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 in the October issue of the magazine. We'll be relating their prognostications here ahead of the actual races, which gets under way later this week at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. Along with coverage of the races themselves, RACER.com will feature insights from SportsCar contributor Jeff Zurschmeide on the goings on at Road America.
Meanwhile, here are SportsCar's first batch of predictions for Thursday's races:
RACE 1: Super Touring Over | Thursday, 9:25 a.m.
1 Scott Tucker Atlanta Porsche 911
2 David Pintaric Mahoning Valley Dodge Viper
3 Bob Mayer Atlanta Chevrolet Corvette
To say the start of the STO race for the last two years has had some issues would be an understatement. In 2010, a yard sale of T1 cars blocked the track at the flag stand at the start, and a very frightening impact in Canada Corner took out two STO front-runners on the first lap in 2011. We're hoping this year sees that every STO car gets to complete at least one lap without incident.
Scott Tucker will be returning with the Porsche 911 that took him to the win in 2011, but hot on his heels will be 2010 winner David Pintaric in a Dodge Viper. Tucker will be very busy this year, as he pulls triple duty also competing in DSR and GT-2, but knowing that Tucker will bring nothing less than a first-class effort, we have no doubt that the additional seat time will only make him stronger.
An off earlier in the season at Road America found Pintaric writing off a Viper in spectacular fashion, but he came out no worse for wear, and will have his STO car running at full song.
The battle for the win in 2011 kept everyone on the edge of their seats – less than a second separated Tucker and Pintaric at the stripe. The action should be equally as exciting this year with likely the same outcome.
Third place is a much more difficult call. Jerry Onks has rebuilt after being part of the 2011 first lap crash, and is looking fast in his Corvette. Bob Mayer has been trying to get to the Runoffs the last two years but mechanical problems have plagued his Corvette and caused him to throw in the towel – his third try could be the charm.
Only two things could put a damper on the STO race: another opening-lap crash, or a car count that puts the class below the 10-car threshold needed to crown a National Champion.
Race 2: Touring 1 | Thursday, 9:25 a.m.
1 John M. Buttermore Detroit Chevrolet Corvette
2 Tom Sloe Neohio Chevrolet Corvette
3 Mike McGinley Kansas City Chevrolet Corvette
Defending T1 Champ John M. Buttermore will be back in his C6 Corvette, and if things go the way we think they will, he'll cruise to a second title. However, Buttermore will have 2011 runner-up Tom Sloe in a C5 Corvette pushing him into burning up his tires and brakes.
At Road America, the C6 Corvette has the legs to win, but its reported weakness is going the full race distance – something that the shortened races the last two years has not revealed. Meanwhile, the C5 Corvette seems to run at a slightly slower and steadier pace – possibly a better choice for a 13-lap race.
“The C5 Corvette has to be perfect to compete, and the race will need to be the full 13 laps as the advantage with the C5 comes later in the race,” explains Sloe.
Having to push Buttermore won't be the only challenge facing Sloe, as he also plans to run his Mustang in American Sedan, which shares qualifying sessions with T1. With only three qualifying sessions this year, Sloe will be forced into the difficult position of picking a favorite when it comes to which car to run in which session – and, if weather becomes a factor (which it always does), he could easily find himself starting from the back of one of the grids.
Regardless of the number of green flag laps, chances are excellent Buttermore and Sloe will check out on the field, leaving the rest scrapping for third. Mike McGinley, Michael Pettiford, and David Sanders will all be looking for that final step on the podium, and have all shown speed at the Runoffs. It seems very likely that McGinley will take that final step, making the results a carbon copy of 2011.
Race 3: Sports 2000 | Thursday, 10:25 a.m.
1 Corey Fergus Ohio Valley Carbir
2 Mark Mercer Colorado Lola
3 Bart Wolf Milwaukee Carbir
Multi-time Champion John Fergus sold one of his Carbirs and decided to sit out this season. So, that should mean no Fergus with whom to contend, right? No. There will be a Fergus at the Runoffs, and we think he will carry on the family winning tradition.
John's son Corey Fergus is concentrating on the Continental Tire Series this season, but will have run enough points to qualify for the Runoffs. He had two starts and two convincing wins by the end of June, and his Fergus Companies Carbir, expertly wrenched by Randy Hartman and with a new engine from Steve Knapp's Elite Engines, will be ready. Corey has elevated his game greatly in the past two years and will be ready to add to the family total.
His biggest threat will be Mark Mercer. Mark has two gold medals and knows how to win. Mercer picks and chooses his races, but says, “I'm going to try to come to the Runoffs. The car is working well; I'm old but still seem able to drive. As long as it doesn't rain, I'll try to win.”
