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 21 Touring 2 | Sunday, 9:30 a.m.
1 Marty Grand Washington DC Mitsubishi Evo
2 Cooper MacNeil Chicago Ford Mustang
3 Don Knowles North Carolina Ford Mustang
The T2 class has been the poster child of the Touring classes, exemplifying mixed-make racing and drawing great sized fields, but a change is on the horizon, and T2 as we know it will change for 2013. A Touring restructure is in the works, and many of the front-running T2 cars will move to T1, creating new opportunities for some of the slower cars and allowing many of the current T3 front-runners to join the party. So, what does this mean for the 2012 Runoffs? No one will leave anything on the table.
While the diversity of past Runoffs should still be present come September, many makes have lost ace drivers, which will leave them out of podium contention. The Pontiac camp took a hard hit with Andy Wolverton being MIA this season and Don Knowles moving to a Ford. Over at Nissan, Tony Rivera, who qualified second in 2011, has moved from the 370Z to a BMW, while Brian Kleeman has parked the 350Z in favor of a Mustang.
The Mitsubishi flag will be flying higher than usual, as defending Champ Marty Grand will be back, along with rookie Martin Musial, and if C.J. Moses shows there will be three boost-buggies for the rest of the field to get around. The nod has to go to Grand – he has shown he can win in the wet or the dry, and with him focusing on just T2 this year he will be hard to beat.
The blue oval fans will be looking to Knowles, Kleeman, and Cooper MacNeil to do them proud – although reports are that MacNeil will have his BMW at the ready just in case, but so far he has been faster in the Mustang. Based on the seat time he has racked up during the last year, we think MacNeil will be the top Ford if he chooses to run it.
The wildcard in T2 has to be Rivera. He has been under the radar, but we know if he brings a BMW he will be the top candidate from that camp.
The 996 variant of the Porsche 911 is also a contender at Road America, so there is the possibility for guys like Jay Patel and Steve Jenkins to mix things up.
With nearly all of these front-running cars set to move to T1 one for 2013, this could easily become a very physical race, with everyone giving 110 percent. Jason Isley
RACE 22 Super Touring Under | Sunday, 10:30 a.m.
1 Joel Weinberger Chicago Audi A4
2 Marc Hoover Arizona Mazda Miata
3 Toby Grahovec Texas BMW Z4
Super Touring Under is one of those classes that will never be easy to predict. With the variety of cars eligible for the class, it's impossible to say who will turn up in what car this year. But one thing is certain: Joel Weinberger will be back behind the wheel of his Audi A4 to defend his 2011 championship.
“With a class like STU, you really never know what's out there, but Marc Hoover will be a threat,” says Weinberger. “Eric Heinrich will be tough, too, and Irish Mike Flynn.”
Along with Weinberger, a notable roster of Runoffs veterans will be vying for the podium. Among the contenders is regular T3 pilot Richard Fisher in his VW GTI. Fisher won this year's June Sprints race and is always fast.
Past SSC champion Joe McClughan is one of the best-liked Runoffs contenders, and he went to the June Sprints this year and brought home a second-place finish in STU driving a Mazda6 sedan. McClughan will certainly be a force to reckon with at the Runoffs.
Past SSB Champion Toby Grahovec will also be on hand in his BMW Z4. Although he failed to finish the June Sprints race, he could easily make the podium in September.
“I started 10th at the sprints and got up to second place battling for the lead with Richard Fisher and Joe McClughan when the car overheated,” Grahovec says.
Finally, don't count out Gino Carini in his Acura TSX. Carini has been honing his skills at the Runoffs for years, and he's backed by the very successful RealTime Racing team, with plenty of Pro and Club Racing wins to their credit.
Of note this year is a race within a race, where STL competitors have been welcomed into the fold under the STU banner. There will be no championship for STL (at least this year), but that doesn't mean the racing won't be intense. We're expecting to see nearly as many STL cars compete as STU cars. Who will win this race? According to STL competitor Greg Amy, “STL will be a cat and mouse game of Honda power versus Mazda handling and braking.” But we wouldn't be surprised to see rotary power poking its nose in there should the right one show up.
RACE 23 Formula Vee | Sunday, 11:30 a.m.
1 Michael Varacins Chicago Speed Sport
2 Roger Siebenaler Northern New Jersey Mysterian
3 Rick Shields Steel Cites VDF
Trying to predict anything in Formula Vee is like trying to guess the Tour de France winner. Sure, there are guys who qualify strong and get the hole shot at the start, but all too often they are hunted down and consumed by the peloton.
Somehow Michael Varacins has figured out how to get around Road America quickly in a Vee without the aid of the draft. This has paid off in a number of pole positions and, in 2009, he was able to break away and cruise to the win with a better than 25sec margin of victory. In Formula Vee, that's almost unheard of.
