The SCCA National Championship Runoffs finds itself with a new home for 2009. Normally, a change in venue would result in us pulling out the dartboard when trying to pick the winners of SCCA Club Racing's main event, but with Road America playing host to the event, we had what we hope is an ace up our sleeve.
Thanks to what is the largest non-championship National Club race of the season, the June 19-21 Chicago Region June Sprints gave us a glimpse of which drivers, and which cars, may have an edge come the Sept. 25-27 championship event. However, to toss a wrench into our well-meaning prognostications, this year we noticed several top drivers and cars were absent from the Sprints. Perhaps they didn't want to show their hand going into the Runoffs; perhaps they wanted to make our Who Will Win predictions that much more difficult. Undaunted, our crack team of experts made their selections of who are the ones to watch as the Runoffs descends on Elkhart Lake, Wis.
The move to Road America, after the three previous years at Heartland Park Topeka, marks only the sixth venue to host the Runoffs. Originally, the Runoffs alternated between Riverside International Raceway in California and Daytona International Speedway in Florida. This rotation occurred from 1964-'69. For the 1970 Runoffs, Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga., was selected, and the event stayed there for the next 24 years. From 1994-'05, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, hosted the event and, during that time, the Runoffs set a record for highest number of championship starters, at 709.
Road America is a historic 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course that was carved out of Wisconsin farmland and hosted its first SCCA National Club race in 1955. Since that time, the course has received a number of upgrades, but the original course layout has gone unchanged. With over 50 years of racing history, Road America is a fitting home for the 2009 Runoffs, and all of the drivers should find it a challenging and rewarding track.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves – after all, the Runoffs isn't until Sept. 25-27. Right now, there are only wild guesses as to who will take the gold. What follows are our best guesses at who will win in each of the 25 championship classes.
We'll see you in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and we'll find out just how wrong we were.
Race 1 | GT-Lite | Friday, 8:30 a.m.
1 | Jim Dentici | Milwaukee | Honda CRX | n4
2 | Chris Bovis | Kansas | Honda CRX | n1
3 | Peter Shadowen | Florida | Honda CRX
Jim Dentici can run four races – and the Runoffs – and never be more than 75 miles from his home. He built his Honda CRX, he knows Road America and he is smooth and lightning fast. Dentici will win, but 2007 Champion Chris Bovis is also in a fast car – one that Dentici built. Bovis will make sure that Dentici doesn't have it easy. Peter Shadowen qualified fifth and finished second last year at Heartland Park Topeka and is leading his division – he's quick, and Hondas seem to be a good bet at Road America.
Pushing these three will be a host of others in a variety of cars. Reigning Champion Peter Zekert will be running his Nissan 200SX like he stole it, as will Chad Bacon in his Toyota. Jim Stinehelfer finished third at the June Sprints in his Miata, the only open car entered. Jim Hargrove came from British Columbia to run his very quick Honda Civic. If his Runoffs setup is as quick as he hopes, a different kind of Honda could be on the podium. Bill Gilcrease has entered his Mini and always runs well. Unfortunately, Road America will be a tough course for a Mini.
The real unknowns, though, are the roadsters that weren't at the Sprints. Built to full GT-L specs, some believe the roadsters to be over dogs – but that's not been shown yet. Brian Linn was closest last year, but he broke before the start. Already entered in roadsters are Kent Prather in a Miata, Howard Gerstein in a Miata, Brian Linn in a Midget or Miata, Noel Hayward in a Midget and Rick Haynes, also in a Midget. Any of these guys could spoil a Honda podium, but it won't be easy to spoil Dentici's run.
J. Michael Hemsley
Race 2 | C Sports Racing | Friday, 9:30 a.m.
1 | James French | Milwaukee | Swift 014.a
2 | Jason Miller | Milwaukee | West
3 | Jacek Mucha | Indianapolis | Swift 014.a
It is not often that a high school student running his first Runoffs is favored to win his class, but that is exactly what we are predicting this year. James French, son of longtime FA and historic F1 racer Brian French, has shown amazing speed in this, just his second full year of racing. Indeed, he won the June Sprints fairly easily over a fine field of CSRs. This was his third win of the year and marks him as the one to beat.
