Houston race notes

Saini Take Mazda MX-5 Cup Season Opener At Houston HOUSTON, Texas (April 21, 2007) -- Texan Jason Saini grabbed the lead in the opening lap and sped away from the rest of the field to take the win in the opening round of the SCCA Pro Racing...

Saini Take Mazda MX-5 Cup Season Opener At Houston

HOUSTON, Texas (April 21, 2007) -- Texan Jason Saini grabbed the lead in the opening lap and sped away from the rest of the field to take the win in the opening round of the SCCA Pro Racing SIRIUS Satellite Radio Mazda MX-5 Cup, part of the Grand Prix of Houston. Jesse Combs, of Houston, Texas, and polesitter Brett Smrz, of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, completed the podium.

Starting his No. 28 Autobarn Mazda/SafeRacer.com Mazda MX-5 on the outside of the front row, Saini snatched the lead from teammate Smrz shortly after the green flag waved. Saini was briefly pressured by the No. 80 Jason Hoover Motorsports/Hooverspeed Mazda MX-5 of Matt Cross before Saini's fellow MER teammate Andrew Caddell, of Graham, Wash., took over the second spot to join a two-car breakaway.

After making contact with the wall in Turn Ten, Caddell lost ground on Saini and was eventually brought into the pits by series officials when his passenger door began to open on course. With Caddell in the pits, Saini inherited a lead of more than four seconds over then second place Smrz. Caddell would retire due to the damage.

The lead narrowed as Saini worked his way through the back of the field in the closing laps, and, by the time the white flag flew, the gap had been cut to less than two seconds over Combs. Despite a three-wide moment with some lapped traffic in Turn Two, Saini could not be caught, and took the victory at JAGFlo Speedway at Reliant Park by 1.776 seconds, averaging 70.681 mph over the 32 lap, 53.856-mile race.

"This feels great," Saini said. "All the work that the Team MER crew put in was outstanding. It's an outstanding race--the Houston Grand Prix. To see all the effort in the off-season be rewarded with a win is just fantastic. It was a great team effort.

"Driving around in the concrete walls, there is no airflow and you can just see all the gauges going up. The crew would tell me what the gap to second was and I would try to back off a bit to conserve the car. But every time I would back off, they'd close the gap. It may have looked like a walk in the park, but it definitely was not."

"I was pretty concerned," Saini said of his close-call with lapped traffic. "Last year was a little tough with a couple of DNFs in the first two races. I knew I wanted to get through the traffic clean but I also knew that any time that I wasted in the traffic, my lead would erode. I came up on the pack of cars, I saw a gap, flashed my lights and I went for it. I thank those guys for giving me room because they were having a hard battle themselves."

Starting sixth, Combs drove a hard race in his No. 7 Coolgas Ltd. Mazda MX-5. The local driver spent much of the race in a four-car battle for the runner-up and third place spots, which turned into a three-car shootout in second half of the race after Cadell headed to the pits.

"The first 10 laps I focused on staying in fifth, with the cars in front of me and putting distance on the cars behind me," said Combs. "About 20 minutes in, Andrew had a problem and then Brett [Smrz] and I traded places a few times.

"Toward the end of the race, my car seemed to get better and better. I caught back up to Jason a little bit with a couple of laps to go but I knew I could only get him if he made a mistake at that point."

In his first-ever car race, 16-year-old Smrz fell back to fourth on the opening lap, but worked his way back to second by lap 14. Smrz then diced with Combs and the Cross, dropping back to fourth briefly, before capturing the final podium spot from Cross on lap 30.

"I was going into the first turn and I missed the two-three shift a little bit at the start and lost some speed," Smrz said. "Jason [Saini] started to go by me and Andrew [Caddell] was following. Going into Turn One, Andrew clipped me a little bit, not on purpose, obviously. Matt [Cross] followed him and I was fourth exiting turn two.

"This was my first pro race, and racing under the lights was just a blast."

Cross, of Folsom, Calif., who put pressure on Saini early in the race, just missed the podium to finish fourth. Pratt Cole, of Salt Lake City, Utah, completed the top five in his No. 88 DEX Mazda MX-5 after starting eighth on the grid.

John Kuitwaard, Bob Michaelian, Rick Bellew, Ara Malkhassian, and Chris Sarian completed the top ten.

Although he did retire from the race following his brush with the wall, Caddell took home the Hawk Hot Lap for setting the fastest lap of the race in his No. 30 Team MER/AimSport/Pinnacle Mazda MX-5, a 1:24.537 (71.670 mph).

Round Two of the MX-5 Cup heads east next weekend to Road Atlanta, April 27-29.

-credit: scca pro racing

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Series SCCA
Drivers Pratt Cole , Ara Malkhassian , Bob Michaelian , Rick Bellew , Jason Saini , Andrew Caddell , Brett Smrz , Jesse Combs , John Kuitwaard