After a full day of practice and some time to shake off jet lag, NASA drivers from near and far hit the high banks of Daytona International Speedway running hard at the 2021 NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires.
Today’s action on track consisted of time-based qualifying sessions in the morning, and qualifying races in the afternoon. Heavy showers the night before changed track conditions as did the crushing Florida heat and humidity.
For this year’s championships, the qualifying format uses lap times to set the grid for Friday afternoon’s qualifying race. That race finish and the qualifying race finish from Saturday will combine to set the grid for the Championships races on Sunday. One mistake can change everything.
Here are race reports from how Friday’s qualifying races broke down.
German Touring Series 3
Randy Mueller has a few Championships to his name, so it was a bit of a surprise when he wasn’t atop the time sheets for the GTS3 qualifying session Friday morning. That honor belonged to his chief competitor, Zach Hillmann, who also has a few Championships to his name.
Mueller came out on top over Hillmann, but not by much. GTS3 is shaping up to be one of the races to watch this weekend. Mueller and Hillmann are both such high-caliber drivers.
“Yeah, we’ve been trying to be conservative. Running on leftover tires and not running a good tire, saving them for the race,” Mueller said “We put on some good tires, new tires, for this race, and I started a few positions back from the lead. The traffic certainly made it exciting, and it may have helped me a little bit by holding up the number one in class, Zach Hillman’s car. I was able to work the traffic well and able to drive it to the front and maintain the lead. I think we’ve been on the track once or twice before together. I don’t know if we’ve raced head to head or not. I don’t recall, but he’s definitely a quick driver, so it should be an interesting weekend.”
Bobby Christensen posted the fastest overall lap time in Friday morning’s qualifying session, but not in the afternoon qualifying race. That honor belonged to his competitor Bobby Pugh, who squeaked out one lap that was a little bit faster than Christensen, but it wasn’t enough.
Christensen won the Legends qualifying race, putting a target on this back for Saturday’s qualifying race. He said his car felt just right, and he’s going to leave it pretty much as is for Saturday’s race.
“I’ve got to be sure I don’t have a loose bolt somewhere. But otherwise, the car’s running really good. Braking good. Turning good. Got good power,” Christensen said. “So I just need to check to be sure I don’t have something loose up front. But otherwise, it was fun passing all the other cars that were ahead of us. We started last, so I don’t know how many we passed. We had a good time.”
Tony Brakohiapa has a background in drifting, so his car control skills are certainly first rate. Brakohiapa and current NP01 EVO Champion Sam Mangiameli had been battling hard in terms of fast laps all day, with a slight edge going to Mangiameli.
However, in Friday’s qualifying race, Mangiameli suffered a race-ending collision with a wounded out-of-class car as he was attempting a pass on the exit of the infield and onto the banking. That put Brakohiapa into the lead he would hold till the end. Mangiameli’s car sustained damage too great to repair, and he will be packing it in early.
“We were running well. I dive-bombed him into Turn 5. It went well, but I got a little bit wild, so I went wide, he came back inside, and then it was just… he was battling with some GTS3 cars,” Brakohiapa said. “So, there were times that I would catch up, times it would stay the same, but that’s kind of been the theme all weekend. He was driving well.”
Super Touring 4
Burak Ozgunay won Friday’s ST4 qualifying race in impressive fashion. Driving his Alliance Racing BMW M3, Ozgunay turned in a fast lap of 2:06.358, which was more than 2 seconds faster than his nearest competitor.
“I had a good car and the track is fantastic,” he said.
Ozgunay, who also finished first in the morning qualifying session, said it’s always nice to get off to a good start to set the tone for the weekend.
“It’s very important, obviously,” he said. “I think we all came here to win and that’s what I’m here to do and have fun and stay safe.”
Super Touring 5
Carlos Mendez captured a hard-fought win in his qualifying race in ST5.
“It was a good race,” Mendez said. “It wasn’t easy. The second half of the race they put a lot of pressure on me.”
