karl had learned over the years to take the fight to the track and not with the race officials. After the first hour, Karl had brought the #76 from last to third with Beau still leading the field.

Matt in the RSX-S showed increased familiarity with the car and brought the car up to fifth. However, numerous race contacts would see him lose ground going into the driver changes.

With Travis and Billy now driving the #75 and #76, we witnessed a spectacular four way fight at the front of the pack for the lead. This great battle made for great TV coverage and Speed TV did not disappoint with their coverage of the teams cars. Karl’s branding efforts for Compass360 was starting to see some serious television exposure. Such aggressive battles tend to leave the cars the worse for wear.

With only three laps to go, Travis Walker in the #75 experienced a race ending drive shaft failure. The pain on Travis’ face was clear to see as he was forced to watch his teammates battle for the lead from the pits. Travis had seen numerous missed opportunities disappear due to mechanical issues with Kensai Racing and this was starting to take its toll on him. When a teammate DNF so close to a podium, it leaves the entire team feeling their pain. As I was consoling Travis, the team had to stay focused on the real story of the day.

Billy was behind the wheel of the #76 and Karl was chewing his nails in the pits. The laps drew to a close and the checkered flag was being shown. Normally, this would see the team start to pack up their gear and make their way back to the garage. However, Daytona decided that day to reward Karl for all his hard work since 2003. Billy Johnson would take the checkered flag in first place with less than a second separating first, second and third. Karl not only got to reach the podium at Daytona, but would be standing on its figurative top step.

Seeing Karl on the podium of Daytona was an emotional moment for me and without a doubt for him as well. I had seen Karl fail to start 2003, trying valiantly in 2004, and failing to race in 2005. Seeing someone achieve their dream finish at Daytona is quite rewarding. I was glad I was there to see it having missed his first win at VIR.

Karl fully immersed himself in the moment and flung a flurry of podium hats to the crowd in celebration. Getting to watch Karl being interviewed in the same media room as past Daytona winners was a surreal experience. Last year’s RSX-S finished nineteenth. The #75 finished a heartbreaking 24th.

2007 Karl
Photo by Robert Lavigne

(2007 Fresh from Florida 200 Results)

Homestead-Miami Speedway (April 13 – 14, 2007)

Homestead saw rookie Matt Pritiko beat out the two Kensai Racing TSX in qualifying with a stunning 10th place in his RSX-S. In an early driver change, Karl passed the driving duties over to Billy in the #76. Billy brought the car up to second going into their final fuel stop. Travis, now driving the #75, was leading the race much to his joy. However, contact would see his tire deflate leaving him stranded on the track unable to finish yet again. The #75 would register a 21st and Travis would once again feel the pain of mechanical woes. Contact by another car caused the #74 RSX-S to struggle, but finish an impressive 9th. Karl and Billy left Miami still leading the championship having finished 4th.

(2007 Homestead-Miami Speedway Results)

Away from the race track, Karl won the Ontario Indoor Karting Championship. Karl had also won the series back in 2006 and was a constant presence in the series history. The karting also brought the addition of “racing in the dark” events much to the delight of the drivers. I have only karted in the dark once and it was quite a memorable experience.

Karl was now off to Iowa with over 10,000 fans gracing the stands. The team would be hounded at the hotel for autographs.

The cars showed promise in practice and Travis qualified the #75 second. Karl and Matt qualified twelfth and thirteenth respectively in the #76 and #74.

In the first corner, Travis was taken out of the race by an overzealous driver trying to pass seemingly the entire field. Another great race for Travis ended with in another DNF (24th).

Still in Homestead, Karl found himself dealing with a deteriorating driveshaft, which explained his lackluster qualifying attempt. With Billy now behind the wheel of the #76, the car soldiered on cautiously to finish ninth.

Iowa Speedway (April 20 – 22, 2007)

Matt was showing his improved skill in the #74 RSX-S by having the car in fourth. Sadly, additional mechanical problems led it to fall down to eighteenth by the end of the race. That weekend, Karl lost his lead in the championship.

