The 2012 NASA National Championships return to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the second consecutive year and the fifth time in the history of the event. With 400 entries expected from all across the country, the racing is sure to be exciting and unpredictable.
Though the consistency of venue does often remove some surprises, there are always new drivers and cars to keep things interesting and come through for an unexpected victory. There are also many drivers that one might look at and be startled that they haven’t won a championship yet.
Here are a few drivers who are looking to win a title in 2012 — some are surprises and others are not, based on past performances and the way they have run so far in 2012.
Alec Udell — SM, ST2 and AI
Alec Udell probably has his best shot at winning a championship in Spec Miata. He’s already clinched the Southwest Mazda Teen Challenge. But just for good measure, he’ll be bringing a Mustang in which he’s competed in World Challenge to Mid-Ohio as well, running it in ST2 and American Iron.
“Why not? We’re there and we have two cars, so why not get the most track time you can?” he says. “We’re there for a week, and we want to run as much as we can because it’s what I love to do. I love to be in the car.”
Udell is gunning for a top-10 finish in the Mustang in both classes, but it’s in Spec Miata where he has the best shot. He’s been darn near unstoppable in Texas and Oklahoma. If he can banish last year’s difficulties, he should do well.
“Last year we were running third when it started pouring down rain. We were all on slicks. We were running third and a car spun across track into me. We had high prospects, so we’re looking to do at least the same this year, running in the top three,” he says.
Charlie Hayes – Spec Miata and Spec E30
Charlie Hayes says his main goal this year is to make it to the Mazda Shootout. Based on his results so far and his impressive surge through the Spec Miata field at last year’s Nationals, he has a pretty good shot.
The 21-year-old driver from NorCal is in only his second year of racing, having started at the beginning of 2011. His debut at the 2011 Nationals was less than stellar, but not without its highlights.
“I was struggling with just about everything in the dry and full wet. We got lucky with some mixed conditions in the main and I drove from 25th to fourth in seven laps. I spun and was taken out early,” he says.
After Hayes started racing, he landed a job with Tim Barber at TFB Performance, who already was helping him with his chassis setup. Barber has a fleet of Spec E30s, so it only makes sense that Hayes adds that class to his repertoire for 2012, with an eye on coming to Mid-Ohio very prepared with both cars.
“I feel like it’s anyone’s shot because with racing anything can happen,” he says of his chances in September. “I will do all I can to have the best I can provide with my budget.”
Omar Lopez — GTS4
This will be the third year that Omar Lopez has entered the NASA Nationals, but the first time he will actually compete. Work in 2010 and a mechanical failure last year kept him from attending, but he has no intention of letting that happen again and has his sights set on the GTS4 Championship with his Porsche 996 GT3.
“I have been very focused this year on developing the chassis of the car while continuing to grow my own race craft,” he says. “In doing so, I have seen impressive improvement in my lap times and smart traffic management that will pay dividends in the larger national classes. Despite the lack of competition in the Mid-Atlantic Region this year, I have maintained my motivation by racing the clock.” He has set new records at VIRginia International Raceway and Summit Point.
Born in Madrid, Spain, Lopez has been an athlete all his life and grew up with a father who raced a 911 before the family moved to the U.S. He spent his time watching racing on TV and at the local dirt track before starting autocrossing, doing track-driving events and eventually racing beginning in 2009. Now he’s looking to impress in his first Nationals.
“Studying the competition in other regions has given me insights on the benchmarks I need to shoot for,” he says. “This has provided me with a great deal of confidence that I can demonstrate a very strong performance and come out on top.”
Jeremy Croiset — Honda Challenge 2 and Spec Z
When speaking of drivers searching for their first championship, Jeremy Croiset shouldn’t be on the list. He should have sealed that deal before. But mechanical failures while leading H2 in the last two years have left him wanting.
“Last year was the biggest slap in the face because I had an 8.5-second lead and I was pulling away every lap, basically cruising, and the clutch exploded on me,” he says.
He believes he has the mechanical gremlins expunged, and is looking forward to getting to Mid-Ohio in September.
“The competition will be stiff, but I have a very well prepped car for H2 and I know how to get it around the track,” he says. “My chances are certainly not assured. I need some lady luck on my side, but I definitely have a good shot at a good finish.”