At the time of this writing, there was a degree of uncertainty surrounding Mercer's attendance, which is a significant reason he is picked for second rather than first.
The third step of the podium should be designed to hold more than one. Besides Bart Wolf, who always runs well at Road America, two West Coast aces likely will make the long tow. Joe Moran, who has four wins and two seconds, may come. “I am on the fence,” says Moran. “It is 2,120 miles, and a brutal drive. I will decide on Labor Day weekend.”
David Ferguson, driving the unique Van Diemen, does intend to come. “I'm qualified and have made arrangements. My car is handling better than ever, and I expect to be competitive.”
Either Moran or Ferguson could well have been the pick for third, but with Moran at this time “thinking about it” and Wolf's familiarity, the pick is Wolf. But it so easily could have been different.
Also figuring into the equation is Alan Andrea, second last year and a veteran with many, many miles at Road America, who seemingly excels in the rain. Michael Bautz is having a very competitive year.
And then there's the wild card. John Fergus says that if it's necessary to make up the required 10-car field to crown a National Champion this year, he just may rent a car and use his champion's provisional.
RACE 4: Showroom Stock B | Thursday, 11:25 a.m.
1 Toby Grahovec Texas BMW Z4
2 Mike Scornavacchi Florida Ford Mustang
3 Lee Niffenegger Cal Club Honda Civic Si
SSB is a great class. You'll always find a bevy of different manufacturers and, in the past, the win has been anyone's to claim. But there are a number of folks who always seem to find themselves at the front of the field.
“My plans are still a bit up in the air,” says 2008 SSB Champ Lee Niffenegger, who is also the Senior Engineer Business Development for Honda. “I have been able to run three races so far [this year]. I borrowed Luke Wilwert's car from our Ohio-based Team Honda Research to do these, but had to send the car back to Ohio in early May for Luke to start his season. Team Honda Research-West [based in Torrance, Calif.] is trying to get a 2012 Civic Si completed so I can take that to the Runoffs. This is exactly the kind of development work we like as Honda associates, but it is not matching up well with the race schedules right now! It might not make its race debut until the Sept. 1 Double National at Buttonwillow. In the meantime, I'm trying to find another car to complete my required races prior to the Runoffs.”
Niffenegger's Honda teammate Wilwert gave Toby Grahovec a good run at the Chicago Region SCCA June Sprints, and if he and Niffenegger work together in the Honda camp it could put the two of them on the podium above Grahovec's BMW.
Toby Grahovec was smooth and fast in his Z4 at the June Sprints, and a home track advantage may give him just a small nod over last year's winner Mike Scornavacchi. Scornavacchi is always tough, but sometimes his Runoffs luck tends to bite him in the shorts. You could see the genuine emotion on Scornavacchi's face last year when he took the title, so you know he's planning to repeat.
Other fast guys in the Mustang camp include Andrew Charboneau, 2010 Champ Ed Zabinski and Tim Meyers, any of them could figure into the medals as well.
RACE 5: Showroom Stock C | Thursday, 11:25 a.m.
1 Mark McCaughey Central Florida Toyota Celica GTS
2 Ali Naimi Oregon Mazda 3
3 Tom Daly Land O' Lakes Volkswagen Rabbit
Mark McCaughey is looking to claim his third Showroom Stock C championship in a row, and there's every reason to think he can do it. McCaughey is known for clean and fast driving, and his Toyota Celica is always competitive.
“We'll be back with the defending champion car,” he says. “Right now, the Toyota has been restricted quite a lot from last year. We have raced in a few events this season, including the [BFGoodrich Tires] Super Tour event at Sebring, and we won there. It will be a challenge going for three in a row, and as this is possibly the last year of SSC I would be delighted to close the book on the class with such an accomplishment.”
But before he can claim his third title, McCaughey will have to deal with a strong group of contenders. Tom Daly won the SSC race at this year's June Sprints. Brian Husting ran a strong race at last year's Runoffs in his Chevy Cobalt before being taken out in a crash. Finally, Ali Naimi took second-place honors last year, and has been improving his finishes for the better part of a decade.
“As always, in an SSC race, I think tires will play the biggest part,” says McCaughey. “Who will have the best brand and be able to manage them for the entire race distance?”
Past Champion Joel Lipperini, a perennial frontrunner, is registered in a B-Spec Honda this year, so for the first time in a long time he'll get to see what the middle of the pack looks like – that is, unless he swaps cars at the last minute.