But Mendez said it’s much more enjoyable to win when you’re pushed to your limits than it is to cruise across the finish line with a large margin of victory.
“I like the competition,” he said. “The more back and forth, the more position swapping, the more exciting it is for me.”
Super Touring 6
There are six cars entered in the ST6 class, but only three of them showed up for the first qualifying race, which was won by Charles Buzzetti in his Porsche 924S. Buzzetti said several of the drivers in ST6 – himself included — are running in two classes, which contributed to the low turnout.
“It was a great time,” Buzzetti said. “The car was awesome. There was some oil that was put down towards the end of the race that maybe caused some grief for a few people.”
Coming from the California Southern Region, Buzzetti said it was his first time at Daytona International Speedway.
“The track’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve never been here before.”
Thunder Roadster GTR
Returning Thunder Roadster champion James Wheeler showed us what a good driver can do in the face of adversity. After starting from pole position, Wheeler dropped back as many as five spots at one point, but fought his way back to take the win — and it had everything to do with the draft.
“These cars are so closely matched that once we got out onto the banking, there’s so much drafting going on that it’s all about whose draft you’re in. If you’re out front, you’re a sitting duck. And then, there were a few mistakes people made and we were lucky, because of that, but super close racing. All three races are going to be like this.”
To show how closely matched these cars are, the top five drivers were all within a half second of one another. During the qualifying race, Wheeler managed to post a lap yet another half second quicker.
“It’s literally that close, and drafting makes about a second, maybe a bit more than a second difference, so if you haven’t got a draft then you’re going to be a second slower,” he said.
We’ll see if Wheeler can stay on top all weekend.
Jeff Lindstrom was the fastest driver in American Iron qualifying Friday morning, and he put his speed to good use in the qualifying race, starting from pole and keeping everyone behind them for the duration.
“I just had a good start. The guys did a great job prepping our car. All the guys at Griffin Auto Care did a great job prepping our car, and we’ve been quick all weekend,” Lindstrom said. “We were quick on our test day, quick this morning. We’ve been really good. Hopefully, we’re going to be fat enough when we go across the scales. But car ran great. Really thankful for my wife letting me come out here, first of all, and for all the boys and all the hard work that they’ve put in. Had a great time. A little hot today.”
Lindstrom didn’t have any plans for changes to the car or his driving for Saturday’s second qualifying race. He starts out front, so he’s hoping for a repeat of today’s performance.
“I’m going to try to just stay ahead of these guys, keep them in my mirror, and hopefully get a gap on them so they can’t run me down,” he said.
American Iron Extreme
Billy Griffin didn’t bring the fastest car to the American Iron Extreme class this weekend. That’s important in one of NASA’s fastest classes. However, he did bring the one that didn’t break, and that’s important in any class.
Chief competitor Robert Shaw had some mechanical difficulties and did not start the qualifying race. Griffin had mechanical gremlins of his own to deal with. He broke the drive shaft in what’s called a quill shaft and the transmission in practice Thursday. Repairing it kept him up till midnight Thursday night.
“I think he had some problem with his differential, and he didn’t make it to their qualifying race,” Griffin said. “So he’s got a ton more horsepower than I do. So if you think about this car with his, it’s the longevity of the car and hopefully, we’ll keep it that way for the weekend. I want to thank my wife and the Sunshine State Towing Association. And I want to thank CORE and my teammates at Griffin Auto Care.
“But other than that, everything was great. Car was great. Drove nice,” Griffin said. “The track was a mess, there’s a lot of oil on the track, a lot of debris. I was trying to drive around more oil than work on my line this time. But it is what it is. Hopefully Shaw we’ll get back tomorrow and we’ll dice it up together, see what happens.”
The 2019 Championships Presented by Toyo Tires were bittersweet for Spec Iron driver Robin Burnett. Bittersweet, in that order.
Burnett blew an engine in Saturday’s qualifying race, and had to start from the back of the field for the Championships race. That’s the bitter.
