It’s usually about this time of year, when the entry list for the NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires begins to take shape, that the energy starts to pick up in anticipation of who seems poised to take one of the top honors in all of amateur motorsports: a NASA National Championship.

Maybe that’s just here in my office, and only because I’m tasked each year with writing the “who will win” story.

However, the best NASA racing drivers in the country are those who leave little to chance, so it’s no stretch to think that lots of them have been looking at the entry lists for their classes, sizing up their competition and seeing how they can beat them.

Back issues of Speed News are a good source for “opposition research.” Interviews from past Championships and race reports from Around the Regions might provide a hint at what now-deceased racing driver Mark Donohue called the unfair advantage. YouTube is also a good source for finding out more about the drivers who will be taking the grid next to you at the 2021 NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires.

I’ve been up and down the entry lists at least a dozen times, checked race reports and interviews from past championships and regional race reports, Thunderhill coverage, and I’ve put together a list of who I think stands the best chance to win at this year’s NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires.

Every year this story produces a bit of a stir, usually from the people who aren’t mentioned or aren’t registered. To those people I can only say one thing: I’d love nothing more than for you to sign up and prove me wrong. Here’s the top prospects for this year’s NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires.

944 Spec

I hate to start out this feature with a split decision, but I’m going to do it anyway. Take a quarter out of your pocket and flip it. Heads this year’s 944 Spec Champion is Marcelo Vine. Tails it’s Charlie Buzzetti.

No, wait. That’s gutless. I’m going to go with Marcelo Vine, who enjoys the support of 7’s Only Racing, the racing shop headquartered at Buttonwillow Raceway. Support aside, Vine has been on a tear this year in the Southern California Region, winning six of 10 races. It’s worth nothing that Buzzetti won three of the four races Vine did not, so this year’s Championship is going to worth watching.

American Iron

This year’s championship grid in American Iron will feature more than 20 cars, and there will be some fast company on hand. For example, past American Iron champions include three-time winner Dean Martin and two-time Champion Jay Andrew.

We did leave one past champion off that list, however. Bruce Byerly nabbed the American Iron Championship at Sebring International Raceway in 2017, and given Daytona is on his home turf, we’re betting on Byerly as the favorite for 2021.

Byerly has seven wins and five second-place finishes this season, including one win and one second-place finish at Daytona in May. This is not to say that betting on Byerly is easy money. Patrick Wehmeyer and Marcos Rodriguez have gotten the better of Byerly this season, and let’s not forget another speedy Florida guy, Carmine Pace, who has a Spec Iron Championship from Sebring in 2017. And again there’s Dean Martin, who was a chassis development engineer at Ford who has raced with Rehagen Racing in IMSA and World Challenge.

American Iron Extreme

For years, American Iron Extreme was the domain of two NASA drivers: Chris Griswold and Paul Faessler. Lately, Griswold hasn’t been making an appearance at the Championships and Team Faessler seems to be focused on Super Unlimited.

In their place, NASA Southeast’s Robert Shaw has emerged as a new top contender in American Iron Extreme. Shaw has an AIX Championship from Mid-Ohio in 2019 and a win at Daytona in May, so he looks poised to take home the big trophy in September.

Shaw could have a mirror full of Rattlesnake Electric Sport’s AMC Javelin — yes, an AMC — driven by Richard Hilleman, the team owner of Rattlesnake Electric Sport, an FIA Category V, Group 2, Class 1 EKart racing and development team.

Camaro-Mustang Challenge

One of the most closely contested classes in all of NASA, Camaro-Mustang Challenge, is also one of the most fun to watch, and this year will be no exception because of the A-list of drivers in the mix.

Joshua Sooknanan took third at Circuit of The Americas in 2018. Bob Denton won the CMC Championship in 2016 at Watkins Glen and set the track record. Russ Carter took the CMC Championship at VIR in 2015 and currently leads the points race in the Mid-Atlantic Region.

