The mercury edged past 100 degrees as the field of Spec Miatas took to the track for the first race of the July 12-13 weekend at Willow Springs International Raceway.
Ramon Niebla qualified on pole, followed by Jeremy Barnes and Brett Becker in third. The rest of the field was within 1.5 seconds of third place, so it was shaping up to be a competitive event.
When the green dropped, the race had essentially already begun. Pole sitter Niebla kept upping his speed, which prompted the rest of the field to keep pace. Niebla took an early lead. He and Barnes gapped the field a bit, and Becker was on his own in third for a while.
Barnes was quicker into Turn 1, which is at the end of a long straight, but slower out of Turn 5, which empties onto a longer straight, and he waited to make his move. Then, after Barnes had pulled alongside Niebla down the front straight, he ducked inside in Turn 1 and took the lead.
Barnes put some distance on Niebla, but as the race wore on and the heat took its toll, Barnes and Niebla yo-yo’d back and forth for several laps.
Barnes bobbled coming out of Turn 5 and Niebla finally got past him in Turn 1 on the white-flag lap. But Barnes kept the pressure on as the two rounded turns 2, 3 and 4.
“I gave him 2 and followed over the top of 4 and he went completely sideways,” Barnes said. “So I did like the NASCAR boys say, “Aim for where he was, because he won’t be there when you get there.” He did a half spin right in front of me and at that point there was half a lap left.”
Niebla gathered it up, but spun again big time in the high-speed Turn 9, handing third place to Becker and second to Yufeng Luo, who had worked his way up from last on grid.
“I was a lot of fun,” Niebla said. “I kept the lead for a lot of laps and then I started to make mistakes and then Jeremy overtook me and took the lead.”
Sunday’s qualifying race was based on the finish of Saturday’s race. The finish of that race would be inverted to set the grid for the weekend’s third race. Barnes bolted from last to first in fairly short order, leaving Wilson Steele defending second from Becker, who was in third. The two changed positions once, but the Steele curtain kept Becker behind. In the end it was Barnes in first, followed by Steele in second and Becker in third.
“Yesterday I wanted to quit racing,” said Steele, who has been chasing handling problems all season. “But after today’s race I have the biggest smile on my face.”