After a victory and a runner-up result in last month’s season-opening doubleheader at Sebring International Raceway, 18-year-old driver Trenton Estep leads a 24-car Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama field to Barber Motorsports Park this weekend for Rounds 3 and 4 of the 16-race 2018 season.
Estep won the season-opening race on Thursday, March 15 in the No. 3 JDX Racing Porsche 911, taking the lead from Roman De Angelis nine laps into what would be a 20-lap race before the 45-minute time limit ran out. In the second race the following morning, Estep took the lead again from De Angelis with three to go, but he and the Canadian tangled in the 17th and final turn on the 3.74-mile circuit on the race’s last lap, forcing both cars to spin and giving Will Hardeman his first series victory.
Nevertheless, the youngster from San Antonio, Texas recovered to finish second and leave Sebring with the points lead in the Platinum Cup point standings for Porsche 911 GT3 Cup race cars built in the last two years. Estep is four points ahead of Hardeman, 67-63, heading into this weekend’s pair of races on the 2.38-mile, 15-turn circuit in Birmingham, Alabama as part of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama race weekend.
“This year has brought some new guys in,” said Estep of his 2018 competition. “For example, Roman De Angelis, he’s also a really good friend of mine and an unbelievable competitor. Last year, it was the most competitive year to date for GT3 Cup and I think this year has topped it. There’s definitely a long season ahead of us and we’ll just have to see how it goes.”
This year is Estep’s second in the GT3 Cup Challenge USA. Originally, he was on a path that may have seen him competing in one of the other events on the Grand Prix of Alabama weekend, but he made a big decision heading into 2017. That decision ultimately placed him with JDX Racing and team founder and co-owner Jeremy Dale.
“It’s kind of a funny story how we got in touch with Jeremy,” Estep said. “He was actually asking me to do his (SCCA) Formula 4 program. I managed to win a championship and we were looking for teams and Jeremy contacted us to run the F4 program, but I was in the middle of the Mazda Road to Indy stuff.
“I had to foresee my future and didn’t have enough funds to continue up the ladder. It takes a lot of financial backing to do so. Through my research and just being at races, sports cars offered more opportunity, so that was my response to Jeremy. I said, ‘Thank you but no thank you. We’re going to look to go the sports car route.’ He said, ‘Well that’s perfect. I have a Porsche GT3 Cup team that I’d like you to look at.’”
With that, Estep’s GT3 Cup Challenge USA and sports car career were both underway. He joined JDX for the 2017 season and finished third in the final Platinum Cup season standings, scoring victories at Circuit of The Americas and Road Atlanta.
He also finished on the podium in both races at Barber last year with a third-place result in Race 1 and a second place in Race 2. He’s looking forward to applying what he learned last year, and in a preseason test earlier this year, when he returns to the track this weekend.
“We did some preseason testing up there in Barber beforehand and we found some stuff out that we didn’t find out last year, so I think we have a really strong car this year,” said Estep. “Hopefully, I can just do my job and we can walk out with a win.”
It’ll be easier said than done, though, with a strong field of competitors. In addition to Hardeman, who’s looking to build a winning streak in the No. 19 Moorespeed Porsche, he’s likely to have his hands full with De Angelis in the No. 1 Kelly-Moss Road and Race entry with strong local support from the Children’s Hospital of Alabama.
De Angelis led the most laps in both races at Sebring and is looking to avenge the fact that he’s still winless on the season. There are others as well.
“Anthony Imperato [in the No. 91 Wright Motorsports entry] is always at the top of the time charts as well,” Estep said. “We have a good group of guys. It’ll be a strong season, for sure.”
Having made the decision to pursue a career in sports car racing, Estep is hoping to parlay success in the GT3 Cup Challenge USA into even bigger things going forward.
“My goal is definitely to stay in sports cars and move up the ranks through there,” he said. “My goal is to be – hopefully one day – a Porsche factory driver or a factory driver for any major car manufacturer.”
He won’t have to wait long for his next chance to impress his prospective future employers. After a pair of practice sessions on Friday, Saturday’s schedule opens with a 15-minute qualifying session for GT3 Cup Challenge USA, followed by Race 1 of the doubleheader weekend from 11:50 a.m. to 12:35 p.m. CT.
The starting grid for Sunday’s second race will be established by Race 1 fastest lap times. The 45-minute Race 2 starts at 8:45 a.m. CT. Both races will be streamed live on IMSA.com.
The weekend entry list includes 17 Platinum Cup entries and seven Gold Cup entries for Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars built between 2014 and 2016. Victor Gomez, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, leads the Gold Cup standings through his pair of class victories at Sebring in the No. 25 NGT Motorsport Porsche.