It’s a tough call, but we’re going to give the nod to Bob Denton because of his breadth of experience in CMC — some 20 years — and because we think the aerodynamics of his Pontiac Firebird are superior to the Camaros and Mustangs he’s racing against, and that’s probably more important at Daytona than nearly any other track in the country.

German Touring Series 2

As of press time, there were only five GTS2 cars registered for Daytona, and one entrant has since crashed his car, so the field could be a bit thin this year.

Of those entered NASA Rocky Mountain’s Steve Dunn is looking good, as is NASA Mid-Atlantic’s Glenn Spiegler. Both drivers have multiple podiums within their regions, but of the field that we have so far, we’ll give the nod to Spiegler, who has less distance to travel, which can make a Championship effort a little less taxing.

German Touring Series 3

GTS3 only had three cars entered as of press time, but one name stands out as the likeliest to take home the big prize. NASA Great Lakes’ Shane Denney has been almost unbeatable this year in his region, winning 13 races this season, but Bill Schachat has been able to top him every time the two have faced off. That’s a pretty convincing argument and one we’ll use to give him the nod for the GTS3 Championship as the field stands now.

German Touring Series 4

Two-time GTS2 Champion Zach Hillmann has upped his game and moved into GTS4. He’s still racing his turbocharged Porsche 944 S3, but he’s up against two competitors in BMW M3s. Were it a choice based on driving alone, we’d easily take Hillmann for the win, but it’s a choice of driver and car and track. The M3 has typically been the car of choice for past GTS4 Champions and Daytona has inordinately long stretches of wide-open throttle, which might favor the M3s. Long story longer, we’ll be looking for Hillmann on the top step.

Honda Challenge 2

At press time, there was only one car in H1 and two in H4, so let’s focus on H2, which promises to be great battle among drivers from Mid-Atlantic, Texas, Great Lakes and Southeast.

This year, it looks like it’s going to come down to two guys from the Mid-Atlantic and Texas regions. NASA Mid-Atlantic’s Christopher Michaels has six wins and two seconds in eight races this season. NASA Texas’ Dane Byrd also has six wins, but three second-place finishes and one third. Only twice has he finished off the podium and those were fourth-place finishes.

It’s important to note that the four races Dane Byrd didn’t win were won by Team Scott Adams Driver Development, who should be in the mix, too.

But since we need to choose, we’ll go with Dane Byrd on the top step in this year’s Honda Challenge 2 Championship.

NP01

We know from studying distraction theory that distraction disrupts the dominant cognitive response. We also know that Jeremy Croiset has one NP01 championship to his name, so his dominant cognitive response is to win.

Croiset also is tasked with running large portions of the 2021 NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires, so he might be a little distracted from the business of racing, which is why we’re going to put our chips down on Sam Mangiamelli. It’s clear that Mangiamelli is quick. He took second place at Circuit of The Americas in 2018 and won the NP01 Championship at Mid-Ohio in 2019. We think he looks poised to take another one in 2021.

Spec E30

Looking down the entry list for Spec E30, two names stand out: Scott McKay and Carlos Mendez.

Alert Speed News readers will recognize Mendez as the driver in the July 6 Move of the Month video. He clearly understands how to get the job done at Daytona. Really, really alert Speed News readers will notice that the car that finished in front of Mendez in that race was Scott McKay.

Look for McKay and Mendez up front, and Chris Allen and Phillippe Pellerin, too, if they register in time. On the top step, when all is said and done, it’s likely going to be Scott McKay.

Spec Iron

Boy, you look at the 13 drivers who have made the commitment to race in Spec Iron this year at Daytona and you notice a couple of things. One, this will be the biggest Spec Iron field in NASA Championships history. Two, there are a couple of two-time national champions in the field.

A fixture in Spec Iron since the beginning of the class, Robert Miller has championships from Watkins Glen in 2016 and Virginia International Raceway in 2015. Robin Burnett won the Spec Iron Championship in 2019 at Mid-Ohio and another in American Iron in 2008 at Mid-Ohio.

