After a year of racing in regional and division qualifying events, and two weeks practicing and qualifying at Road America, all the 2009 national champions have been crowned at the SCCA Runoffs. The final eight races of 25 this weekend occurred on Sunday.
National champions on the final day are: Nick Evans (Formula Enterprise, Powell, Ohio), Mark Boden (GT2, Winnetka, Ill.), Jason Knuteson (Formula 500, Danville, In.), Dan Meller (H Production, Milwaukee, Wis.), Scott Rubenzer (Formula Ford, Brookfield, Wis.), Cliff Ebben (GT1, Appleton, Wis.), Garry Crook (D Sports Racer, Pensacola, Fl.), and Samuel Halkias (E Production, Westerville, Ohio).
Boden captured his first Runoffs title in GT2, taking advantage when pole sitter Duane Davis retired with mechanical problems on the first lap. There were a number of on-and-offs in the race, notably James Goughary who went off at turn 14 from second but still finished third.
The end of the Formula 500 race was another thriller. Off a restart positions two though four changed hands nearly a dozen times in two laps.
Drivers involved were Patrick Gallagher, Aaron Ellis and Michael Brent. Brent and Gallagher exchanged the runner-up position four times before Gallagher finally nabbed it. That didn't last long because the side-by-side racing brought Ellis closer, and Ellis passed them both.
On the last lap Gallagher repassed Ellis, who fell back into Brent's clutches. Those two banged wheels, colliding at Canada Corner but continuing on. Ellis hung on to beat Brent home for the final podium position despite Brent catching the draft up the hill on the front straight.
"I dropped back at the start and something in the suspension broke or bent," Gallagher, the 16-year-old pole sitter said. "I was sideways in every turn and it was really hard to handle."
"(Brent) dove down the inside of me into Canada Corner," Ellis explained. "I got him back on the inside. I was expecting the move."
Knuteson, who secured his second consecutive F500 title, joked that the SCCA should check Gallagher's novice papers to make sure things were signed off at the beginning of the year.
H Production champion Dan Meller thoroughly laid down the hammer in that class's race in his Honda CRX. His fastest lap was more than three seconds quicker than anyone else and he lapped up to eighth place of the 25 starters -- on a 4.048-mile track in a 13-lap race.
Also of note in this race, SCCA staff photographer Mark Weber drove from 18th place to 9th, a lap down, in his Austin-Healey Sprite.
The Formula Ford race was hotly contested and ended with a controversial finish. The 24-car field did a collective great job of averting disaster on the start, when pole sitter Jeremy Treadway's car failed to engage up the hill. Treadway was freight-trained on both sides as he fell to the end of the line.
Tony Coello, brother of Formula Continental and four-time Runoffs champion Niki, took the lead with Timothy Kautz in tow. The two exchanged the lead several times at several corners around the track.
Despite a gripping battle as Kautz and Coello exchanged the lead more times than you can count on one hand, it all ended prematurely as the two hit a backmarker at the worst possible time.
While trying to lap a slower car exiting the Bill Mitchell turn, Coello hit Kautz's right rear tire and rode on top of that car towards turn 14, the final turn on the final lap. Both cars were unable to complete the lap and their quest for a national championship ended in pure and utter frustration.
Scott Rubenzer, thanks to being in the right place at the right time, wound up capturing his first Runoffs title in 24 years, second overall.
"Tough luck for them but I guess it was my day," Rubenzer said. "I didn't really expect to be here, although we've been good. I had a feeling something was going to happen."
In the later races during the day, Cliff Ebben captured his second win at Road America in as many weekends. The driver of the Lamers Motor Racing Ford Mustang won the Trans-Am event last Sunday, while today he dominated the GT1 class with a 15.635 second victory.
Former Formula Atlantic driver Kyle Kelley charged from 16th to fourth at the checkers in a Chevy Camaro, edging Amy Ruman who was the top-placed female at this year's Runoffs.
Rain arrived before the final two races of the day in D Sports Racer and E Production. Coincidentally, these also featured the drivers who won from the furthest back on the grid. Both Garry Crook (DSR) and Samuel Halkias (EP) started 10th.
Those two are polar opposites in terms of Runoffs history. This was Crook's first Runoffs start, and he also secured the SCCA Super Sweep, while Halkias scored his elusive first Runoffs title in 21 starts.
Sunday Spotlight: Catching up with the champions
Although GT1's Cliff Ebben was one of the day's more dominant champions, it didn't appear that way from the driver's seat.
"It took awhile for the tires to come in, but once the car got going, it ran great," Ebben said. "The brakes started getting a little soft about halfway in and the engine temperature was running a bit hot. It was getting up toward the red line, but it seemed to stay there, so we got lucky."
Ebben was part of the three-car Lamers Motor Racing effort in GT1. By chance and several times over the course of the weekend, I found myself running into team owner/driver Denny Lamers' lovely wife Jan who was very hospitable and welcoming.
The team had a prime spot in the paddock, on the outside of turn 5 to house their two Mustangs (Ebben and Lamers) and a Corvette driven by Kurt Roehring, the car formerly of Tony Ave Racing. Jan Lamers said this year's Muscle Milk Trans-Am Championship, the first full season for the class since 2005, was just a precursor to bigger and better things within a three-year period.
Meanwhile, Friday's Touring 2 champion and five-time overall SCCA Runoffs champion, Don Knowles spent most of Saturday and Sunday in the media center.
Knowles, who drove a Pontiac Solstice GXP through a late-race accident en route to the win, has an extensive background of experience in the various iterations of Grand-Am's KONI Challenge division and years of racing at the last four tracks the Runoffs has been held.
That's involved driving racing at Road America, Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan., Lexington, Ohio's Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and Road Atlanta.
"You have to adapt to each track you come to, there are no favorites," Knowles said. "I don't want to show up at a track and think, 'I don't like this place!' Each track has its own challenges, and I haven't been here to Road America since 2003 or '04."
Knowles said he was "good" four times over the course of yesterday's race, and they were the right times for the race.
Friday also saw Mirl Swan capture the Formula Atlantic title. Swan also won the championship at Topeka in 2006. His Swan Racing team has prepared the most number of entries in Formula Atlantic and took down the Grants, while capturing its third class title in the last four years (Hans Peter won for Swan in 2007).
Swan, who also prepares cars for Ahsen and Sedat Yelkin, said he may run the Cooper Tires Atlantic Championship finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with Michael Mallinen but that is still yet to be determined.
Sunday Spotlight: The final word on a fantastic weekend
On a personal note, this was not only the first time Road America hosted the SCCA Runoffs but also my first time to this event. Within the span of four months, I've been fortunate enough to cover and witness both the largest spectacle of sports car racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and also the pinnacle of grassroots racing this weekend at the Runoffs.
This week was incredibly refreshing for several reasons. With 25 classes, basically, if it has wheels, an engine and a driver willing to wheel it like hell around a race track that could also qualify as a national park, it has a class at the Runoffs.
There's such camaraderie among the competitors, as well as families coming together to witness generations of racers go at it. There's media members who put on a whale of a show themselves (yes, I'm talking about SCCA VP of marketing/communications Eric Prill).
There are not huge budgets but there is huge heart, and the desire of pure racing -- without the politics and legalese that sometimes dominates the major series.
It's truly a unique event -- as longtime television racing analyst John Bisignano told me on Sunday there is nothing else that can compare.
Again, I hate to sound like an apologist for events I've been fortunate enough to cover, but this is yet another event a motorsports fan has to put on their checklist to attend.