Vintage racing was out in full force at this weekend's Coronado Fleet Week Speed Festival on the Coronado Naval Base (ABOVE), the island just off the coast of San Diego. A full gallery from the weekend can be found on our Facebook page. From an SCCA Pro Racing perspective, the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup was also on site for the second to last round of its season, and there were a number of stories to come out of the weekend.
DEAN'S LAST LAP TRIUMPH – John Dean II took the win in the penultimate round of the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup season thanks to a last-lap pass aided by traffic. The Sick Sideways Racing entrant outsmarted the erstwhile dominant pair from CJ Wilson Racing, points leader Stevan McAleer and hometown favorite Elliott Skeer (Photo credit: Myles Regan/SCCA).
Dean shot to the front early but appeared to have maxed out his pace mid-race, losing the lead in traffic after pulling away from McAleer and Skeer earlier in the day. McAleer fought back in traffic to regain the point but was balked at the end of the race and Dean made it through into Turn 1 on the final lap.
It was impressive enough that Dean – still in with an outside shot at this year's championship – even made it to Coronado following an accident a week ago at Virginia International Raceway. He raced in a borrowed car from Dean Copeland, who was not at Coronado.
“The track was brutal,” said Dean, who picked up his fourth victory of the season. “It's really bumpy out here, it's hot, I'm exhausted, the car is tired, the brakes were going away, and I didn't think I was going to have anything to work with to make a pass. Lapped traffic hurt me and that's why I lost the lead there, and then McAleer ended up getting it in return at the end and I was able to slip by.
“Unfortunately, he tried to make a move on me in the last corner and Skeer just edged him out to the line, which kind of makes me happy. It was fun to watch. I've really got to thank Dean Copeland and Copeland Motorsports for loaning me their car. VIR was a nightmare for us and I didn't have anything to drive coming here. We brought his car out and it performed well. I can't thank him enough.”
Skeer, the MAZDASPEED Shootout winner who's done well in his rookie year, was hoping for a win as he hails from nearby Vista, Calif. More than 30 family members and friends were on hand but he was runner-up in both qualifying and the race – McAleer (RIGHT) pipped him by 0.009 of a second for pole but Skeer returned the favor on Sunday, edging his teammate at the line for second.
“We have tendency to do that, it seems like,” Skeer said. “There have been probably five or six situations this year where we just nick each other. It's really good though, because we use each other for reference and driving styles; who's faster where. Being this close to a teammate makes us both much better drivers and it should really help out in the long run.”
With third, McAleer holds a 30-point lead over Ara Malkhassian, who retired, and 38 over Dean heading into the final weekend of the season, a doubleheader at Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta next month.
Kenton Koch took the Skip Barber Pro Challenge class win in fourth overall ahead of Nathaniel Sparks in fifth. RACER's Associate Publisher Steve Bottom finished seventh, his third top-10 finish in as many starts this season and first time out since Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca back in May.
QUALIFYING VS. THE RACE – Only a few weeks ago, the IndyCar weekend at Baltimore saw the track in a state of flux with the Pratt St. chicane originally not installed, then installed with tires, then with curbs put in play, and then with one or two tire barriers on either side of the curbs depending on the series. While there weren't official track alterations made at the Coronado Naval Base circuit this past weekend, there were consistent unofficial changes made as orange cones and barricades were constant targets from oncoming cars.
There wasn't only the threat of consistently hitting the cones or barricades, but the way the drivers competed was different, too. In qualifying, to provide a fair chance for all competitors to set lap times without any assistance, drafting was strongly discouraged by series officials – so much so guest driver Connor De Phillippi (more on him in a moment) was warned for doing so.
That changed in the race, with the ability to draft evident and paramount to success. Several drivers used it to a great degree exiting the final left-right complex onto the front straight, and it helped Dean to the win at the end of the race. As the draft came in, and the track straightened out once some of the cones were down, lap times improved anywhere from 1.5 to three seconds throughout the field compared to qualifying. Six drivers had a race lap in the 1:12 range, after pole was only 1:13.867 by McAleer.
