Aghakhani Wins On Debut In VP Challenge Opener

Aghakhani

Steven Aghakhani en route to victory Saturday at Daytona Int'l Speedway. (IMSA photo)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s the second season for the IMSA VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, but Saturday was a day of firsts at Daytona Int’l Speedway.

Steven Aghakhani made his first series start and first-ever race in a prototype memorable, taking the overall and Le Mans Prototype 3 (P3) class win in the season-opening 45-minute sprint race.

Meanwhile, Luca Mars charged from last on the grid to win the Grand Sport X (GSX) class in the global racing debut for the new Ford Mustang GT4.

Driving the No. 6 MLT Motorsports Ligier JS P320, Aghakhani started from the pole position but lost the lead on the opening lap when Alex Kirby (No. 7 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier) bolted from third place to first.

Aghakhani blamed his lack of prototype experience warming up the Michelin tires for the faulty start, but he slotted in behind Kirby and hounded the leader the rest of the race.

Aghakhani bided his time until making the winning move with just more than two minutes remaining. He used an outside-inside passing maneuver around Kirby heading into the infield section of the 3.56-mile road course.

The cars made side-to-side contact at the exit of turn two, but Aghakhani held on for the lead, crossing the finish line 1.238 seconds ahead.

“The pass at the end was more or less the only big window that I saw show up, and I told myself it’s either this or we’re finishing second place,” Aghakhani said. “Decided to take it inside on (Turn) 1 and make it work, side by side through (Turn) 2 and somehow got past in (Turn) 3.”

It also provided quite the return to racing for Aghakhani, the former Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America driver who took last year off from the sport.

“Not doing any driving for all of (2023) and coming back to the first race of the season at Daytona in a brand-new car with a new team, and here we are winning it,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely amazing. … It’s a really good feeling, especially knowing that I still have that second nature of driving.”

Mars

Luca Mars won the GSX class in Saturday's IMSA VP Racing SportsCar Challenge opener at Daytona Int'l Speedway. (IMSA photo)

Mars qualified third in GSX but his No. 59 KohR Motorsports Mustang was found underweight in technical inspection and moved to the rear of the field.

Starting 20th in class, Mars quickly reached the top 10 within three laps and was running fourth when the only full-course caution occurred with 16 minutes remaining.

Mars slipped into third on the restart 10 minutes later, then into second on the penultimate lap. It set up a drag race to the checkered flag with class leader Gregory Liefooghe in the No. 43 Stephen Cameron Racing BMW M4 GT4.

The pair dueled from turn four of Daytona’s banked oval through the dogleg to the finish line, with Mars edging the Mustang ahead to win by .051 seconds.

“Coming down to the last lap, I knew that’s when I had to make my move,” Mars said. “I just used the draft on Greg, was able to get just close enough to where I could pop out and then it was a battle to the line and the Mustang was able to beat out the BMW.”

It gave the new Mustang GT4 a memorable win in its first race anywhere.

“The Ford guys have been working really hard,” he said, “and for us to get the first win for the new car, it’s just an awesome feeling.”

Aghakhani and Mars will start on their respective class poles in Sunday’s race, which streams live on Peacock at 12:20 p.m. ET.

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