Segal, Assentato Beat the Odds

Sept. 17, 2010
Nate Siebens, Contributing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jeff Segal won the Grand Sport (GS) title in the 2007 GRAND-AM Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. Emil Assentato won the 2007 Bob Akin Award for being the top sportsman driver in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series Grand Touring (GT) class.

Emil Assentato (left) and Jeff Segal clinched the 2010 GT class championship at Miller Motorsports Park.

But neither driver had more fun than they did this year, when they combined to win the 2010 Rolex Series GT championship in the No. 69 FXDD Mazda RX-8 for SpeedSource.

“Not even close, even though we’ve had good seasons,” says Assentato. “Nick Longhi and I almost won the (GS II) championship in ’02 in what’s now called the Continental Tire Challenge.
“That was a really fun season, but this beats that by far. We didn’t win the championship that year. We came in second. We won the championship this year, Jeff and I, and Nick was part of it, too. He spots for us when he’s not in the driver’s seat and when he’s in the driver’s seat, he does a good job. There’s just no way to compare this to any other season.”

That’s easy for Assentato to say now, as he reflects on winning the championship. It wouldn’t have been quite that easy to say it last January, when he and Segal combined with Longhi and Anthony Lazzaro to finish 16th in the Rolex 24 At Daytona after falling out of contention with a mechanical problem in the 18th hour of the race while the car was on the lead lap.

Instead, they got to watch their teammates in the No. 70 SpeedSource Mazda RX-8, Jonathan Bomarito, David Haskell, Nick Ham and team owner/driver Sylvain Tremblay celebrate the GT-class victory. But that would really be the only disappointing moment of the year for Assentato and Segal, who went on to win Rounds 2 and 3 at Homestead and Barber and take over the championship lead with a second-place run at VIR at the end of April.

That’s when Segal knew he and the team were in the midst of a special year.
“We had some kind of handling problem with the car,” recalls Segal of the VIR weekend. “We had been off the pace all weekend and we were really struggling to put our finger on what exactly was the problem. I’m driving around in 10th or 11th place and we got a late-race caution and our strategist called it brilliantly.

“We took what would have been a really bad race and would have killed us in the championship and spun it into a really good one with a good, strong podium finish (second). I got out of the car and said, ‘Guys, this is our year.’”

And while it may have been the No. 69 team’s year, they had to face down some stiff competition, most notably from their teammates – and TEAM OWNER – in the No. 70 Mazda.

Racing Sylvain for the championship was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my racing career so far,” Segal says. “All the credit in the world goes out to him, because he kept it very fair. As the guy that we were racing against who was also preparing our cars, you would think there was all the potential in the world for him to not be fair about it. But he gave us a great car and a great crew and kept the battle on the racetrack, which is really a testament to the operation he runs.”
Adding to the sweetness of winning the championship was the fact that Segal and Assentato are a Pro-Am team which beat a whole bunch of all-pro teams. That certainly wasn’t lost on Assentato, who also took his second Bob Akin Award this year.

“There’s nobody in that paddock that would have bet on us at the beginning of the season, although we came off of two wins in the last four races in ’09,” Assentato says. “Everybody viewed that as sort of a freak accident. Nobody was betting for us. They thought we’d be around, but they never thought we’d win. To be honest, we were not convinced we could win either.”

Segal and Assentato now have proof they can win the championship. They accomplished that mission with a sixth-place result in the season finale at Miller Motorsports Park after an incredible run of 12 straight top-four performances from Round 2 in Homestead through Round 11 at Montreal.
“Mission is accomplished, but let’s do some more,” says Assentato. “Let me put a footnote on ‘Mission accomplished.’ We haven’t won the 24-hour event yet. We would love to win that.”

So if you’re betting on the GT winner for the 2011 Rolex 24 At Daytona, spare a thought for the No. 69 Mazda team. It might be a wise investment.


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