At the 2010 Runoffs, Varacins started from the pole, but found an oil slick on the track that put him off and dashed his hopes of a podium finish. This bunched up the field and resulted in Rick Shields setting the record for the second narrowest margin of victory at the Runoffs when he beat Roger Siebenaler to the line by 0.017sec.
The 2011 championship race was just as exciting, as Siebenaler emerged the victor over Robert Neumeister by just over a tenth of a second, while polesitter Varacins came home third.
The only certainty with trying to pick the podium in this class is that we will be wrong, because it's all up for grabs and won't be decided until the last car pulls out of the draft heading up the front straight to the checker.
Come race time, we give a slight edge to Varacins – he has made some aero changes over the winter and, if he can pull away from the pack, we know he has the staying power to get it done again.
Siebenaler should have a lock on a podium finish, but if he is within drafting distance of the leader on the last lap, he's capable of leveraging that into the win.
Picking a third person for the podium is much more challenging. We would have given it to Robert Neumeister, but we think the change from his trusty Vortech to a different chassis could hamper his efforts. Shields shows he is always a contender, but also watch for Charles Hearn, Stevan Davis, Chris Jennerjahn, and Dennis Andrade.
In reality, the only thing we are somewhat confident in saying is Varacins will start from pole. After that, it's anyone's game.
RACE 24 F Production | Sunday, 1:20 p.m.
1 Steve Sargis Blackhawk Valley Truimph Spitfire
2 Eric Prill Kansas Mazda Miata
3 Ken Kannard Atlanta Mazda Miata
Eric Prill and Ken Kannard are having incredible seasons and, while as of July he has yet to compete this year in FP, Sargis says he's going to run the class at the Runoffs. Picking a winner from among these guys is an exercise in frustration, so after online threads about using hats or dart boards to pick the winner, the three names went into a hat and came out as Kannard taking the win, Prill claiming second, and Sargis finishing third. The random name draw was then debated and second-guessed, and it was eventually decided the best compromise was to invert the hat-drawn results. Regardless, picking which one of these guys is going to win is impossible – any one of them could be the 2012 FP champion.
But it's not going to be an easy race for any of the podium positions. 2008 FP Champion Rick Harris (Mazda Miata) and Brian Linn (Mazda Miata) are back after missing last year's race; Sam Henry (Mazda Miata) and 2010 Champion Kevin Ruck (Acura Integra) are both very fast; and Charlie Campbell (Mazda Miata) had a strong third-place finish last year. Count them up – there are eight FP racers who could actually win the championship. They are all fast; they all know Road America; any of them could win. Ultimately, though, the champion is most likely to be Kannard, Prill, or Sargis.
Keeping these guys honest will be drivers in some unusual cars: Bill Wessel (Datsun SP311), David Strittmatter (Lancia Scorpion), and John Walker (Lotus). Also expect to see Mason Workman also in the mix, as well as Austin Britton, who will be retuning to the Runoffs for the first time since 2001 and was a force to be reckoned with in the 1990s.
Mark Weber (Mazda Miata) will set another record at this year's race. He's already the driver with the most starts at the Runoffs, and this year he will participate in his 500th SCCA race and his 50th Runoffs race. Good luck to Mark!
J. Michael Hemsley
RACE 25 Formula Atlantic | Sunday, 2:20 p.m.
1 Keith Grant Atlanta Swift 016.a
2 Jason Byers Milwaukee Swift 016.a
3 Michael Mallinen Kansas City Swift 016.a
Five times in the last six years a car fielded by Mirl Swan has won the Runoffs. This stranglehold may – just may – be broken this year. The one who could do it is Keith Grant, who is determined and due.
Grant very well could have won the past two years. In 2010, he went wide on the last corner of the last lap, throwing the win away. Last year he just wants to forget. Keith and brother David had a 30-second lead early in the race when they spun in the rain and took each other out. Grant is focused on winning this year, and as of the end of June he has three National wins plus two SCCA Pro Racing Atlantic Championship Series wins. If he keeps his nose clean, he should finally do it this year.
Second and third should be Swan cars. Michael Mallinen won last year but Jason Byers has defeated Mallinen the last two times they have both raced at Road America. Because of this, we think that Byers should just tip Mallinen for second.
Jeff Kowalik, in a Swift 016.a as opposed to the 014.a cars of Grant, Byers, and Mallinen, is always a factor in the CENDiv. If things fall right, he could be on the podium, but which step is the question.
