The experts at RACER's sister publication SportsCar, the official publication of the Sports Car Club of America, made their fearless picks of who will rise to greatness at the 49th annual SCCA National Championship Runoffs, now getting under way at Elkhart Lake's Road America, in the October issue of the magazine. We're relating their prognostications here ahead of the actual races, so here are SportsCar's predictions for Friday's races:
RACE 9: GT-2 | Friday, 10:05 a.m.
1 Mark Boden Chicago Porsche GT-3 Cup
2 Scott Tucker Atlanta Porsche GT-3 Cup
3 Jim Goughary New England Nissan 350Z
If GT-2 is not already on your list of races to watch at the 2012 Runoffs, make sure you add it. The grid should see the return of all the heavy hitters from recent years, as well as one GT-2 newbie that should have no problem mixing it up at the pointy end of the field. Consequently, trying to guess the podium for this class is impossible. But we'll try anyway.
We know 2011 Champ Mark Jurczyk will be back in his Porsche to defend, but work and travel have left little time for the track – and in this class, that could be the difference between a repeat and watching the podium celebration from the sidelines.
The familiar Sunbeam Tiger of Tom Patton will be back after picking up the silver medal last year. Patton continues to make small tweaks to the Tiger, but it seems to lack the top speed needed to win at Road America.
Pete Peterson's racecar was sporting impressive Toyota Celica bodywork last year, and the car proved very quick in qualifying, but come race time, the car was a handful and Peterson's race ended early with an off. If Peterson can dial his car in to go the distance, he'll be a contender.
Jim Goughary crashed in practice prior to the 2011 Runoffs, was unable to make the extensive repairs needed, and missed the race. This year his Nissan 350Z is back on track and shows good speed, it is very likely he will break up the Porsche parade on the podium.
Joining the GT-2 party this year is defending STO Champ Scott Tucker. Tucker will be piloting the newer 997 version of the 911 Porsche. That, along with the vast experience he has gained in his few years of racing, should be enough to put him on the podium.
Even though Mark Boden has had a tendency to throw away the win in the closing laps for the last few years, it's hard not to pick him for the win. The leader of the Fall-Line team has upgraded to the 997 Porsche and, unlike previous years, he's focusing solely on the GT-2 race (a distraction Tucker will be dealing with). If Boden can keep the back end of the car behind him, it's likely that is where the rest of the field will be as well.
RACE 10: Spec Racer Ford | Friday, 11:05 a.m.
1 Scott Rettich Ohio Valley
2 Brian Schofield Central Florida
3 Tray Ayres Atlanta
Spec Racer Ford – this is another of those classes that's guaranteed to be a barn-burner. Closely matched cars, huge fields, and talented drivers all add up to excellent competition. There has probably never been an SRF race at the Runoffs that didn't involve multiple lead changes and heart-stopping action. And as far as potential podium finishers this year, we could list about 10.
We're giving the nod to Scott Rettich, who took home the gold in FE in 2011 and is tired of playing second fiddle in SRF. Schofield knows how that works – he has finished second in SRF so many times it hurts. He finally had that taste of victory in 2010 and we know he wants it again. Tray Ayres, (Mr. Perfection) is another guy who is always “right there.” We are waiting for him to claim a medal. He can easily be on the podium – the question is, which step? Our prediction of a bronze could easily be wrong.
And there's last year's winner Richard Spicer. Spicer has three gold medals (2001-'02, 2011) to his credit, and he could add another. And speaking of repeat winners, the Mike Miserendino show (2006-'09) will be in the mix. He, too, could easily mess up our predictions and claim the gold.
Jeff Beck had a close third at the June Sprints and he is all but guaranteed to be a contender. As far as dark horses go, Todd Harris is fast and he's been really hot this year in the Pacific Northwest. He could also upset our prediction and make it to the podium. Another possibility is Lee Flemming, who is always right there when it comes to the Runoffs, but sometimes his luck runs out. If he keeps his nose clean, it's guaranteed that he'll be in the mix. Cliff White and Scott Goolsby were both in great battles for position last year, and Jim Marinangel is always in the thick of things.
RACE 11: Formula Continental | Friday, 12:40 p.m.
1 Gerald Szykulski Land O' Lakes Van Diemen
2 Chuck Moran Old Dominion Van Diemen
3 Niki Coello Milwaukee RFR
After seven straight years of picking Niki Coello to win, things are finally different. Don't' get us wrong – Coello will likely be on the podium, he just won't be on the top step. Niki is persevering with his Firman, but the car still has to show the consistent speed necessary to top the well-sorted Van Diemens. Coello also has been concentrating on the SCCA Pro Racing F2000 Championship Series, favoring that over the National events. Coello has four Runoffs gold medals, so it would be foolish to discount him completely; it's just that the hoped for advantage of the Firman has yet to be realized.
