For the last few years, NASA SoCal has been racing on “the Roval” at Auto Club Speedway under the specter of its ultimate demolition and conversion to a half-mile oval. Every time the checkered flag flew, NASA SoCal drivers wondered who would be among the last drivers to win at the NASCAR-owned facility.
In Spec Miata, that driver was Teen Mazda Challenge competitor Cooper Hicks, who ran a perfect weekend, topping the time sheet in Saturday’s qualifying, winning both main races and the Sunday morning qualifying race in conditions that were far from ideal.
The weekend forecast called for rain for Saturday’s race, and it came down hard, pooling water to such depths that prompted officials to reroute the course around the puddles, yet much closer to the K walls at the perimeter.
However, before any racing could happen, competitors needed to figure out which tires to use for Saturday’s qualifying. Drivers and crews were eyeballing their weather forecasts and doppler apps right up until it was time to head out on track. Ultimately, all but one team went out on wets.
Hicks qualified on pole, followed by Sophia Storey, Sean Douglass, Brett Becker and Nick Stewart, who didn’t have rain tires and didn’t start the race.
Scheduled for 40 minutes rather than the usual 35, the race was as much a matter of survival as competition. With Hicks leading Storey in second, Becker in third and Douglass in fourth, the downpour intensified. When Storey’s hardtop came loose at the front and began to lift, she dropped out, leaving Becker in second and Douglass in third. Douglass eventually got around Becker, and at the checkered flag, it was Hicks in first, with Douglass in second.
“It was my first time driving in the rain. In karts I’ve raced in the rain quite a bit, but it was my first time in a car, and I don’t know, it was so much different than I thought it was going to be,” Hicks said. “In qualifying, it wasn’t that bad. There wasn’t any puddles on track. It was just kind of damp. The race, it was bad. I was hydroplaning everywhere. It was hard getting used to that, with the brake zones and things. It was a new experience. It was fun.”
With his father on the radio keeping him aware of his competition, Hicks pushed hard enough to set a gap when he needed one, and maintained pace to keep everything under control. Fueled for a 35-minute race, Hicks barely made it back to the pits with his first Spec Miata and first Teen Mazda Challenge wins.
Douglass got around Becker to finish second.
“It was the most challenging race I think we’ve ever had. With all the rain out there and the flooded track, it was really a clinic in car control in the rain, but a ton of fun, and a lot of lessons learned,” Douglass said. “I had a bad start, so I had four cars ahead of me, with a ton of mist and rain, and I couldn’t see a darned thing. If somebody would have spun, I would have just T-boned him. So I was about a lap away from coming in, thinking this is crazy, but I decided to push through and finally somebody else dropped out, and I thought, ‘OK, now I can’t drop out.’ So, then I worked on Brett for a bit, and got past him and then it was just a matter of learning where all the puddles were and taking the car through the puddles the exact same way each and every time. It was a ton of fun.”
It had been a while since Becker had been on the podium, so true to any third-place finisher, he was just happy to be there.
“It had been so long since we used rain tires, I had to text Spec Miata National Director Xavier Calderon for tire pressure tips for the Toyo RA1,” Becker said. “He texted me back in time to get squared away for the race, and it worked. It was still a mess out there, but I would have been lost without his help.”
Sunday’s qualifying race set the stage for Sunday’s race, which would be the last race at Auto Club Speedway. Officials had reverted to the usual course configuration. The track was dry enough that RR’s were the right call, but there were still enormous deep puddles in the complex before the course re-enters the banking after NASCAR Turn 4.
Hicks jumped out from pole to an early lead he would maintain for the entire race. Storey had second, followed by Douglass and Becker.
Becker was able to get around Douglass and use the draft with Storey to build a gap. Becker got around Storey to take second for a lap, but a bobble in Turn 5 put him back to third, where he would finish.
With just two laps left to go, the skies opened up again, slowing the field to a cautionary pace. Storey finished second, and Hicks took that final win at Auto Club Speedway.
“I’d like to thank Great American Tires, Morningstar Racing, my dad at Dave’s Mobile Works, my parents, my girlfriend and NASA SoCal,” Hicks said. “I’d also like to give a shout-out to my family friend Brian, who was paralyzed in a snowboarding or skiing accident, and we’re just hoping he can have a good recovery. He’s who I dedicated this race to.”
Because this was the last NASA event at Auto Club Speedway, the Spec Miatas skipped the infield after checkers, opting instead to head down the back straight and go sightseeing in NASCAR turns 3 and 4, a fitting end to road course racing at the facility.