DE PHILLIPPI'S DEBUT – Laid back and with no pressure, San Clemente's Connor De Phillippi made his sports car debut this weekend after the original extra entrant in the ModSpace-backed CJ Wilson Racing entry had to withdraw. The Star Mazda veteran took well to the car, even if at times, the car didn't take well to him.
For most of the weekend, De Phillippi fought transmission issues – using a clutch wasn't a problem, nor was heel/toeing – but like several drivers, the rough and bumpy nature of the circuit was a nightmare on transmissions.
“There were some issues when shifting, it felt like I was moving the lever all over the place and I thought, ‘Man, I don't know if this is normal!'” he said.
In qualifying, De Phillippi qualified seventh among the 13 MX-5 class cars, eighth overall of 18 entrants, and reckoned he had lost anywhere from seven tenths to one second through the back straight chicane.
“The biggest issue for me is I'm either under-driving or over-driving it,” he explained. “I'm either pushing too hard on entry and losing time on exit, or I'm taking it more conservative on some laps and losing time there.”
In the race, De Phillippi largely ran a race of his own until transmission issues struck again – this time while upshifting through the final complex, the car stepped out on exit and collided with the wall. There was minimal damage but his race was over. Similar issues struck another of his teammates, Charles Paquin, all weekend – the team replaced the transmission on his car after one qualifying lap and while he made the race, he retired after 14 laps.
KOCH'S STELLAR WEEKEND – Glendora native Kenton Koch starred as the top Skip Barber Pro Challenge entrant all weekend, but saying he was “best in class” would do a gross disservice to the quality of his performance as a whole.
In the top five on pace all weekend, Koch qualified seventh overall – just ahead of De Phillippi and within several tenths of the overall leaders – before, by rule, he'd be moved to the back of the MX-5 cars and head of the Pro Challenge field in 14th overall.
No matter. By lap three he'd already risen to his natural starting position in seventh, just behind Malkhassian and Sparks, who were racing were fifth. Malkhassian retired and with just Sparks ahead, Koch made a move in the hairpin for the spot as the two were near traffic. That became fourth once Christian Szymczak retired ahead of him.
“My goal was just to run my race, the last thing I wanted to do was interfere with their battle,” Koch said. “I felt great on pace all weekend.”
Koch's fastest race lap was 1:12.380, only 0.001 off the overall fastest set by McAleer.
WILSON'S FUTURE PLANS – With more than a third of the MX-5 class entries (five of 13), CJ Wilson Racing has been one of the most active and focused teams on this championship this year.
Given how the future may shake out with regards to the impending sports car merger of Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series, the CJWR status is very healthy as it's in “wait-and-see” mode, according to Wilson's partner in running the team, and Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge driver Jason Saini.
“This situation is very positive for us as a whole, right now,” Saini said. “We'd already jumped in at the deep end in (Grand-Am) ST this year, and we weren't disappointed in ourselves so much, just we weren't realizing the potential we've shown. Next year we can improve there.
“We're not in a situation where we're committed to anything, and with ALMS now likely changing, we don't have that bridge where we were set to go there. We're not tied down. The timing is excellent, and timing is important.”
The team is set to have a major presence at this year's 25 Hours of Thunderhill with a number of young drivers, likely including at least two of its current MX-5 pilots, one star from this year's USF2000 championship and an up-and-comer from IMSA Prototype Lites.
ALSO OF NOTE – Mazda's Club Racing shootout contenders should be revealed within the next couple weeks, following the SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Road America.
Szymczak, in his first season racing in nearly a dozen years, still wears his Barber Dodge Pro Series firesuit for Sick Sideways Racing, with updated logos. Szymczak raced against Ryan Hunter-Reay in the 2001 series championship, and was thrilled at RHR securing the IZOD IndyCar Series title.
Tim Probert and Brent Mosing (fifth and sixth) recorded their best finishes of the season. Kristine Craine and Emilee Tominovich largely stayed out of trouble when being lapped, ending eighth and ninth on the day, although Tominovich was almost too courteous when staying offline at one stage. She hung to the outside through a left-right chicane complex, but ran too far left over one of the barricades and several orange cones. No harm, no foul, but in ensuring she wasn't looking to jeopardize the leaders' race, she only wound up hurting her own.