NASA Time Trial is as much a mental sport as it is a motorsport, a thinking driver’s game. Every turn is make or break. Track conditions are changing all the time. Sure, you’re adapting to them, but if you drop more than two wheels, your entire session doesn’t count. Ideally, you get a little bit better each time you go out, but then again, so do your opponents. Talk about pressure.
Then, of course, there’s the weather, which matters less for racing than it does for Time Trial. When the weather is fickle, as it was during the 2023 NASA Championships at Pittsburgh International Race Complex, it makes tire choice or the decision to go out at all even more critical. Conditions were dynamic during the entire event.
“In terms of strategy, it was when do you put on the sticker tires? What’s the weather going to be like?” said David Farrar, who finished third in TT4. “It was raining and cold and sunny and then rainy, and it was just kind of a mess with everything that was going on.”
Finally, on Sunday, after the weather and doppler app forecasts had vacillated between wet and dry ostensibly every other hour all weekend long, the morning dawned gray, cool and dry, with no rain in the forecast. Scheduled for 8:05 a.m. Sunday, session four was the hot ticket for quick laps for nine of 21 Time Trial podium finishers. Four others notched their fast lap in round five later Sunday morning.
“That was Sunday. Yeah, it was good horsepower and the track was hooking up pretty good. So yeah, that was my best time at a track,” said 2015 TT1 Champion Gil Smith, who finished third in TT2 this year. “Every time I went out I was learning something.”
2023’s Time Trial Champions gave it their all. This is how the podiums played out at PittRace.
Time Trial 1
TrackDayTire’s Johnny Miller didn’t need to wait till Sunday to put in his fastest lap. Miller laid down a 1:45.095-second lap in round three on Saturday ahead of Joe Kellerman’s 1:45.241. Miller also won TT1 at Daytona in 2021.
“A lot of it is mental. You have to be prepared so that when you’re ready to go, it’s about you, the track, the day, the time. You can’t be thinking about other stuff because it’s funny, we all look at a time sheet and we see three tenths of a second” Miller said. “Well, if you blink your eyes, that’s about what, two-tenths? So, you go out on the track and you make a few hundred decisions and now you get one blink of the eye. That’s the split between us. It’s fantastic. We were that close.”
Fresh off a win in Super Touring 1, Joe Kellerman was quick to congratulate Miller on his TT1 win, and stepped up to accept his second-place trophy in TT1.
“Johnny Miller’s the man. I did everything I could to try to catch him. I chipped away every day. I chipped away a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more,” Kellerman said. “That’s all I could do. I gave him everything I had. But for me it was a personal best by over a second and a half. So I was excited to turn the times I turned. So very happy, very happy with the turnout this weekend. And a first and second. Not bad. I’ll take it.”
Try as he might, 2015 TT1 Champion Gil Smith chased Kellerman and Miller all weekend, but he didn’t have enough experience at the track to get the better of Miller and Kellerman.
“That track is very challenging as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I have won two national championships, so I can drive, but that track is just a tough track for me,” Smith said. “But I was improving pretty much each round, but I still had quite a ways to go. Three seconds. That’s a long ways to go, but I enjoyed it. It is a fun track. It’s very challenging. There’s really nowhere to breathe, even the straightaways have kinks in them that you’ve got to really be careful at when you’re running the speeds we’re running.”
Time Trial 2
Last year, at the NASA Championships, Jake Latham earned pole on Friday, the Super Touring 2 win in the qualifying race Saturday, and went on to win the ST2 championship — and also win TT2. Not to give away the ending of next week’s full racing coverage of the 2023 Championships, but with the exception of pole for the qualifying race, he did it again.
“It was a good day. This track really suits our car. We’re not so great on the straights, but in the twisties it seems to be one the best cars here. That’s where all the time is,” Latham said, adding that he now has four National Championships between ST2 and TT2.
Driving a Toyota GR Supra that looked as though it could be driven to dinner and back to the track, David Kramar finished second in TT2 at 1:48.025.
That left Ben Grambau in third in his C5 Corvette Z06 just .271 seconds behind Kramar. That’s how close Time Trial competition can be. Grambau set his fast time Sunday morning in round four.