You can bet these two will be going at it up front, but if we had to pick a favorite — and isn’t that the point here? — we would have to hand it to Robert Miller. Look for him on top of the podium in Spec Iron.

Spec Miata

One of the challenges of racing in Spec Miata is that one tiny mistake — a missed shift, nicking the rev limiter, a missed brake marker — can mean being passed by two to three cars. That’s also what makes it so difficult to predict a winner for this race. But we’ll try.

Obviously, Danny Steyn, Jim Drago and Todd Buras are the most recognizable names in the field, and if we had to pick one, we’d go with Danny Steyn. He’s won at Daytona — and lots of other places for that matter — and he’s always got outstanding equipment under him.

However, if he misses that one shift, or over revs it or loses focus for a second, Drago and Buras will be the first guys to pass him for the lead. Also be on the lookout for NASA Great Lakes’ Kyle Webb and NASA Florida’s Mark Gibbons, who has beaten Steyn at Daytona before.

Spec 3

This year’s Spec 3 Championship race will be like an away game for NASA Mid-Atlantic, which is where all the entries are from.

Sean O’Hara currently has the points lead in the Mid-Atlantic Region, but Jon McAvoy has more wins than O’hara. McAvoy also is a two-time National Champion in Spec 3, which makes him the easy choice to take the win in Spec 3 at Daytona.

Super Touring 1

The field for this year’s ST1 Championships at press time was just five cars, but the field included three drivers with National Championships to their name. Timothy Bidwill has two Time Trial championships to his name. Ricky Johnson has one in TTB and one in PTB and Terry Mathis has two Championships in American Iron and one in Super Touring 1.

Based on his experience and history, the easy pick is Mathis, which is why we’re going with him. He’s got the capability to get the job done, but he better keep an eye on his mirrors. Johnson and Bidwill aren’t going to make it easy.

Super Touring 2

Between 2020 and 2021 Eric Magnussen had a 16-race winning streak in GTS3 with NASA Northeast. Having since made the leap to ST2, it’s clear Magnussen hasn’t lost a step in the transition, which is why we’re voting him “the most likely to succeed” in ST2 at Daytona. Magnussen finished second in GTS3 last year at Mid-Ohio, which should give him the experience he needs to come out on top.

Magnussen will have to deal with Florida standouts Billy Griffin, Rokket Horton and Ken Mantovani. Look for Great Lakes’ Ralf Lindackers to be in the mix, too.

Super Touring 3

Roberto Crescencio took a convincing win at Circuit of The Americas in 2018 and was the top qualifier at Sebring in 2017 and that’s what make him stand out as the one to watch for at Daytona.

Super Touring 3 has a big field this year, 17 cars in all as of press time, and Crescencio might find some stiff competition from NASA Southeast’s Frank Acosta and Paul Davison, with a possible charge from NASA SoCal’s Justin Bordonaro.

Super Touring 4

NASA Florida’s Mark Burt has two championships already, one in ST3 from 2017 at Sebring in his LS-powered Mazda RX-7 and one in ST1 from a rain-soaked race at Circuit of the Americas in 2018. According to the entry list, Burt is dusting off the RX-7 and putting it back on the Championships grid in ST4. We’re thinking he has what it takes as a driver, and the car is pretty well suited for this year’s venue, which is in Burt’s home region.

If we had to name his closest competition, we’d look for NASA Texas’ Scott Adams Driver Development in the Acura NSX and NASA Great Lakes’ Patrick Kroll.

Super Touring 5

Cagri Yilmaz proved his speed in 2019 at Mid-Ohio when he qualified on pole. He fell a bit short of the mark in the Championship race, finishing third, but we think he has what it takes to go all the way this year.

Yilmaz has podiumed at every event he’s entered this year in his home region, but he will have to contend with Carlos Mendez, the Spec E30 racer who is double-dipping in ST5 at this year’s Championships.

