NASA SoCal drivers don’t get to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway often, and 2021 was the first time the Southern California Region hosted an event there without partnering with the Arizona Region, which races there a couple of times a season.
The season finale for SoCal Spec Miata took place at Chuckwalla in November. Because it was a track most weren’t familiar with, the playing field was about as even as it’s been all season.
At the green, KC Cook took off from his grid spot on the outside of pole, which he chose after earning pole position in Saturday qualifying. The choice worked because Cook emerged after Turn 2 with the lead, with Teen Mazda Challenge driver Mark Polunin in second and points leader Blake Minasian in third.
Cook took full advantage of 944 Spec traffic and jumped out to a big lead that he would keep and extend by the end of the race, notching his first Spec Miata win in the 2021 season.
“You know how close these races are, so being able to pull out a 5-, 6-second lead is a relief. You don’t have four cars in your mirror,” Cook said. “This is my first time here, and of all the tracks that we’ve visited all year, this probably is hands-down my favorite track. There’s a lot of throttle management and weight transfer to deal with. It was a really good day, a really fun track.”
Behind Cook in second, Polunin wasn’t able to knife through 944 traffic as well, and when Cook checked out, Polunin admitted to losing focus a bit.
“In the beginning, I really struggled to keep up with KC. Part of it is preparation. Part of it is I literally need to learn the track better. I actually completely got out of it. I ran into some traffic and I was mentally not there for a good portion of the race, maybe a third of it. Maybe even up to two thirds,” Polunin said. “It took Blake catching up to me for my brain to kick into that race mode again. Finally my lap times starting going from like a 2:07 back to a 2:06 low. So there was like eight-tenths of me just cruising out there just forgetting what I was doing.”
Minasian had troubles of his own, fighting understeer, until he made a change to get the car to turn better. That helped, he said, maybe a bit too much, but it was good enough for Minasian to finish third.
“I made a half adjustment to the rear sway bar. I made it a little bit tighter, so that definitely helped with the rotation and got rid of the understeer, but it made it very, very touchy to oversteer, but it was a lot better than before,” Minasian said. “So, I was able to push and come up from fifth and I was able to stay smooth, get up to third. Then I was putting pressure on Mark the last handful of laps, and he was able to hold me off. He was driving really well.”
In Teen Mazda Challenge, Polunin took first with Cooper Hicks in second.
For Sunday’s main race Cook again had pole, and chose the outside lane. That put Polunin on the inside for the slightest Turn 1 at probably any track in the country, with Minasian behind him in third and Austin Varco in fourth.
At the start, Minasian got a great jump and pushed Polunin from behind, which was enough for him to get ahead of Cook and establish a lead he would hold till the end. Cook had mechanical issues and dropped out late in the race. At the finish, Polunin got his second Spec Miata win of the 2021 season, with Minasian in second and Varco in third for his first podium ever.
“I was thinking before the race, ‘If I don’t get ahead of KC in this first corner, I’m going to be stuck between a rock and hard place. It’s going to take a while for me to get round him. He’s going to have to mess up, basically.” I was extremely defensive. That’s the only way I could stay ahead. I couldn’t stay ahead on pace, probably,” Polunin said. “If he got past me, it would have probably been his race, but I tried my best to keep it on the track. I tried my best to carry as much speed as I could, stay ahead of the pack behind us to at least guarantee a second place, and it worked out. Sadly, KC had some mechanical issues, and he pulled off because of it.”
The season points race ended with Minasian taking the regional championship, with Cook in second and Polunin in third.
In Teen Mazda Challenge, Polunin again took first with Cooper Hicks in second. The season ended with Polunin taking the TMC championship, with Antonio Zarcone in second and Cooper Hicks in third.