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 9 | Touring 3 | Saturday, 8:30 a.m.
1 | Bret Spaude | Central Florida
| Chevy Cobalt SS| n1
2 | Bob Boileau | Continental Divide | Honda S2000
3 | Richard Fisher | Chicago | VW GTI
The T3 race at this year's Runoffs will have an interesting twist: SSB cars. Due to scheduling constraints, T3 and SSB have been doubled up for the first race on Saturday morning. In addition to moving to Road America, this combination opens up a whole new arena of racing strategy for both classes.
“Most of the time, lap traffic is a great time to stretch or to leave someone behind,” says defending Champion Bret Spaude. “I'll be watching for a move placed on someone for a great finishing spot.”
Spaude has experience at Road America, but only in a kart. Still, he's confident that he'll have his A-game on display. “I think my Cobalt is better than last year and I'm a better driver than last year, too. I think Road America is a great track for the car and its abilities,” Spaude says.
Leading the charge to take Spaude's crown are Honda S2000 drivers Bob Boileau and John Costello. Boileau finished second at last year's Runoffs and first at last year's June Sprints. Costello has already won several Nationals, set several T3 track records and earned a big win at this year's June Sprints – his first event at Road America.
A possible dark horse is Richard Fisher, who drove a VW GTI to second place at the June Sprints, just 1.2sec behind Costello. Both the GTI and the ex-T2 Lotus Elise could be wild card rides to make a mark at the Runoffs.
Other top contenders include Wiley Timbrook in a Honda S2000 and Kevin Fandozzi.
Race 10 | Showroom Stock B | Saturday, 8:30 a.m.
1 | Toby Grahovec | Texas | BMW Z4 | n1
2 | Lee Niffenegger | Cal Club | Honda Civic Si | n1
3 | John Schmidt | Florida | Honda Civic Si
Racers attempting to qualify for the 2009 Runoffs have little in common with the criminals who encompassed the twisted, convoluted plot that made up the 1994 movie The Usual Suspects. But, the list of drivers who could claim a podium step does contain a directory of, shall we say, familiar names.
Toby Grahovec, the 2005 National Champion, has entered four National events this season and has four wins. In addition, he has been honing his skills as part of the RealTime Racing Team in SPEED World Challenge. Will that be the difference that gives him an edge? It can't hurt. And that's not to say that last year's winner Lee Niffenegger will just go quietly – he will be back to defend his title, and if fellow Honda pilots John Schmidt and Chad Gilsinger put their heads together, it could be quite the battle. Schmidt also spends his weekends on the Koni Challenge circuit where the competition is just as fierce.
Jack Tippens and Ralph Porter are always in the mix, while James Ebben is currently capable of pulling off an impressive finish. Richard Cullen is hot off a big win at Mid-Ohio. David Mead, Steve Taake and Hugh Nguyen all have a shot at glory, as does Stan Czacki. Michael Scornavacchi, meanwhile, has four wins and may just be the dark horse who upsets this derby and boots some of our usual suspects off the podium.
Race 11 | Formula Mazda | Saturday, 9:30 a.m.
1 | Juan Marchand | Western Michigan | Formula Mazda
2 | Franklin Futrelle | Atlanta | Formula Mazda | n1
3 | Mike Anderson | San Diego | Formula Mazda
When you're racing in a spec class like Formula Mazda, qualifying well is critical. More often than not, one of the top qualifiers is first into Turn 1 and never looks back. Coming from dead last to win the race is nearly impossible – but that's exactly what Juan Marchand did at this year's June Sprints.
Holding only a troubled first qualifying session, Marchand found himself in 39th place, dead last on grid. But when the checkered flag flew, he had worked his way to the front of the Formula Mazda field, besting last year's polesitter and Champion Franklin Futrelle by 3.4sec.
In a spec car and racing against a demonstrably talented driver like Futrelle, that's nothing short of amazing. Futrelle was said to have suffered a broken header during the race, but that doesn't diminish Marchand's achievement. To get an idea of the dominance shown by these two drivers, third place in FM finished six seconds behind Futrelle.
“For the Runoffs, I'm just going to make sure I have the same car that won the Sprints. What else can I say?” Marchand says.
Among the contenders chasing Marchand and Futrelle at this year's Runoffs will be last year's Runoffs polesitter Jamie Slone and Mike Anderson. Both Slone and Anderson have shown that they've got what it takes to run up front, but they allowed Futrelle to slip by and claim the lead in the first corner last year.
“I am only going to the Runoffs to do one thing – win!” Anderson says.
Also in the hunt could be Russell Lindeman, Scott Rettich, Matt Pombo and Lucian Pancea. All of these
drivers have done well at the Runoffs in the past.
Race 12 | Spec Miata | Saturday, 10:30 a.m.
