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 Saturday's races:
RACE 14: C Sports Racing | Saturday, 10:00 a.m.
1 Jean-Luc Liverato Atlanta Swift
2 Steve Forrer Milwaukee Ralt
3 Jacek Mucha Indianapolis Swift
CSR seems to have had a resurgence this year, reflected by the fact that a half dozen or more drivers could conceivably win in September. So far this season Jean-Luc Liverato has been near unbeatable. As of the end of June he had seven wins, including the June Sprints. His switch to a Swift 014.a Atlantic – interestingly enough Jacek Mucha's old car – launched the likeable Liverato on a tear that seems destined to culminate in the top step at the Runoffs. Only Mucha has managed to finish ahead of him thus far.
Steve Forrer has won the past two championships in his Ralt RT-41 and could do it again. But the two times to date that he has met Liverato, at Summit Point and the June Sprints, Liverato has prevailed. However, Forrer has always been tough at Road America, and the slightest slip by Jean-Luc could see Forrer notch his fifth title.
Jacek Mucha has been a bridesmaid so often that he has lost count (but we haven't – it's six). He is seemingly capable of a podium every year, but has yet to attain the top step. He is driving a Mazda-powered Swift 016.a Atlantic, a potent combination. One of these years he should do it, but Liverato and Forrer are hard to beat.
Jason Miller should be on the top-three list in his powerful Kohler six-cylinder West, but while showing great speed, his season has been win or bust. Miller was leading Liverato at the June Sprints when his car broke. This has happened too often to make Miller a sure pick for the podium. If Miller has a trouble-free race, he should be on the podium, perhaps even the winner. Don't get us not picking him for the podium wrong – he's not to be overlooked.
The French father and son combination, Brian and James, in their Atlantics are always factors. Good speed indeed, but the competition this year is too formidable to say that they should win. That said, they – especially James French – are capable of proving us wrong.
A couple years ago, Brian Downing finished third in his Peach Day. Not likely to win, but a crafty ride could see him as high as third.
But this is Jean-Luc Liverato's year. Place your bet on him.
RACE 15: Spec Miata | Saturday, 11:00 a.m.
1 Craig Berry Texas
2 Jim Drago Mid-South
3 Todd Buras Southwest Montana
Spec Miata has never had a repeat national champion, and that trend is likely to continue this year. Perennial contender and polesitter Jim Drago was taken out in an unfortunate first-lap incident last year, and he'll be back looking for the championship opportunity that was denied to him.
But as always in Spec Miata, there will be plenty of fast drivers between the green and checkered flags, and Drago will have to start from zero to get onto the podium. This year's June Sprints race was instructive – Craig Berry was leading the race with Drago close behind when an incident took both drivers out of contention for the win. Todd Buras was there to capitalize on the incident and took home the win and added it to his points leadership in the tough Southeast Division.
“That win was about being in the right place at the right time. It's about car setup, power, and strategy,” Buras says. “If you are missing any one of the three elements on any National weekend in SM, you are not going to be there at the end. Oh, and luck.”
For his part, Drago plans to bring his A game to the Runoffs again. “Todd [Buras] is a very good driver, we built his engine and went through his car, and it's a very good car. But short of the wreck in the kink on the second to last lap, he would not have won the race,” says Drago, adding, “I would have to put Craig Berry on top of the list.”
Other contenders who have proven they can run at the front include last year's Champion Elivan Goulart, 2010 champion Andrew Von Charbonneau, Patrick Sandlin, Tom Long, and Chip Van Vurst.
RACE 16: E Production | Saturday, 12:35 p.m.
1 Jon Brakke Land O' Lakes Mazda Miata
2 Matt Reynolds Alamo Mazda Miata
3 Jesse Prather Kansas Mazda Miata
This could be the race of the weekend – there are many strong runners in E Production. At the front, it will be among two regulars and a new guy. Matt Reynolds has attracted a lot of attention from some veteran production racers, but he will have a tough time with those more experienced at Road America. Jon Brakke qualified and finished first in EP and overall at the June Sprints. He qualifies well, is leading his division, and knows Road America. Look for him to lead but be closely chased by Reynolds and Prather.
Don't expect these three to run away, however. There are several EP regulars who will give them fits every lap. The top three in the chase group will be Greg Ira (Datsun 240Z), Aaron Downey (Mazda RX-3), and Sam Moore (BMW Z3). Ira and Downey have run at or near the front repeatedly, and Moore has improved his BMW every year. Any one of them could upset these predictions and win or take the other steps on the podium.
2009 Champion Sam Halkias (Triumph TR6) will lead the next group, if he's not among the six already mentioned. He'll be racing with Michael Sturm (Honda Prelude) and Austin Snader (Mazda RX-8). Any of them could also make the podium should the right situation present itself.
-J. Michael Hemsley
RACE 17: D Sports Racing | Saturday, 1:35 p.m.
1 Lee Alexander Cal Club Stohr
2 Chris Farrell Utah Stohr
3 Tom Bootz Kansas City Stohr
At the 2011 Runoffs, it was thought that D Sports Racing might break the illustrious two-minute lap barrier during its race, this was further spurred on when Lee Alexander won the pole with a lap at 2:00.970.
At the start of the race third-place starter Tom Bootz made the jump to first place in Turn 1 and never looked back, however, track conditions did not cooperate and the benchmark would remain safe.
The 2012 race should raise the bar, as many of the top drivers are returning, and they have been hard at work in the off-season looking for the speed required to win, and break the two-minute mark.
Looking to back up his 2011 win will be Boots, but Alexander is not likely to let that happen. Also making the title fight a tough one will be Chris Farrell and Lawrence Loshak, both of whom have the speed to win, but had mechanical issues at the 2011 finale.
