In May, Lotus Cup USA visited Monterey, California, and the iconic Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.  Laguna Seca is several tracks in one.  It is tight and technical in many places.  Yet the steep hill climbs after Turns 5, 6 and 11 reward big power and torque.  Agonizing patience is required in some corners, bravery and a quick flick of the wrists in others.  And then there’s “The Corkscrew” – perhaps the most famous corner on any road course in the Western Hemisphere.  The drop from the top of The Corkscrew through Turns 9, 10 and 11 is breathtaking in its intensity.

For 2016, Lotus Cup enjoyed an increasingly rare “no sound limit” weekend at Laguna Seca.  This was very much appreciated by the drivers and their teams, as the usual 92-dba limit requires the installation of customized, power-sapping mufflers (some of which take on the look of quite elaborate modern sculptures). 

The weather is usually cool and pleasant.  The track surface tends to be less adhesive (and less abrasive) than at other venues, a problem that was compounded by the unusually damp conditions.  Most drivers complained of a lack of grip; lap times were generally slower than the previous two years.  On the other hand, the drivers did enjoy the cooler temperatures, and the forced-induction engines enjoyed the moist, dense air.

By contrast, the race for championship points was really beginning to heat up.  On Saturday, Nicolai Elghanayan led comfortably from flag to flag.  But the action behind him was contentious and exciting.  Greg Nitzkowski, starting third, jumped in front of Michael Reynolds (who started second), and grabbed the inside line into Turn 2.  Reynolds, followed closely by Allen Russak, chased down the defending champ and hounded him the entire race. 

The drama climaxed at the last corner of the last lap, as the trio were encountering slower traffic.  Nitzkowski took the defensive line into Turn 11, behind one of the Production Class Elise racecars.  Reynolds took the outside line into Turn 11, behind a Cup Class car that was battling with the aforementioned Elise.  Reynolds explained: “I was counting on the Cup Class car to out-accelerate the Elise, so I could box Greg [Nitzkowski] in and cruise through to the checkered flag behind the quicker Cup Car.”

Alas, we will never know if the tactic would have worked.  Nitzkowski’s throttle stuck in the closed position as he exited Turn 11 and he didn’t make it to the finish line.  “This just ripped my heart out, for the second year in a row!” exclaimed Nitzkowski.  He was referring back to his last lap, Turn 11 spin the previous year that doubtlessly cost him a win (that too, was not his fault, as he was “helped” into the spin by another driver’s last-ditch dive-bomb pass).  Reynolds thus finished second in the VSA Evora GT4.  Russak completed the Trophy-Class podium in the VSA Exige V6 Cup R.  He finished on Reynolds’ heels – quite an accomplishment considering he had never driven the difficult track before.  Russak also took home the Sage Motorsports Exige V6 Cup R trophy, which is awarded each race to the highest-place finisher in an Exige V6 Cup R.

Robb Bonanno took top honors in SuperSport.  He drove a strong race and finished close behind the Trophy Class cars.  “That was fun, putting some pressure on the Trophy guys!”  Clearly, Bonanno has climbed the learning curve of his Espresso & Exotics Evora GTN.  Tom MacMillan nursed his wounded VSA Evora GTN to a second place finish.  The car had sustained serious front-end damage the previous day in practice, and MacMillan wisely chose to play it safe for the rest of the weekend.

The Cup Class action was thrilling.  Unfortunately, Jeff Raggio and Brandon Sloan made contact at the start of the race; both men were finished early.  Mike Bryant qualified on pole, but was passed at the start by Spielberg.  Both Bryant and Spielberg eventually succumbed to Zahursky, who was charging up from the back of the grid.  Zahursky would take the lead and finish in first place, with Spielberg second and Bryant third.  Jeff Elghanayan stayed out of trouble, made two key passes, and finished fourth. 

Unfortunately, initial lap contact prevented Sloan from joining the Production Class battle with Ross Jaffe and Mike Dean.  Jaffe put the SP Motorsports Elise on pole, with Dean just 0.212 seconds behind.  Both men got a clean start but Jaffe had the inside line into Turn 2 and used that to stay in the lead.  Dean narrowly avoided contact with Spielberg and Bryant.  Meanwhile, Jaffe built up a big lead.  “I saw Ross way up there and I knew I had a lot of work to do”, said Dean.