1 | Jim Drago | Mid-South
2 | Henry “Chip” Van Vurst | Florida
3 | Steve Gorriaran | New England
As amateur racers, most of us admit we could stand to drop a few pounds and get into better shape. We say it, but somehow we don't really believe it. This year, Jim Drago set out to prove that the best racing investment you can make is in yourself.
“After a few crappy races earlier this year and realizing I needed to drop some serious weight, primarily for health benefits but secretly to be more competitive in the racecar, I set a goal to lose 50lbs by the Sprints and win,” Drago says.
When he got to Road America, Drago was down 53lbs and his 1999 Spec Miata was 16lbs under weight. But, of course, he won the race. Still, in Spec Miata, it's not all about the driver; you have to have your car dialed in to run at the front.
“You absolutely need a top car to compete these days,” Drago says. “Secondly, I really like Road America. I have competed in all four Sprints since Spec Miata has gone National.”
If the June Sprints are a dry run for the Runoffs, it looks like this is the year of the 1999 Miata. Case in point: the podium at the June Sprints was occupied by drivers in 1999 cars.
In addition to our podium picks, the top names in Spec Miata will all be in the hunt. Todd Lamb, Mark Bennett, Andrew Charbonneau, Tony Coello and Blake Clements could all make a play for the podium.
Race 13 | Spec Racer Ford | Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
1 | Brian Schofield | Central Florida
2 | Mike Miserendino | Cal Club | n3
3 | Tray Ayers | Atlanta
So count 'em, there were 69 starters at this year's June Sprints, and that didn't even include the three-time consecutive titleholder Mike Miserendino. So, where was he? A check of the SPDiv point totals only shows one outing for the reigning champ, albeit a win. It's our contention that in a class like SRF, you need to keep those skills sharp with competition – just the same, we're not going to count him out.
For our scientific picking of the winner in SRF, we wound up putting all of the names of the likely contenders on little pieces of paper and tossed them in the air. Brian Schofield ended up on the desk, so we picked him to win – that's likely as good a method as any in this fiercely competitive class.
Schofield has six wins to date, and has been tearing up SEDiv. Tray Ayres took the victory at the June Sprints and has proven he has what it takes to win. He has one other win at VIR where he bested Schofield, so a step on the podium is very likely.
A look at others that might upset our predictions includes Jordan Gore, Jean-Luc-Liverato (who turned the fastest lap at this year's Sprints) and Andrew Charbonneau. There's also Bill Jucha, T.J. Acker, Kyle Eggleton and wily veteran Lee Flemming.
But there's more. Keep an eye on Scott Rettich, Jason Barfield J.D. Pfetzing, Rick Bartuska and Reid Johnson. And you can never count out former champs John Black and Richard Spicer – they always have something up their sleeves!
Oh, don't forget Mark Hutchins, Scott Goolbey and Chris Funk. Really, the list could go on and on – the class is that competitive.
Race 14 | Formula Vee | Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
1 | Brad Stout | St. Louis | Vortech | n5
2 | Michael Varacins | Chicago | Speed Sport AM5
3 | Chris Jennerjahn | Indianapolis | Vortech
For Michael Varacins, saying he has a monkey on his back is like saying the Wisconsin sky in September is blue. He has finished second at the last three Runoffs. His June Sprints resume over the same period of time is comparable: second, third and second.
At this year's Sprints, Varacins finally broke through and took the checker first. He's looking forward to the Runoffs at Road America for the next three years.
“Maybe wining the Sprints will enable me to get the Runoffs monkey off my back as well,” he says.
Unfortunately, five-time and defending National Champion Brad Stout stands in the way. Stout won the Sprints from 2001-'07, with three Triple Crowns. He should keep Varacins from tossing off his Runoffs monkey for at least another year.
Two veteran local drivers, Bruce Jennerjahn and his son Chris, are familiar enough with Road America to contend for the crown. They each have a top-four finish the last two years at the Sprints. In fact, over the last six years, Chris has four straight top-five finishes and Brian has five top 10s.
Although neither is a Runoffs veteran – Chris last ran it in 2006 and Brian in 2000 – the final podium spot should belong to one of them. Their experience, particularly at Road America, should offset the fact their best Runoffs finish between them was only 13th.
Chris gets the slight nod over his dad. However, Brian may be hanging up his helmet after this season. That could provide the added incentive for him to go out on the podium.
There is a cadre of drivers who invariably run in the front of the pack. Two-time winners Stevan Davis and Roger Siebenaler, Bob Neumeister and 2004 Champion Jeff Loughead will highlight this group.