French is aided by the fact that his car is very suited to the long straights of Road America. He is driving a fendered Formula Atlantic Swift, expertly prepared by Carl Liebich, and doing so on his home track. The fendered Atlantics have shown more speed at Road Atlanta than the true CSRs, and that will be a big advantage.
Having said that, a true CSR is picked for second. Jason Miller is running on his home circuit also, and again is in a 6-cylinder, Kohler-powered West. Potentially the Kohler 6 is the strongest engine in the race, and if it holds together it can push the ground-effect West chassis around the four miles very fast indeed. Jason Miller is the son of six-time Champion Jeff Miller, and it's about time that the family tally is increased.
Jacek Mucha has been banging on the door for years. His fendered Swift Atlantic was not suited for Topeka but, as stated above, is well suited to Road America. He should be very competitive.
Others to figure into the equation include Brian French, David Kohler, Don Yount, David Koller, Renny Damon, Gary Gibson, Bill Goldkind, Jeff Miller and the evergreen Jim Downing.
Race 3 | Touring 2 | Friday, 10:30 a.m.
1 | Bill Baten | Indianapolis | Chevrolet Camaro
2 | David McNeil | Chicago | BMW M3
3 | Bill Peter | Milwaukee Region | Mitsubishi Evo
Last year, the top three finishers and two other contenders in T2 each drove a Pontiac Solstice GXP – don't look for that to happen this year at Road America. In fact, it's going to be tough for a Solstice to even make the podium.
With several long straightaways, the 4.048-mile circuit is more conducive to the bigger horsepower cars in T2 than superb cornering cars like the Solstice. Consequently, cars like the Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Mitsubishi Evo and possibly BMW M3 may wind up on top.
Case in point: This year's June Sprints was won by a Camaro. Finishing second through fifth were M3s. The only Solstice entry finished sixth, 25 seconds behind the winner.
Last year's Runoffs runner-up, Mike Pettiford, is having second thoughts about which car to run. “I was thinking of driving my Solstice,” he says, “but after looking at the results, I may switch to a Camaro Z-28.”
Based on Pettiford staying in a Solstice, the favorite's nod goes to Bill Baten. He won this year's June Sprints and was sixth at the 2008 Runoffs.
David McNeil looks like the best of the Beemers. He has run well at the Sprints, finishing second this year and winning in 2008.
Look for Evo driver Bill Peter, who last year was third at the Sprints and ninth at the Runoffs, to nab the final podium spot over fellow Evo pilot Marty Grand.
Despite the horsepower concerns, don't completely overlook the Solstice. Four-time Runoffs Champion Don Knowles drove one to titles in 2006-'07, and was leading on the last lap in 2008. He is experienced enough to take it to the front. Last year's Runoffs Champ Andy Wolverton has run well at Road America, finishing third in the 2008 Sprints. And let's not forget Pettiford; he's always tough, no matter what he drives.
Race 4 | Sports 2000 | Friday, 11:30 a.m.
1 | John Fergus II | Ohio Valley | Carbir | n6
2 | Corey Fergus | Ohio Valley | Carbir
3 | Bart Wolf | Milwaukee | Carbir
For the past decade, Sports 2000 has meant John Fergus. Others have come and gone, and Fergus has not won every year, but it is indisputable that he has dominated this class.
Now there are two of them.
Son Corey began racing not long ago and has progressed at a very fast pace. Indeed, Corey finished third last year behind his father John and Bart Wolf. This season, Corey has picked up the pace considerably and is a winner in his own right. He has even beaten dad on occasion. At the June Sprints, Corey scored his biggest win yet, besting a fine S2000 field to win. Corey Fergus is very capable of winning the Gold Medal.
So why are we picking John? Because this is the Runoffs, because John has won six times previously, because he is super competitive, because he will give nothing away and because he still is the best S2000 driver out there, that's why.