(2007 Iowa Speedway Results)

Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (May 17 – 20, 2007)

A trip to Laguna Seca clearly would make up for Iowa. With track specialist Billy Johnson behind the wheel, nothing would stop Karl and the #76. Handing over the car in seventh to Billy, the #76 made good use of Billy’s knowledge of the track. Billy is also a Skip Barber instructor at the track and the ease at which he navigates the track is a sight to see.

With a strategy that put them very low on fuel at the end of the race, Billy was balancing aggression with conservation. With second and third on his heels, Billy crossed the finish line first earning Karl his second victory of the season.

Matt took the #74 RSX-S from seventeenth at the driver change to a well deserved 9th. The #74 finished 17th with Taz Harvey filling in for Travis Walker. Travis’ frustration with reliability issues led to him moving to Blackforest Motorsports to drive their #5 Mustang.

(2007 Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca Results)

Lime Rock Park (May 25 – 28, 2007)

With a victory at Laguna Seca, the team made their way to Lime Rock with high hopes. Qualifying would see one of the teams worse outings much to the surprise of the team.

The #75 qualified a team leading fourteenth. Karl in the #76 put the other TSX in seventeenth. Last years RSX-S was a distant 21st. This dismal qualifying session followed them throughout the race weekend.

Lime Rock would not be kind to the two Acura TSX. Early driver changes for both the #76 and the #75 had the two cars racing each other for position. With close quarters bringing close calls, the two TSX made contact with each other. This would lead to the #75 ending the race with a damaged radiator (27th). The contact also led later to an overheating engine in the #76 due to a cracked header. This marked Karl’s first DNF (21st) of the season in the #76.

Rookie Matt Pritiko continued to show promise during the race by finishing eight.

(2007 Lime Rock Park Results)

Mosport International Raceway (June 15 – 17, 2009)

With the disappointment of Lime Rock behind them, the team traveled back to their home track Mosport.  Karl had performed numerous laps around Mosport.

I was unable to attend the race that weekend. I did however drop by on the way to Ottawa on the Friday. It is quite a shame really as Karl and Mosport work so well together. The Toronto Star shared my insight and wrote an article on Karl and Compass360.

With the championship taking form at the midway mark, it looked like it would come down to a close fight between Karl and Billy in the #76 and Trevor Hopwood and Adam Burrows in last years championship winning Turner Motorsports. Mosport would prove how true this was to become.

Karl would bring in the #76 for a driver change in fifth. An off, in world famous Corner Two, by Billy would see him fall back to fifteenth during the race.

With passion in his eyes, Billy would overtake one car followed by another until he was in second. With a last lap pass, Billy Johnson overtook Trevor Hopwood for first. This would give Karl and Billy their third win of the year. This put them within one point of the championship lead.

Beau Buisson in the #75 finally finished a race with the team in fifth. This was admirable considering the car had a major accident in practice requiring quite a bit of repair.

Matt and Dave Ciekiewicz would pilot the #74 RSX-S to eleventh after a green flagged pitstop. The weekend would mark all three Kensai Racing with Compass360 cars finishing the race for the first time this season.

(2007 Mosport International Raceway Results)

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (June 21 – 24, 2007)

The racing gods must have been vexed with Kensai Racing with Compass360 recent success going into Mid-Ohio. The weekend started well with the #75 qualifying on the front row and the #76 of Karl in sixth. The RSX-S however qualified at the back of the field in 22nd.

Very quickly the #75 took the lead with both the #76 and the #74 making up ground. Going into the keyhole, Karl was squeezed off track by another car and ran afoul of the #95 BMW.  Contact between the two championship rivals would see Karl’s suspension collapse on impact. After much work on the part of the team, Billy was sent out with a misaligned #76 to secure valuable championship points. While in 29th, a failed driveshaft ended the weekend for Karl.