Dark horse contenders include Jonathan Start, who has been racing a B-Spec car in World Challenge this year, or anyone in a 2001-'05 Mazda Miata, which has just been moved into the class.
RACE 6: American Sedan | Thursday, 1:00 p.m.
1 Andy McDermid Milwaukee Ford Mustang
2 John Heinricy Philadelphia Pontiac Firebird
3 Michael Lavigne New England Ford Mustang
This is not fair! How can you choose a winner between two of the most decorated drivers in SCCA Club Racing? Between John Heinricy and Andy McDermid, you're looking at 17 titles!
“I look forward to racing with Andy [McDermid] every year,” says Heinricy. “I can always count on a great race. We will be back in a Tom Aquilante-prepared Firebird.”
Last year, McDermid and Heinricy put on a driving clinic in the wet while both of them were on dry weather tires, thus proving that nothing will slow these guys down.
Andy McDermid reportedly drove away from the rest of the field at the June Sprints, notching a nice margin of victory in the process – and the rumor is he's building a brand-new Mustang for the Runoffs. Hopefully, he'll have all the bugs worked out in time for the main event in September.
It's really a toss-up as to which of these fantastic drivers will stand on the top step of the podium, but we have to give the nod to McDermid.
The third step is by no means a lock, either. We have a list of choices for that one. Michael Lavigne had a great race at last year's race and was in a spectacular battle most of the race with some of the stalwarts of American Sedan until his day unceremoniously ended in the gravel trap at Turn 5. We're giving him the nod for the podium this year. But that's not to say there aren't others who could upset this perfectly planned prediction. Tom Sloe (Mustang), Jeff Werth (Camaro), Tom Ellis (Mustang), Daniel Richardson (Camaro), Jim Wheeler (Trans-Am), and last year's bronze medalist David Venhaus (Mustang) are just some of the candidates.
RACE 7: Formula Enterprises | Thursday, 2:00 p.m.
1 Scott Rettich Ohio Valley
2 Patrick Gallagher Ohio Valley
3 Paul Schroeder San Francisco
Scott Rettich does little but win. He has won the last two FE titles, and racks up National wins in both FE and SRF with great regularity. There is little reason to think that he will change the pattern at this year's Runoffs. True, Patrick Gallagher did beat him at this year's June Sprints, but when all the chips are on the line, Rettich's experience and race craft should prevail, if narrowly.
Rettich has four wins in his Springboro Car Wash FE as of the end of June, while Gallagher has two in his Jay Motorsports example. Gallagher's June Sprints win was in the rain – could this have been a deciding factor? If it rains at the Runoffs, will Gallagher repeat the win? It's possible.
Paul Schroeder so far has three wins and three second places, enjoying a very good year indeed. He has shown that he can win, and could do so this fall. Jason Wolfe has two wins, as does Patrick Linn. Both are contenders. Scott McQueen is a perennial contender who is always around the top of the order. Any of those three could gain a step on the podium if things fall their way.
However, Rettich and Gallagher have shown the speed necessary to win the Runoffs. They have shown themselves to consistently be at the head of the pack, and we expect more of the same this September. This should prove to be a great race.
RACE 8: Formula Mazda | Thursday, 2:00 p.m.
1 Darryl Wills Houston
2 Doug Peterson Buccaneer
3 Jason Vinkemulder Milwaukie
With one of the most successful spec racecars in SCCA history, a Formula Mazda race is always a close thing. Darryl Wills will be back to defend his two-year championship streak, but Doug Peterson thinks he has what it takes to claim this year's crown. Peterson is leading the points in the competitive Southeast Division; this, doubled with his 2004 championship in the class and his strong second-place finish at the 2011 Runoffs, all give credibility to his ambition.
“This is my year to win, and Darryl [Wills] will be second,” Peterson says.
Peterson showed up to the June Sprints and got caught up in a tremendous crash at the start that brought out a red flag, so there's no knowing how he would have fared in that race.
Jason Vinkemulder took the Sprints honors after the restart, and he's also confident of running at the front courtesy of the setup homework he's been doing this year.
“Goodyear has made a new tire for Formula Mazda and it is a significant improvement from the previous generation tire,” says Vinkemulder. “This season we have been focusing on getting the most out of the tire. Some of them are large departures from our old setup window. It's been fun! Setups we couldn't get away with before are now breaking track records.”
Dark horse contenders could include Dale VandenBush. George Jackson and Robert Noell both showed well at the Sprints, and Alan McCallum turned in a podium performance at last year's Runoffs. With the cars so evenly matched, anything is possible.