Western Series Rounds 5 & 6
Thursday, February 02, 2006 The fifth and sixth races of the 2005-2006 Western Series (and the final round of the Triple Crown championship) were at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Other than some damp track conditions Sunday morning, the weather was good – and we had a big field on hand, as 40+ drivers had entered the weekend. The place was way busy, as the special media event for the just-introduced High Performance Driving School was Tuesday and Wednesday of race week, plus a television crew was on site to follow the exploits of seven women drivers doing their first Skip Barber Series event. There were three first-time winners, too. And mechanic John Norkus, despite a loss in his family during the week, was incredibly focused and named, unanimously, the Mechanic of the Race…
Alexander Rossi, who won the biggest prize in the Skip Barber Karting Scholarship Shoot-out earlier in the month at Sebring, led every lap from pole position. He had built a pretty big lead over first Duncan Ende, then Tom Roberts (who had displaced Ende on lap 12), but a full course yellow to get Sarah Wahl out of the T5 kitty litter wiped it out. After the re-start, Rossi fended off Roberts, who was very busy with Justin ‘‘Baby’’ Moon. Alex Doman’s last-lap pass of Ende gave Doman fourth place. Jeff Kaiser worked hard to come from as far back as 10th to take sixth, with rookie Steven Guerrero, Dave House, Luis Martinez, Jr., Wahl and Paul Bonilla rounding out the field.
Moon was in a class by himself in this race, which was wet-to-damp-to-almost-dry. Every lap, he explored the line to find the most grip, and did it brilliantly. At the checker he was almost 20 seconds up on Rossi, who was another 14 seconds ahead of Doman. Ende was also very good, digging his way out of the hole he made by spinning before the green flag, getting to fourth at the end. Guerrero, Roberts, Bonilla and Kaiser rounded out the field.
Alan Baia had a breakthrough weekend, beginning with qualifying Saturday morning, on pole by .121 over Mishael Abbott. At the green he kept the lead into Andretti over Abbott, who soon fell into the clutches of Jules Duc. Those two had a tremendous battle going, with Abbott smartly defending her second place. It came to tears on lap six, however, when Duc’s dive underneath Abbott resulted in light contact that spun them both into the gravel trap. Two laps of FCY followed (separately, the #95 had gotten stuck in the T6 gravel) but following the re-start, Baia had no real challenge to the end, as Igor Sushko and Gray Gregory were mixing it up wonderfully for P2, with Eric Ives brilliantly working himself into the mix, too (Ives, regrettably, would later have to pit…). At the checker it was Baia (first win!), Sushko and Gregory for the podium spots, with Amanda Hennessy, who was duking it out with fellow TV-er Destiney Hays, fourth and fifth, respectively. The next four were TV-ers, too: Stephanie Chappell, Amanda Connolly, Natalie Sather and Maryeve Dufault. Pat McCormick and Peter Muravez in 10th and 11th were the last of the runners.
With other commitments, all but one of the TV racers couldn’t do Sunday’s race, so we saw a smaller field in this one. The track was a bit tricky – the sun was coming out and it was a mix of “damp line” and a dry line. Outside frontrowman Sushko led lap one, but Baia overhauled him to lead the next three laps. But on lap five Baia made a mistake in 11 and spun! He didn’t go four-off but lost the lead to Luis Martinez, Jr. (Sushko, meanwhile had dropped back to sixth, able to make up just one spot the rest of the way.) So the race ran its course, Martinez leading Baia leading Duc leading Gregory. Sushko and Natalie Sather took fifth and sixth, with McCormick rounding out the field,
First time winner! Mario Adrian Ochoa had all he could handle from Sarah Wahl in a dandy of a race. There were three one-lap caution periods, and after the last one on lap 13, Wahl tried mightily but could not put the pass on Ochoa, just 2/10s behind at the checker. Baia’s most excellent weekend was continuing. Despite spinning out of third place on the second lap in Turn Two, which eventually led to him going a lap down, he got himself back in front of leader Ochoa – then the last yellow came out. That put him back on the lead lap, and following the re-start with three laps to go, Baia got around eight cars to take P3! Gregory was fourth and ”Big Al” Delattre a solid fifth. Dan Cheadle Micjael Lee, Paul DeMeester, McCormick and Harsha Sen rounded out the top 10.
Ochoa was the poleman, of course, but it looked like he missed a shift right at the start as the field came out of the last corner and he crossed the line DFL! Gregory took advantage of his inside row two position to lead, with Baia in second. On that first lap, Ochoa was a rocketship; he passed six cars and was thus up to third place. On lap three, Baia snatched the point from Gregory and then just pulled away. That left Ochoa scrambling to catch Gregory in second place. Which he did, on the last lap! Fourth went to Sarena Traver, after a very heavy battle with Peter Husser (fifth, after starting 10th). Lee, Cheadle, McCormick, Demeester and Sen rounded out the top 10.
