Christian Szymczak's last SCCA Pro Racing Playboy MX-5 Cup race weekend gave him broken ribs. Round Eight on Saturday at Virginia International Raceway went much, much better.
Szymczak leads the field on his way to the win at VIR (Michael 0. Crews photo)
Szymczak, from Palos Verdes, Calif., crossed the finish line 0.83sec ahead of Ara Malkhassian, of Houston, Texas, to earn his first career MX-5 Cup win. Championship leader Stevan McAleer, from Putnam Valley, N.Y., held the season-long lead with a podium finish.
The race winner officially led 18 of the 20 laps covered in the race's 45 minutes, averaging 87.029 mph to the checkered flag in the No. 34 Projections Research/Sick Sideways MX-5. The laps led count only tallies the official lap leaders at the checkered flag, and misses the thrilling battles in the back half of the 17-turn, 3.27-mile track.
Six different drivers took a turn at the point during the race, as the draft down the VIR's two long straights kept the field bunched. McAleer's exceptional standing start launched his No. 28 Blue Mercury Capital/Numerix/CJ Wilson Children's Charities MX-5 from second into the lead, but Szymczak jumped back to the lead early in the lap.
Elliott Skeer, looking for some momentum heading into his home race next week on Coronado Island in San Diego, put his No. 17 MAZDASPEED/Sparco/CJ Wilson Racing MX-5 into the lead on lap four, dicing with Szymczak at the front of what was then a seven car drafting breakaway.
Malkhassian, who recovered from an early-race mistake, put the No. 11 ALARA Racing MX-5 in the lead on lap nine, and Szymczak's Sick Sideways teammate John Dean did the same with the No. 16 Projections Research/Sick Sideways machine on lap 12.
As the race progressed, the front group started to string out just enough to give Szymczak some breathing room ahead of battles for position deeper in the field. The win followed a qualifying crash on Friday while trying to best polesitter and teammate Nathanial Sparks' No. 3 OOTSK Performance/Sick Sideways MX-5's time.
That crash jarred the broken ribs he received during a crash on the Round Seven weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, making the win even sweeter.
“I didn't see this coming, especially after yesterday in qualifying,” Szymczak said. “I knew the car was fast, we were really quick. It was a good combination, the car was good and I was driving fast. The accident set me back a little bit in qualifying. Fortunately it didn't damage the car severely, it was just cosmetic, but I also hurt my ribs a little bit again. But the pain was manageable, but I definitely felt fortunate to win. I didn't think it was going to happen, it was a bit of a surprise.
“It was a really exciting race. There was definitely a lot of battling going on, more at the beginning of the race than there was at the end. Elliott and Ara and John were all there at the beginning, and Nathanial Sparks as well, and they were all fighting for the win. They all got bunched up and started fighting each other. At the end I was able to pull out a little bit of a gap, and I was relieved to see that because I was getting a little anxious and a little tired.”
In the closing laps, the battle for second place between Malkhassian and Dean heated up. With precious championship points in play, Dean was looking for a way around Malkhassian in the turn 15-16 complex when he slid through the grass and into the tire barrier on the final lap. Dean limped across the finish line to a seventh place finish while Malkhassian grabbed the runner-up.
Malkhassian just avoided the spinning Dean in a twist of fate from his previous visits here. In two of the three prior MX-5 Cup visits to VIR, Malkhassian's race ended prematurely by spinning cars in the exact same corner.
“We're trying to basically do a points chase for the championship, and it's nice to get the two guys who have been leading the championship finish behind us today,” Malkhassian said. “It puts us second in the Championship and gunning for first by Road Atlanta.
“It was redemption. I think fate tried to do it again. I was in the same spot where I've been hit before and almost got hit again by a flying missile. Thankfully that didn't happen and we had a nice, good finish. Congratulations to Christian today for a great run.”
McAleer drove like a textbook Championship leader, taking what was available and showing patience throughout. Floating between fifth and seventh place in the early stages, he made up one position when Skeer ran wide and off course on lap 18 for an eventual 12th place finish. The fourth position became his sixth podium of the season when Dean slid off on the final lap.
“We really didn't have much,” McAleer said. “I've been pretty good at starts all year long, and I got a pretty good jump on Nathanial and held on the lead into turn one. Obviously you don't look at engine problems or anything like that, we just got our head down and kept working together. They just started pulling away, bit by bit, and the only reason I could kind of hold on somewhat is they were fighting every so often. I waited on the mistakes and people spinning out of control. We were super lucky today with third place.”
“Obviously John Dean is a massive contender to us and he made a mistake on the last lap, so we go to San Diego with a good points lead but we need to find some extra speed for the remaining three races.”
Sparks started first and ran in concert with the lead pack all morning before finishing fourth.
In just his second professional start, Sebastian Landy drove the No. 49 Excitations.com/Windsor Customs MX-5 to his second consecutive fifth-place finish. Teammate Chris Windsor finished sixth in the No. 38 Windsor Customs/Child Print ID MX-5 after both ran in the lead pack during the early stages of the race.
Brent Mosing (No. 10 Frank's International/ALARA Racing MX-5), Nick Igdalsky (No. 29 ModSpace Motorsports/CJWR MX-5) and Thomas Neel (No. 15 Parts Group Motorsports/NEO/Ballast Inv. MX-5) finished eight through 10th.
David Knight moved his No. 97 Pharmanex/Jacuzzi/Skip Barber MX-5 to the Skip Barber Racing School MAZDASPEED Pro Series class win after then-leader Bryan Hixon spun the No. 63 HixonRacing.myvi.net MX-5 trying to avoid another spinning car. Hixon finished second, with Greg Holloway (No. 69 Connexus/Skip Barber MX-5) finished third in class.
With the podium finish, McAleer moves to Round Nine of 11 with a 25 point lead over Malkhassian, 439-414. Dean slides to third with 406 points, followed by Szymczak with 402. Sparks sits fifth with 365.
Round Eight of the SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup season from Virginia International Raceway will air on Velocity at noon (EDT) on Saturday, Oct. 20. More information is available at www.mx-5cup.com.