Burnett clawed his way forward and went on to win the 2019 Spec Iron Championship. That’s the sweet. This year, he’s back in his own car and looking for another Championship, and a win in Friday’s qualifying race was a step in the right direction.
“We had a good qualifying, we were close, but we knew there was more time. This is my first time here at Daytona, so learning how to draft on the high banks, it’s new,” Burnett said. “So I got to close in qualifying and I probably had more time, but when one of the competitors had some car trouble, I ended up starting second for this race. Got a good run and was able to just keep putting down some good laps, and they weren’t able to catch me.”
Back in 2018, Josh Sooknanan came close to winning a national championship at Circuit of The Americas, coming in third. In Friday’s qualifying session, he posted the fastest lap times, nabbing pole position for himself in the process.
He used that to his advantage in the qualifying race, leading every lap and besting second-place Hunter Lydic. But not by much. Lydic was posting lap times just .02 seconds slower than Sooknanan. The stage is set for tomorrow, and Sooknanan is really happy with the car.
“Oh, it’s been a good weekend, we did a lot of prep. We’ve probably done six months of prep just for this event, so we’re really, really happy it’s going well so far,” Seoknanan said. “Yeah, Hunter and I were right there, exactly the same lap times, almost the same technique. It’s amazing. We’re going to give the car a once-over, and make sure it brakes and tires are good.”
The front of field in 944 Spec is usually populated with two drivers with lots of national championships to their names. Charlie Buzzetti came out on top in 944 Spec in Friday’s qualifying race, but current champion Marcelo Vine logged at least one lap that was a second quicker than Buzzetti. These two will be going at it all weekend, and NASA Great Lakes driver Matt Giuffre also is posting quick lap times, so it could be a three-way shootout this year.
“We’ve still got new tires to put on and when you’re racing with Marcelo, you go faster. That’s just how it is,” Buzzetti said. “He really pushes you and he brings out the best. He’s a great driver and I’m really looking forward to a phenomenal race on Sunday. I think Matt is going to be right there with us. He and I were nose to tail for a lot of the race.”
Honda Challenge 2
It was a hard-fought battle in the Honda Challenge 2 class, but Morgan Zeger was able make the winning move on the last lap to finish in front.
“I waited until the last lap,” he said. “The draft is strong here, I noticed that with the two cars who were in front of me battling. I knew that I’d catch up to them quick with the draft and then I waited for my opportunity.
“On the last lap, I think the lead guy blew it in Turn 1 so I bumped up to second. Then got the draft off the lead guy into the final bank and crossed the line first.”
Zeger had never raced at Daytona before and said it’s definitely a learning experience.
“The history here is amazing,” Zeger said. “It’s pretty cool to be able to race here.”
Spec E30 fields do standing starts in a number of NASA regions, but not at Daytona. The banking on the front straightaway isn’t conducive to a standing start — so they did one anyway.
Carlos Mendez had just hopped out of his ST5 car and into his Spec E30 and lined up in third position on grid behind Scott McKay and Corey Smith. Mendez trailed McKay and Smith for the opening segment of the race. Smith suffered mechanical troubles and McKay bobbled coming out of the infield onto the banking, so Mendez pounced, kept the rest of the field behind him and came away with the second win of his weekend.
“I started out and got to third and just ran most of the race in third. And I couldn’t catch Corey or Mackay through the first, I don’t know, third of the race, maybe first half. And Corey blew up, he fell out, and then Scott lost it going onto the banking. So I got around him and then just kept running clean laps. Didn’t make any mistakes. Nothing too crazy. When the checker dropped I was still in front so it worked out.”
While there were just two cars in the Spec E46 class, there was still some pretty competitive racing, where Turner Hilliard went on to finish in front of Christopher DeShong to take the win.
“The race today went really, really well,” Hilliard said. “We just had a great time battling back and forth and making our way through some traffic.”
