Though his first 16 visits to the SCCA National Championship Runoffs Presented by Subway ended without a podium finish, Robert Warkocki, of Frankfort Ill., finally made it count in attempt 17 by claiming the Sunoco GT-3 National Championship Sunday at Road America. Mike Henderson, of El Cajon, Calif., and Michael Cyphert, of Twinsburg, Ohio, joined Warkocki on the podium.
Henderson qualified on the Gumout Pole and looked poised to run away with the Championship until lap eight, when a 2.837-second deficit was wiped out in contact with lapped traffic through the Kink. Henderson dove to pit lane for his crew to repair a closed exhaust pipe on his No. 12 Mazda RX-7.
Normally at the SCCA Runoffs, a pit stop during the scheduled 13-lap sprint race ends any chance at a top finish. But when Ric Bushey's No. 30 Abacus Racing/Nissan/Dynamic Comm Nissan 350Z slid off track in Turn Three just a few corners later, it brought out the safety car for a full-course caution. That, combined with the long four-mile course at Road America, allowed Henderson to rejoin the field at the back of the pack.
While it was good for Henderson, the caution period erased the breathing room that Cyphert had built in his No. 76 Toyota/Redline Oil/Goodyear Toyota Celica, as the gap between his position and the battle behind him had stretched to several seconds. The lap 11 restart meant that Warkocki's No. 78 Empcor/Goodyear/Mazda Redline Mazda RX-7 and the No. 3 PFM Engineering/Goodyear/Moton Nissan 350Z of Jimmy Burke, from Suwanee, Ga., would now be battling Cyphert for the lead instead of their fight for a distant third.
At the green flag, Burke bogged down while Cyphert and Warkocki raced off to fight for the lead. Warkocki moved into the lead under braking at Turn Five.
Passing by the start/finish line with one lap to go, Warkocki led Cyphert with Henderson 2.095-seconds in arrears. In Turn Five, there was a two-car length gap between each of the three. By Turn 11, the three were nose-to-tail with Henderson challenging Cyphert for second. While Warkocki inched just ahead on a run to the checkers and his first National Championship, Henderson and Cyphert ran side-by-side out of Turn 14 just behind him to the finish line.
Warkocki grabbed his first National Championship by just 0.451-second, averaging 84.466 mph over the 52-mile race.
"I'm amazed," Warkocki said. "I'm waiting for my alarm to go off. I keep thinking I'm dreaming and I'm going to wake up and find out it's not true. I'm still that little kid standing on the fence watching. I'm such a fan of this stuff. To get behind the wheel of a car and do it is just so exhilarating. To race with quality drivers like these two in GT-3 who have really shown their talent is just a dream.
"Another lap today and Mike [Cyphert] would have been gone. I fell off the podium last year with one lap to go, and I made it my goal to be back here this year. I put a lot of effort into this. We do everything ourselves. Everything is homebuilt. This is just incredible."
The caution period was pivotal for the Champion.
"This year we tuned the car differently," Warkocki said. "We had a lot more down force, but not as much straight line speed. It was slower in the straights but much better in the corners. On the restart, going into One I tucked behind Mike Cyphert. Coming out of Three, I couldn't ignore the fact that I had a run on him. I had the confidence in Mike as a gentleman racer that he would give me room and it was everything I could do to make the corner then I was in the lead."
Henderson finished as the runner-up for the second year-in-a-row after his drama-filled race, which included the fastest lap of the race in a time of 2:23.568 (100.301 mph).
"I got out just like I hoped I would," Henderson said. "Sometime around the Kink there was a backmarker and he was right in the middle of the track, so I picked the left side and he came over. I was in the grass trying to get by him and touched him. I actually thought I had a flat tire, but it pinched off my exhaust. I got back out after the yellow and went on a charge after that.
"I have been a beneficiary of two of these yellow flags [during previous Runoffs]. It gave me a chance to make up the better part of the lap and get to the end of the line. It got us into a position to try to pick up a couple more places."
