NASA SoCal Spec Miata Teen Mazda Challenge driver Cooper Hicks took advantage of Friday practice, the day of his 16th birthday, to nab pole position Saturday morning at Willow Springs International Raceway in March. TMC driver Sophia Storey started from second with new NASA SoCal TMC driver Joey Andrews starting from third.
Before the green flag ever flew, Storey and Cooper ended up rubbing side to side, which damaged the valve stem on Storey’s left front tire, causing it to lose air, which grew worse with each lap on a track where seven of nine turns are rights. Storey was able to complete seven laps before having to retire.
“I just held onto it as long as I could,” Storey said. “And then eventually, I was having to slow down so much in the corners just on right-handers just to get it to turn that I was like, I’m done. And then the whole car filled up with tire smoke. The tire had separated on that lap I pulled it in.”
Hicks’ story largely matched that of his competitor.
“She was trying to push me down before the green. I was trying to push her up, and as soon as the green flag flew, both of us weren’t really like straight or parallel with the track, so we just kind of angled into each other, even though both our steering wheels were straight,” Hicks said. “But I managed to keep it straight and I guess obviously that’s what caused her to get a puncture or whatever happened. So it felt just like a Friday practice session. I was mostly just racing myself, trying to get better laps, but not overdrive.”
Hicks finished first, followed by Team Winged Foot Racing in second and Andrews in third.
No penalties were issued for the contact, and Hicks and Storey settled amicably before Sunday’s festivities began. Because Hicks had notched the fastest lap time in Saturday’s main, he had pole for the qualifying race. At the finish, Storey came out on top, but the back-and-forth between the two drivers was hugely entertaining.
“I think on Race Hero, it doesn’t show very many lead changes, but we had so many lead changes within a lap that it was honestly a lot of fun,” Storey said. “I think I made the pass going into Turn 8 on the last lap and I was able to hold him off coming out of 1. When we both got out of the car, we were like, that was so much fun, just battling back and forth the whole time.”
For Sunday’s main, Storey had pole and held it going into Turn 1, but Hicks used momentum from the outside line to carry more speed at the exit and beat her to Turn 2. The two continued to battle most often nose to tail until a 944 Spec car stalled on the exit of the tricky-but-critical Turn 5, which brought out single then double-yellows till emergency crews could clear the car.
When the pace car left the track and the race resumed, Story again got to Turn 1 first, but Hicks stormed around the outside and into Turn 2 first. By this time, KC Cook had made an appearance in Storey’s rearview mirror, so the battle for the lead also involved a bit of defense. Out-of-class traffic was appropriately courteous and Hicks and Storey, and Cook got through unscathed. Late in the race, Storey got by Hicks in Turn 9, but Hicks was able to return the favor at the entrance to Turn 2 to retake the lead. Storey tried an inside move in Turn 9 on the last lap, but it didn’t stick, and Hicks took the last win of the weekend, followed by Storey in second and Cook in third. The TMC finish was Hicks in first, Storey in second and Andrews in third.
“The restart allowed Casey to catch up. And then after that he was in the mix with us,” Hicks said. “I was really proud of myself. I was really proud of the car. I was proud of Joey because it was his first race and I was kind of coaching him a little bit, and he did very, very well for his first race. So I was really proud about that. And it was just a really good weekend overall.”
Storey had some momentum out of Turn 5 on that last lap, but turns 7, 8 and 9 are not easy places to pass at Willow Springs.
“On the last lap I didn’t get a good enough run out of Turn 5, so I wasn’t able to make anything happen in Turn 8, but I tried to send it in hard into Turn 9, and I wasn’t able to pull it off,” she said. “I got a little loose and backed out. I didn’t take both of us out and then he just beat me to the line. I think he beat me by like two tenths, but I think I still had fast lap. So, it was another good race.”