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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Wally Castro Scores Upset Victory At P.R. Grand Prix...Puerto Rican Teen, Jan Velez, Among Go-Kart "Stars of Tomorrow"
By Gabrielle Paese
October 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
The odds were stacked against Wally Castro from the moment he stepped on to Isla Grande Airport's makeshift racetrack last Sunday for the Motorock Trans-Am Tour season finale, the Puerto Rico Grand Prix, in San Juan.
First, he was driving a car he hadn't even seen until two days prior to the race. Second, he was making just his second career Trans Am series start. Castro had only once raced Trans Am, back in 1996 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Third, the veteran GTS driver was rubbing fenders with drivers who were coming off an entire season of Trans Am racing. Castro, by contrast, spent most of 2003 working in his auto body repair shop, selling parts and racing only part time on the island.
Given the circumstances, Castro was the last driver the sport's experts had picked to win the tour's final stop. Castro himself said prior to the race that he would be ecstatic with a top five finish.
That was, until he got behind the wheel of Johnny Miller's Jaguar XKR Sunday afternoon. On that day, Castro put it all together -- fast car, smart driver, fast track and savvy pit crew -- to shock auto racing fans by pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the tour's season.
"I still don't know where he came from," said eventual second-place finisher Bobby Sak of Castro's spectacular come-from-behind finish after a black flag penalty for a tire left out in the pit relegated Castro to 13th place late in the race. "If I had known he was coming out with fresh tires I would have pushed it harder."
Castro was simply unstoppable, pushing the pace over the 63 laps of the 1.6-mile, 10-turn airport course.
"A hundred miles is a lot to ask of one set of tires, especially at that kind of pace and we calculated that my tires weren't going to last more than halfway through," said Castro. "When they put up a yellow flag, my crew [Rocketsports] called for me to come in and change my tires."
It was a winning strategy despite the black flag penalty Castro got after one of the pit crew left an old tire out on the pit floor. Yet even being relegated back down to 13th place couldn't stop Castro on Sunday as he pushed his way back to first.
"I just got it in my head that I was going to make those places back up," said Casto. "And then I was right up there with my fresh tires and all of a sudden, Scott Pruett blew a tire. Once I was in third place and we had the yellow flag I saw I had about 12 minutes left to go and I kept pushing."
Castro said he loved how the tires "stuck" to the airport course, which he said was especially difficult to navigate Sunday as morning showers gave way to a hot afternoon sun.
"The conditions changed and it was like a completely different course," said Castro, who is the current Puerto Rico GTS series points leader. "I drove the car for the first time on Friday, so for me there was a lot to adjust to."
Castro couldn't have done a better job. Meanwhile, fellow Puerto Rican Jorge Diaz Jr., who has raced on the Trans Am circuit all season, held on to cinch Rookie of the Year honors despite more than his share of bad luck on race day.
Diaz was penalized for being 35 pounds shy of the required weight on his suit. In addition, the cooling system on his suit failed and he had to be doused with ice water on lap 23. He managed to finish the race, which was all he needed to get the Rookie of the Year honor.
While Castro has raced mostly in Puerto Rico and Latin America for his career, Sunday's win has once again piqued his interest in racing as a full-time job.
For this Puerto Rico Grand Prix, Castro was sponsored by the Puerto Rico Lotteries. Right now, he's pounding the pavement with a proposal he hopes will get him on the Trans Am tour next season.
"It has to be a sponsor who has a product that is sold both here and in the states," said Castro, who is hoping a sponsor will want to cash in on a huge, untapped market of Hispanic auto racing fans. "By my estimate I would need at least $1 million. It's difficult, but not impossible."
In the event that he lures in a sponsor, Castro would be a good investment.
Over his long racing career, he's always finished on top. Last season, Castro finished third locally in the GTS class, despite racing only half the season. He finished second in the Budweiser Three Hours and is a three-time GT Americas winner. In 1995, he finished fifth in the GTS class at the Rolex 24 of Daytona with Roush Racing.
Puerto Rican Teen, Jan Velez, Among Go-Kart "Stars of Tomorrow"
Many of auto racing's greatest drivers got their start on go-karts, and Castro is no exception. In the 1980s, Castro tore up the local circuit, much in the same way fellow Puerto Rican Jan Velez is doing this year. Velez, just 17 and a senior at Colegio San Ignacio is competing this weekend with more than 60 of the best 125cc shifter racers in North America in the "Champ Car Stars of Tomorrow" series in Beaumont, Calif.
Velez has also been selected among the 16 best drivers in the United States to compete for a Formula Dodge scholarship next season. Velez has competed on the U.S. karting circuit as well as in Europe. He is the reigning local karting champion as well.
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.