So who will win? The pick here is Gerald Szykulski. He was a surprise second at last year's Runoffs, and running strong this year, including at the June Sprints. He has won convincingly, and his Van Diemen is well prepared (the folks preparing Szykulski's car prepared Revere Griest's winning effort last year). Szykulski may not be well known right now, but he should be after this September.
Szykulski is a very narrow pick over Chuck Moran and, frankly, that is because of the home course advantage and because Moran was, at the time of this writing, undecided as to his attendance at the Runoffs. Moran has been dominant this year, with seven wins so far.
“I'm having a career year,” says Moran, “My plan is to run the National [at Road America] in July, look at my times, and if I think I can be competitive, come back for the Runoffs. I'd say there is a 60/40 chance I'll be there.” If Moran comes, everyone should look out!
Brian Belardi may be better known these days for Belardi Racing, which runs numerous cars in both Indy Lights and USF-2000, but he also squeezes in his own racing when he can. He has two wins so far this year, and was third at the June Sprints, behind Szykulski and Coello. Brian is definitely the dark horse in this field.
Brian Tomasi is absent from this list due to a late start to the season because of his day job managing Afterburner Motorsports. A cruel DNF at the June Sprints means that he is going to have trouble getting four good finishes in the book. But if he does qualify, look for him to be in the thick of it.
Others to watch include Robert Allaer, who has three wins, and J.R. Smart, a veteran who has improved over time to the point where he is threatening for wins.
RACE 12: GT-1 | Friday, 1:35 p.m.
1 Mike Lewis San Diego Jaguar XKR
2 Doug Peterson Buccaneer Chevrolet Corvette
3 Bryan Long Chicago Chevrolet Corvette
As the checkered flag dropped on the 2011 season, it was the Mike Lewis-piloted Jaguar that took the accolades after a hard-fought battle with local star Cliff Ebben in a Ford Mustang.
“My plan right now is to be at the Runoffs and defend my title, if business allows.” says Lewis. We expect he'll be there, and consequently, he's our pick to win.
Ebben, last year's silver medalist, continues to rehab from a freak accident in the season-opening SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am race at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park where a drive shaft broke and the impact shattered his elbow. Despite the setback, Ebben is determined to make it to the Runoffs, so we wouldn't be at all surprised to see him qualifying late in the season and racing for the win.
And, speaking of that Trans-Am race in Canada, Doug Peterson took his first win at that same event, besting a strong field of almost 20 cars. He had a great showing at the June Sprints until a mechanical issue derailed the project. Peterson is also spending some time in a Formula Mazda, and the extra seat time, albeit in a completely different class, won't hurt his cause.
Simon Gregg, in his Derhaag-prepared Corvette, took the June Sprints win and with his podium finish last year at the fall classic, another podium finish is not out of the question. Gregg has come on strong of late, garnering some podium finishes in Trans-Am – and with the consistency and prep level of a car out of the Jim Derhaag stables, could easily land on the podium again.
Bryan Long also ran strong at the June Sprints and had a great race with another hometown star, Rick Dittman, until both dropped out with problems. Both know the twists and turns of the tricky Road America circuit and either of them could upset our prediction.
Amy Ruman, another of the usual suspects in GT-1, has run a handful of Nationals and her current plan is to try and make it back to the Runoffs. With her streak of Trans-Am podiums, she is sure to be a factor in September if she shows.
RACE 13: Formula F | Friday, 2:35 p.m.
1 Lewis Cooper Central Florida Van Diemen
2 Reid Hazelton Chicago Van Diemen
3 Tim Kautz Chicago Piper
The Formula F class has always been stacked with talent, and was a significant rung on the ladder to professional open-wheel racing. While the options to move up to Indy are not the same for Formula F racers as they once were, that doesn't mean the talent in the class is any less.
In 2011, Lewis Cooper won the title by more than 12sec, but that didn't tell the tale of what might have been had Reid Hazelton not had mechanical issues. Hazelton set the fastest lap of the race before having to pull in to the pits. For the 2012 running of the Runoffs nearly all of the frontrunners will be returning, and the battle should be better than ever.
We know Cooper will be back, with his eyes set on defending his championship, but Hazelton will be looking to make up for last year's disappointment.
The wild card this year will be 2011 bronze medalist Tim Kautz, who is coming back – this time with Honda power. “After three Ford engine failures at last year's event, we're looking forward to the Honda reliability,” says Kautz. “It is yet to be determined if the Honda, with its current Club Racing restrictor, will be able to match the performance of the top Fords in the country.” There is an excellent chance that Kautz could bring Honda its first Runoffs podium in FF.
Should any of the top three make the slightest slip there will be a freight train of talented competitors ready to pass them by. Cliff Johnson and Scott Rubenzer are always quick, Ethan Shippert has been flying this year, and guys like Bill Kephart and Mike Sauce will help keep the leaders on their toes.