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Raw speed and the ability to control it took center stage at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin as hundreds of amateur racers aimed for glory at the 49th Annual SCCA National Championship Runoffs. As in years past, the trend of the Mazda nameplate being in the middle of the action continued at Road America’s four-mile, 14-turn circuit.
In fact one of the most heated battles of the weekend was in the enormously popular all-Mazda Spec Miata class. Pole winner Jim Drago, of Memphis, Tenn., won the 2012 Spec Miata National Championship by holding off teammate Craig Berry, of Tyler Texas, from start to finish. Andrew Charbonneau, of Delray Beach, Fla., finished third after a last lap battle with rookie Stephan Tisseront, from Great Falls, Va.
Starting from the Gumout pole, Drago led the Spec Miata field into Turn One, his mirrors full of action behind him, but without a serious challenge for the lead. Drago’s No. 2 East Street Racing Mazda Miata led Berry’s No. 29 Berry Marble and Granite/East Street Racing Mazda Miata out of the first turn with a trail of seven cars nose-to-tail behind them. “I kept looking back at that pack thinking ‘maybe two more corners and I’ll be able to break this,’ but Craig [Berry] and I set our cars up identically,” Drago said. “His [Berry’s] car was loose in a couple of spots and mine was tight in a couple of right-hand turns. Where I would get tight in Turn 12 and 13, I’d have to back off a little bit and Craig would really gain, but I could gain enough through the Carousel or in Six, Seven and Eight, that it would take him the whole way to get back; so I could over slow 12 a little bit to keep that gap.”
Top 10 Spec Miata National Championship Race
(Finish position, starting position in parenthesis, driver, hometown, car and laps completed)
1 (1), Jim Drago, Memphis, TN, Mazda Miata, 13
2 (2), Craig Berry, Tyler, TX, Mazda Miata, 13
3 (5), Andrew Charbonneau, Delray Beach, FL, Mazda Miata, 13
4 (7), Stephan Tisseront, Great Falls, VA, Mazda Miata, 13
5 (8), Danny Steyn, Fort Lauderdale, FL, Mazda Miata, 13
6 (9), Matt Reynolds, Boerne, TX, Mazda Miata, 13
7 (15), Bruce Andersen, La Grange Park, IL, Mazda Miata, 13
8 (13), Andrew Carbonell, Miami, FL, Mazda Miata, 13
9 (16), Patrick McGinnis, Saint Louis, MO, Mazda Miata, 13
10 (12), Chris Haldeman, Anna, TX, Mazda Miata, 13
Kent Prather, of Wakarusa, Kan., successfully defended his GT-Lite National Championship in dramatic fashion, winning what became a drag race by a scant 0.023-seconds.
Starting from the Gumout pole, Prather’s No. 26 Mazda/Moss/Goodyear/Torco/Carbotech Mazda Miata held the lead to Turn Eight, where second-starting Robert Lentz got by. Four turns later, Lentz spun and relinquished the lead to Prather as rain began to fall on the back half of the course. On the following lap, Prather spun from the lead in Turn 13, handing P1 to Steve Sargis who drives a Triumph Spitfire.
“I got back into Canada Corner on the second lap and I just turned to the right too hard,” Prather, an eight-time National Champion, said. “I must have been in too low of a gear and I just spun around, but I was going the right direction... It was just a rookie mistake.”
Sargis and James Hargrove exchanged the top spot several times before Hargrove inherited the lead in his Honda Civic and, by this point, Prather had remarkably worked his way back to second. This commenced a fantastic duel between Hargrove and Prather that saw the two exchange the lead several times per lap.
“The Honda was making very good power,” Prather said. “I’d catch him pretty good in Turn One and Turn Three and I was able to go faster into Turn Five, but he could out brake me anywhere. If I went down on one side, he’d just go around me on the other side. It was a really good battle and I just knew that I had to somehow keep ahead of him.”
The battle for the lead enabled Lentz and his Nissan Sentra SE-R to catch the dueling duo. On the penultimate lap, Hargrove made a costly passing attempt for the lead in Turn 14 that resulted in contact between his Honda and Lentz’ Nissan. The loss in momentum enabled Lentz to draft past Hargrove for the runner-up spot and give chase to Prather. What seemed like a sizeable gap between Prather and Lentz became dangerously close by Turn 12. Feeling the pressure, Prather slid wide and into the grass at Turn 14. He pulled back on track alongside Lentz and the two drag-raced up the hill. At the line it was Prather by 0.023-second, the third-closest finish in Runoffs history in the modern transponder era.
Super Touring Lite
Super Touring Lite (STL) was a new class at the runoffs in 2012 and Mazda dominated the landscape wining the race and populating all the steps on the podium. The all Mazda affair on point was quite contentious as Ray Huffmaster, of Clarkston, Mich., won the race after a dramatic final-lap pass on Spec Miata champ Jim Drago. Rich Walke, of Hawthorn Woods, Ill., made a last-lap pass of his own to nab the last step on the podium for Mazda.
Huffmaster’s No. 31 Huffmaster Security/Hoosier Mazda RX-8 and Drago’s No. 2 East Street Racing Mazda Miata swapped the lead officially eight times, and many more times out on the circuit before crossing the timing stripe.
The multiple passes were just the appetizer to the final lap’s main course. Drago led at the start of the lap, but the two banged door handles coming out of turn three down the long straightaway into five, with Huffmaster pulling in front. Drago reclaimed the lead through turn eight, with Huffmaster seemingly losing it when he ran wide. The RX-8 chased down the Miata with a great run through the kink, and Huffmaster completed the pass before getting into Canada Corner, the 12th turn at Road America. Drago, pushing hard, ran wide and spun in turn 12, but the race wasn’t quite over. Huffmaster also ran wide through 13, but gathered it up and climbed the hill to the checkered flag for a 10.957-second victory.
Gumout pole winner Jon Brakke, of Fargo, N.D., outlasted Greg Ira, of Plantation, Fla., to win his third-career E Production National Championship. Kevin Leigh, of Harrisonburg, Va., finished third.
Driving the No. 89 Margaret Peterson Bars Mazda Miata, Brakke spent the first eight laps engaged in a second-place battle with Ira, while the then race leader Aaron Downey, of Rossmoor, Calif., drove away. But, just before lap nine started, Downey pulled his No. 5 roundpeg.com Mazda RX-3 to pit lane with a broken shifter. Downey’s day was done.
From there, Brakke inherited the race lead with Ira’s Datsun 240-Z in tow and never looked back. “When I saw the grid, I actually said, ‘Aaron’s going to get me. Greg’s going to get me. And, Sam’s going to get me at the start,” Brakke said. “And, I was right. At that point, it was a matter of trying not to drive their race because Greg was going to out-torque me out of the corners every time. It was necessary to get a run at him somewhere, putting together a series of corners - hope I could pass and keep it. We traded back-and-forth in corner one, seven, eight, Canada Corner, a bunch of them.
Mazda’s dominated EP taking the win and 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and 10th places, that’s six in the top 10.
Other Mazda podium finished at the Runoffs include Jeff Dernehl, of Woodstock, Ga., and his RX-7 in the highly competitive GT-3 class (runner-up), Sam Henry of Republic, Mo and his Miata in F-Production (runner-up) and Ali Maimi and his Mazda3 in SSC (runner-up), Mark Hoover and his Miata in STU (third).