New guy Eric Mayo blitzed the field in this 17-lapper — a first-time winner the first time out! Terrific dicing behind him, thanks to Matthew Reynolds, Fernando Cevallos and Traver. Sarena had a spin on lap seven, putting paid to any podium hopes she had, so it was Reynolds and Cevallos going back and forth for P2, a battle eventually won by Reynolds. Brian Nilles was a solid fourth, and Sarena ended up with a fifth. This race also featured the first Skip Barber start for TV and film star Frankie Muniz, who did a good job bringing her home seventh, behind sixth-place Larry Linkogle. Luis Martinez, Sr., was eighth, followed by Delattre and Wes Hoaglund.
By the time the Sunday G5 race started, the track was all dry. And Mayo did not have a walk in the park this time, as Reynolds put a much neater package of fast, consistent laps together than did rookie Mayo. Reynolds led the first two laps, then Mayo took the lead just as we went FCY for two laps. On the re-start Reynolds grabbed P1, but Mayo hunted him down two laps later and led for good, winning by a bit more than a second. Cevallos did a great job to take third, and Nilles and Linkogle came home fourth and fifth, respectively. Mark Quevli improved the most positions, going from 10th on the grid to sixth at the checker while Traver, who had been as high as fourth until a four-off in Andretti, salvaged a seventh. John Jinishian and Hoaglund rounded the runners, while Muniz got his “welcome to racing” initiation, with a big spin exiting Turn Nine that ended his day.
Western Series Triple Crown, Race Three
This was a very exciting race between two of the Series’ fastest young kids, Alexander Rossi and Patrick Barrett, with the added drama of new guy Eric Mayo driving like a vet. Rossi led across the line at the start, but Barrett had the lead by the time they exited Turn Two, with Mayo slotted right there in P3. Eventually Rossi and Barrett left Mayo behind, who then ended up in an epic battle with Paul Bonilla! Meanwhile up front, Barrett and Rossi were putting on a show. Rossi got tired of Barrett leading and took over the point on lap nine. But on the next lap, Barrett tried just a bit too hard in Turn Three and fell off the road! (He would re-join fourth, after his pit stop.) So now it’s Rossi with a big lead, Mayo in second and Bonilla in third. Bonilla then put a brilliant pass on Mayo going into 11 to take over second place — but just a few moments later, Bonilla locked ‘em up going into Turn Three, then went four-off. Second place was now Mayo’s, with Barrett taking over P3 (thanks to Bonilla having to pit). Alexander Rossi cruised the rest of the way to the win, which clinched the Triple Crown Championship for the teen racer. Alan Baia, in the midst of his hot hand in the Regional races, crossed the line in fourth, less than a half-minute behind, clinching the Triple Crown Sportsman title.
The Shelly Winters Memorial
Oh, man, this was another great race! Instructor John Mefford hadn’t been in an R/T in months, but from ninth on the grid, he was P4 after one lap, and P3 after six. Then second – behind a dead-on Jeff Kaiser, your leader. Mefford, Moon and Mayo were putting on a close-racing clinic, not that all far behind Kaiser. But on one of the moves Mayo made on Mefford going into Two, there was slight contact; Mayo’s nose nipple grazed Mefford’s left-rear. They never even felt it, but of course they would suffer the time penalty post-race. Kaiser took a perfectly driven win, with Mefford one second back, Mayo another two ticks further. Moon was fourth on the track, but after the time penalties for the other “M’s,” he got second, Mefford third. Good stuff, regardless!
Well, that was an enervating race weekend! Great racing, first-time winners, fast new guys, TV people catching the action on camera, media VIPs on site, spot-on cars (thanks to the awesome mechanics), an excellent dinner/party/Linda Snyder celebration at Tutto Mundo Saturday night (“Thanks, Tom!!!”), some crash damage caused by low-flying airplanes (Thanks, Nick!!”) – the weekend had it all. Yet more proof how cool Laguna Seca race weekends are…
Big combined Western and Southern Series Race Weekend! Yep, at Sebring, on the full 12-hour course, it’s rounds seven and eight for both championships, February 17-19. This will be good, don’t miss it.
Then, a month later, it’s the second annual Skip Barber “Open Invitational.” This event is a featured support series for the 54th Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring! Giant crowd, racing with the pros. The Open Invitational was a huge success last year (it was at Watkins Glen, with the Rolex Sports Car Series) and this one should be even bigger. Call your Series Advisor to get into this two-qualifier, two-race event: Special price for Lapping, too.