Jaffe helped out on Lap 9 by over-cooking the exit of Turn 10 and getting loose in the sand on the left side of the track.  From there, it was game on.  Dean edged up closer and closer until Lap 10, when he made a terrific launch out of Turn 6 and ran side-by-side with Jaffe towards The Corkscrew.  Jaffe kept Dean pinned to the left side of the track – practically daring him to try what Jaffe later called “a sucker’s pass”.  Dean later admitted he chickened out – and lucky for him, as nobody knows Laguna Seca better than Jaffe.  The wily veteran explained “people tend to try to brake late on the inside of 7 and over-cook the entry, often locking up and ending up in the gravel across the track…[my] plan [was] to take you deep into the brake zone [for The Corkscrew] and cut under you when you went off.”

The battle didn’t end there, however.  Twice more, Dean would parlay a better launch out of Turn 6 into a neck-and-neck run with Jaffe into the braking zone for The Corkscrew.  But each time, Jaffe held Dean to the left side of the track, forcing Dean to back out and let Jaffe go.

Dean also used a strong launch out of Turn 10 to pull alongside Jaffe heading into Turn 11.  But this time, it was Dean who had the better line – the outside line – which he used to carry more speed around Turn 11 and pull ahead of Jaffe down the front straight.  Dean would maintain the lead for all of fourteen seconds: Jaffe out-braked him and reclaimed the lead for good heading into Turn 2. 

David Anderson drove a strong, consistent pace and stayed out of trouble to take the final podium spot in the Dietsch Motorsports Production Class Elise.  Dietsch Motorsports team principal Rob Dietsch donned his driving suit and crash helmet for the first time this season, and drove gamely to finish fourth in class.

Nicolai set the fastest lap of the race in Trophy Class, at 1:34.276.  Bonanno set the fastest lap in SuperSport with a 1:36.942.  Fastest lap honors in Cup Class went to Mike Bryant at 1:40.644.  Fastest lap in Production was claimed by Mike Dean with a 1:40.401.

Sunday’s race looked very different from Saturday’s.  The leaders spread out at the front.  Once again, Nicolai sprinted away and led flag to flag, caning the Muellerized Exige V6 to take fastest lap honors along the way, a scorching 1:33.591.  Nitzkowski qualified second.  He pressured Elghanayan for the first half of the race but later fell back, still finishing second and comfortably ahead of third-place Reynolds.  For his part, Reynolds put a sizable gap between himself and Russak, who took fourth and once again captured the Sage Trophy.

In SuperSport, Bonanno grabbed the top spot on the podium, after driving at a torrid pace that once again saw him nipping at the heels of the Trophy Class.  MacMillan drove conservatively in his injured car and came home second.

Zahursky once again took top honors in the Cup Class, using his DRS Exige Cup Car to post a fastest lap of 1:39.022.  The race was no sure thing, however, as a spin in Turn 6 cost him two positions.  But he recovered and managed to get past Bryant and Raggio to take the checkered flag.  For his part, Bryant drove his VSA Exige Cup Car to a solid second-place finish, battling with Zahursky and Raggio along the way.  Raggio also drove well, improving his pace and using a clean, quick and mistake-free style to bring home the bronze medal.  Jeff Elghanayan finished fourth after a spirited battle with David Anderson.  Spielberg suffered mechanical troubles and retired early.

The Production Class, scene of some of the fiercest battles this season, was uncharacteristically quiet.  Jaffe was forced to use the SP Motorsports back-up car, and never really got comfortable with it.  Mike Dean won from pole, followed by Brandon Sloan, who battled Jaffe early in the race but eventually came free to post the fastest lap of the race (1:42.032).  Jaffe finished third.  Rob Dietsch passed David Anderson early in the race and held on for a fourth place finish.  David Anderson came home in fifth.

Heading into Round Four (Thunderhill), the championship standings are tight.  Nicolai Elghanayan leads in Trophy, but Reynolds, Russak and Nitzkowski are within striking distance.  SuperSport is heating up too, with two former champions (MacMillan and Bonanno) wrestling with defending champ Gibson for the 2016 title.  In Cup, Bryant holds a razor-thin, six-point margin over Spielberg, followed by Jeff Elghanayan, Jeff Raggio and Dustin Zahursky.  In Production, Jaffe and Dean are tied at the front, with Sloan very close behind.  Will the standings get even tighter after Round Four?  Or will somebody open up a sizeable lead?  Watch this space to find out.