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Challenger Making Strides As Nastasi Team Heads To VIR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Grand-Am KONI Sports Car Challenge driver Tom Nastasi’s Dodge Challenger is less of a challenge to become a competitive race car following a series of reliability tests and simulations, as well as changes and findings, held over the past three months. Nastasi, Ian James and Erich Heuschele, Chrysler SRT Dynamics engineer and former SCCA champion, will co-pilot the No. 5 TPN Racing Dodge Challenger Sunday in the season-ending Bosch Engineering Octoberfest at VIRginia International Raceway.

The four-hour race will feature both the Grand Sport (GS) and Street Tuner (ST) classes and will start at noon.

With the announcement of the Camaro’s debut at VIR and the competitive race battles between leading manufacturers BMW and Ford (separated by only two points, 313-311) and their respective M3 and Mustang GTs, as well as the always strong Porsche 997, the Challenger has kept a low profile for much of the season.

Converting a modern street car into a race ready car required time and testing. Production calibration revisions in the engine and ABS systems had to be coordinated with hardware revisions added to the car.

High cornering loads required a dry sump lubrication system be added. This development and successful tests should elevate Nastasi and Blackforest Motorsports team from packing up and leaving before the end of practice.

The car’s only finish was a 26th in the Fresh From Florida 200 at Daytona International Speedway. The team left early from Homestead-Miami Speedway, Lime Rock Park and Watkins Glen International, and has not been back since. At VIR, however, Nastasi said he feels the car is ready to race - and this time without any problems.

“I do not expect to pack up early for this one,” said Nastasi, who has five KONI Challenge victories, including the 2005 race at VIR. “The car is still a little heavy, which can be improved in time, but the engine isn’t an issue anymore. I am expecting big things and good results now.”

In June, Nastasi took the Challenger to the Chrysler Proving Grounds near Detroit, where several engineers and workers spent their working and free time on the car. The team has tested at Roebling Road, an airport, and recently an SRT two-day track durability test at MotorSport Ranch in Cresson, Texas. During the Texas test, the team worked on the car’s brakes and setup, and simulated a three-hour race, which included pit stops and driver changes. Nastasi said the car ran flawlessly.

Now, it’s onto the 3.27-mile, 17-turn VIR, where the Challenger will go against 22 other GS entries and the likes of the Ford Mustang GT, BMW M3, Porsche 997 and the Camaro, which will be fielded by Stevenson Motorsports and driven by David Donohue and Jeff Bucknum.

In a sense, it is a return to the late 1960s and early ‘70s, where the Pony Cars, as the Mustangs, Camaros and Challengers were called, competed throughout the U.S. and Canada.

“The guys at Chrysler have been incredible to work with, and their love of racing and to see it on the track has been amazing,” said Nastasi, who hopes to have two Challengers next season in GS and possibly one in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Cask No. 16 GT class.

“We’re looking forward to having a great race at VIR, and gaining some momentum as we eye the 2010 season,” he concluded.

Dodge and Chrysler have been involved in Grand-Am several times prior to this year’s Challenger. Dodge has three Rolex Series victories, the last in 2001, and competed in the KONI ST class earlier this season with an SRT.