In addition to H2, Croiset will also be contesting Spec Z in the class’s first year. There are a lot of unknowns as several cars are still being built, and there hasn’t been much competition to date. But, given the expected equality of the class, Croiset likes his chances in Spec Z as well.
Tyler Palmer — 944 Spec
Stand near a corner while 944 Spec cars are racing and you’ll probably notice Spec 944 national champion Tyler Palmer. His car is probably the brightest lime green in the color spectrum. Look closer and you likely will see a lot of “winner” stickers, too.
“We were thinking about defending as we loaded the car onto the transport for the trip home from Mid-Ohio,” said Tyler’s father, Greg Palmer.
Palmer has won the first six of six races in the SoCal region this year, and he’s looking forward to returning to Mid-Ohio this year. Between races, Palmer has been upgrading wear items to get ready for the Nationals, replacing things like CV joints in the rear axles, a new set of Bilstein shocks from his newest sponsor and a new Lexan windshield to reduce weight. Palmer also has been making good use of the AiM timing system he won at the Nationals last year. So, what are the teams plans for this year?
“Basically, in any race the closer you are to the front, the safer you are,” Palmer said. “If you’re in the middle of the pack, as we saw at the start of the race last year, people were running into the back of others from people not knowing their braking zones, so you can get pushed off the track by someone else’s mistake.
“We have a strategy, but that stays in the cockpit,” he added with a chuckle.
Michael Stacy — American Iron Extreme
Wisconsin native Chris Griswold, who won the American Iron Extreme championship last year at Mid-Ohio, stands to have a mirror full of Oklahoma’s Michael Stacy in his 2009 Mustang Terlingua. Griswold might even be looking at the back of Stacy’s car.
You can read all about the car on Pg. 64, but suffice it to say that this Mustang has what it takes to win, particularly since he replaced the supercharged V6 with a Roush-Yates 351.
“We found that regionally we were very competitive, but we thought the six-cylinder wasn’t going to be competitive at the national level,” Stacy said.
With some 850 horsepower under foot, Stacy needs to make judicious use of that power to win, but rest assured, he has built a nationally competitive car.
If last year’s race conditions — rain — are any indication of what could happen this year, it will not be a shoo-in for Stacy to win, particularly with so much power to put down, but in the dry, he’ll be tough to beat, and although this will be Stacy’s first trip to the National Championships, he is definitely one to watch.
Robert Grace — Spec E30
At the 2011 National Championships, Robert Grace had to deal with a standing start during a summer shower, then figure out changing conditions as the rain ceased.
“It was actually pouring at the start,” Grace said. “We had a standing start in pretty heavy rain, and part way through the race it stopped raining, but the track was obviously still extremely wet. Toward the end, it began to dry out a little bit, but it also got oiled down quite a bit from a few banged up cars, so it was pretty tricky conditions throughout.”
The current points leader in Spec E30 in the Mid-Atlantic region, Grace is more familiar with the Mid-Ohio track, so the learning curve won’t be as steep this year, and he can focus on car prep, which, fortunately for him, has been a simple matter of replacing fluids, tune-up and wear items. Such is the intent of spec-class racing, right? His championship race last year was no gimme and he knows it won’t be easy this year. In a class that has grown significantly, Spec E30 entries have burgeoned from nearly 20 last year to 25 at press time this year.
“As far as competition, it’s definitely going to be tight,” Grace said. “It was extremely close last year, and the fact that we had a rain race, I think really threw some people a curve ball. But there’s no shortage of talent in Spec E30, from the Mid Atlantic and from other regions.”
Emilio Cervantes — PTC
Sprint races serve as a way for Emilio Cervantes and his Team SuperMiata to get more seat time, develop their endurance-racing cars and, of course, to have a bit more fun in the process.
The team and Cervantes have had a fair amount of success in endurance racing, including a win at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill last year and more than a few podium finishes in Western Endurance Racing Championship races this year. Cervantes’ familiar orange No. 49 E1 enduro car, nicknamed “Crusher” sees duty in PTC class races in the Southern California region.
“It has turned out to be, to my surprise, the fastest PTC car in California,” Cervantes said. “The fellow that I usually race against — I later realized after going a little faster than him on a particular weekend — is none other than Dennis Holloway, who is himself a very accomplished driver and has good resources, and has been to the Nationals and has qualified on pole and finished on the podium there. So that got the gears turning, ‘You know, I think I have a nationally competitive PTC car.’ I have since taken the car out of its normal enduro configuration to further optimize it for sprint racing.”
