When the NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires was canceled due to COVID-19, it also put the Teen Mazda Challenge championship race — and its $20,000 scholarship — in jeopardy.
Earlier in the summer, Mazda made the decision to hold the race at the NASA NorCal August race at Sonoma Raceway, but even that event looked uncertain with the potential for another lockdown, not to mention a series of fires that dotted the Bay Area as the event drew near. Under smoky skies, nine drivers from Teen Mazda Challenge faced off in a three-race weekend in pursuit of the TMC scholarship. Each race built upon the next. Each race was critical to their success.
In Saturday’s qualifying, Tomas Mejia qualified first in TMC and second overall behind multi-time national champion Mark Drennan. Chris Nunes qualified third overall and second in TMC, with Wyatt Couch qualifying third in TMC and fourth overall. Roy Fulmer IV qualified fourth in TMC and sixth overall. Hannah Grisham was in 11th overall and fifth in TMC. Clayton Ketcher, David Tooker and Clayton Williams rounded out the TMC class, all of whom were under the two-minute mark. Austin Edwards did not register a qualifying time because his transponder wasn’t working.
For Saturday’s race one, Drennan stretched the advantage of pole position to a two- or three-car-length lead, and held it till the end. Fulmer IV looked racy for the first few laps till a blown differential sidelined him. Similarly, Tooker’s car also suffered mechanical failure at the top of the hill in Turn 2.
In the end, Mejia finished first in TMC, with Nunes in second and Couch in third. Ketcher finished fourth with Grisham in fifth.
When Sunday morning rolled around, Edwards had fixed his transponder and Fulmer IV had replaced the differential, and started from 28th and last on grid respectively. Drennan had pole and once again used it to his advantage to take the win.
When the checkers flew, it was Nunes in second overall and first in TMC, with Wyatt Couch just behind him and Clayton Ketcher in third in TMC. Grisham took fourth in TMC, with Williams in fifth and Fulmer IV sixth. Fulmer IV advanced 23 positions to finish 11th overall to take the hard charger award for the race.
When the race ended, drivers had more than six hours to prep their cars for the scholarship race.
At the green, Couch got a big push from Matt Cresci, which was good enough to get both of them ahead of Nunes by Turn 2. Couch went four off at Turn 4, but re-entered the track ahead of Cresci. The front pack changed up going into Turn 11 on the first lap. Ryan Pond dirt-tracked it into the corner and made room for Nunes, who slipped in front of Cresci to take third place. On the next lap, Fulmer IV got inside Cresci in Turn 11 and badgered him till he completed the pass in Turn 2.
Two laps later, Pond bobbled in the high-speed Turn 10 and lost the spot to Cresci, who set his sights on Nunes and Couch. At that time, Nunes had the lead after getting a run on Couch out of Turn 11 and sticking the pass in Turn 2 by using a back-marker Spec E30.
The lead was short lived. Nunes slowed in the braking zone to the Carousel and dropped back to third, with Fulmer IV in second and Couch back in the lead.
Passing is difficult at Sonoma, but it became even more difficult when a car crashed off line into the wall on the outside of Turn 11, which is a critical passing zone. The caution flags waved for several laps, after safety workers told the driver to exit the car and hop over two K-walls. The car sat there for the remainder of the race, but the yellow flags were pulled after a few laps because the field was aware of the crashed car and its location.
That order remailed till the end, with Couch taking first, Nunes in second and Cresci in third. Fulmer IV took third in TMC after overcoming some pretty daunting mechanical challenges.
“The car was pretty good. I was just driving laps and I saw people behind and they were giving me challenges every now and then,” Couch said afterward. “It was really good, clean, hard racing. It was a lot of fun. All the work that’s gone into this season, just putting the car together, working on the car every weekend relentlessly just getting it ready, and putting the time in, it really feels good to win.”
For his part, Nunes challenged for the lead the whole race, and did use lapped traffic to take the lead briefly, and managed to bring home a third- and two second-place trophies in one weekend of racing.
“I ended up finishing second in a super hard-fought race,” Nunes said after the race. “We were going at it, me and the leader. He drove a phenomenal race. I ended up making the pass. We were dicing really good and he got the best of me. He drove flawless and super clean, good racing, lots of respect. You can’t sneeze at a second. Congrats to him and the $20,000 scholarship, and we’re ready for next year.”
Fulmer IV’s charge from 11th was all the more exciting to watch as he nabbed the last spot on the TMC podium and fourth overall.
“It was definitely a tough weekend for us. Blowing up a diff yesterday caused me not to finish the first race, so we had to start dead last for the second race today,” Fulmer IV said. “We charged from 11th to third in TMC and from there, we had a good clean close battle. I didn’t have enough to compete with Chris and Wyatt. Those two really drove well this weekend.”
Check out the highlights from the NASA Teen Mazda Challenge scholarship race at Sonoma Speedway on Aug. 23, 2020. The racing couldn’t have been closer or cleaner. Well done!