Cool temperatures and new tires pushed the lap times down for the entire Spec Miata field at Willow Springs International Raceway in February. They also might have contributed to a perilous pothole developing at the exit of Turn 9, but that’s another story.
This story begins with Mark Polunin laying down a scorching qualifying time of 1:36.872, a half second faster than Ryan Pond in second and .750 seconds faster than third-place starter Andres Prieto, a NASA NorCal driver racing at Willow Springs for the first time.
With Polunin on pole, the field took the green flag. Riding on a new set of Toyo RR’s, Pond got shuffled back to third at the start, but was able to use that fresh rubber to drive back up into second and hound Polunin for most of the race. Pond could get better runs out of Turn 9 and made a point of passing Polunin, who got the better of Pond elsewhere on the track. As the two battled, Pond noticed Uthman Alaoui Ismali in his mirrors.
“That happens to be my old car,” Pond said, “so I was thinking ‘I’m not letting that happen.’”
Pond kept Alaoui behind him, with his sights set on Polunin, but he wasn’t able to time his last-lap move correctly and Polunin crossed the finish line first. However, Polunin was DQ’d for being 4 pounds underweight, which shuffled the podium. Pond got the win, with Alaoui — who, at 20 years old, is in his first and last year in Teen Mazda Challenge — in second.
“Obviously it was really good for a first time out in a Spec Miata race,” Alaoui said. “I was really happy with how the car handled. I’m honestly over the moon with how far I’ve come in the last couple of months. I’ve got to thank the whole Hicks family and everyone else who’s been helping me out, getting ready for this first race, especially KC Cook, who’s been helping me out with some coaching and Lisa Caceres from the NASA NorCal region, who basically started my whole racing journey a year and a half ago.”
The DQ ahead moved Prieto from fourth to third in his first race at Willow Springs.
“I watched a lot of videos online from Elliott Skeer. I was able to pick up the line pretty fast,” Prieto said. “In the race, I was able to keep up with Ryan and Mark, but I’m still learning the track, and I made some mistakes here and there, which allowed them to pull away, but overall I think it was good to have finished fourth on track, with so little practice time. I love it. It’s a very fast track, very technical, you have to keep your revs up especially with a 1.6 car, so it’s challenging, but fun.”
In Teen Mazda Challenge, Alaoui got the win, with Sophia Storey in second and Ethan Lampe in third. This was Storey’s first race in TMC.
Sunday’s qualifying race put KC Cook on pole for the main, with Alaoui just behind and Polunin in third. Polunin crossed the scales at exactly 2,400 pounds.
For Sunday’s main, Cook was able to establish a gap early on, but Polunin closed in and the two began to dice for the lead. The battling let Prieto catch up to them just in time for a last-lap dogfight among the three of them.
“Andres Prieto was coming for us from third. Eventually he ended up catching us and we had a three-way battle for the last lap,” Cook said. “I was sitting in third going down the back straightaway. Mark and Andres were side by side going through 8 into 9. Andres overcooked it and sent it off into 9. Mark was pretty shallow, so I was able to get a good setup for the corner and then I was able to take that run all the way down the front straightaway. We had a nice photo finish.”
That put Polunin in second and Alaoui in third. However, video evidence of a pass under yellow on the front straight moved Polunin to last place, which moved Alaoui to second and Storey to third.
“At the beginning of the race, I wanted to challenge and work with KC so we could both get by Mark,” Alaoui said. “Eventually my tires were so worn from being used an entire weekend that I started sliding really bad through some of the corners. So I dropped back. I let the tires cool down a little bit and then I was working with Sophia to try to get past Ryan and decided to pass Sophia once I knew that the end of the race was coming. Then, with a half a lap to go on the last lap, I managed to duck just underneath Ryan coming out of Turn 7 and we got the podium.”
That also shifted the TMC podium. Alaoui finished first, with Storey in second and Antonio Zarcone in third.