Road Atlanta in December is always unpredictable in terms of weather. With rain in the forecast all weekend, NASA Southeast racers knew this year would be no different. It rained Friday afternoon and overnight, making for a wet track Saturday morning. To make it even more enthralling, a dense fog set in making visibility extremely poor, so poor that officials couldn’t run the morning sessions for safety reasons.
With such high levels of humidity, racers knew the track was wet, but just how wet was the question. When visibility finally became acceptable, Spec Miata racers were told practice was eliminated and qualifying would start soon. It was wet enough for rain tires, so that was the tire of choice. A light mist fell as qualifying took place, adding to the slickness of the track. Capers Zentmeyer earned pole with a time of 2:02.827 on Toyo Proxes RA1 tires.
By race time, the rain had stopped and the track was drying. Overall, the race line appeared dry. This would make for a completely different track when the 18-car field took to racing. This was no regular race, it was the end-of-year championship race, earning double points. In the season points, Zentmeyer and Jeremy Barnes were undisputed for P1 and P2 respectively, but P3 was still up for grabs with Yan Dia and Keith Williamson separated by only 4 points. This race would decide that final podium position.
Dia had the second best qualifying time so he started alongside Zentmeyer on the front row. Williamson had the third best time, starting in row two. Things got exciting right away when Williamson looped his car exiting the apex of Turn 1. Amazingly, nobody made contact with him and he was able to resume at the back! On the next lap, Dia went to the inside of Turn 1, trying to make a run on Zentmeyer. It didn’t work and slowed him down in the process, allowing Barnes to close in rapidly.
As Barnes shot up the hill toward Turn 2, he made contact with Dia. This not only gouged Dia’s wheel and flattened his tire, but also sent Barnes toward the inside wall, although never making any contact with it. With a flat tire, Dia pitted and would finish the race in 17th. Avoiding the melee, Peter Rigg and David Ardoin happily moved up into the top three. Later on lap six, mechanical problems plagued a few racers. Don Elvington’s alternator gave up, causing him to lose power and forcing him to retire. On the same lap, John Palazzolo was making waves, moving from 15th to 5th, when his left front hub failed, disconnecting his tire from the car, and sending him off the track in Turn 6.
Palazzolo said “I went driver’s left with no steering and no brakes, hitting the wall so hard it moved 8 inches.” Thank goodness for all the safety equipment that prevented Palazzolo from injury. It was an exciting race with some hard chargers like Kayden Hanks, Bill Kring, and Charles Lankford, all finishing 9 spots ahead of where they started! The final results were posted with Zentmeyer in P1, Rigg in P2, Ardoin in P3, Kring in P4, and Scott Brown in P5.
At the season championship awards that evening, Zentmeyer was crowned the 2023 Season Points Champion for NASA Southeast in Spec Miata. Zentmeyer had an impressive season with 25 podiums out of 29 races. Of those, 18 were wins. He undeniably earned this coveted award. Barnes took home the second place award and Williamson collected third place. This marked the official end of the 2023 season, one of ups and downs, but more importantly, a season of lasting memories and friendships.