To prepare, Cervantes has been learning the Mid-Ohio course on professional level driving simulators, but he’s looking forward to getting on track in person.
“Learning the track, the bumps, the pavement patches, that sort of thing, you really have to be there at the track,” he said. “Luckily, I’m a fellow who tends to learn tracks pretty quickly, so I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to get most of the car dialed and be competitive in the short time available.”
Ryan Ellis — Super Unlimited
In the wide-open Super Unlimited class, the Superlite SL-C is one of the many wild racecars that fit into the rules. It’s also the car NASA Super Unlimited national champion Ryan Ellis is bringing back to Mid-Ohio to defend his title.
Since last year’s Championships, Superlite Cars has been tweaking the SL-C a bit, including aerodynamic changes, relocating the radiator to cool the General Motors LS V8 engine, and adding new nose and tail sections, according to Ryan Ellis’ father Jim.
While Superlite has been working on the car, Ryan Ellis has been at work on his racing career, which includes a Grand Am win at Homestead Miami Speedway, and NASCAR Nationwide starts at Road America, Watkins Glen and Montreal.
“We’ve been affiliated since the inception of the (Superlite) racing program about a year and a half ago, and it’s a very impressive piece of work, very nicely constructed, beautiful design,” Jim Ellis said. “It has been a great opportunity for my son to drive a car of that caliber, that kind of horsepower, that kind of performance envelope.
Ellis said they verified the aero package at Autobahn Country Club, but experienced some electrical gremlins they couldn’t fix when they were at HyperFest at Summit Point in West Virginia. Superlite now has the SL-C racecar in Detroit, Ellis said, but it will be ready in time for the Nationals. Ryan will be ready, too.
“From where I stand, I know we have the driver, I know we have the car,” Ellis said. “If it all comes together, I don’t think we’re going to have any problem with anybody. But things happen in racing, and that’s why you run the race, right? Once we get to Mid-Ohio anything can happen.”
Randy Mueller — GTS4
Last year’s GTS4 champion Randy Mueller faces a few challenges this year. One is Omar Lopez, who also is mentioned in this story. The other is that Mueller, who owns the BMW tuning shop Epic Motorsports in Miami, would be racing against many of his customers.
Like any good businessman, Mueller wants his customers to do well, but when the window net goes up and the helmet visor goes down, he’s a racer who also wants to win. Mueller could bump up to GTS5, but at press time, there was only one other car registered for the Nationals, and Mueller wants competition.
Such is the burden of success. Mueller said his Championship last year, and that of some others that Epic Motorsports tuned, attracted more GTS racers, who have since become part of his clientele.
“We’re a young company and we were definitely growing before, but after that, the demand for the specific tune we did for my car went up,” Mueller said. “There were several cars there last year. In GTS3, we had two cars, which finished first and third.”
Although racing has taken a backseat to business this year, Mueller is looking forward to Mid-Ohio.
“I’ve just been busy with other things, but I’m geared up to go to the nationals, for sure,” he said. “It’s like riding a bicycle. A couple of laps and you’re right back up to speed.”
Watch the Unusual
The majority of NASA’s racing classes are based on road cars. Honda Challenge, Performance Touring, German Touring Series, American Iron and the spec classes all feature road cars converted to racing duty. But for those who hanker for something a little more out there, NASA’s catch-all, run-what-you-brung Super Unlimited class is the ticket.
The machinery in SU ranges from full-bore racing cars, such as the Riley TRD Daytona Prototype being brought by Robert Gewirtz, to Porsche factory racecars. Gewirtz’s Riley is a former Grand-Am Rolex Series competitor.
There are also a variety of sports racers contesting SU, from turnkey Radicals to a new entry of a supercharged Honda-powered Norma chassis. One of the most unusual is Team Nobama’s Knoop-Mann Special, featured in the June issue of Speed News. This kit-car tribute to a long-vanished racecar marque has been updated into a thoroughbred racing machine.
The sheer variety of equipment in SU makes it fun to watch and rather unpredictable. It makes you wonder what sort of interesting car is going to show up in 2012 that surprises everyone?