So far as we know, there are only three people who have been to every NASA Championships event since they began in 2006. NASA Vice President Jeremy Croiset, NASA Medical Director Greg Greenbaum and former Rocky Mountain Regional Director Dave Balingit. Croiset likes to point out that he’s on up on Greenbaum and Balingit because he participated in the Mazda Race of NASA Champions at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2015. As we approach the historic renewal of a true National Championships event at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, this September, we thought it would be interesting to get their perspectives on the Championships, some of their memories of past events and what it takes to be a champion.
Q: So, why am I talking to you guys? You claim to be the only the only three people on earth who have been to every NASA Championships event since they began in 2006. You know the moment we make this claim publicly somebody is going to come out and dispute that.
A: Jeremy Croiset – We’re the only NASA officials who have been to all the Championships. There’s going to be some crew member who’s been to all of them. There’s going to be somebody.
A: Dave Balingit – Well, then we throw a prize at them.
A: Jeremy Croiset – If they can prove they’ve been to every NASA Championships event, you get a free entry courtesy of NASA.
Q: Of all the ones that you’ve gone to, what are your fondest memories of all the Championships?
A: Jeremy Croiset – In 2012, I ran two cars and won in two Toyo classes, and I was working as an official, so for me, that was it. One of the more challenging aspects of the event from an official capacity is if you’re doing anything competitive here, it’s really hard to do both.
A: Dave Balingit – My most memorable was the most recent. It was obviously the fire at Thunderhill, because that’s the one we’re going to talk about forever, especially since our illustrious leader was the one who started it.
Q: What was the strangest, most extraordinary you’ve ever seen a Championships event?
A: Dave Balingit – I’m not allowed to talk about most of because it happens after hours (laughing).
A: Jeremy Croiset – The most extraordinary thing I’ve seen at the Championships was Jim Pantas pulling a guy out of a burning car. That was pretty extraordinary. Everybody has a natural fear of fire and a lot of people just wouldn’t go into a burning car to get somebody out because his belt buckle was turned backward, which was what trapped him inside.
Either that or the fire that we just had at Thunderhill. Most people don’t know that we had tons of NASA staff jumping in to fight the fire. Ryan (Flaherty) Tage (Evanson) and Will (Faules) jumped into a fire truck that nobody else was using because it was so old nobody knew how to drive it except Will, who used to work there. I think that was pretty extraordinary, too.
A: Dave Balingit – I’d have to agree with that, yeah.
Q: Do any of you recall anything you would have done differently while racing in any of those Championships? Anything that still wakes you up at night?
A: Greg Greenbaum – It doesn’t wake me up at night, but it was probably a lot of years I had to deal with it. There was a guy who was blocking me in one of the Championship races and it was the year when one of the World Challenge guys had been at Mid-Ohio. I was on the back straight and he made a move and the guy wound up going off track. He went flying and really got messed up, and I had the opportunity for the guy who was blocking me to really put the pressure on and make a move, but he might have ended up the same way and I backed out of it. So, instead of getting what I should have, which was the guy getting DQ’d for the blocking rules in the CCR, I lost the place to him and I didn’t win the Championship. As it was happening, I remember the guy is frustrating the crap out of me because he’s blocking me, you know multiple moves in blocking, and I literally remember thinking, ‘Forget this.’ And I put my foot down and then this other guy is flying through the air and getting hurt, and it just came into my head, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’
A: Dave Balingit – Going into the final race in 2009 at Miller, we were having alternator overheating problems. It just kept baking and stinking up the car with that electrical smell. I figured, ‘Hah, it’ll last for the Championship race.’ Probably about five laps in, the voltage kept dropping and dropping, and dropping. And I was catching first place, just reeling him in. I was going to pass him and the car just died. I was sitting there on the side of the track thinking, ‘I should have changed the alternator.’ Oh well. You never know.