David would bring the RSX-S from the back to seventh going into his driver change. Matt got tangled with another car later in the race and would slam the tire wall ending the race in 31st.

Beau in the #75 was involved with a Roar Racing RX-8 in the carousel causing damage to the front left hub. After forging on, the #75 finally failed on Lap 54 finishing 28th.

From zero DNF in the last race to three DNF, the team was happy to see Mid-Ohio in their rear view mirror.

(2007 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course Results)

Watkins Glen International (July 6 – 7, 2007)

The anger of Mid-Ohio would be wrought upon Watkins Glen. After their collision at Mid-Ohio, the race would see Turner Motorsports and Karl fighting for every corner. Billy once again performed a last lap pass for the lead. A fourth win in one season showed the racing community a much improved team. Watkins Glen saw Karl and the team retake the championship lead.

Matt brought the #74 up to fourth when the car started to lose horsepower. His Co-Driver for the weekend would manage to keep the car in the top ten with a ninth.

Another front row start by the #75 would see the TSX be pulled mid-race with a failing engine giving it an eighteenth.

(2007 Watkins Glen International Results)

Barber Motorsports Park (July 19 – 22, 2007)

A trip south to Alabama would start badly and end with the team scrambling again for the championship lead. In practice at Barber, Karl hit the wall missing out on valuable setup time. An all green-flag race would make Karl thirteenth qualifying position problematic.

Billy was up to the challenge and was outpacing the leaders in his hunt for much needed points. Billy would almost reach sixth, but would have to settle for seventh. This was no small feat seeing Billy was also racing in another car that same weekend.

Beau Buisson in the #75 finished ninth. Matt who had outqualified both TSX brought the car up to third going into the driver change. However, Matt would have to settle for 12th when the race was over.

(2007 Barber Motorsports Park Results)

Le Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres (August 17 – 19, 2007)

Trois Rivieres is a special track for both Kensai Racing and Compass360. It is considered the teams second home track. Karl was now also sporting a new orange on black livery on the #76 giving hint to next year’s plans. Karl and the team headed into the race weekend with the goal of reclaiming their lead in the championship.

Benoit Theetge, a local favourite, qualified the #75 TSX fourth. Karl again qualified the #76 thirteenth with only one second effectively separating the top 15 cars, which happened to be the #74.

The championship rivals fought pace for pace and strategy for strategy that weekend. Karl however would edge them out by finishing second. This was not enough to reclaim the championship lead.

Matt continued to impress in his rookie season by earning 4th. A broken rear hub would see the #75 end the race missing a wheel in thirteenth.

(2007 Le Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres Results)

Miller Motorsports Park (September 12 – 15 , 2007)

With only two races left in the season and four points behind Turner Motorsports, the team headed to Miller Motorsport Park. The higher altitude of Utah always prove difficult when tuning normally aspirated race cars. The very long 23 corner track tends to reward turbos and superchargers. The cars would qualify surprisingly well with the #75 fourth, the #76 fifth, and the #74 eight.

With a failed ABS, Karl would pit early turning the car over to Billy. Matt in the #74 would DNF with another broken drive shaft (24th). Billy would spend the race hounding Hopwood in the #95 Turner BMW. By running a different strategy, the #75 led for a lap going into a caution. With a last dash of fuel, the #76 and the #95 returned to the track seconds apart. The race ended with Johnson in seventh just behind their championship rivals. The #75 would be in eight with the RSX-S ending in 24th with another failed drive shaft.

(2007 Miller Motorsports Park Results)

VIR Twin 6 Hour Enduros (October 5 – 7, 2007)

Trailing the driver’s championship by only five points, Karl had much on his mind. VIR had shown him a great weekend with his first professional win. It also suffered him horrible weekends. What kind on weekend did VIR have in mind for Kensai Racing with Compass360.