If Lewis Cooper comes, he must be considered. At this date, he has five wins and is leading his division. Also doing well this season are Sedat Yelkin and Chris Fahan. Hans Peter, the 2007 winner, is racing sporadically this season and is unlikely to come to Elkhart Lake this fall – but if he does, watch out. David Grant would definitely contend, but the word is that he is sitting this one out.
When all is said and done, though, it's time for Keith Grant to come through and capitalize on the speed he has shown in the past. If he can go mistake free, he could very well add a Formula Atlantic championship to his resume.
RACE 26 Formula 1000 | Sunday, 2:20 p.m.
Back on Top
1 Brandon Dixon Alabama Citation F1000
2 J.R. Osborne Oregon Stohr
3 Brian Novak Detroit Piper
Formula B is arguably one of the most exciting classes to be added to SCCA National Championship racing in the past 10 years, but it's difficult to get any new purpose-built racing class up and running with the critical mass of cars necessary to sustain competition. This class has a companion SCCA Pro Racing series (called the Formula 1000 Championship Series) to sweeten the pot for drivers, and that's a knife that cuts both ways for the Runoffs. On the one hand, it brings serious drivers to the class, but it can also take a competitor's focus away from Club Racing.
This year, engine failures caused the Pro series to reschedule the final race of the season at VIR to October. This has some leading drivers wondering about turnout at the Runoffs. Just three FB cars turned up at the June Sprints.
“I'll be there, but I'm not sure who else will attend,” says 2011 Champion Brandon Dixon. “The Pro series has changed some people's plans. I'm not sure who is going to scramble to get enough [National] finishes and who will stay home. I think the best bets for the podium are the usual suspects. J.R. Osborne, Brian Novak, and Glen Cooper.”
Dixon has had a great career in FB, winning the title in 2010 and claiming second last year, and has so far won three pro races this year. He was leading in the fourth race when engine trouble took him out, so it would be crazy not to rank him as the top choice to win again at the Runoffs. However, Bill McLaughlin could also be a contender, as could Lucien Pancea.
RACE 27 GT-3 | Sunday, 3:20 p.m.
1 Jeff Dernehl Atlanta Mazda RX-7
2 Michael Cyphert Neohio Toyota Celica
3 Rob Warkocki Chicago Mazda RX-7
When you consider the competition in GT-3 at the Runoffs, it's clear that this class has a very deep bench. The list of talented drivers in very well developed cars is long, and the class is bound to be one of the closest races of the week.
Jeff Dernehl has been paying his dues for quite a few years, and this is likely to be his year to finish at the top of the podium. Dernehl is leading the tough Southeast Division in points, and he won the June Sprints, with his fast race time besting longtime GT-3 driver Rob Warkocki by better than two seconds a lap.
“This could be Jeff Dernehl's year,” says Warkocki. “Obviously, he's worked very hard on his car, but his Achilles' heel is weight. Tire management will be key for him.”
Warkocki himself is always a strong contender for the podium, and finished second at the June Sprints this year.
“I'm trying to run my races this season pretty cautiously, as I need to not hurt the car,” Warkocki continues. “Everything needs to go in the new 13B engine I'm trying to get in the car for the Runoffs.”
Another longtime contender who could make the top of the podium is Michael Cyphert. “Unfortunately, I missed the June Sprints because of an uncharacteristic engine failure at the end of May,” Cyphert says. “I've got a new engine ready and it dyno'ed better than the engine that set the GT-3 qualifying record last year.”
Other drivers who are likely to be fighting for the podium include 2011 Champion John Black, two time Champion Collin Jackson, Wolfgang Maike, Mike Henderson, and Ken Nelson. With this many great drivers in the hunt, it's going to be a wild ride in GT-3 this year.
RACE 28 Formula 500 | Sunday, 4:20 p.m.
1 Michael Mueller Milwaukee Red Devil
2 C.J. McAbee Kansas KBS
3 Jason Knuteson Central Florida Scorpion
At the 2011 Runoffs, all indicators from qualifying pointed to a tight race, but as the green waved no one was in the same zip code as Michael Mueller. By lap two, Mueller had an 11-second lead on the field, and eventually motored to a better than 30-second margin of victory in the wet conditions over Jeremy Morales.
Mueller seems to be on pace to repeat, he's had a great season thus far, which was just highlighted with a win at the June Sprints.
Where we expect the changes to happen are the next two steps of the podium. There is a lot of buzz around C.J. McAbee, who finished third in 2011, and he seems to be having his best season ever. Some tweaks to the car, a new job and a new baby at home have kept McAbee busy, but he seems more determined than ever to move up the podium.
Jason Knuteson always has speed, but it is often accompanied by a bit of bad luck. If he can keep everything together he could very easily be standing on the podium come Sunday.
Other possible contenders include 2011 runner-up Morales, Aaron Ellis and Mike Brent.