Cyphert, a two-time National Champion, was on the podium for the first time since 1994 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Unlike the other two drivers, the caution period likely hurt his finishing position, but Cyphert was all smiles after a third-place finish.
"I had a few choice words to myself and shared them with the crew when the yellow flag came out," Cyphert admitted. "We need to keep safety in mind, so you just need to live with it. That's racing.
"The car was working very well. I think this is the fourth time we have had a full-course yellow at the Runoffs. Two others I won, and two I didn't. Hats off to Rob [Warkocki]. I thought in the last lap at Canada Corner I got a run on Rob because he missed a shift, but I just couldn't hold Henderson off. It just wasn't meant to be. I guess next time I will have to peddle a little harder."
Burke finished fourth, followed by Jeffrey Dernehl, of Woodstock, Ga., in the No. 03 Roswell Outback Auto/RRE/Hoosier Mazda RX-7.
Ken Nelson, Kerry Bonner, Robert Herman, Jim Hargrove and David Dobry completed the top-10. Nelson earned the Sunoco Hard Charger Award for improving six positions to his six-place finish in his No. 91 Nissan 200SX.
Now in its 47th year, the SCCA National Championship Runoffs Presented by Subway annually crowns Champions in the Sports Car Club of America's Club Racing classes. The broadcast of all 28 National Championship races aired live throughout the weekend at www.Speedcasttv.com/scca and will be available later On Demand from the same site.
Follow the action on Twitter @SCCAOfficial or the SCCA, Inc. Official Facebook page at facebook.com/sccaofficial.
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. - Provisional Results from Sunday's Sunoco GT-3 National Championship Race, part of the 47th SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Road America with finish position, starting position in parenthesis, driver, hometown, car and laps complete.
1, (3), Robert Warkocki, Frankfort, IL, Mazda RX-7, 13.
2, (1), Mike Henderson, El Cajon, CA, Mazda RX-7, 13.
3, (2), Michael A Cyphert, Twinsburg, OH, Toyota Celica, 13.
4, (4), Jimmy Burke, Suwanee, GA, Nissan 350Z, 13.
5, (5), Jeffrey D Dernehl, Woodstock, GA, Mazda RX-7, 13.
6, (12), Ken Nelson, Novi, MI, Nissan 200SX, 13.
7, (11), Kerry G Bonner, Katy, TX, Ford Probe, 13.
8, (14), Robert Herman, Cairo, NE, Mazda RX-7, 13.
9, (0), Jim Hargrove, Surrey, BC, Honda Civic, 13.
10, (15), David E Dobry, Plymouth, MI, Eagle Talon, 12.
11, (8), Paul V Young, Commerce Township, MI, Ford Probe, 11.
12, (7), Richard Bushey, Virginia Beach, VA, Nissan 350Z, 11.
13, (17), Richard Allen, Chickasha, OK, Nissan 350Z, 9.
14, (16), Wayne Quick, Dunn, NC, Ford Probe, 6.
DNF, (6), Wolfgang Maike, Santa Barbara, CA, Toyota Paseo, 5.
DNF, (10), Chad Bacon, Kingsport, TN, Toyota Celica, 0.
DNF, (9), Pete Peterson, Lumberton, NC, Toyota Celica, 0.
DNS, (13), Joe Kristensen, London, ON, Acura RSX, 0.
Time of Race: 36:56.289
Winner's average speed: 84.466 mph
Fastest race lap: #12 Mike Henderson, 2:23.568 (100.301 mph)
Lap Leaders: 1-6, #12 Mike Henderson; 7-10, #76 Michael Cyphert; #78 Robert Warkocki
Sunoco Hard Charger: #91 Ken Nelson
Cautions: 1 for 3 laps
Attached: Sunoco GT-3 National Champion Robert Warkocki.
Credit: Mark Weber/SCCA