The thing about Southern California’s Auto Club Speedway is that you can work your tail off to get past a competitor in the infield portion of the track, but if they work the draft properly on the oval, they won’t stay behind you for long.
It’s that critical, and no one made better use of the draft July 28 and 29 than Teen Mazda Challenge driver David Dodge, who finished first Saturday and Sunday.
Eighteen cars took the grid Saturday. David Dodge grabbed pole position with a 2:02.869, with Clement Lee just .027 seconds behind, with Alex Brauer in third. When the green flag dropped, the lead changed three times between the flag stand and the 90-degree turn into the infield. However, four wide does not work through there, and a few cars got punted, including Charlie Hayes, who was knocked back to 15th, but fought back to finish third.
When the dust settled, Clement Lee had lost an alternator belt and dropped out, and Dave Varco emerged as the race leader a few laps later. Rob Burgoon drafted Varco to help push the pair ahead of the pack, and he would pass Varco for the lead, but it did not last.
“About halfway through the race, my tires … just quit completely, and then it was just letting everyone by,” said Burgoon, who took fifth.
Dodge also got caught up in the melee in Turn 3 at the start and was relegated to fifth place. One by one, draft by draft, Dodge charged into the lead, with Scott Phillips in chase. Thinking he had a gap, Dodge was just trying not to throw it away before checkers. That’s when Phillips got past him heading into the last series of corners before the front straight.
“He caught me in one of the last turns on the last lap, outbraked me, got by me and we had a really, really tight battle out of the last turn,” Dodge said. “I dropped down to second gear, got a run on him — I’m amazed we didn’t hit — and I pulled enough of a gap that neither Charlie nor Scott could get to me.
On Sunday, it was Dodge’s stepfather John Sause who earned pole when he lopped 3 seconds off his qualifying time Saturday. Dodge was just a tick behind in second, with Clement Lee in third, .003 seconds behind Dodge.
Sause and Dodge drafted their way to a five-car gap over the nearest competitors, but youth and enthusiasm trumped age and treachery when Dodge took the lead. He tried to tow his stepfather along, but Sause dropped back to finish fifth.
Just behind them, Burgoon and Clement Lee battled for second with Hayes in hot pursuit. Burgoon was glued to Lee’s bumper for so long, his engine began to run hot, so he backed off, let it cool, and he eventually got past Lee.
On the last lap, Hayes made a charge to the lead in Turn 6, but a transmission issue surfaced and Dodge and Burgoon squeaked past again to take first and second, giving Hayes his second third-place finish of the weekend.
“At this track, getting to the first turn up front is not terribly important,” Burgoon said. “What’s important is that you find a friend and start pushing each other around this racetrack. And if you link up with your buddy and you work together really well, it doesn’t matter where you started, you’ll be there at the end.”