Eighteen champions take the checkers at the NASA Western States Championships presented by Toyo Tires
Culminating a full season of racing, the nation’s top amateur auto racers earned titles in 18 classes on Sunday at the 2017 NASA Western States Championships presented by Toyo Tires at Thunderhill Raceway Park.
A wind-fanned grass fire during Sunday morning’s practice session delayed the start of the Championships until the afternoon. Drivers had to contend with wind gusts up to 70-mph on the 3-mile-long road course.
More than 150 amateur drivers representing seven states competed at the 12th NASA Championships, which featured a deep and talented field of competitors. The NASA Eastern States Championships will be held at Sebring International Raceway, October 19-22.
“All our drivers put in a lot of hard work this year just to get to the Championships, and they drove their hearts out this weekend,” said Jeremy Croiset, NASA Racing’s director of business development. “Championships are earned, not given, and our guys definitely earned their place in the record books this weekend.”
Brian Lock admits he was a little nervous going into the NASA Prototype race because his car was just a tick faster than his competitors, despite winning the qualifying races on Friday and Saturday. A setup tweak made the difference and Lock won his second consecutive NP01 Championship.
“It’s great to defend the title,” Lock said. “This year winning both qualifying races and the feature race was great. This year was a little more complete for us.”
Teen Mazda Challenge driver Nick Sommers crossed the finish line first with a 5.4-second gap over Littlehale, but officials later determined the 18-year-old Sommers had jumped the start, and awarded the Championship to Littlehale.
The class had the deepest field of the weekend, with 29 cars running on the road course.
“The officials were already looking into the start, and requesting videos from us,” Littlehale said after the decision was rendered. “It feels pretty good to win. We worked really hard for this weekend.”
Sommers said the strong winds made racing a challenge.
“The wind was a big factor and it made every lap different,” Sommers said. “The car was very twitchy. It was just a hard race to control and stay consistent.”
As one of NASA’s newer racing classes, Spec E46 is in growth mode. The class this year brought more cars to the Championships event than last year. That’s good because four of them were DQ’d after the race, one of which was Marco Gallaher, who passed the leader Michael Shawhan under yellow on the white-flag lap.
“I was sitting behind this 944. I couldn’t pass because it was yellow, and then he passed me, so I celebrated the rest of the lap,” Shawhan said. “He had the race won. He had the pace on me. If he had just waited till after the last flag, he would have easily won it. The only chance I had to win the race was traffic. I did not have the pace.”
Larry Fraser had to work hard to earn his second Western States Championship after a dyno violation during Saturday’s qualifying race required him to start on the back row. It didn’t matter because Fraser methodically chased down 14 Spec E30 competitors to take the lead about midway through the race.
“My approach was to get to the front as fast as I could,” Fraser said. “I wish I would have been starting up front a little more to make it a little easier, but it was definitely a hard-fought race.”
Chasing gremlins earlier in the week, Ryan Walton didn’t know what to expect when he hit the track for the Championship. The team corrected the problems by setting the K&N-sponsored Mustang up to handle the corners that Walton was having problems with in qualifying.
“We struggled the whole week,” Walton said about the qualifying races. “I tore a splitter off twice, went off the track a bunch of times. We pretty much had a second-place car. They were quicker than us but at the end we got it together when it counted.”
John Pentelei-Molnar won his second Championship in two years, but he dedicated the victory to his identical twin brother, Steve, who had spent the morning fighting a grass fire that broke out on the back half of the Thunderhill Raceway track. His brother serves on one of the Thunderhill safety teams.
With his brother watching, Pentelei-Molnar diced through traffic to pass Marcelo Vine with three laps left in the race to earn the victory.
“We’re talking about New York City traffic out there, no different than the taxis out there,” Pentelei-Molnar said, later adding, “I knew if I got in front of Marcelo and didn’t make any mistakes that would be it.”
Honda Challenge 4
Rob Krider knows how to win. He proved it at last year’s Western States by winning Honda Challenge 4 in a car he built specifically for that event. Early in 2017, when the rules changed and certain parts of his car didn’t meet the requirements, he changed the car again and brought it to Thunderhill to throw down — and took home his second consecutive Honda Challenge 4 Championship.
“This was a very sweet Championship for us because last year they made a bunch of rule changes based on my car’s engine management system,” Krider said. “So, my feeling was, fine, we’ll put a stock computer back in it and still kick everybody’s butt, and that’s what we proved today.”
Super Touring 1
Ronald Swenson earned his second Championship after spending the entire race fending off challenges from George Smith, who pressed Swenson to make a mistake.
Swenson started from fourth place, but by the time they completed the first lap, it was Swenson’s race to lose. Smith and Swenson finished within 1.2 seconds of each other.