“I am very proud of Corey,” says John. “He is very fast, even faster than me. I really enjoy running with him, and he is going to be very good. He can beat me.” All well and good, of course, but family pride aside, John still wants to win!
Bart Wolf has been knocking on the door for the past few years and will continue to do so. He is at his home track and will definitely be a factor. As familiar as Bart is with Road America, whether he can beat the Ferguses remains to be seen.
Mark Mercer returned to the track with a second-place finish at the June Sprints, but is undecided as to whether or not he will continue racing – he has won the gold before, and if he shows up, he could be on the podium again.
Others meriting consideration include Michael Bautz, Ed Guenther, Joe Moran, Ron Jessen, Marc Walker, Anthony Sleath and Burns Moore.
Race 5 | America Sedan | Friday, 1:30 p.m.
1 | Andy McDermid | Milwaukee | Ford Mustang | n4
2 | Tom Sloe | Neohio | Ford Mustang
3 | Michael Lavigne | New England | Ford Mustang
A look at these top picks and you would think we worked for Ford! But let me assure you, that's not the case – and it's really going to be a crapshoot as to which one of the three competitors we've listed comes out on top. Tom Sloe bested current National Champ Andy McDermid at the June Sprints by about three seconds, but best times were only separated by a tick of the clock, so it likely will be anyone's game. McDermid took wins at Mid-Ohio and Blackhawk Farms and he's going for the hat trick this year.
One name that is conspicuously absent from all point sheets is that of 11-time National Champion John Heinricy. Heinricy has four consecutive titles in the A Sedan class alone! We spoke to Heinricy's longtime friend and car builder Tom Aquilante. Aquilante let the cat out of the bag that he is currently prepping a car for Heinricy and they will start their quest for an invite to the Runoffs at The Glen in mid-July. “The temptation was just too great,” admits Aquilante. Heinricy could certainly upset the prediction apple cart.
American Sedan has one of the premier lists of drivers in any class in Runoffs competition. Michael Lavigne brings wins at New Hampshire and VIR, while other NEDiv pilots Jerry Post and Kelly Lubash are right behind him with top finishes at New Jersey's Thunderbolt. GLDiv, in addition to Sloe, list John Lechner, Brian Wallace and Rich Jones. MWDiv has hot shoes Shawn Gray, Jim Wheeler and Bret Volkamer all battling for the top spot in their division.
Other contenders who could upset our predictions include John Blizzard with three wins at Portland, Pacific Rim and Reno, and Thomas Himes out of the southwest. Himes has three wins as of this writing. And we can never count out Kyle Watkins from RMDiv. He has a pair of wins at PPIR and is perennially tough at the Runoffs. Tom Ellis and Robert Eubanks have been pulling out all the stops in the southeast while Mitch Mohler, Chris Qualls and Bill Shepergerdes could also factor in if they make the long tow from the West Coast. This should be a good one!
Race 6 | Showroom Stock C | Friday, 2:30 p.m.
1 | Joe McClughan | Houston | Mazda3 | n1
2 | Joel Lipperini | NE Pennsylvania | Honda Civic | n2
3 | Bill Hagerty | San Diego | Chevrolet Cobalt
Showroom Stock has always been a manufacturer's battleground, though rarely have the players been as lively as this year's Showroom Stock C field. Between the Chevy Cobalt, Mazda3, Toyota Celica and Honda Civic, the stage is set for a battle royal for the top honors.
“I would love to put three Mazda3s on the podium,” says last year's Champion Joe McClughan.” Winning
it for Mazda last year was good, but now it's time to put three Mazdas on the podium.”
Aiming to thwart that plan is Joel Lipperini, who has won every SSC race he's entered this year, including besting McClughan at the June Sprints. Second at the Sprints was 2008 T3 Hard Charger winner Eric Van Cleef in a Toyota Celica. Also looking for top honors will be Bill Hagerty. Hagerty has set several lap records this year in his Cobalt.
“Joel is always fast, and I'm sure Hagerty will be wicked fast,” says McClughan. “I think Joel and I will go hammer and tongs.”