Super Unlimited

With 15 cars headed to Daytona, Super Unlimited is poised to grid its biggest field in NASA Championships history. There were 12 cars on grid in 2018 at Circuit of The Americas, but Daytona is looking like an epic battle among the fastest cars in the country.

At last year’s Championships at Mid-Ohio, Spec E30 racer Daniel Goldburg scored the top time in qualifying Friday, and won Saturday’s qualifying race. He started from pole for the Championships race and took the Championship.

This year he’s moved up to Super Unlimited and is racing a Ligier JS P320 prototype, which is very likely the best car to have at this year’s event. Look for Goldburg on the top step.

Look for a number of other familiar names to be hot in pursuit. Jon Van Caneghem in his Mazda-powered Élan DP02 will be there as will Brian Faessler in his psychotic Mustang and Alan Cohen in his Trans Am chassis Mustang.

Thunder Roadster GTR

When you look at the roster for Thunder Roadster GTR, picking a winner for this year’s Championships seems nearly impossible. It’s packed with talent.

Brian Bohlander, James Wheeler and Jason Oehler all hail from the Great Lakes Region, and any one of them can win. Wheeler won the Championship in 2019 at Mid-Ohio, but we’re going to go with NASA Florida’s John Spain, who won in 2017 at Sebring and took second at Circuit of The Americas in 2018. We think Spain will have the slightest edge this year and we’ll be looking for him up front.

Time Trial 1

We didn’t name Timothy Bidwill for the ST1 Championship, but we think he stands the best chance to take the TT1 Championship. He’s got a lot of seat time in his Porsche GT3 Cup Car and should be able to bring it home. Look for NASA Arizona’s Ricky Johnson to be keeping Bidwill honest the whole time.

Time Trial 2

This biggest class in this year’s NASA Championships, TT2 is loaded with talent. We like Ben Grambau’s chances this year. He’s quick and learns even quicker and his C5 Corvette seems to be the right tool for the job.

Time Trial 3

Fulton Haight has been campaigning in Time Trial for most of the last several years in a BMW M3. This year he’s bringing a newer, sharper scalpel, a Shelby Mustang. Coming all the way from Southern California, Haight has a long history in racing and we think he looks primed for the TT3 Championship.

Time Trial 4

There are only three entries as of press time, but even if more drivers sign up, we like Scott Adams Driver Development for the TT4 Championship. Adams is a professional tennis and driving coach, and if he can make others faster, he certainly can make himself faster and get to the top step of the podium in TT4.

Time Trial 5

NASA Great Lakes’ Mark Phillips has been doing well in his home region and currently leads the points race in TT5. Phillips has We think he has the skills and the car to take this year’s TT5 Championship at Daytona.

Time Trial Unlimited

TTU is always loaded with talent and it’s often a safe bet to choose NASA SoCal’s Jon Van Caneghem to win TTU, but this year Julian Mann is bringing the Knoop-Mann Special, a Lister replica from Beck that has been breathed on with modern technology and powered by a killer old-school small-block Chevrolet that at last count makes 700-plus horsepower. We think he is going to be the car and driver to beat in TTU in 2021.
Images courtesy of Downforce Media, Brett Becker, Dane Byrd, Finishline Productions, Juha Lievonen, Herb Lopez, David Gillen and Richard S. James

5 COMMENTS

  1. I think you will to re-consider your thoughts when it comes to CMC. I understand you may be at Pitt next weekend to watch and I am sure you will be re-thinking your pick. nothing against Bob as he is a great racer and always fast and reliable along with being a great person, but there are cars and racers you just don’t pay attention to that arew coming to Daytona.

  2. Man, I guess the California guys don’t even count for anything in the GTR series. Oh well, it’ll be quite the upset.

  3. It would be better to use a current photo from Spec3! (One word, by the way).

    Spec3 runs 17 inch wheels and M3 bumpers now! They look much better than that old photo.

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