Daytona had been finally conquered. Both drivers won their home tracks (Laguna Seca and Mosport). Even The Glen bowed down to the #76 of Karl Thomson and Billy Johnson. Yet as racing luck would leave it, they were still the underdogs of the championships going into the series finale at VIR.

Billy was running second at the beginning of the race. The #76 started dropping fluid and put it back. Adam Burrows, in the #95, was now running fifth position with Billy in front of him. The RSX-S pulled off course while leading the race. Billy was now in fifth with the #95 in third. A rare mistake by Burrows allowed Billy to pass him for fourth. Billy was now spraying fuel onto the windshield of the #95. The team begged their case for an overflow and a black flag was avoided.

Aaron Povoledo reported that the #74 could no longer can turn right, while on a caution lap. On Lap 39, Billy took charge for the lead. Guy Cosmo proceeded to take it right back. Shane Lewis storming from the back past both of them. With some repairs, the RSX-S returned from the pits only to drop fuel on the track.

Lap 55 saw both teams make driver changes putting Karl in the #76. The #69 Mazda made contact with Karl at the two and half hour mark. With the Turner BMW now in first and Karl in third, the hunt for the championship would have to be earned lap for lap. After 100 laps of racing, the #75 was leading the race with the Turner car in second. The #95 was now followed by Matt Plumb now racing the #76. Two laps later, Matt would be in the pits with a leaking brake system.

After six laps of repairs, Billy returned to the track in seventh. The #75 was still leading the race at the hands of Beau Buisson. The #74 was still suffering from fuel leakage and spent more time in the pits. The Turner BMW started falling backwards in the field. Things were looking up for the #76 now in fourteenth.

The six hour race came to an end and so did Karl’s quest for the championship. Karl and the #76 TSX would end the race in twelfth  The #95 fought back to finish the year on the podium in third.

The #75 would cross the line in seventh having fought all year for respect.The tired RSX-S would end the race in 23rd. Perhaps to old for its young aspiring driver lineup. The #74 saw quite the rookie talent behind the wheel that year.

(2007 VIR Twin 6 Hour Enduros Results)

2006 Season Enclosed Thoughts

Early contact with aggressive drivers early in the season would hurt Karl the most that year.  Mid-Ohio would prove to be the point of no return for his quest for a championship. The track schedule favoured the front-wheeled Acura early in the season. The second half of the season would reward the rear-wheeled BMW.  Sixteen points defined the season.

Adam Burrows and Trevor Hopwood were crowned the 2007 Grand-Am KONI Challenge Series Driver Co-Champions. Turner Motorsport won the Team Championship. Karl and Billy’s wins would bring Acura yet another Manufacturer’s Championship.

That year, Karl Thomson and Billy Johnson won more races than any other duo or team in the series. Yet, their valiant wins were not enough to secure the championship. Only sixteen points Karl wanted the top podiums at the races and at the banquet. He had to feel somewhat compensated securing second in the Championship in only his three full season of competition.

Of equal note, the manufacturers had to thank Karl for three back to back championships years (2005 BMW, 2006 Acura, 2007 Acura). In Las Vegas for the Banquet, a particular manufacturer would listen more attentively to Karl.

(Standings – Driver Points 2007)

2007 Grand-Am KONI Sports Car Challenge Trophies and Contributions

  • 2nd in Driver Championship – C360R Drivers Karl Thomson and Billy Johnson
  • 2nd in Team Championship – Kensai Racing with Compass360
  • Manufacturer’s Championship – Acura
  • Wins – Daytona International Speedway, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Mosport International Raceway, Watkins Glen International – Long Course

The story of Karl’s quest continues in 2008 – A Change of Focus.

2008 – A Change of Focus

My huge thanks to Kensai Racing with Compass360 driver Beau Buisson for editing and uploading the above race footage onto YouTube (please thank him by subscribing).

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5 thoughts on “A Brand and A Dream: A Hard Fought Year (2007 Grand-Am KONI Sports Car Challenge)

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