Hilliard said some drivers believe the E46 cars with six-speed transmissions are going to have a definite advantage over the five-speed cars at Daytona, which likely played a role in the reduced number of entries.
But while the size of the field is small, Hilliard said it doesn’t take away from anything on the track.
“I don’t think that diminishes any of the fun that we had out there today and any of the great competition either.”
Daniel Goldburg took home the Spec E30 national championship in 2019 when NASA held the event at Mid-Sports Car Course. This year he has returned to the NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires as a past champion, but this year, he’s in something much faster and more powerful.
The Ligier JS P320 prototype is a far cry from the 30-year-old BMW in which he won his last championship.
“After racing in IMSA Lites from 2010 to 2013 I took a few years off,” Goldburg said. “When I came back to racing in 2017, I raced in NASA Spec E30. I won the NASA National Championships in 2019 in Spec E30 and that caught the eye of Brent O’Neill who at the time was looking for a bronze driver for the Motel 6 program. NASA racing has helped me develop, and in this case, helped propel me into IMSA.”
Super Touring 1
After waiting out a weather delay, Timothy Savage wasn’t quite sure what to expect in his Porsche 911 Cup car. What he did get was a rapidly drying track, but more importantly, the qualifying victory in the ST1 class.
“The track was actually great,” Savage said. “I haven’t raced in the rain before and didn’t know how it was going to turn out.”
Savage, who said he is much more familiar with Sebring International Raceway, said he probably drove at about 90 percent pace just to make sure everything felt right.
“The track’s amazing, I absolutely love it,” he said. “I’m used to Sebring; this is only my second time here. There’s a very big difference between Sebring and here, especially with the surface and the banks. The banks take some getting used to, for sure.
Super Touring 2
Ken Mantovani was expecting good racing in his ST2 qualifying run and that’s exactly what he got. He also got the qualifying win, which was what he really wanted.
“I knew it was going to be good competition with the No. 5 Corvette (Jonathan Giahn) because we were one-tenth apart in qualifying,” Mantovani said. “He had me on the inside because he had the pole, so I decided to stay behind him and see how he operates.”
Mantovani stayed within striking distance until he felt the time was right to make a move.
“When the opportunity came I decided to take it and it looks like I had a little more top-end speed than him,” he said. “I was pretty pleased with how it turned out.
Super Touring 3
After a delay in racing due to lightning in the area, the track reopened to a sprinkle of rain just as NASA’s fastest and most powerful cars took to the track. In ST3, Eric Magnussen was able to keep chief rival Zach Hillmann behind him, but Hillmann was never out of striking distance.
Hillmann’s M3 is set up with a traditional engine, the S54 that comes in an E46 M3. Magnussen has fitted his E46 M3 with a General Motors LS3 V8 and acres of tire.
“So, that was my favorite conditions, a little bit damp. My car does really well there. I do really well there,”Magnussen said. “I was trying to find every last little bit of grip on the track and Zach’s awesome at it too. But I think the determining factor in this race was out-of-class traffic. I did a little bit better job again getting through the Super Unlimited and the ST1 and ST2, and that might be because of the torque in the Chevy V8 in here, but I saw Zach got hung up a little more than I did there and here we are. First place.”
Spec Miata is always one of the most entertaining races you can watch. That’s because any of the front five cars could come out as a winner in the end.
That was the case for Jim Drago, who waited for his opportunity to strike from his fifth place spot. As the front runners entered Turn 5 late in the race, Drago made his move.
“We were going into the west horseshoe, and everybody stacked up on the inside. And I was about fourth or fifth, and I sailed it around the outside,” Drago said. “I got to third behind Preston, and we worked together for a little bit. And then Danny got to the lead at some point in there. I don’t really remember when. And then, on the last lap, Preston got a little bit sideways, going into Turn 1. And he and Danny went wide, and I got to the lead there, and Todd followed me through. And from there, we just tried to put a clean lap together because it was white flag, and we brought it in from there.”