With the change from Heartland Park Topeka to Road America, drivers must change their strategies. “It's not going to be like Topeka where it was the guy who could keep tires under the car,” McClughan says. “It's going to be the car and driver who can keep their wits together and drive as hard as possible. Road America has a lot of fear factor. I'm excited about moving up there.”
Other contenders include Ali Naimi (Mazda3), Mark McCaughey (Toyota Corolla) and Runoffs veteran John Saucier (Mazda3). Another driver to watch will be John Philips, who has been competing in Spec Miata but will return to SSC in a Mazda3 for the Runoffs. New cars in the class that could be wild cards include the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Honda Accord and Acura GSR.
Race 7 | F Production | Friday, 3:30 p.m.
1 | Mark Carpenter | Central Carolina | Acura Integra
2 | Steve Sargis | Blackhawk Vlly | Triumph Spitfire | n4
3 | Kevin Ruck | Ohio Valley | Acura Integra
This will be a close race. It won't be an easy win for Mark Carpenter in his Integra because Steve Sargis and his Spitfire won't allow it to be. Both drivers are very smooth and precise. Runoffs new guy Kevin Ruck will also be in the mix. Ruck has driven an Integra in ITA for years and won the ARRC in 2008. He contended for the pole at the June Sprints and finished second to Carpenter. Sargis would normally be an easy choice, but he's suffered some challenges this year and has not decided which Spitfire to bring.
Brian Linn came to the Sprints for track time in an MGB but got very little. He will probably be at the Runoffs in a Miata and will face a steep learning curve, but he is fast. Two other Miatas that will be challenging for the top steps are those of Rick Harris, the 2008 FP Champion, and Mason Workman.
Eric Prill had a fine finish at the Sprints in his Lotus Super 7 and is a contender, as are Bill Wessel (Datsun SPL311) and Harold Flescher (MK2 Sprite) – both are experienced drivers, and Flescher knows how to win championships. David Bryson and Bob Bramlage are leading their divisions in Mazdas, so they are potential challengers. And Donald Kraftson arrived at the Sprints late and started with his Elva Courier in the group's 30th position after an abbreviated qualifying session – he finished fifth in FP, 13th overall in a field of 57 starters. Keep an eye on him.
J. Michael Hemsley
Race 8 | Formula Atlantic | Friday, 4:30 p.m.
1 | Mirl Swan | Mahoning Valley | Swift 014.a | n1
2 | David Grant | Mid South | Swift 014.a | n1
3 | Keith Grant | Atlanta | Swift 014.a | n1
Mirl Swan has been hard to predict. He won the Runoffs in 2006, put together Hans Peters' winning effort in 2007, and then spent most of 2008 building his race team. He did not race most of last season, but closed with a rush, doing a couple late-season Nationals, qualified on the pole and came within a whisker of winning his second gold medal at the Runoffs.
Swan has been racing steadily and winning steadily. As of late June he has notched six wins, including a dominant run in the June Sprints. Further, when asked his intentions, he replied emphatically “I am running the season and, yes, I will be at the Runoffs!” The speed he has shown this year, coupled with his past record, leads to but one conclusion: Mirl Swan will win his second National Championship this year.
Behind Swan there will be a group of drivers, any of who can win should Swan falter. This group is headed by the Grant brothers, David and Keith – both are fast and either can win the Runoffs. In fact, David did just that last year, getting the jump on Swan at the green and withstanding a furious race-long charge. Both are winners at Road America, David last year and Keith in 2006, so seeing a redhead on the top step of the podium is not far fetched at all. The question is who to pick ahead of the other, David or Keith? This is a toss up, but since David won last year we are picking him ahead of Keith for that reason.
Sedat Yelkin is very fast, having a good year, and easily can be on the podium. Others to consider include Ken Davis, Bernie Sunier, Lewis Cooper and Steve Forrer. J.R. Osborne is a very capable dark horse, working on a Stohr modified Swift of which little is known.
Tomorrow: Predictions for Day 2