Lotus Cup USA returned from a long summer break to commence the second half of the season at Thunderhill Raceway. As in 2015, Lotus Cup shared the venue with NASA. Unlike the previous year, however, the heat returned, albeit without the usual wind from the South. If drivers complained of the cold and damp conditions at Laguna Seca in May, the triple-digit temperatures of the northern Central Valley in August at least made it easy for them to get heat into their tires.
Thunderhill differs from Laguna Seca in another important respect – speed. Thunderhill features technical corners, elevation changes and blind crests, much like Laguna Seca, but the speeds are much higher. Michael Reynolds told his VSA team-mate Allen Russak to “imagine a fast version of Laguna Seca, with fewer walls and fewer inhibitions.”
The qualifying battle leading up to Race One on Saturday was intense. Nicolai Elghanyan, driving the Muellerized Exige V6 Cup car in Trophy traded fastest laps with Greg Nitzkowski in his DRS 2-Eleven GT4. But in the final seconds of qualifying, Michael Reynolds snuck ahead to put the VSA Evora GT4 on pole with a scorching lap of 1:52.289. “I should be able to hold onto first place until the first corner,” quipped Reynolds.
His comment was prescient. Elghanyan, starting alongside in second place, sprinted away from the pack on the uphill front straight as soon as the green flag waved. Nicolai then checked out, leaving Reynolds and Nitzkowski to battle for second. En route to his convincing win, Nicolai also turned in the fastest lap of the race, at 1:52.320. Meanwhile, Nitzkowski got a good draft behind Reynolds on the back straight and made a pass going into Turn 14. “He could have pushed me wide; I appreciate him giving me room”, said Nitzkowski after the race. Reynolds stayed close and threatened Nitzkowski for a while, but the defending champ eventually pulled clear to finish the race comfortably ahead in second. Allen Russak finished fourth. He also brought home the Sage Lotus Trophy, honoring the highest-finishing Exige V6 Cup R, a feat Russak would go on to duplicate in Sunday’s race.
SuperSport again featured a hard-fought contest between VSA teammates Scott Gibson and Tom MacMillan. The two started alongside each other, MacMillan having nicked Gibson in qualifying by a small margin. As if to replay the starting sequence in Trophy Class, Gibson’s superior power-to-weight ratio enabled his 2-Eleven to out-accelerate MacMillan’s Evora GTN on the front straight. But from there, MacMillan stayed plastered onto Gibson’s diffuser for the rest of the race. Gibson drove well – even challenging Russak for a brief span – but he couldn’t shake the determined MacMillan. Alas, it all came unraveled for Gibson towards the end of the race. Heading over the crest into Turn 3, he was a little too hard on his brakes while turning in. The rear end of the 2-Eleven stepped out abruptly. Gibson furiously tried to counter-steer his way out of the developing spin, but the car was too far gone by the time he came completely off the brakes. He locked up, spun, and had to watch as MacMillan drove past to take the checkered flag. Gibson still managed to finish second in class, and posted the fastest lap in class, a 1:57.054.
Jeff Raggio took pole in Cup Class, flogging his SP Motorsports Exige Cup Car to a 2:00.420. Raggio started well and held off an early challenge on the outside of Turn 2 from second-place Zahursky. But Zahursky didn’t give up, and later passed Raggio to finish on the top step of the podium. Meanwhile, Bryson Elghanyan, the younger brother of Trophy Class juggernaut Nicolai Elghanyan, drove a solid race in his Lotus Cup debut, staying out of trouble until his S1 Exige gave up on him mid-way through the race.
The battle in Production Class provided the latest episode of the Jaffe/Dean Entertainment Sweepstakes. Ross Jaffe started on pole and was hounded throughout the race by Mike Dean, who stayed close behind in second. Towards the end of the race, Dean got a strong launch off of Turn 15 and drafted behind Jaffe up the front straight. But Jaffe made his car too wide to accommodate Dean’s left-side pass attempt, forcing Dean to re-evaluate. Dean swung to the outside for a conventional entry into Turn 1, in hopes of crossing underneath Jaffe to the inside on the approach to Turn 2. But his turn-in was a little too aggressive and he spun into the infield between Turns 1 and 2, letting Jaffe relax and take the win. Dean’s consolation prize was third place and the fastest lap of the race, at 2:00.405.
The biggest surprise of the week-end was 19-year old rookie sensation Nicolette Kivlin, who fought gamely to take the silver medal in Production, driving the SP Motorsports NA Exige. She would massively improve her times over the course of the week-end and take third place in Sunday’s race. One weekend into Lotus Cup, and she already has two trophies.
