SCCA's National Championship Runoffs is the longest running, most hotly contested, winner-take-all, amateur road-racing event that you need to know about. OK, so maybe that's an exaggeration – if you're into club-level motorsports, you've definitely heard of the Runoffs. But if you're not, the Runoffs is probably the nation's best-kept secret when it comes to the closest road racing around.
The Sports Car Club of America has been holding championship road racing events since 1951, but in 1964, the club's championship underwent a major shift – it moved from a national points series to a single, no-holds-barred race for each class, where the winner was crowned as an SCCA National Champion. Think about it: You spend all year qualifying for a Runoffs invitation, but once you receive that invite, how you did during the season doesn't matter – all that matters is how you finish at the Runoffs.
In recent years, that has changed a little. In 2009, SCCA created the Super Sweep award. To win the Super Sweep, a racer must meet a number of requirements, including standing atop two separate points championships and winning designated races throughout the year. It's almost a return to the pre-1964 way of doing things without eliminating the winner-take-all aspect. How difficult is it to win a Super Sweep? In 2009, seven people managed the feat. In 2010, that number dropped to only four.
Another change to the championship format came this year when all nationally recognized SCCA classes were invited to the Runoffs, but only classes with 10 or more entries named a champion. Of the 28 classes that took the green flag, only one failed to make the cut.
This year, the official entry count for the Runoffs was 604 competitors making the trek to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., to compete in the 40-minute sprint races for their respective SCCA National Championship titles. That's roughly 100 competitors more than the event attracted just two years ago, and nearly 10 more than it drew last year. Are we still in a recession? Based on participation numbers, SCCA's club-level racers seem to think that ended in 2008.
When competitors come to the Runoffs, they do so to race hard. This year's event saw some of the closest finishes in Runoffs history, with the gap from first to fifth in Formula Vee being 0.788 second – the gap from first to second was 0.017sec. One of SCCA's newest classes, Formula 1000, also put on a great show, with the margin of victory coming in at 0.784sec. The production-based cars also put on a showing with Touring 1 ending with a drag race to the finish between a Ferrari F430 Challenge car and a Dodge Viper, with the Ferrari edging the Viper by 0.564sec – and that's after a very unfortunate incident at the start of the race that took out nearly half the field.
With margins this close, it's painfully obvious that winning an SCCA National Championship isn't easy. Likewise, if you do win, it's an excellent way to get noticed and move up in the racing world. Notables like Randy Pobst, Briggs Cunningham, Mark Donohue, Paul Newman, Skip Barber, Michael Galati and Graham Rahal all tasted National Championship gold at one point in their careers. And because the Runoffs means so much in the racing world, it's one of the races many competitors aspire to attend, and dream of winning.
“Winning a National Championship means everything to me,” says Patrick Gallagher, who claimed the Formula 500 title this year by a scant 0.164sec. “Since I've been alive, I think I've only missed one or two Runoffs. It is absolutely incredible.”
Did we mention Gallagher is 17 years old?
But most don't reach the top step of the Runoffs podium that quickly. David Wilcox, who won Formula Atlantic this year, has been working on his National Championship for a while. “I've waited 10 years for this,” he says.
Maybe “waiting” doesn't give justice to all the work these competitors put into their championship attempts. While you will see some very experienced teams, most competitors are supported by a crew of their family and friends who invest plenty of sweat equity into the sport. And, while it's hard to say someone who competes at the Runoffs does so on a shoestring budget, very few have the seemingly unlimited funds you'll find in the paddock at professional races.
What you will find in the Runoffs paddock is almost unheard of access to the competitors, making the Runoffs an incredible place to be a spectator. While the Runoffs does draw a significant audience, the numbers are low enough that any racing enthusiast can meet the drivers and teams, and get closer to the racecars than you could at almost any pro race.
But if this is news to you, then you probably didn't attend the 2010 Runoffs. You can get up to speed by watching the races online at speedcasttv.com/scca, where the races are available on demand. If you like production-based racecars, the Spec Miata, Touring 2 and F Production races can't be missed. For open-wheel fans, Formula Vee, Spec Racer Ford and Formula Atlantic will certainly keep your attention.
In 2011, the Runoffs will take place at Road America on Sept. 22-25, with the potential for the event to move to a new location in 2012. The Runoffs shifting venues is nothing new – in recent history, the Runoffs has been held at Heartland Park Topeka, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Road Atlanta. You can keep up on the latest Runoffs news on SCCA's website, scca.com.
Regardless of where the Runoffs is held, it will always draw the best of the best amateur racers in the country and provide great racing action. And regardless of whether you're a driver or a spectator, you should attend. Grass-roots racing doesn't get better than this.