A: Jeremy Croiset – Mine’s pretty easy. My biggest regret was not knowing then what I know now as far as on track, I’m a competitive personality and that ultra competitive personality is actually taking away from a lot the fun I could have had all of the years I’ve been racing, because my emphasis was more on winning. And if I wasn’t winning, I wasn’t having fun. And it took me a long time to realize that it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.
Q: Of all the locations the Championships have been held, which has been your favorite track?
A: Dave Balingit – Watkins Glen.
A: Greg Greenbaum – I love driving Mid-Ohio.
A: Jeremy Croiset – For me, it comes down to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca or Watkins Glen.
Q: What is that one intangible quality that makes a Championships event special?
A: Jeremy Croiset – For me, it’s the intensity of the event, the competition, the environment that the competitors bring to the table.
A: Greg Greenbaum – For me, it would be just being able to bring all these drivers together from across the country who otherwise would never race each other, or even meet each other.
A: Dave Balingit – Mine is similar to Greg’s. It’s not so much the racing, it’s not so much the facilities. It’s not the track. It’s getting together with my NASA family, whether I’m working, spectating, crewing or driving, I look forward to the Championships because I get to see people I only see once a year.
Q: What do you think sets apart the drivers who can win Championships from the rest. I’m asking you to look outside yourselves.
A: Jeremy Croiset – I think it’s a combination of things. I think it’s natural, God-given ability. I think it’s sheer determination, tenacity and ultimately all of that leads to prep and talent.
A: Greg Greenbaum – I would agree with what Jeremy just said and then add consistency. You have to be consistent to get all the way through the weekend and take home a Championship, and it helps if you have some backup, i.e. a crew.
A: Dave Balingit – Well, there’s always that complete package, but when it comes down to four days of on-track racing and you’ve just got a lot of little things that can happen, and there’s always that luck factor, there is definitely luck involved. Especially in Spec Miata, you’ve got anyone in the top 10 who can win. There’s always that luck factor.
A: Jeremy Croiset – That’s so true. I have personally lost four Championships to luck. I had a 40-second lead at Mazda Raceway. I broke a knuckle and went into the wall. I had a clutch go out at Mid-Ohio and I had a Corvette that took me out at Watkins Glen.
A: Greg Greenbaum – Yep, I know of one that I lost to luck, a broken part in a Championship race where you’re leading.
Q: When you guys look ahead to the 2018 NASA National Championships at COTA, what are your hopes and expectations?
A: Greg Greenbaum – I’m hoping it’s going to be the biggest, the best and the most professionally run Championships we’ve seen and the most highly attended.
A: Dave Balingit – I’d like to see a thousand cars there. It’s not so much a personal thing. I can always say I want to go and win in NASA Prototype. It just comes down to having a good time, and I want to make sure we have a professional event. It’s going to be huge. We’ve got to bring our A game.
A: Jeremy Croiset – For me, my hope is that it gives the NASA competitor a platform to demonstrate just how good they really are to a much broader range of people. That’s my ultimate hope, that we can show how good NASA drivers truly are, because NASA has some of the best drivers in the world in my view. I have personally watched people do things that are absolutely unbelievable, and I just hope this event provides the ability to showcase how good they truly are to the biggest breadth of people we can bring.
Q: Most disappointing moments
A: Dave Balingit- My most disappointing moment came as I was walking off the podium with a bottle of champagne and the first place trophy, and then getting DQ’d in impound over a small oversight. I was an inch off on location on a cage mounting point that had been in the rules, but I just didn’t read the rules that year. Out of 2 feet of range I could have put that cage mount, I was off by an inch, and I got bounced for that. Rules are rules. But I’m not bitter (laughing).
A: Greg Greenbaum – I touched on it earlier, that whole blocking thing. I was definitely disappointed at Miller when the car broke and I was doing well.
A: Jeremy Croiset – The two that stand out the most for me are Mid-Ohio when I blew up the clutch from just normal driving. I shifted into fourth gear and blew the clutch up on the back straight and lost the Championship because of it.