Mark Polunin and Ryan Pond Begin 2022 Season With Twin Wins

The 2022 NASA SoCal season kicked off in January. No. 0 Teen Mazda Challenge driver Mark Polunin took one win and Ryan Pond took the other.

In the earliest season opener in at least a decade, the NASA SoCal season kicked off in January at Buttonwillow Raceway. Ready or not, here we come!

Saturday’s qualifying put Ryan Pond on pole position, but role call at the drivers meeting put him at the back of the pack — because he wasn’t there — leaving Mark Polunin to lead the field, followed by Blake Minasian and new Teen Mazda Challenge driver Ethan Lampe.

When the green flag dropped, the field scampered through the first lap, but when they crossed Start/Finish, they were greeted by double-yellows and a red cross flag. When the field rounded Riverside, they learned why. A Honda Challenge competitor had dropped two wheels off in the fastest bend on the track and rolled a few times, coming to rest wheels up.

Double-yellows led to black flags and the field returned to the pits. The Honda Challenge driver was OK, the wreck was cleared, and there was just enough time left for a couple of laps of green flag racing.

As Pond and Minasian battled for the lead, Polunin waited for one lap till the white flag, then pounced in Star Mazda, passing Minasian and Pond in one corner, a move that didn’t stick as the field sprinted toward the Esses.

“On the last straight before Star Mazda, I went for a double overtake, and I overtook Blake and Ryan, and then overcooked it a little bit,” Polunin said. “Then Pond took back first and then we just battled it out and I eventually got him, and kept Blake behind me for the rest of the race. It was very short, but very fun.”

Minasian had the lead for the two laps after the restart, but wound up finishing second.

“The restart was a little funky, so we all kind of built up speed out of the last corner and I knew it was going to be a lap, maybe two laps because of the timing, so everyone was late braking,” Minasian said. “Everyone was pushing it, but it was fun. Ryan was out there again. I haven’t raced with him in a while.”

Pond made a move for the lead into Star Mazda, but Polunin saw it as a chance to pass both, which he did. Pond was able to get by him again, but the last 90-degree turn onto the front straight is one of the best places to pass, which ended up being good enough for Polunin to leap-frog Pond.

“I had a good run on Blake into Star Mazda and I made a mistake. I was making a move on Blake on my left and I was trying to kind of push Blake, nudge him so I could have an entry into the corner and that let third place up the middle of both of us,” Pond said. “He did a double pass on both of us. I repassed him because I downshifted into second, and then he made a move on me going into the last corner and I wasn’t ready be aggressive yet, but it slowed me down on the main straight.”

In Teen Mazda Challenge, Polunin finished first, with Cooper Hicks in second.

Mark Polunin kicked off the first race of 2022 with a win in Spec Miata and Teen Mazda Challenge.

Sunday’s qualifying race put Polunin on pole, followed by Lamp, Pond and KC Cook, with Minasian in fifth. Starting time for Sunday’s main race was delayed by yet another car that dropped wheels and flipped in Riverside, so when the green flag dropped, everyone knew they wouldn’t have the usual 35 minutes to sort things out.

Showing speed early in his Teen Mazda Challenge career, Ethan Lampe worked his way out to the front of the pack, ahead of Blake Minasian, and he had the lead until the final lap in the final corner, leading to a drag race to a four-wide finish at the line. Transponders showed that Lampe finished third.

“I stayed consistent throughout the whole race,” Lampe said. “Once I got a comfortable lead, I made a mistake in the final turn and kind of threw it all away, but it was a fun first weekend of racing. I enjoy the series, enjoy the people I’m racing against and it was a lot of fun.”

Competitors were a bit uncertain who finished where, including KC Cook, who came in second.

“Ryan and I just hung back the whole race. We watched first and second go back and forth trading positions. I think we were kind of on the same game plan, just being patient and waiting for something to happen,” Cook said.

Pond notched the win and his second podium of the weekend after taking the second half of 2021 off from racing.

“It’s been a while since I was racing. It was a battle the whole way. It was some of the closest Miata racing I’ve done,” Pond said. “First and second swapped places four or five times all over the track. I was in third the whole time. There were places where I was faster, but those weren’t places to pass and I was going to sit back and hope for a mistake while they were battling. It just so happened that on the last corner onto the final straight, they battled and I timed my slingshot I went sideways and I got second place, making a move for first who was right in front of me and I slipped out and went for a drag race with four cars wide at the finish.”

In Teen Mazda Challenge, Polunin finished first, with Cooper Hicks in second.


After taking the second half of the 2021 season off, Ryan Pond returned in fine form, taking the win on Sunday at Buttonwillow Raceway.
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