Young Guns Shine at Thunderhill

Spec MX-5 Challenge Series presented by Toyo Tires headed to the West Coast this weekend, seeing Thunderhill Raceway Park host the Series for Round 3 of the championship. Beautiful weather and a shining sun illuminated the green & gold rolling hills of Willows, California, where the San Francisco Region SCCA put on a spectacular event.

With a total of thirteen drivers in attendance, half of which racing their first ever event in an SMX car, and a new qualifying format, an unpredictable weekend was bound to unfold. Race 1 would see Wyatt Couch claim his third-straight victory, while an unfortunate incident would cut the weekend short for two newcomers. Young guns Neudorf and Tooker shined on Sunday, seeing both Haag Performance drivers insert their presence in the Series on their debut weekend, with Tooker taking the win after a post-race penalty demoted Couch to fifth.

Saturday’s qualifying was very competitive with the top five separated by just .580 seconds. AJ Zarcone went quickest in his 915 Race Factory machine, earning his first-ever pole in the Series with a time of 2:04.734. Frontrunner Wyatt Couch was just .154 seconds behind, with Rookie Jonathan Neudorf in an impressive third for his first-ever qualifying with the Series. Another Rookie followed closely behind, with Will Schrader setting the fourth fastest time. Jon Davies would round out the top five.

The San Francisco Region SCCA holding a drivers meeting with the Spec MX-5 drivers and crew members
Series Veterans Wes Mollno and Todd Launchbaugh were assisted by MX-5 Cup racer Chris Nunes

Race 1 would get underway later in the afternoon, seeing Neudorf get a great jump as the green flag waved. He would emerge from turn three in the lead, with Zarcone in second and Couch in third. The top three would remain glued to each other through the end of the first lap, when midway through the second lap three Series Rookies would cause a double yellow flag and a lengthy safety car period, ultimately ending the weekend for two of the cars. Lap five would finally see green flag racing, and a hectic restart with many drivers shuffling throughout the order. Tight racing resumed up front, with Neudorf and Couch going side-by-side through turn one on the next lap. Couch would come down the famous “Crow’s Nest” in the lead and wouldn’t look back, eventually winning his third race in a row by nearly six seconds. Rookie David Tooker, who was caught in the middle of the lap two skirmish, would finish in second place in his first Spec MX-5 race, with Jon Davies making a return to the podium in third position. Zarcone would finish in fourth, while Neudorf was forced to retire on lap six due to transmission issues, a disappointing ending to such a promising start in the Series.

Series Rookies Patrick Drinkwine, Michael Neumeyer, and Uthman Ailoui
Race 1 podium: Jon Davies, Wyatt Couch, and David Tooker

Sunday’s qualifying change marked a fresh start for the drivers looking to improve on their results from race 1, seeing the session set a new grid for race 2. Jonathan Neudorf would light up the timing screens with a blistering lap time of 2:03.827, eclipsing the fastest time of Saturday’s qualifying by nearly one second, and .607 ahead of his nearest competitor. David Tooker would impress with the second fastest time, showcasing a Haag Performance front row for the race later in the afternoon. Wyatt Couch was just .058 seconds behind Tooker in third, with AJ Zarcone in fourth and Jon Davies in fifth.

Pole sitter for race 2, Jonathan Neudorf

Later Sunday afternoon race 2 would get underway with the orange and black Haag Performance cars leading the way for the duration the first lap. David Tooker would drop to third after being overtaken by Wyatt Couch on the second lap, with Wes Mollno and Jon Davies hot on their heels. On lap eight, the intense clash for the lead between Neudorf and Couch reached fever pitch as Couch made contact with Neudorf sending the Rookie spinning off track to the back of the SMX pack. On the same lap, the battle from third to seventh was just as intense, seeing five cars swapping positions between one another on the main straight.

Jon Davies and Todd Launchbaugh making in three-wide down the main stretch

Neudorf would begin his recovery drive shortly after being shoved off-track during the next seven laps, charging through the field from tenth place to ultimately finish in fourth – an astonishing drive for the Rookie to insert his presence into the Series. Couch would cross the line as the checkered flag waved in first place, however a post-race penalty stemming from the contact made with Neudorf would demote him to fifth. Tooker would inherit the win after a solid drive, capping off an incredible debut weekend. Both Zarcone and Davies would complete the podium after the action-packed race.

Jonathan Neudorf at the beginning of his recovery drive from tenth place
Rookie David Tooker with his hardware after an impressive debut with the Series. One of those trophies will be exchanged for a first place trophy in Portland, after Couch’s late post-race penalty

With a chaotic Round 3 in the books, Spec MX-5 Challenge heads to Mid-Ohio to join NASA next weekend for Round 4. While newcomers on both the East and West Coasts are making a name for themselves, can the returning racers hold the young guns at bay in the driver standings? Find out this weekend from April 22nd-23rd.

Series Rookie Jared Korth showed quick pace all weekend, but suffered through minor technical challenges on his debut
Spec Miata convert Will Schrader fine-tuning his #118 SMX
Haag Performance enjoyed a thrilling weekend
Ryan Gutile’s stunning Spec MX-5 is a crowd favorite
Wyatt Couch’s #66 915 Race Factory machine
Series Legend Steve Borlik was in attendance assisting Haag Performance, and is expected to make a return sometime this season

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