Drivers in the Mazda Race of NASA Champions arrived at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on Wednesday, April 29. By the time the green flag dropped for the biggest race of their lives, it was May.
Needless to say the NASA Champions were eager to race. They had been practicing and qualifying for three days, and by the time Sunday morning rolled around, it was go time.
The NASA Champions would be the third wave in a race consisting of three series: the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich, the Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge and the Mazda Race of NASA Champions.
Texas Region Spec Iron driver Corey Rueth qualified on pole with a 1:45.619 lap time. Great Lakes ST3 driver David Ziegler qualified second, just .046 seconds behind. NASA NorCal’s GTS4 champion Matt Powers gridded third, just .155 seconds behind Ziegler. In fourth was NorCal Spec E30 champion Larry Fraser, followed by NASA SoCal’s HC2 champion Jeremy Croiset.
As the field approached the starter stand, the cars were traveling at a speed at which second gear was wound nearly too high and third gear wasn’t wound up high enough, so different drivers started the race in different gears — with differing results.
“I decided to go with a hero move by starting in second, at the risk of missing third, but I was confident I could find third gear,” Rueth said. “I think we caught a few guys off guard there, who were in third, and it got me to the end with a sizeable lead.”
Rueth led the pack into the Andretti Hairpin, with the rest of the field bunched up tight and fighting for space. From the sidelines, it looked like everyone got through OK, and for the most part that was true, except for Ben Anderson, who started from sixth and was bumped from behind in the first turn. It didn’t spin him, but it did tear off the left rear of the bumper fascia on his car and damage the transmission. Anderson had to pull into the pits 11 minutes into the 45-minute race.
Early in the race, Fraser and Sandro Espinosa had a couple of offs in turns 3 and 4, which didn’t help their track position. With all three classes of Mazda MX-5 cars on track, dust clouds erupted from each turn throughout the race, so visibility was hampered in places as was traction due to the debris dragged back on track from cars getting back on the racing surface.
At the front, Powers had leaped from his third-place starting position into second behind Rueth, then overtook him for the lead. Powers, Rueth and Croiset cleared the field and were having a race of their own up front.
“I managed to lead the race till Matt caught up with me,” Rueth said. “Matt made a fantastic pass toward the middle of the race, and I fell in behind him and started drafting him.”
Fifteen minutes into the race, all three classes were well mixed on track, with the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup cars charging through the Skip Barber and NASA classes. Essentially the only thing that really differentiated the cars from one another was the color of the windshield banners: black for the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup, red for Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge cars and blue for the Mazda Race of NASA Champions.
The race ran clean and green for 20 minutes when NASA Florida’s Chi Ho got loose and went off in Turn 10 and got stuck in the gravel trap. That brought out a full-course caution.
“Because of driver error, I qualified poorly,” Ho said. “I started 10th. I pushed hard from the get-go and eventually got up to fifth, but I overworked the tires and the car was getting loose on me, and in Turn 10, I think Ben left some oil on the track and I just flew off and got stuck on the beach, and my race was over then, about 13 laps in.”
That bunched up the field and left many NASA drivers mired in the middle of the front runners from other classes.
“Even during the yellow people were bumping,” said NASA Northeast’s Edgar Cabrera, who won GTS4 at the Eastern States Championships. “It was intense. It was 45 minutes of nonstop action.”
At the restart, Powers lost his lead in the shuffle and fell back to fifth. In fact, at different points throughout the race, Rueth, Powers and Croiset all led for a while. Croiset’s radio fell out of the dashboard and was moving around on the floorboard, so he’d have to grab it every time he went around a corner. Eventually, he grabbed it and threw it behind him, but that mean he had no more radio communications, so when the green flag came out, he lost a few positions because he had no radio and couldn’t see the pace car exiting the track.
During the restart, the power differentials among the classes were apparent as the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup cars diced through the slower Skip Barber and NASA cars. NASA Southeast Spec E30 champion Sandro Espinosa took a hip check from a Cup car on the restart in Turn 3 and stepped it out wide before recovering.
“I think we had a great race, and I’m so proud to be a NASA member,” Espinosa said. “The pro guys just wouldn’t have it. It’s their turf. You’d give them room and they’d bump you anyway. They were making some very low percentage passes.”
Just after the restart, with Croiset leading Powers and Rueth into Turn 3, a Skip Barber car bumped Croiset, which pushed him up into the side of NASA NorCal’s Tommy Lo, who won TTE at the Western States Championships. Lo took his car off the outside of Turn 3, but brought it back on track safely among a pack of cars from all three classes.
In the closing minutes of the race, Powers had retaken the lead, which left Croiset in third and Rueth in second. At the Corkscrew, Croiset passed Rueth on the outside and used a little of dirt on the downhill to complete the pass. Then, entering the fast and steep Turn 9, Croiset got loose and went four off at the exit, allowing Rueth to get by and take second place.
At the white flag, Powers had put a gap on Rueth in second, who also had a comfortable lead over Croiset. The off in Turn 9 cost him dearly. Despite running in the top five all race long, Rueth wasn’t sure where finished.
“With all the lapped traffic out there I didn’t know where I was,” Rueth said. “I thought I was fourth. There was so much melee toward the end of that race and so many accidents and so much carnage I was very confused about my position, but I just knew I had to run as hard as I could until I could see the light again.”
Croiset knew exactly where he stood at the checkers.
“This race really showed that the cream of the crop in NASA did rise to the top, and I think we had one of the best races all weekend. I think we put on a great show for all the fans here and that’s a testament to the NASA ladder program and the way it works. I’m just so proud to be part of all this and being out on track with them. I want to thank all the guys out there for some really clean racing. That is the best, hardest, cleanest racing I’ve ever had in my life and I’m just on cloud nine right now.”
A stellar effort in qualifying and in the race put Powers in first place — crowning him NASA’s inaugural Grand Champion.
“The start was good. I moved up to second,” Powers said afterward. “I wanted Corey and me to move forward (bump drafting), but Jeremy was quick and he was catching up, and I thought maybe we’d have a three-way battle if we were all green, but the yellow came out, and at the restart I lost a couple of positions. Fortunately I had enough tire and I took advantage of a couple of mistakes by Jeremy and Corey and was able to be here on the top step.”
Click on the link below to watch the Mazda Race of NASA Champions on Mazda’s Ustream.com channel, Mazdalive.com.