Leading a MAZDASPEED Driver Development Shootout sweep of the podium, Brad Rampelberg, of San Jose, Calif., earned his third SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup win of the season in the first race of the weekend at Autobahn Country Club, part of the Harrah's Autobahn Grand Prix presented by Mazda. The 2008 graduate of the manufacturer program that provides its winners with a seat in the MX-5 Cup, Rampelberg led current program winner Nick Evans, of Powell, Ohio, and 2009 winner Justin Piscitell, of Weston, Conn., to the podium.
Rampelberg, driving the No. 4 AMG Racing/Mazda/Cobalt Brakes Mazda MX-5, started from the pole and launched from the standing start to lead the field into the first corner of the 19-turn, 3.56-mile road course. Holding their starting positions and remaining just behind were Evans and Piscitell.
On lap two, Evans' No. 28 Team MER/Mazda/Sparco MX-5 had slipped past Rampelberg and onto the point, with Piscitell still behind Rampelberg. Morning rains had left the racing line mostly dry, but wet spots remained around the track and certainly in the grass just off the racing surface.
Evans found one of those muddy corners on lap four and spun, with Rampelberg slipping by but Piscitell, in the No. 89 Team MER/DAMG Worldwide MX-5, nearly being collected by his teammate. Both went off track, with Piscitell rejoining the race in fifth position and Evans gathering to rejoin in seventh.
Rampelberg, now running alone, continued to stretch a lead that would reach more than five seconds on lap eight before Evans, who had climbed back to second, began closing the distance. To begin lap 10 of the 17-lap race, Rampelberg led by 3.366-seconds, a gap that would fall to 1.394-seconds to begin lap 13. By lap 14, Evans was back to the tail of Rampelberg and battling for the lead.
The 21-year-old Evans, searching for his first MX-5 Cup win, fell 0.365-second short of Rampelberg at the checkered flag. Rampelberg completed the 60.52-mile race in 47:40.987, averaging 76.152 mph.
"The AMG guys gave me a car that was capable of winning today," Rampelberg said. "It wasn't pretty, but we'll put the 'w' in the column. The kids were fast today, but once they got up on me, they couldn't get past me. They both made the same mistake in the same corner when they hit the mud and slid out. I saw it and didn't make that mistake, and that's really the only difference between the win and the loss today."
The early race incident clearly cost Evans, who methodically closed the gap to Rampelberg through the middle stages of the race. Even so, only mechanical issues during the first of two races at New Jersey Motorsports Park have kept Evans off the podium during the last four races after a best finish of fifth in the opening three rounds.
"I spun on some mud in the back of the esses because the track was still wet," Evans said. "Brad was being a little bit tentative around some areas that I thought I might be able to gain a gap if I got around him. That's what I was doing and I ended up spinning. Afterward, I just kept thinking 'Danny Sullivan, spin and win, that's all I've got to do.' I came close, but didn't quite get it.
"This track is difficult to pass. There's not a lot of clean areas to do it and you've got to force the issue. Especially when the track still has mud and water, it's a real big risk and I wasn't sure if I was willing to take that risk. We've got plenty for tomorrow, we've been fast all weekend and Team MER will give us a great car again."
Championship leader Piscitell also missed an opportunity to battle for a win after his off course excursion. The No. 89 machine turned the fasted lap of the race with a time of 2:45.707 (77.341 mph).
"Nick and I went through that corner and found mud, and Brad didn't," Piscitell explained of the incident. "Nick got loose and went sideways and I was afraid he was going to come back across the track. So as I was sliding in the mud, I straightened out and thought 'well, I've got to enter the track at some point.' I drove through a sign [alongside the track] and ended up right behind Carpenter, who gave me plenty of room to reenter. From there, it was a matter of racing everyone back down at that point. I think we turned a few good laps.
"We'd catch up to Brad, hit some mud, and fall back again - so it was really frustrating. The cars are good, though, and we'll see how we do tomorrow. Hopefully there won't be so much mud."
Behind the lead pack was a pair of Rampelberg's AMG teammates - Michael Cooper, of Syosset, N.Y., and Mark Carpenter, of Charlotte, N.C. Cooper's No. 84 AMG Racing/Bromante Landscaping & Design MX-5 won round six at New Jersey Motorsports Park but was just off the pace of the lead pack in Saturday's round seven. Carpenter started eighth in the No. 14 AMG Racing/GGS Technical Publications MX-5, but climbed to sixth on the first lap and ran inside the top five after the lap four incident that dropped Evans and Piscitell back in the field.
Ara Malkhassian was the top-finishing ALARA Racing driver in the No. 11 ALARA Racing/Bulldog Productions MX-5. Malkhassian struggled in qualifying and started the race in 13th position, but improved four positions from the standing start through the first lap and was in sixth by lap 11, where he held through the race.
Jeff Mosing earned his best finish of the season, taking the checkers seventh in the No. 30 Team MER/Frank's International/Race Now For Autism MX-5.
Dan Bender and Richard Fisher used their local track knowledge to earn top-10 finishes in their first MX-5 Cup races of the season. Both are members of the Autobahn Country Club, with Bender finishing eighth in the No. 18 Team MER/Autobarn Mazda Countryside MX-5 and Fisher ninth in the No. 24 Team MER/Autobarn Mazda Countryside MX-5.
Jesse Combs (No. 77 ALARA Racing/Coolgas.com MX-5) completed the top 10.
The win helped Rampelberg, who sits third in the Drivers' Championship, close to just 18 points behind Piscitell for the season lead. Piscitell (376 points) leads Cooper by just four points, followed by Rampelberg (358), Combs (322) and Evans (308) through seven of 11 races.