“I was pleased with the track conditions that we got on Saturday afternoon. I think everybody went out there and put down really good laps. When you get five shots at TT, usually you kind of build, build, build. But that first shot didn’t come till late on Saturday,” Grambau said. “And then we had cooler conditions, but almost a little bit slick. On Sunday morning, I felt like on the first lap, you slipped just a little bit. I still put my best lap of the weekend down on Sunday morning. But the other guys I was competing against in TT2. None of them went faster on Sunday at all.”
Time Trial 3
Once again, not to spoil the surprise of next week’s race coverage, Eric Magnussen not only was able to take the ST3 win, but also the TT3 win. Believe it or not, a car that’s well suited to racing isn’t necessarily appropriate for Time Trial and vice versa. That made one of Magnussen’s wins harder than the other.
“So, I thought that I had built a Super Touring 3 car. It’s heavy, it’s got a lot of power, not the biggest tire in the field, and I thought that was going to work better in the race for me,” Magnussen said. “It actually worked better in Time Trial because I was able to use that power through those smaller tires for one or two laps with a huge advantage.”
Magnussen’s lap time of 1:49.468 was 1.6 seconds quicker than Andrew Stevens, who was trying to hold onto second place due to threats from John Hyer, who finished .832 seconds behind him.
“Eric, he was driving out of our lives, but I feel like it’s just about everything I could get out of the car. That flyer actually got held up by another car that passed me on the first green, so I lost a couple tenths,” Stevens said. “But yeah, I came here and wanted to give a hundred percent. I feel like I got that out of the car and myself, and I’m just happy to be part of the experience.”
Within one second of Stevens was Hyer, who had some car troubles before the event and during the event on the dynamometer. He was glad to finish on the podium.
“I had a really challenging weekend. The car that I brought is not the car that I wound up TT’ing,” Hyer said. “I’d had about 150 pounds of weight and I was over on the dyno and a couple other things. So I’m happy to be in third place with these guys.”
Time Trial 4
Team ST Edge MV notched a win in ST4 with Shaun Webster at the wheel, but in TT4 it was Anthony Zwain who nailed the top time buy just .078 seconds, the closest finish in all of Time Trial at the 2023 NASA Championships. Before the event began, the team had to replace the pressure plate Thursday and didn’t get much track time on Friday as a result. They also had a bent tie rod that had to be addressed, and their AiM lap timer stopped working during Zwain’s TT session.
“We tried to prepare the car as best we can before going to any event, but there are always unforeseen issues, not to mention the car has been around,” Zwain said, adding that this car is the one they used at the NASA Championships at 2018 and 2019, as well as full regional schedules in NASA NorCal. “We also dyno’d like 12 average horsepower low. So, we definitely could have used a little more of that horsepower to help edge our competitors. We knew there was more time in the car. But hey, we still came out on top in TT4, and Shaun raced pretty much flawlessly and ST4 race to win it, too. So, we got fortunate and lucky there.”
Finishing just .078 seconds behind Zwain, David Farrar had never been to PittRace before, so he put in about 500 laps on a simulator at home to get acquainted with the track. Farrar practiced on Friday and went out in the rainy sessions on Saturday morning, so it was Saturday afternoon before he got in some decent laps.
Farrar logged his fastest lap in round four on Sunday morning, but a mistake in Turn 17 when he was three tenths up kept him from taking the win. Going too deep into the braking zone and over-slowing a bit, Farrar lost the three tenths he’d worked so hard for on that lap. As a result, he finished second by the slimmest margin in Time Trial competition at this year’s Championships.
“I mean, looking back at it, of course you kick yourself and stuff like that, but you learn more from your failures than you do your successes, so I definitely learned a lot from the event,” Farrar said, adding that the S2000 is well suited to PittRace. “It’s a great track/car combination. The 5-6 complex is definitely the only area where the car isn’t obviously a hundred percent suited. But it was great. I set it up great. It just all came down to me. And then making that mistake Sunday morning was the nail in the coffin, unfortunately.”
Finishing third was Eric Lehnen, who had some issues with brakes early on. Lehnen had to send someone to Summit Racing in Ohio to pick up a new set of brake pads to replace the worn pads on his car. He also admitted he didn’t choose the best tires for the track.
“I should have been using a smaller sidewall. So the Hooser R7 245 is like a 265,” Lehnen said. “And on a 9-inch wheel you get a lot of squish and I never thought anything of it, but this was a track that clearly showed the difference between a 245 and a 225 because my competitors were using a 225 tire, so they had a stronger sidewall and they were able to get the grip down better where I was coming to these corners and it felt like I was driving on marbles.”
