The 11th round of the Spec MX-5 Challenge Series presented by Toyo Tires came to America’s National Park of Speed, Road America, located in idyllic Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Joining the Milwaukee SCCA Region for their Rodeo Cat Majors, a massive field of 20 SMX drivers were excited to attack the newly paved tarmac on one of the United States’ top tracks.
After sweeping Round 10 at Watkins Glen, former Mazda Spec MX-5 Shootout winner Westin Workman was poised for another dominating weekend after the first qualifying session where he claimed pole in commanding fashion. Workman laid down a blistering lap of 2:36.459 on the newly-paved surface at Road America, besting Will Robusto by more than half a second and Series newcomer Sam Paley in the TKG Motorsports MX-5 by almost a full second. Frontrunner Alex Bertagnoli showed impressive pace, but suffered a non-working transponder which unfortunately sent him to the back of the grid for the first race.
Later Saturday, the first race of the weekend faced a lengthy delay as the skies openend, bringing rain, lightning, and hail. After the storm passed, drivers and crew could be found along the fence at turn 14, closely watching how the newly-paved surface would react to the drying conditions. As other run groups saw competitors struggling to keep their cars on-track, every Spec MX-5 driver made the decision to go with rain tires – setting the stage for an epic race in the quickly drying conditions.
As the green flag waved, drivers began to jockey for position down the long front straightaway before the fast-approaching turn one, seeing Workman maintain the lead as the pack exited the first corner. Paley would quickly find his way around both Robusto and Workman later in the lap, holding onto the lead for the next several laps. Rookie Cam Ebben knew how things could shake out at his home track; starting from P6, he stayed patient and would gradually move up the order.
As the front pack started to pull away, the long front straightaway would tempt the top-three as they began to race side-by-side. Seeing them go three-wide would allow a few stranded drivers behind to recover and eventually catch them. Rookie Nico Bratz remarked, “Every time I saw them go two and three-wide ahead of me, it made me smile because I knew I still had a chance to catch them.”
Even the smallest mistakes can be disastrous in the close racing of the SMX class, as midway through the race Paley chose to side-draft Ebben into turn one, allowing Workman to regain the lead and Robusto to move past. A tremendous amount of close racing proved advantageous to Alex Bertagnoli, who was rapidly moving through the crowded SMX field.
With the clock ticking down to the final laps, nerves began to fray with mishaps in turns five and six. As Robusto headed into turn five, he began to poke out in an attempt to go three wide, backing out at the last moment. In the next corner, a broken exhaust laying on the track would claim Robusto, cutting his tire and seeing Paley blow past him.
Cam Ebben maintained his lead, claiming his first win of his brief Spec MX-5 career, while also setting the fastest lap. Paley would finish P2 on his debut race in the Series; a fantastic result for him and newcomers TKG Motorsport. Patience was a virtue for Rookie Nico Bratz, who expertly put himself in a position to be on the third step of the podium at his home track, surrounded by friends and family as he celebrated his high school graduation. We would be remiss not to circle back to Bertagnoli, who claimed another hard charger award, ending the race in a stunning P4 after claiming fourteen positions from P18 on the grid – a drive reminiscent of his performance at CMP earlier this season.
The second qualifying session of the weekend took place under sunny skies early Sunday morning. The trouble-free contest included Nico Bratz in P3, with Nathan Nicholson recovering from a brake failure the previous day to snatch P2. Westin Workman again claimed pole with a scorching time of 2:35.985, an impressive full second ahead of Nicholson.
The sun continued to shine as drivers entered the pre-grid later Sunday for the final race of the weekend, followed by Spec Miata; a class we often race with on track. As the green flag dropped, the SMX class roared down the front straight with all cars cleanly exiting the first corner, seeing Nicholson emerge out front. Midway through the lap, a caution was thrown as there was a Spec Miata in the wall further behind. A black flag would quickly follow, sending all cars into pitlane, where they would remain for the remainder of the 35 minute race as the safety crew masterfully recovered the driver from the wrecked car.
The entire Spec MX-5 Challenge community wishes Advanced Autosports’ driver Sam Silver a speedy recovery as we look forward to Round 12 at Daytona International Speedway in two weeks’ time.