With qualifying done, attention now turns to three days of racing at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs. Twenty-six races over the course of the weekend will determine the national champion in each class. Between now and their race’s end – an interval that for some will be overnight while others have a couple of days to think about it – thoughts turn to strategy and how a driver wants the 13-lap or 40-minute race to play out.
With long straights and several good passing opportunities, it’s something that drivers need to consider, and think about whether they want to be leading when the final lap begins. Ask any driver – and we did – where they’d like to be when the white flag waves, and they’ll respond in the lead with a 20-second gap to the second-place runner. In some of the high-horsepower classes, that may very well be the case. But in classes with less power and equal fields, such as spec classes, where drafting is going to be a major part of the equation, there is likely to be a lead pack of cars beginning the final circuit, any of which could win. Given that scenario, where drivers want to be at that point of the race isn’t always in front.
Jim Drago (two National Championships), Spec Miata, starting third* in his East Street Racing Miata: “Second. There are too many places to pass, and if you’re first with nobody there – especially if it’s a real windy day – you pick one of the straightaways, and you’d be a sitting duck. If there’s no wind, maybe first; but I think nine times out of 10, second.”
Brian Schofield (two National Championships), Spec Racer Ford Gen 3, starting eighth* in his PM Racing SRF: “It depends on how many cars are around me and how many cars are in the lead group. If it’s one or two, I would say probably leading. If it’s a group of cars, I want to be second. But if it’s just one or two, probably in the lead so I can control what’s going to happen. I have enough experience here I know how to race this track, how the draft works … but it’s all going to come down to that last lap and who’s in the group.”
Zach Whitston, Formula Vee, starting eighth* in his Whitmoore and Assoc./Rocket Motors Protoform P3: “It’s really hard to tell. I’ve had a lot of success leading out of [Turn] 14 – it can be done. I’ve also failed miserably leading out of 14. I fought hard to lead the Runoffs last year at VIR in the last turn, I don’t know if I’m going to fight to get that same place this year. A lot of it is the dynamics of who is around you.”
John Heinricy (15 National Championships), Touring 4, starting first* in his Hoosier/Hawk/Mobil 1 Toyota 86: “I probably want to be in the front. It depends on what the group of cars looks like, whether I want to try to work my way to the front before the last lap, or be ready. It’s going to depend on where I am in the pack and who’s behind me, because the different makes behave differently on the straightaway vs. the corners and on the brakes. Miatas are light so they brake better and they corner better, so my strategy there would be different than like Chi [Ho, BMW], who’s got a heavier car and a faster straightaway speed.”
Jonathan Kotyk (two National Championships), Formula F, starting second* in his Mygale SJ14/Honda: “I would probably just want to be at the front. First, second, third … Really I’d like to be in first to control the situation, but second isn’t bad either. Hopefully everybody else is a few seconds back and I don’t have to control too many people. But really in the first three is where the difference is, especially from Turn 14 to the finish, coming to the checker. That’s kind of the race. The whole rest of the lap, I hate to say it, but none of that really matters, just position yourself correctly. I’ve watched enough onboard, I think as long as you are smart with your car positioning, I think you can be anywhere in the top three coming to Turn 14.”
* Starting positions are provisional at posting time.
Train to win
Derek Kulach already has two Touring 3 National Championships to his name, one coming in 2016 at Mid-Ohio, and then the following year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After a hiatus – taken because he thought his Nissan 350Z, with a smaller restrictor given the car after his wins, wouldn’t be competitive – he’s on a mission to win a third at the track where he raced his first Runoffs in 2013.
“The desire to come back here and win at a track that is a very fast, high-pressure, high-risk track was very appealing to me,” he explains. “In my own way, I have something to prove here, just coming from back-to-back wins, and restrictors and other things played a part in me going to Spec Racer for a year. Then, feeling like the [350Z] had a shot again, I wanted to come back and prove what my driving was able to do and what the car is able to do for Nissan.”
To that end, Derek spent some time on the iRacing simulator. A lot of it. And his intent was not primarily to gain outright speed, but be able to put that speed down consistently, lap after lap.
“My wife and kids missed me a little, because I probably put in about 2200, 2300 laps on the simulator just trying different things, just trying to get some different setups, feeling out where bumps are. iRacing does a good job of that, giving good feedback fo what a car can do.
“Qualifying is about the perfect lap, where race pace and what you can settle into, is what I think really counts. A lot of the stuff I was doing in testing wasn’t finding that qualifying lap as much as it was finding 15 consistent laps where there were no mistakes.”
Derek, who will start third in Friday’s race, is also enjoying the company of family and friends at the 2020 Runoffs. For the first time in several years his father, Richard, who is recently retired as Nissan North America Motorsports Manager, is racing with him, as is his brother-in-law, Richard Baldwin.