MONTEREY, Calif. (Sept. 10, 2016) – Dramatic last few laps during Round 10 of the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires on Saturday at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca may prove to be one of the most pivotal moments of the 2016 season.
Austin Versteeg, from Sandy, Utah, extended his championship points lead in the No. 7 JDC Motorsports machine with a 9.471-second win over Michael Whelden after trailing Clark Toppe for 29 minutes of the 30-minute race.
“It was a hard race,” Versteeg said. “Hard to get close on this track. It’s a very aero-dependent track. We have quite a bit of wind here, and it makes it harder when you have a crosswind and you have no air behind another car. You’re just struggling. You have push, and you are struggling with grip off the corners.
“But I just kept pounding out the laps and trying to make the most out of my opportunities, and we got close and were fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time.”
The JDC Motorsports victory extended the remarkable streak held by the Minnesota-based team dating back to August 2014. The team has won 28 straight Prototype Lites races, one of the more remarkable feats in North American sports car racing.
Whelden, from Sausalito, California, finished a career-best second in the No. 29 Extreme Speed Motorsports Élan DP02 chassis powered by a Mazda engine and racing on Cooper Tires.
Kyle Masson, from Windermere, Florida, was third in the No. 18 Performance Tech Motorsports machine. Toppe, from The Woodlands, Texas, finished fourth in the No. 10 JDC Motorsports entry. James Dayson, from Vancouver, British Columbia, continued his recent run of solid finishes, rounding out the top five in the No. 12 Extreme Speed Motorsports machine.
Gary Gibson, from Libertyville, Illinois, found the top step again in the Lites 1 Masters class with a first-place finish in the No. 13 Team Perfect Pedal entry.
After a rough weekend in mid-August at the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivières, Versteeg’s championship lead was only two points over JDC teammate Toppe entering the three rounds at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, 154-152. The victory today extended that lead to eight points, 174-166.
The race was one of the most dramatic of the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires season. Toppe, who was invigorated after sweeping the two races at GP3R, started Round 10 from pole position.
On the start, Toppe led the field through Turn 1. Masson tried to make an early inside move on Versteeg for second but was unable to capitalize. Versteeg continued to follow Toppe in second position with an accordion-like style.
Toppe’s leading gap fluctuated over the next 25 minutes of the 30-minute race. Toppe led by .895 of a second after two laps. Versteeg closed to less than half a second with 15 minutes to go. A minute later, the gap was back to .990 of a second.
With 12 minutes to go, the two began to march in lockstep, with Versteeg hounding Toppe at every turn, never more than half a second behind. With four minutes remaining, Versteeg stuck in the nose of his car next to Toppe through Turn 3 as the two navigated traffic. But on the exit, Versteeg lost ground.
On the penultimate lap, Toppe and Versteeg came upon JDC teammates Joel Janco and Gerry Kraut in the famous “Corkscrew” turn complex. Toppe locked the brakes at the top of the Corkscrew behind Janco and spun in the middle of the track.
Versteeg went wide to avoid and took the lead for the eventual win.
“We got lucky because the car actually stalled at the top of the Corkscrew before that happened,” Versteeg said. “So I was lucky to get everything refired and going.”
Behind him more drama was unfolding for the final two podium positions. Whelden started from the rear of the field after failing to clock a qualifying time earlier Saturday. At the drop of the green flag, he began to pick off the field one by one on his home track.
With three minutes to go, Whelden was running in fourth but was still 3.142 seconds behind Masson. But Whelden closed on Masson, with the two battling back and forth and passing Toppe after his spin. Whelden finally gained second place on the last turn and drag-raced to the finish.
“We all passed Clark in the Corkscrew,” Whelden said. “It got really hairy because Clark pulled back out between me and Kyle. Kyle turned in on me. Clark caught back up to us because I was held up by Kyle. And then I had to fight back for the spot around Clark. I got it on the final lap on the outside of Turn 11.
“I am also blown away. I can’t believe I went from last to second. And now I’m starting on pole (for Round 11). This is my house. Welcome.”
Lites 1 Masters
Gibson earned his second class win of the season. His first win came in Round 8 last month at Trois-Rivières.
Michal Chlumecky, from Windsor, Ontario, crossed the line first in the class in the No. 31 Europsport Racing entry but was excluded for a post-race technical infraction.
Janco, from Key Largo, Florida, finished second in the No. 25 JDC Motorsports entry. Gerhard Watzinger, from Naples, Florida, rounded out the Lites 1 Masters podium with a third-place finish in the No. 32 ONE Motorsports entry.
The second-place finish extended Janco’s championship lead over Watzinger to 17 points, 143-126.
Rounds 11 and 12 are scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 11 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Round 11 is set to begin at 9:10 a.m. (PT) and Round 12 at 3:45 p.m. Both races are 45 minutes long.
The three races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca are part of the all-Mazda event. The weekend features four Mazda series with more than 80 drivers from 19 countries.
For more information about Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires, visit www.imsa.com, follow hashtags #MazdaLites and #MRT24 @IMSA on Twitter or IMSA on Facebook.
AUSTIN VERSTEEG (No. 7 JDC Motorsports, winner): “It was a hard race. Hard to get close on this track. It’s a very aero-dependent track. We have quite a bit of wind here, and it makes it harder when you have a crosswind and you have no air behind another car. You’re just struggling. You have push, and you are struggling with grip off the corners. But I just kept pounding out the laps and trying to make the most out of my opportunities, and we got close and were fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time. We got lucky because the car actually stalled at the top of the Corkscrew before that happened (the pass), so I was lucky to get everything refired and going. I can’t thank the JDC crew here enough: RC Enerson, my driver coach Jonatan Jorge and my sponsors Papa Pita Bread, Muscle Egg, Depatch. I can’t thank them enough for what they do and what they continue to do for me. This will be shortly celebrated because we have two more races to go, and they’re going to be hard.”
MICHAL WHELDEN (No. 29 Extreme Speed Motorsports, second): “Still a little perplexed about how it all came about. We started last, and I got to the field as fast as I could and got into position and started running good lap times. These guys gave me a great car. This car was consistent all race. That was the biggest factor. I was consistently quick the whole race. My competitors started to fall off toward the end of the race. I took advantage of that. I had a run in with Kyle (Masson). He didn’t leave me room alongside of him. Then Clark (Toppe) spun. We all passed Clark in the Corkscrew. It got really hairy because Clark pulled back out between me and Kyle. Kyle turned in on me. Clark caught back up to us because I was held up by Kyle. And then I had to fight back for the spot around Clark. I got it on the final lap on the outside of Turn 11. I still had plenty of grip, and I tried it. He gave me just enough room, and there I went and drag-raced to the checkered. I am really happy with second. I am also blown away. I can’t believe I went from last to second. And now I’m starting on pole. This is my house. Welcome.”
KYLE MASSON (No. 18 Performance Tech Motorsports, third): “I was off to a good start, and I was right behind them and I just kind of fell off. I made a few mistakes. I had a gearbox issue for a few laps, and then we figured out what I was doing wrong to cause it. I started falling back. It just wasn’t my race. I just want to be consistent tomorrow and go out and do my best.”