Race 15 | Touring 1 | Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
1 | John Buttermore | Detroit | Chevrolet Corvette
2 | Lance Knupp | Milwaukee | Dodge Viper | n1
3 | Mike Tracy | Chicago | Chevrolet Corvette
Road America is confusing for high-horsepower, low-downforce cars. A glance at a track map shows long straights connected by low-to-medium-speed, 90-degree corners. The uphill front straight and the downhill run to Turn 5 seem to call for horsepower to trump handling. This part of Road America would seem to favor the V-10 Dodge Viper and the 6-plus liter V-8 Corvettes – but the sections from Turn 7 through the Carrousel and the Kink, and then from Canada Corner to Turn 14 require handling.
John M. Buttermore knows Road America and Corvettes. As a General Motors Vehicle Dynamics engineer, he has the ability to analyze racecar potential and performance, and he also has the ability to drive his C6. He dominated qualifying at the June Sprints only to suffer an engine failure. He has second-place finishes at Heartland Park Topeka, but racing at Elkhart Lake should produce gold.
Buttermore has performed lap time simulations of Road America (using Bosch software, not GM's). He describes the four-mile Wisconsin track as a “horsepower and handling” track. His Corvette is not the most powerful car out there, but less mass means less wear and tear on brakes and driveline components.
Lance Knupp won the June Sprints in a Dodge Viper – this is a brand change from when he claimed the 2006 T1 National Championship piloting a Corvette. After taking 2008 off he is back, but says the Viper is his choice because of the great brakes and the immense torque – but it still weighs 3,600lbs.
For third place we're selecting Mike Tracy. This is a trick entry because it includes Michael P. and Michael A., with membership numbers just three apart. Both are in Corvettes.
The wild card is anyone racing a Ferrari, as defending Champion Edward Zabinski did last year. Scott Tucker is a possibility in a Ferrari. The Modena models seem to race rarely, so it is difficult to assess their potential.
Wm. C. Mitchell
Race 16 | Formula Continental | Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
1 | Niki Coello | Milwaukee | Van Diemen | n3
2 | Justin Pritchard | Lake Superior | Van Diemen | n3
3 | Brian Belardi | Milwaukee | Van Diemen
SportsCar has picked Niki Coello to win FC for the last four years, and except for a mechanical difficulty two years ago, we would be four for four. There seems to be little reason to change the pattern this year.
One reason for concern, though, is Coello's decision to park his FC car until the Runoffs in order to work on a new Formula 1000 mount. The three-month layoff just may be the chink in the armor sought by his pursuers. Coello claims not, and his record tends to bear him out. Look for Coello to be on the top step once again, especially since Road America is his home track.
Justin Pritchard, a three-time winner himself, could be his strongest threat. Pritchard raced to a dominant June Sprints win and, beyond that, is battle tested at the Runoffs. Any slip or rustiness on Coello's part could very well see Pritchard on the top step.
Another local driver, Brian Belardi, looks good for a high finish. Belardi was third last year at Topeka and is preparing for the long Road America straights. He ran his Van Diemen with a low down-force setup at the June Sprints and reports that there are more tweaks to come. Do not discount his chances.
As is usual with FC, there are a host of fine drivers who will be in the mix. Any slip can mean a multi-place position change, so look for another half dozen or so to contend. Revere Griest and Brian Tomasi will be right there. Blink and you will find Bill Johnson, Mark Defer, John Larue, Chris Fahan, Cole Morgan and 2007 Champion Chas Shaffer in the heat of the fight, as well. As stated earlier, anything can happen here, with the podium being a mix of any of these at any given time.
Race 17 | GT-3 | Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
1 | Pete Peterson | Central Carolina
| Toyota Celica | n7
2 | Rob Warkocki | Milwaukee | Mazda RX-7
3 | Wolfgang Maike | Cal Club | Toyota Paseo
This is a tough class, and very difficult to call. Mazda RX-7 pilot Rob Warkocki grabbed the pole position and finished atop the results at this year's June Sprints. That said, Warkocki didn't make the podium at last year's Runoffs, finishing fifth. Running a strong second in qualifying and the race at the June Sprints was the defending Champ Pete Peterson – and no matter where Peterson finishes throughout the season, it's never a good idea to count the seven-time National Champion out when it comes to the Runoffs.
“I raced faster than I qualified, and set a track record during the race,” Peterson says. “But those Mazdas are fast and have a lot of horsepower. Rob Warkocki, Mike Henderson and Jeff Dernehl are all fast in Mazdas this year.”
Last year's podium finishers include Wolfgang Maike, who took second place in his Toyota Paseo, and last year's third-place finisher Steven Spiers in his Nissan – both are capable of grabbing the win should Peterson or Warkocki falter. Two dark horse contenders in Toyotas are two-time Champion Michael Cyphert and last year's fourth-place finisher Milton Grant.
One driver whose year it may be is John Black. Black has held the pole position for the past two years, but in 2007 fell victim to a self-induced first-corner wreck. In 2008, he was sidelined on the second lap by mechanical failure. “He's fast, and he knows the Road America track,” Peterson says.
Next time: Day 3