LEXINGTON, Ohio (Aug. 9, 2009) – Ohio Native Jason Saini, now of Fort Worth, Texas, came from eighth on the grid to win his third SCCA Pro Racing SPEED World Challenge Touring Car race of 2009 at the Toyo Tires Mid-Ohio Grand Prix Presented by Dish Network. Peter Cunningham, of Milwaukee, Wis., and Pierre Kleinubing, of Coconut Creek, Fla., completed the top three.
Saini started eighth in his No. 74 MAZDASPEED/StopTech/ProParts MAZDA6 and ran there for the opening five laps of the 27-lap, 60.966-mile contest, as the field circulated under yellow to remove the Honda Civic of Kevin Helms from the gravel. Saini moved to sixth after the lap-six restart and then threaded his way through a lap-nine incident in the Esses that helped him move to second. Just four laps later, he was able to move past teammate, and polesitter, Charles Espenlaub’s No. 73 MAZDASPEED/StopTech/ProParts MAZDA6 in the Keyhole for the lead and never looked back to take his third victory of the season.
Saini beat Cunningham to the checkered flag by 4.719 seconds, averaging 71.455 mph in the race slowed by two cautions.
“Of the two races I’ve always wanted to win, one was Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland and the other was here,” Saini said. “I had a poor qualifying. I never put a good lap together, even though I had a stellar car. I thought, starting eighth, ‘this isn’t going to be the day. We’ll do what we can, come back and try to win next year.’ I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined ending up here on the top step today.
“I don’t remember what exactly happened [on lap nine]. Cars were all three-wide going into The Esses, and all I know is I came in and cars were spinning sideways and I just dove to the inside. Next thing I know, I came out in second place. From there, it was the car. Tri-Point gave me an amazing car today. Honestly, in all my year’s driving, this is the best handling car I’ve ever driven. It did everything perfectly.”
The win put Mazda into the World Challenge Touring Car Manufacturers’ Championship Presented by RACER Magazine lead, with 53 to Acura’s 50 and BMW’s 27.
“It’s been a huge struggle, just to get to this point,” Saini said of taking over the Manufacturers’ lead. “A lot of people have stepped up for us this season, so to get the win and takeover the point lead, is the best result we could have hoped for.”
Once he was in the lead, Saini’s run to the finish may have appeared mundane, but the battle for second was epic. Cunningham, who started his No. 1 Acura/RealTime/Red Line Oil Acura TSX third, was at the center of the lap-nine action. Battling Espenlaub for the lead, Cunningham and third-running Eric Foss, of Fort Worth, Texas, bumped at corner seven, sending the Acura into a tank-slapper back and forth across the track while cars scattered to avoid him. Unfortunately for James Clay, running sixth in the No. 36 BimmerWorld/GearWrench BMW 328i, he had nowhere to go, and eventually helped straighten the Acura out approaching the top of the hill. While Cunningham continued, the BMW sustained damage too severe to continue.
Cunningham fell to fifth, but fought back to second in the end, after a fierce battle with Espenlaub, Kleinubing and the No. 38 BimmerWorld/GearWrench BMW 328i of Seth Thomas, of Cumming, Ga.
It was Cuningham’s second-consecutive runner-up finish, both of the season and at Mid-Ohio.
“I don’t know exactly how I was able to save it,” Cunningham said of the lap-nine incident. “My eyes were closed for most of it! That’s the beauty of front-wheel drive; if you keep your holy boot in it and aim the car correctly, it’s really hard to spin. I don’t know what exactly happened, but it was too close for comfort and I was happy to come out on the other side.
“There was contact from another car and then some more contact, the latter of which wasn’t his [James Clay’s] fault. I came back onto the road, in front of him, sideways. That’s when Jason just said, ‘ok, I think I’ll drive right on through here,’ so good job for him.
Cunningham admitted that his car wasn’t the same after the contact.
“It was a little bit messed up on the left side,” he said. “I felt like I had a little bit of a different toe in the right rear, but I guess it must have been on the left rear. That made the left-handers a bit of a trick, but the right-handers were beautiful. It actually helped in the right-handers.
“Glad to be on the podium for sure. This isn’t exactly where we wanted to be. We wanted to beat the Mazdas, but nice job to Jason and the Mazda guys. Hopefully, we’ll get them next time.”
While Saini captured the Sunoco Hard Charger for advancing the most positions from start-to-finish, nobody passed more cars in the race than Kleinubing. On the standing start, his No. 42 Acura/RealTime/Red Line Oil Acura TSX crept from its ninth-starting position, drawing a stop-and-go penalty after the lap-five restart. Helped by the second caution, Kleinubing worked his way back up from 12th place to finish on the podium. He turned the Débaufré Fastest Lap of the Race in the process, with a best time of 1:35.713 (84.929 mph).
“I had my line lock on at the start, so I don’t know how I moved,” Kleinubing said. “It’s just one of those days I guess. Seemed like everything would go wrong, but then it ended up working out okay in the end. I couldn’t believe, starting ninth, that I would finish better than seventh or eighth, so ending up on the podium is great for me today.”
Kleinubing also took home the AutoWeek Move of the Race for his lap-22 pass on Thomas in Turn 11 for third place.
“He [Thomas] tried to pass Peter [Cunningham] and got a little loose on the exit of the corner and I was able to jump to the inside. He pretty much left the door open and once I was on the inside, he couldn’t do anything.”
Thomas finished the race right on Kleinubing’s bumper, followed closely by the No. 57 Horton Autosport/Sloan Securities MAZDA6 of Patrick Lindsey. Lindsey, of Santa Barbara, Calif., started second, but was shuffled back at the start, eventually having to pit due to a flat tire on lap seven. He, too, benefitted from the second full-course caution on lap 14 to retrieve Branden Peterson’s Acura TSX from the Turn Seven gravel.
Nick Esayian, who ran in fifth place for much of the race in his BMW 328i, finished sixth. Kuno Wittmer (Acura TSX) and Espenlaub each fought electrical problems but finished seventh and eighth, respectively. Foss and Peterson completed the top 10.
With his second-straight win, Saini extended his point lead to 63 over Cunningham (733 to 670). Kleinubing is third, with 649, followed by Thomas (614) and Wittmer (595).
Today’s race will be broadcast Sept. 1 at 2 p.m. (EDT) on SPEED. The series next travels to Elkhart Lake, Wis., for the Road America Grand Prix Presented by StopTech next weekend, Aug. 14-16.
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Note: SCCA Pro Racing uses corner stations to identify turns at Mid-Ohio, making the turn at the end of the back straight, Turn Seven