In recent years, to win in DSR meant you were piloting a Stohr chassis, but a few individuals always buck the trend – this year Garrett Kletjlan will return with his West as will DSR rookie Scott Tucker. With the resources team Tucker has behind him, he is the most likely candidate for a non-Stohr on the podium, but based on past history it would take some other cars falling out for that to happen.
We think Alexander has the speed to get it done this year, and another year of development never hurts. The rest of the podium is a little more challenging to pick – all of the top drivers have the speed, so it may come down to luck and whoever avoids mechanical issues.
After a disappointing 2011, Farrell will be looking to spray the champagne, and if his car treats him right we think it could be his year on the podium.
Bootz is quick at Road America and just won the June Sprints, but interestingly did not best the lap times of CSR – which he did on the way to the 2011 championship. While you can't read to much into the results from a single event, it's one of the few indicators we have, and with that we will pick Bootz for the bronze.
RACE 18 GT-Lite | Saturday, 2:35 p.m.
1 Kent Prather Kansas Mazda Miata
2 Steve Sargis Blackhawk Valley Triumph Spitfire
3 Peter Shadowen Florida Honda CRX
Changes in GT-Lite rules have caused problems for a few of the fast runners in the past. Jim Dentici (five championships), Chris Bovis (one championship), and Bob Clark, all in Honda CRXs, are probably going to pass on this year's race. That's a shame, because even before the rules changes their cars would have had a challenge from some of the new cars recently developed. Kent Prather proved that his Miata was fast last year, adding a GT-Lite championship to his resume. This year, Steve Sargis has campaigned his Spitfire successfully in the class, too. Together with Peter Shadowen, whose Honda is very fast, they will put on a very exciting race. These three have a total of 14 championships – they know how to race and how to win. Barring mechanical problems, these three will put on a fight to the finish.
They will be chased by Bob Lentz (Nissan Sentra), Jim Hargrove (Honda Civic), and 2011 bronze medalist Brian Downey (Nissan 200SX). All three qualified well last year and we expect something similar this year. If the top three mix it up and slow each other, these three will be there to pounce.
Kyle Disque (Toyota Tercel) ran well last year and could certainly be a factor in this race. Former Champion Peter Zekert (Nissan 200SX) will be looking to do better this year and is not someone to count out.
The changes in GT-Lite rules have resulted in some visual changes at the front of the race field. Open cars have been allowed for several years, but Prather and Sargis really seem to have gotten their topless GT cars competitive.
- J. Michael Hemsley
RACE 19: Touring 3 | Saturday, 3:35 p.m.
1 Richard Fisher Chicago Volkswagen GTI
2 Kevin Fandozzi Philadelphia Chevrolet Cobalt SS
3 Chad Gilsinger Ohio Valley Honda S2000
Touring 3 is a tough battleground with some very fun cars. Last year's Runoffs pitted some of the best front-wheel-drive sports cars in the world – such as the VW GTI – against rear-wheel-drive cars like the Honda S2000. The race was run in the rain and, at the end, it was Kevin Fandozzi who took home the title with the front-wheel-drive Chevy Cobalt SS.
Richard Fisher thinks he should have had a shot in his Volkswagen GTI, but he bet the wrong way on the weather last fall and found himself on dry tires in the deluge.
“We think we have a reasonable chance if we don't make a stupid tire mistake like last year,” Fisher says. The evidence is strong to back up that statement – Fisher took the win at the June Sprints with a 25-second margin of victory, and set a new lap record of 2:36.057.
But, before we award him the championship, Fisher has some strong contenders to beat, including last year's Champion Kevin Fandozzi. The Cobalt SS is fast and powerful on Road America's long straights, and Fandozzi is a veteran of the Runoffs and knows what he has to bring to win.
The Honda S2000 has always been a potent machine in T3, and Chad Gilsinger took second place at the June Sprints in one. Chris Puskar took second at last year's Runoffs in another S2000, and he could contend for the win again this year. As a dark horse, Cheyne Daggett could surprise everyone with his Ford Mustang. Bill Steinhoff or Rob Hines driving a Nissan 350Z and Mike Kramer in a Saturn Ion could also be in the hunt.
RACE 20: H Production | Sunday, 8:30 a.m.
1 Mike Moser Milwaukee Honda CRX
2 Chris Albin Southern Illinois Volkswagen Golf
3 Matt Brannon Ohio Valley Fiat X1/9
H Production often produces surprises. This year, however, Mike Moser's CRX will hold everything together for the win. Chris Albin will be bent on making this prediction wrong, and he's been very fast in the past, but luck has never been on his side. Matt Brannon's Fiat has gotten quicker and quicker, and it's time for him to be in the running at the front.
The surprises this year will be who is chasing these guys for the win. Two former champions will be doing their best to upset these predictions. Greg Gauper (Honda Civic) won last year and, together with two-time Champion Ron Bartell (MG Midget), will make things very hot for the three podium picks. They will be chased by 2011 bronze medalist Jason Isley (Toyota Yaris), who intends to bring good wet-weather tires this year to help turn that third-place finish into a National Championship.
Four-time HP Champion Tom Feller (Triumph Spitfire) said he probably won't attend the Runoffs this year, while Dick Gagliardi (VW Scirocco), last year's silver medalist, has not run as of the deadline for this prediction. If either of these guys shows up, there will be more surprises.
HP is known as a mechanically fragile class, so all predictions are a bit shaky. With only a few exceptions, however, these drivers have run good races in the past with great results. It could be a very good year for HP.
- J. Michael Hemsley