Lehnen finished with a 1:57.893-second lap time.
Time Trial 5
TT5 was decided by the thinnest margin of all but one class within Time Trial, and winner Ricardo Soares only got three sessions in Time Trial over the course of the event, but was enough for him to win by .137 seconds over second place Samed Rizvi.
“I was pretty strong from the get-go, but the thing is due to the rain, we lost all morning sessions, we only had one session yesterday, which was enough to get in P1,” Soares said. “Then today, this morning, I went out again, and set the fastest lap, did a cool down, and I was going to do another flyer and the differential broke out of Turn 17. So, I couldn’t go back out for the next, last session, and everybody else went back out. I was sitting on the sideline with only a little bit over tenth with the gap sitting there.”
Rizvi’s lap time was just a butterfly’s blink slower, putting him in second place.
Coming in third place was David Graver, who piloted his BMW 128i to third place in TT5 with a lap time of 1:56.508, just .447 seconds behind Rizvi.
Time Trial 6
Jonathan Davis and Melissa Davis shared a car in pursuit of a TT6 podium. Unlike a lot of drivers, who nailed their fastest lap on Sunday morning, Jonathan Davis was able to set his fastest lap Saturday afternoon.
“The last session yesterday finally dried out, I put the fresh tires on and we finally were able to put down a lap and nobody else was able to go faster than today,” Jonathan Davis said, adding that the duo had a strategy going in.
“Jonathan was supposed to kind of put the lap down early, and then I was going to chase him the rest of the weekend,” Melissa Davis said. “But he ended up taking yesterday and I ran today, and he was able to put down the better lap.”
He was able to put down a better lap than everyone, by 1.297 seconds to be exact, over Team Mick Blue Racing, which also was competing in Spec E30.
Team Mick Blue Racing finished second in TT6 behind Davis.
“Overall, I would say the weekend was good for me. It was a little tricky with the changing conditions, because we never knew if it was going to be raining, or not, you know, and therefore, it’s kind of like you’re waiting in the garage or at your stall. It’s the last minute to decide what kind of tires you want to put on.”
Jason Bleak finished just .641 seconds back in his Mazda Miata. Bleak was able to log his fastest lap during the first session Sunday morning in round four.
Time Trial Unlimited
Like Super Unlimited during the racing action, TTU was dominated by two cars and drivers, Jonathan Finstrom and Brian Faessler. Ultimately, Finstrom’s Staudacher S12 proved to be the more potent weapon for competition at the 2023 NASA Championships, with a win in Super Unlimited and in TTU. Finstrom also won TTU in 2022 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“I was out here a couple of years ago, but my car broke like the first session out,” Finstrom said. “So what I do is, I watch my onboard video a lot and then I do a track walk. I video every corner to see where I can gain speed compared to my videos, watch my gearing, my RPM, where my shift points are and I try and get a little better every day. I think there’s still more in the car. I still don’t have the track dialed in, personally. You got about a lap and a half to really get it done. By the time you do your out lap and then your second lap, you’re catching traffic on your third lap. So you really have one lap to make it that time.”
Finstrom’s 1:33.268 was a bit too much for Faessler to top. With a 1:36.899, Faessler finished second in TTU, but then went on to do big things in American Iron Extreme, which we’ll highlight in race coverage next week.
Coming in third in TTU, Ghais Khaleghi had what could only be described as a difficult weekend. In his first session out, he put on the wrong tires — 2-year-old tires — and had no grip. Then he discovered his rain tires weren’t balanced properly. Then his shifter broke, his brakes overheated and his throttle stuck so that it limited power output from the Suzuki-powered Stohr prototype. They replaced the pads, but the rotors were warped, so the car still shook like mad under braking and the shifter broke again.
In spite of all that difficulty, Khaleghi managed to come in third, but because he and his crew were working on the car, they missed the noontime podium ceremony.
“It was one thing after another. We needed 15 more minutes and we would’ve been done replacing the rotors because it wasn’t easy just replacing them. We had to swap the hats and all that. So yeah, that was the whole weekend for me, just working constantly,” Khaleghi said. “My wife and my son didn’t come this time, so I had two helpers with me. They came and they were my pit crew and I mean they helped a lot. If they weren’t there, I probably wouldn’t have any laps put in.”
Though he missed the podium ceremony, Khaleghi was able to collect his trophy before he left the track.