“I had to maintain my pace because I had George on my tail the entire race,” Swenson said. “It was good fun.”
Super Touring 2
Wiping the champagne from his eyes, Skip Rebozzi smiled as he talked about his first Championship and what it means to him.
“I’m thrilled. I love NASA,” Rebozzi said. “I’ve been running with NASA since 2005, but it seems we’re always somewhere else when they run Champs.”
Rebozzi led from start to finish and never looked back by putting some significant distance between himself and second-place finisher Drew Wadolny.
“The car was flawless. It ran really good,” Rebozzi said. “We worked on the handling all weekend long to make it better and better.”
Super Touring 3
Scott Smith had scored enough points in the qualifying races to start from pole, but when it was time to take the green, conditions were nothing like he’d experienced all weekend, and his tire choice ended up working against him in the early going.
“It was super windy out there and everybody else was on a different tire than I was. They were able to have grip right away. I got passed by three guys by Turn 3,” Smith said. “But then, it was just a matter of being methodical and staying with them, and one by one, the people in front of me spun or slid off and I was able to get those positions back. Basically, the wind blew everybody off the track in Turn 1, Turn 10 and Turn 1 again.”
For the whole race, Smith trailed Brett Strom, who crossed the finish line first, but a post-race DQ for being underweight handed Smith the win and the Championship.
Super Touring 4
For David Schotz, winning the Super Touring 4 Championship was bittersweet. He had hoped to match up with Austin Newmark, but Newmark was late getting to the starting grid. They were both running lap times consistently in the 1:55s.
That late start made a big difference as Schotz held on to beat the hard-charging Newmark by 3.46 seconds. Schotz knew Newmark was late getting onto the track but that he couldn’t let up.
“I really do feel horrible,” Schotz said. “We race locally together and he’s a fast kid. He’s the reason my car is this fast. He’s made me step up my game considerably this year, so I really do feel for him.”
German Touring Series 2
Paul Geddings made history at the Western States Championships, piloting a Mercedes-Benz to its first Championship win in German Touring Series 2. The victory almost didn’t happen as Geddings was chasing problems and wasn’t able to shake it out.
“We had problems with the car all weekend,” said Geddings, who also won his first Championship. “We didn’t get to run on either of the two qualifying races because we had problems with the clutch, so we were working on it for three days. I was just so glad the thing held together.”
Brian Frisselle completed something of a “triple crown” in his Super Unlimited Norma chassis with a resumé, which now includes a 2016 Eastern States Championship, 25 Hours of Thunderhill overall win in 2015 and now the Western States Championship in 2017.
Frisselle watched as Jon Van Caneghem got a quick jump at the green flag, but Frisselle quickly passed him to build a 23-second lead.
“I’m so happy for the team. They deserve it,” Frisselle said. “They’ve given me a rocket ship so many times, I’m happy to bring it home.”
James Laughlin credits his wife and crew chief for making the right call on setting up the racecar for the windy conditions to bring home the victory.
“She made a good call—the tire pressure and setup on the car to help with these windy conditions,” Laughlin said. “It worked out perfectly.”
Laughlin battled with Dave Allen for about seven laps, but pulled away to victory. The group is tightknit, competing in 10 to 12 races a season.
“I love running up here at Thunderhill,” Laughlin said. “It means an awful lot to win this.”
Thunder Roadster is a tight class, so when one racer captures the Championship, the whole group celebrates. It was Brian Gibson’s turn to celebrate on top of the podium in 2017.
“I’m just as happy to see someone else win as they are to see me win,” said Gibson, noting that the drivers in the class have raced together for years. “It feels good, really good to win.”
Performance Touring E
Robert Dietz came to the track not expecting to win a Championship in a rookie season. But there he was atop the podium, celebrating the victory with a champagne hose-down.
“I expected to come out and watch some fast guys and learn a lot, so to come home with any hardware is just a treat,” Dietz said. “Obviously we had a small class this year, but it was a great learning experience and great competition in general with the other classes.”
Time Trial Recap
NASA Time Trial is another component of NASA Championships racing in which drivers compete for the fastest lap time rather than track position, as in racing. In Time Trial competition:
TTU: Jon Van Caneghem 1:41.280
TT1: Isaac Bouchard 1:51.339
TT2: Monsuru Tony Ibraheem 1:57.453
TT3: Matt McIntyre 1:53.820
TT4: Dave Schotz 1:53.344
TTC: Bryce Kliewer 2:03.622
TTD: AJ Gracy 2:00.876
TTE: Clay Schoen 2:12.947
TTF: Josh Buckwalter 2:20.453