Sunday’s race was even more thrilling. The antics once again started with qualifying. From the get-go, Nicolai and Reynolds began trading fastest laps in a high-stakes battle for pole. Mid-way through the session, Elghanyan waved Reynolds past so they each could put in a flyer. Reynolds knocked down a 1:52.370, followed by Nicolai at 1:52.259. Reynolds responded with a 1:52.044. Nicolai responded by spinning out in Turn 3. Reynolds, three turns ahead, on pace to break into the 1:51s, and unaware of Nicolai’s spin, pushed too hard and spun in Turn 9. “I was braking too hard on turn in”, Reynolds said, “or you could just say I ran out of talent.” Nicolai explained “I was trying to talk to John [Mueller] on the radio when I spun.” Both men would be penalized and forced to start from the back of the pack, putting Nitzkowski on pole with Russak beside him.
When the green flag dropped, Nitzkowski blasted away from Russak on the front straight and pulled away from there. But with immense, distance-compressing power on the straights, coupled with aggressive late braking, Nicolai worked his way through the field and by Lap 4 was ahead of Russak and chasing down Nitzkowski. By the time he took the checkered flag, Nicolai would set the fastest lap of the race (1:52.135), catch Nitzkowski and pass him on the inside of Turn 1. Nitzkowski finished roughly six seconds behind in second place. Russak held onto third, skillfully managing the gap back to Reynolds, whose late-race charge was too little, too late. “Allen [Russak] drove so well, you’d never believe it was his first time at Thunderhill. I started to catch him but then he just put the hammer down,” said the disappointed 2015 Cup Class champion. Reynolds would have to console himself with the fastest lap of the week-end (1:52.044 in qualifying, a Lotus Cup record at Thunderhill).
In SuperSport, Gibson started alongside pole-sitter MacMillan, just like on Saturday. But this time there was little drama. MacMillan made a clean get-away and Gibson never caught him. Gibson did apply pressure – he ran typically between one and two seconds behind – andagain posted the fastest lap (1:57.057, virtually identical to his time from the previous day). But MacMillan kept his cool, and kept Gibson from the top step of the podium.
The Cup Class was home to another great battle between Raggio (who started on pole) and Zahursky (who started alongside him in Row 3). Zahursky got by Raggio on the outside of Turn 1, and held his position through Turn 2. Raggio was closing fast on the inside of Turn 2, however. This prompted Zahursky to go wide on the exit of Turn 2 – too wide, in fact, as he put his DRS-supported Exige Cup Car (which now wears a keen-looking yellow and black livery to help distinguish it from the other black Cup Cars driven by Spielberg and Raggio) sideways into the dirt on the right side of the straight between Turns 2 and 3. Through a combination of steely resolve, amazing car control skills and just plain old-fashioned luck, Zahursky recovered and kept his position on track. He would go on to finish first ahead of Raggio and post the fastest lap in class (1:57.962).
In Production, Dean started behind pole-sitter Jaffe, like he did the previous day. As has become customary with these two, whoever is in front generally has the other closely in tow. And so it was, with Dean less than a half second behind Jaffe, constantly thrusting to Jaffe’s parries, all the while probing for places to pass. On Lap 5, the two were practically side-by-side through Turns 1 and 2, with Jaffe eventually getting a run on the inside of Turn 2 to hold off Dean’s charge. On Lap 6, Dean tried going past in the braking zone on the outside of Turn 14, only to lock up and be forced to follow Jaffe through Turn 15.
Nevertheless, an opportunity presented itself moments later when Jaffe missed the 4-5 upshift, opening a door on the front straight for the fast-closing Dean. He jumped through it and passed Jaffe as the pair began Lap 7. But Jaffe struck back with better speed through Turn 1, allowing him to make an inside pass heading into Turn 2.
Back and forth the two would fight it out, Dean making another unsuccessful challenge on the outside braking zone for Turn 14. Although he gave Jaffe room to make Turn 14 on the inside, the line Jaffe was forced to take was a bit tight, which compromised his exit from Turn 15 onto the front straight. Dean closed in for the kill, drafting his prey all the way up the straight and swinging wide right to pass at the last millisecond. Dean slid the car into Turn 1, corrected, almost threw it away, and then corrected again to retain the lead. He would never relinquish it, despite Jaffe’s best efforts. Jaffe would finish 1.1 seconds behind Dean, and would take the fastest lap honors (2:01.469). Emerging from their cockpits, exhausted but exhilarated, both Jaffe and Dean congratulated each other and agreed the only thing missing from their fight was Brandon Sloan, who had to miss the week-end to tend to business matters.
With six races left, each class championship remains up for grabs. Nicolai is running away with the Trophy Class championship – his 37-point lead after Thunderhill will be difficult to overcome. But second, third and fourth places are separated by a mere four points, and each of these drivers – Reynolds, Russak and Nitzkowski – are capable of winning. MacMillan’s 44-point lead in Supersport appears more secure. In the Cup Class, Zahursky is leading Raggio by a mere three points, but Mike Bryant, Kelley Spielberg and Jeff Elghanyan are all within striking distance. Jaffe leads Dean in Production by the razor-thin margin of two points.
Next up: Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch on Oct 1st & 2nd, home field for many of the Lotus Cup competitors. Who will stake his or her claim to the championship? Watch this space to find out.