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Move to ‘Dark Side’ Yields IMSA Prototype Challenge Win for Rao, Bell

Even though they led the IMSA Prototype Challenge standings heading into the VIRginia International Raceway weekend, Naveen Rao and Matthew Bell had yet to win a race this season and felt in need of good fortune.

Hence, the decision was made to change from the “Star Wars”-themed livery that the No. 64 K2R Motorsports Norma M30 LMP3 5.0L V-8 carried in the first three rounds, and it worked. By the end of Sunday’s race, Rao and Bell were in a galaxy far, far away from the competition, winning by a comfortable 35 seconds and expanding their points lead.

“We had a lot of gremlins, we’ll call it bad luck (in the opening races), so we decided to go to the ‘dark side,'” Rao said referring to the famous film franchise. “The new (car) wrap is a typewriter and my new helmet is a typewriter paint job. It seemed to work out OK.

To which Bell quickly added, “Looks like that’ll be staying on for quite a while.”

With the grid set by team championship points after qualifying was canceled on Saturday, Rao started on pole and maintained the lead through most of the opening stint in the 1-hour, 45-minute race. Keith Grant, in the No. 40 Forty7 Motorsports Norma, did overtake Rao for first place on a restart 40 minutes into the race, but Grant went wide into the grass in the 17th and final turn on the 3.27-mile road course less than 10 minutes later. It put Rao back on top, the position he held before pitting to turn the car over to Bell for the final 52 minutes.

From there, Bell fended off the challenge from Scott Andrews, co-driver of the No. 9 JDC MotorSports Norma with Gerry Kraut that had won the past two races.

“The big thing was to try and get out front and hold that,” Bell said of his stint. “The most nerve-racking laps of the race were the first two laps of the stint, trying to bring the tires up to temperature. Once I got the lead, I knew I was ahead of Scott and it was just a case of managing the gap.”

Andrews was forced to back off in the final 15 minutes in a fuel-saving effort that went awry. Three cars passed the No. 9 on the penultimate lap and Bell ran out of E-10 on the last lap, coasting up pit lane to the finish line in seventh place.

Though not pressured, Bell admitted to typical race leader’s jitters as the final minutes ticked away.

“We seemed to have it in the bag at that point,” he said. “Then you’re listening for every little noise that could possibly go wrong all the way until the end. It’s a justifying reward for Team K2R working so hard to try and make things happen. The last two races in particular, we felt we had the car to beat and bad luck just took it from us.

“It was the first clean race we’ve had and we were able to bring it home.”

Stevan McAleer, the Prototype Challenge race winner last year at VIR, stormed to a second-place finish in the No. 10 Robillard Racing LLC Norma he shared with Joe Robillard. Joel Janco and Kyle Kirkwood piloted the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma to third place. Squeezing every ounce of fuel from his No. 54 MLT Motorsports Ligier JS P3, Dakota Dickerson soldiered home in fourth.

Keith and David Grant finished fifth in the No. 40 and won the Bronze Cup class despite each brother venturing off course more than once.

“The car was really good today,” David Grant said. “We just had our front end being pinned in the slow-speed turns and it kind of caught us off guard a little bit. … The results don’t show how good the car was, which I’m sure we’ll do better next time.”

Unofficially, Rao and Bell hold a nine-point lead over Dickerson after four of six rounds, with Janco 15 points from the lead. The next Prototype Challenge event takes place Sept. 25-27 during the Acura Sports Car Challenge weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.