The weekend of November 7-8, Lotus Cup USA returned to the high banks of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, for the first time since the 2014 season opener 20 months earlier. This time, the track was dry, the weather was pleasant and the championship would be decided for three out of four Lotus Cup classes. Auto Club Speedway places a premium on horsepower, aerodynamic efficiency, and guts. From the exit of Turn 16 to the braking zone for Turn 3, Lotus Cup drivers keep their right feet planted for more than 36 consecutive seconds of wide-open-throttle – although some confess to having to battle against their own self-preservation instincts upon entry into the left-hand sweeper known as NASCAR 2. Lotus Cup racecars typically maintain over 2.1 g of lateral loading there – if the driver can resist the strong temptation to lift.
Both races featured drama from start to finish. At the sharp end of the spear, Greg Nitzkowski started from Trophy and overall class pole. He drove the DRS-prepped 2-Eleven GT4 cleanly, and cruised comfortably to the overall win, collecting enough points along the way to sew up the Trophy Class championship.
Behind Nitzkowski, the race was more tempestuous. In the SuperSport class, Scott Gibson capitalized on his front-row grid position to steadily pull away from Tom MacMillan in the Allied Plastics Evora GTN. By the end of lap 3, Gibson had pulled away by over four seconds, and was threatening to run away unhindered. But then MacMillan began turning up the heat, reeling Gibson in by as much as six and seventh tenths per lap. The white flag came out – one lap early, as it turned out – with Gibson nursing a 3-second lead. MacMillan cut that lead in half on the next lap – which Gibson erroneously thought was the final lap.
Another white flag came out, which Gibson briefly mistook for the checkered flag. Gibson realized his mistake soon enough to stay in front of MacMillan’s rapidly-closing Evora, but then swung too wide on the exit of Turn 4, allowing MacMillan to pass him on the right. Gibson didn’t give up, however, and pushed all the way to the end – to the real checkered flag – ending up 0.27 seconds behind MacMillan. Though disappointed, Gibson could take heart in having won the championship. MacMillan, for his part, not only won the SuperSport class, but also had the overall fastest lap of the race, at 1:48.230.
The drama continued further back in the Cup class. Michael Reynolds started from class pole but was passed before Turn 3 by Kelley Spielberg, who locked up all four brakes in a failed attempt to slow enough to make the corner. Reynolds, unable to see anything besides tire smoke, followed the defending Cup class champion. “All I could see was her car and her smoke. Since her car was still moving, I figured she hadn’t hit anything so I just kept following her.” Unfortunately for Reynolds, Spielberg led him right off the track. But Spielberg proved better able to get back into the fray, adroitly maneuvering her black and red VSA Exige Cup car back into the action between Turns 3 and 4.
By the time Reynolds had gotten back on the track, he was dead last. After several laps, however, Reynolds was able to regain the lead, passing Dustin Zahursky in the braking zone for Turn 13, and passing Spielberg one lap later in the braking zone for Turn 3. Spielberg finished a solid second place, collecting enough points to keep her championship hopes alive. Dustin Zahursky would follow up on the spectacular podium finish from his debut at Laguna Seca earlier in the season by collecting the bronze medal. Reynolds scored the fastest lap in class, pushing the green and blue VSA Exige Cup car under the 1:50.00 barrier to a best lap of 1:49.863.
The Production class featured another strong performance from Kevin Woods, who avoided the first lap melee and drove the SP Motorsports Spec Elise to victory. Along the way, Woods scored the fastest lap in class, at 1:52.162. “This is a very fast time for a naturally aspirated car at this place”, said team principal Eric Gauthier, referring to the importance of horsepower in making good lap times at Fontana. Woods would run even faster the next day. Ross Jaffe capped off a solid, mistake-free drive by finishing second and keeping his championship prospects alive for one more day. Tony Lanza finished a third – amazingly, in a car he drove to the track.
Sunday’s race was also exciting. Nitzkowski once again started from pole and finished first in the Trophy class. Gibson drove an inspired race to capture the overall win, the SuperSport class win, and overall fastest lap honors for the race (a scorching 1:47.861). MacMillan took home the second-place prize in SuperSport.
More drama unfolded in the Cup class. Reynolds started from pole but once again found himself trailing Zahursky and Spielberg after the usual Turn 3 imbroglio. While Reynolds was trying to catch up, the roof blew off of his Exige Cup car. The roof, which contains the supercharger intake ducting apparatus, sailed into low orbit, flew over the Turn 2 banking and containment fence, and landed outside the track. “It looked like a potato chip in a hurricane”, said the pursuing Ross Jaffe.
Ignoring pleas from his crew to retire the car, Reynolds pressed on and was able catch up to Zahursky and Spielberg, who were battling each other for the lead. Almost mid-way through the race, Zahursky was still clinging to a narrow lead over Spielberg – less than one tenth of a second – as all three VSA cars approached Turn 3. Spielberg lunged past Zahursky in the braking zone for Turn 3, only to compromise her line through Turns 3 and 4. Zahursky took the inside line into Turn 3 and got a stronger exit for Turn 4, while Spielberg’s wide exit for Turn 4 left her vulnerable not only to Zahursky – who regained the lead – but to Reynolds, who slipped by into second place. Reynolds passed Zahursky later that lap in the braking zone for Turn 13. The next lap, Spielberg would make a gutsy pass on Zahursky on the inside of NASCAR 2.
Spielberg held station in second, finishing close behind Reynolds. Reynolds took the class win and fast lap at 1:50.633, barely two tenths faster than Spielberg. Zahursky, who was reporting fuel-pressure problems, rounded out the Cup-class podium by finishing third. Roy Sakioka continued his comeback charge, driving a swift, mistake-free race and finishing fourth. Sakioka managed to score several personal best times despite the lack of a rear wing on his DRS Exige Cup Car.
The Production class championship ended when Woods drove his customary fast, relentless pace to finish on the top step of the podium. The SP Motorsports driver once again scored the fastest lap in class, a blistering 1:51.290. Jaffe claimed the silver medal, after successfully dodging the debris from Reynolds’ car and a spinning Zahursky. Lanza finished third; another impressive performance in the road-legal car.
The final round of the 2015 campaign will be fought in December at The Thermal Club. Most of the drivers do not know what to expect, as few have ever driven at this venue. However, the pavement is reputed to be grippy and relatively un-abrasive, and the facility itself has a good reputation. Who will take the inaugural win at the Thermal Club? Gibson? One of the MacMillan brothers? Woods, Elghanyan or Nitzkowski? Will Reynolds take the Cup Class crown for 2015, or will the defending champion turn the tables and maintain her grip on the trophy? Watch this space to find out…