Spec MX-5 Challenge Series presented by Toyo Tires kicked off a West Coast double-header June 24-25, when the series headed to Sonoma Raceway for round eight of the 2023 season. Sunny skies illuminated the gorgeous rolling hills of Northern California, providing perfect weather for the 14 SMX drivers registered in NASA NorCal’s event.
A 60-car mixed-class field proved to be the biggest challenge of the weekend, which was made more difficult without a test day on Friday. The track configuration included the seldom-used NASCAR Chute, so competition was expected to be close after Saturday’s 20-minute warmup session. However, nothing would stop former Teen Mazda Challenge phenom Wyatt Couch from claiming pole position, two wins, and two fastest-laps. Couch now leads the driver standings following round eight, after the young ace hoisted the first-place trophy for the fourth and fifth times this season. Series veteran Wes Mollno podiumed twice over the weekend with P2 and P3 finishes, while rookie and another Teen Mazda Challenge alum David Tooker snatched P3 in Saturday’s race and Will Schrader claimed P2 in Sunday’s race.
Couch started off his weekend of dominance Saturday morning with a blistering lap during qualifying, his 1:28.584 out of reach for anyone else. Just 1.2 seconds back was Mollno after he was able to fight through the traffic on his sixth lap for P2. Tooker continued his impressive debut season with a lap good for P3, while fellow newcomer and Teen Mazda Challenge standout Uthman Alaoui put in the best lap of his season to claim P4. AJ Zarcone rounded out the top five with a time of 1:30.686.
Enjoying a separate green flag at the front of the crowded field, race one got underway Saturday afternoon, seeing Couch waste no time to distance himself from the rest of the pack. After just four laps, Couch had a comfortable 4-second gap to Mollno. At the end of the same lap, Jon Davies, who didn’t set a representative time in qualifying due to a glitchy transponder, moved into P6 after starting 13th! The battle in the middle of the pack was where the action seemed to be, as Zarcone and Schrader enjoyed a multi-lap fight for P4, while Davies, Ryan Gutile, and newcomer Chase Nickells swapped positions multiple times for P6. Davies eventually fought his way through the out-of-class traffic to finish sixth, while Schrader successfully passed Zarcone to claim fourth. Farther back in the field, Adrian Comstock bravely went for an overtake while showcasing fantastic late-braking on the final lap to gain a position. Couch was in a class of his own, it seemed, because the young ace finished a full 13 seconds ahead of Mollno as the checkered flag waved. Tooker was less than a second behind Mollno in P3 to claim his fifth-consecutive podium of his debut campaign in Spec MX-5 Challenge.
With no qualifying session scheduled for Sunday, the grid was set by each driver’s fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying or race, which produced a significant shuffle through the order for race two. The race start mirrored Saturday’s, with Couch wasting no time to separate himself from the rest of the field. Schrader made a move on Mollno to claim P2 in short order, with Tooker passing Mollno at the final corner of the first lap. Zarcone mimicked Tooker’s move on Mollno, putting the youngster into P4 on the following lap, which led to a fantastic battle with Tooker for P3. On lap three, Zarcone braved the outside of Turn 11 to try and get around Tooker while the rookie held the inside line. Unfortunately, Tooker held the line a little too close to the inside and made contact with the inside barrier. Quickly losing ground to his competitors behind, Tooker tried to continue, but his right control arm had snapped due to contact with the barrier, which forced him to park his car after Turn 1. The safety car was deployed shortly after to make it safe to recover Tooker’s car, and to slow the race to allow the cars to regroup for a restart. The safety car left the track with just three laps of racing remaining. Couch didn’t look back, eventually winning his second race of the weekend, with Schrader nearly 6 seconds behind for P2. After an intense last-lap-battle, Mollno emerged in P3, with Zarcone missing out on the final step of the podium by a mere .2 seconds.