RACE: Runoffs wrap: Friday at Road America

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For the first time, Elkhart Lake's Road America plays host to the SCCA National Championship Runoffs, the pinnacle of grassroots racing in 25 classes across the country. Friday marked the first of three days of racing, with eight 13-lap or...

For the first time, Elkhart Lake's Road America plays host to the SCCA National Championship Runoffs, the pinnacle of grassroots racing in 25 classes across the country. Friday marked the first of three days of racing, with eight 13-lap or 40-minute events on each.

More than 600 cars qualified through a series of regional events to compete in the 46th annual SCCA Runoffs, an average of 25 cars per class. Cloud cover hung over the 4.048-mile facility most of the day but the sun emerged on-and-off. There was no rain as there had been in the earlier days this week for practice and qualifying.

On track

The National Champions on day one at the SCCA Runoffs are: Jim Dentici (GTL, Oconomowoc, Wis.), Matt Miller (CSR, Orland Park, Ill.), Don Knowles (T2, Pittsboro, N.C.), Mark Mercer (S2, Aurora, Wis.), Andrew McDermid (AS, Grand Ledge, Mich.), Joel Lipperini (SSC, Pittston, Penn.), Mark Carpenter (FP, Charlotte, N.C.) and Mirl Swan (FA, Austintown, Oh.).

Knowles and McDermid have now won five Runoffs titles, while McDermid also captured the SCCA Club Racing Super Sweep Award. That Super Sweep Award involves winning the nationwide points standings, Divisional and National Championships, and a key National Club race all in a single class in a given year.

It is Lipperini's (Showroom Stock C) third national title, the second national title for Dentici (GT-Lites), Mercer (Sports 2000), and Swan (Formula Atlantic). Miller and Carpenter are first-time champions.

The C Sports Racer event came down to the final turn as Jacek Mucha chased down Miller, but could not pass the Elan MZR-2.0 Mazda up the straight. Miller's win comes in his first Runoffs attempt, as the duo beat home James French and his father Brian.

A barnburner at the end of the Touring 2 race ended when pole sitter Marty Grand lost the tire on his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo exiting turn 3. Jason Ott, who finished second behind Knowles, explained the view from his vantage point.

"The Evo started hopping pretty bad," Ott said. "We caught up to them quick. Then the tire went flat, and all I saw was a huge tire. It was either coming through the windshield or through the car. I took evasive action and did what all Colorado racers are taught, never take the foot out of the throttle."

Knowles atoned for leading each lap but the last one last year at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan. He revealed a North Carolina Tar Heels t-shirt underneath his fire suit, saying he had to match the basketball team's achievement of a national championship this year. It's his fifth Runoffs title.

David Bryson dominated the F Production race but ran aground with mechanical problems four laps from the finish. Behind him it was a great battle between Mark Carpenter, Rick Harris and Eric Prill for second, which became the lead when Bryson fell out.

Prill, driving his father's old 1962 Lotus Super 7, was on the other side facing the media as a driver as opposed to his usual job as vice president of marketing and communications for SCCA.

"It was the most fun I've ever had in a race car," Prill said. "Yesterday I had the scariest moment ever in racing when I lost my brakes going into turn 12, and today was the greatest time."

Each of the podium finishers was exchanging positions due to the draft down the long straights. Prill said he thought he led for maybe half a mile before losing the positions to Carpenter and Harris.

He wasn't the only member of the SCCA media contingent trading their computer for a cockpit. Staff photographer Mark Weber, sometimes referred to as "Einstein" in media circles due to his white hair and prominent mustache, advanced from 24th on the grid to 18th in an Austin-Healey Sprite. Weber will also race in the HP class on Sunday.

The Formula Atlantic race ended the day's activities, and marked the only Atlantic race at Road America this year since the Cooper Tires Atlantic Championship did not have a date.

An early caution occurred when David Grant, the defending champion, spun at turn 3. He rolled right into the path of Jason Byers, who took evasive action to avoid him.

Byers' top-line speed in the Ralt RT-41 advanced him from fifth to second, but not enough to pass Swan. Swan's teammate Sadat Yelkin suffered a broken wishbone in the incident and managed to hold on to the car for the rest of the race and secure a podium finish.

Friday Spotlight: French Family Affair

Sheboygan is located but a stone's throw from Road America, so it's the ultimate home race for the French family. The SCCA Runoffs complement the family's usual weekend at the track, the Kohler International Challenge historic weekend in July.

Brian French is something of a local legend, having driven thousands of laps at the track for two decades in Formula Atlantic and C Sports Racer. His son James, 17, is just starting out, but can already hack it. His wife, Julie, plays the supporting role to a T for both parties.

And in their spare time, they might drag out their old Ferrari or Benetton Formula One cars.

Brian and James French were both racing in today's CSR (modified Formula Atlantic cars with fenders and new rear wings) event at the track. Brian started on pole but fell back after doing some unintentional rally crossing. He drove a dogged fight to keep the car going in fourth place.

"The car understeered and I got three feet off the ground," Brian French said. "It smashed the tunnels and I lost the skid pads."

James started third, ran second until battling with Jacek Mucha who had too much horsepower to overcome.

"I just held my line, nothing really I could do," James French said.

Brian French owns an old Ferrari and 1994 Benetton Formula One car. He hinted that at next year's July weekend, he'd work on acquiring a second Benetton for James to drive.

"He did a 1:52 lap in that car around here last year when he was 16," he beamed with pride when talking about the talented youngster.

All James could add, flattered, was that it was "one of the most awesome highlights of my life." Later in the day he was busy perfecting his craft on the iRacing race simulators in the paddock.

On the podium James celebrated with non-alcoholic sparkling juice, since he is four years away from turning 21. His parents and family looked on, smiled and applauded.

Friday Spotlight: Mazdas at the Runoffs

Perhaps no other manufacturer has committed as much of its time, resources, and equipment to motorsports in recent years as Mazda has. As the commercial goes, on any given weekend there are more Mazdas competing in road racing events across the country than any other.

This week has been no different. According to MAZDASPEED Motorsports communications officer Dean Case, of the 613 cars entered for this year's Runoffs, 139 are Mazdas. The Mazdas race in 14 of the 25 classes, and that number is up two percent from last year. The total number of Mazdas is 24 percent of the entire field.

Mazdas finished in the podium in three events, winning the CSR class, second and third in SSC and second in FP.

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