Rampelberg takes pole for Autobahn Playboy MX-5 Cup
Despite a rainy afternoon that looked like it may change the conditions just before qualifying, Brad Rampelberg, of San Jose, Calif., led a group of nine SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup drivers who qualified under the existing series record on a dry track at Autobahn Country Club near Chicago. The Friday afternoon session set the grid for Saturday's first of two MX-5 Cup races at the Harrah's Autobahn Grand Prix presented by Mazda.
Working in a two-car draft with AMG Racing teammate Michael Cooper around the 19-turn, 3.56-mile road course, Rampelberg shot to the top of the qualifying charts near the midway point of the 30-minute session with a lap of 2:44.520 (77.899 mph). The time held up through the remainder of the session, landing Rampelberg on the pole for Saturday's 45-minute timed race and earning him the two Championship points that come with the honor.
It's the second pole position of the season for the driver of the No. 4 AMG Racing/Mazda/Cobalt Brakes MX-5, who won from the front at the season-opener at Virginia International Raceway.
This weekend's pair of races will feature just the second and third standing starts in the history of the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup, following a trial run in the second of two New Jersey Motorsports Park races earlier this season.
"It's my first time at the track," Rampelberg said. "I didn't see it until yesterday morning and I really was lost yesterday. [Michael] Cooper was a big help. He looked at video, looked at data, I followed him around this morning and he really helped me out. The AMG guys, again, put together a great car. I got a new brake pad from Cobalt today for this bumpy track, Joe McClugan from DPTune came out and helped with the electronics, and Jim Bell really helped to set the car up. I'm really stoked to be here and stoked to be on pole. The two championship points are a big deal."
Starting alongside Rampelberg in the front row is Nick Evans, of Powell, Ohio, who earned his second-consecutive front row starting position with a lap of 2:44.641 (77.842 mph). Evans' No. 28 Team MER/Mazda Sparco MX-5 is the two Team MER cars that will start Saturday in the first two rows.
"Starting on the front row is definitely a big deal, mainly because you can kind of get away and get a gap," Evans said. "I think it might be easier to do that on a standing start, because if one person behind you or two people behind you have a problem, it can bunch the field up a lot more than a rolling start. Ultimately, the people who are faster are going to be in the front no matter what during the race. I've got to thank Justin for giving me a tow. That's always how we qualify. It's kind of a team effort. Obviously, I've got to thank BFGoodrich Tires and Mazda, Sparco and Promotion Driver Development."
Justin Piscitell, of Weston, Conn., joins teammate Evans in starting near the front after qualifying third with a best time of 2:44.844 (77.746 mph) in the No. 89 Team MER/DAMG Worldwide MX-5. The result was bittersweet for the driver who led each of two Friday practice sessions with times that were quicker than Rampelberg's pole time, but with a single championship point awarded for qualifying positions two through five, helps the 21-year-old protect his current two-point Drivers' Championship lead.
"A 45-minute race is just long enough where sometimes you're wishing it would be over one lap before," Piscitell said of a promising race day. "It's going to be real good. I've got my teammate [Evans] starting right in front of me. We qualified third, he qualified second and Brad's first, and we've got the top-four people in points starting near the front [including Michael Cooper and Jesse Combs]. I've got a lot of teammates surrounding me, so it should be good. I'm looking forward to a good race. Hopefully, it will be nice and clean, just like the past few. I've got to thank Merchant Services, our new business partner, for helping us out here this weekend. I'm looking forward to a real good race."
Sharing the second row with Piscitell is Syosset, N.Y.'s Michael Cooper, who also is Piscitell's closest competitor in the Championship hunt. Cooper turned a best time of 2:45.070 (77.639 mph) in the No. 84 AMG Racing/Bromante Landscaping & Design MX-5 to place a second AMG car in the top four to match the rival Team MER machines.
Jesse Combs placed his No. 77 ALARA Racing/Coolgas.com MX-5 fifth on the grid with a time of 2:45.403 (77.483 mph). Combs has started in the top-five in four of the last five races, including on pole in Round Five at New Jersey Motorsports Park.
Two more Team MER cars will start sixth and seventh, with Russell Walker (No. 29 Team MER MX-5) and Jeff Mosing (Team MER/Frank's International/Race Now For Autism MX-5) each earning their highest starting position of the season. Walker turned a best time of 2:45.463 (77.455 mph), while Mosing completed the circuit in 2:45.647 (77.369 mph).
Mark Carpenter (No. 14 AMG Racing/GGS Technical Publications Mazda MX-5) will start eighth after a best time of 2:45.830 (77.284 mph).
The fifth row is composed of two drivers who aren't MX-5 Cup regulars, but are both local drivers and members at Autobahn Country Club and have extensive knowledge of the circuit. Dan Bender, from Glencoe, Ill., posted a best time of 2:46.137 (77.141 mph) to start ninth in the No. 18 Team MER/Autobarn Mazda Countryside MX-5. Richard Fisher, of Evanston, Ill., will start alongside his fellow club member in the No. 24 Team MER/Autobarn Mazda Countryside MX-5 after a best time of 2:46.222 (77.101 mph).
The top nine drivers in qualifying better the previous Playboy MX-5 Cup qualifying time of 2:46.142 (77.138 mph) set by Todd Lamb during the Series' 2009 visit to the Chicagoland track.