NASA's Western States Champions brought together eleven drivers from four regions to race around a dry lake bed between the sandy bluffs near Monterey Bay, California. The racers were headlined by:
Dan Williams, your 2014 944 Spec Eastern States Champion
Simon Peck, 3rd place 2014 NorCal/SoCal Crossover
Jim Hicks, 2014 SoCal 944 Season Champion
And the field of challengers:
Atteberry, Hicks and Fonseca were competing in their second consecutive Western States Championship event, Williams coming across the country to get a taste of West Coast racing.
Camaraderie was the name of the weekend, as perfect Northern California low-70s weather greeted the racers. The 944 Spec community would be tested right out the gate, when during Thursday's practice Joe Bajo had a freeze plug come loose in his cylinder head. Simon Peck and Jim Hicks lent their brains and wrench-power to get Joe back on track for Friday. Simon Peck emerged a philanthropist, having previous experience at the track, and loaned use of his car for a session as Joe hadn't been to Laguna Seca before.
A great big moon rose over the paddock for the NorCal hosted BBQ on Saturday night. While everyone enjoyed the food, the Pole Position awards were handed out to the most hopeful of the racers. Not only that, but each day in the 944 Spec camp, Jim Richmond hosted "Jim's Deli," a socializing ritual and sandwich-making feed for all 944 Spec drivers.
More mechanical gremlins would emerge. Jim Richmond came off track on Friday with high oil temperatures and dropping pressure. Metal debris was pulled out, and a knock when restarting told everyone it was a rod bearing.
Chuck Sharp shared a bearing pair he had, and Simon Peck loaned his stacker trailer's lift. Automotive surgery was performed into the evening and the car was making quiet pressure as it went back on track the next morning. It was a short victory, however, as later in the session the rod-end caused another knocking and Jim Richmond had to pack it in.
As for the times, the top five drivers ran in the 1:50s during warmup, separated by only a half a second. Everyone picked up pace with each session. Dan Williams was getting plenty of seat time competing in two categories, but unfortunately their sessions were back to back. When the 944's were went off, Williams wasn't on grid and started from the pits. That didn't deter him, as Williams set a 1:47 flat to headline Friday's qualifying race, but Fonseca and Hicks were close behind running low 1:48s. The leaders were already below last year's Laguna Seca crossover times.
William's time wouldn't stand however, as the dynos had him high on horsepower. Many 944 drivers were aware of varying dyno results from past events, and Williams had spent a lot of time and effort to get his car in compliance. A quick restrictor plate installation had him hopeful after the strong drive. Several other drivers also installed restrictor plates, wary of dyno results. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Fonseca's car was blowing a strangely low 123-127 HP, but the engined looked strong on track.
Saturday not only saw Jim Richmond's difficulties, but Jim Hicks would roll into impound yelling his clutch had failed.
Hicks would miss Saturday's competition, but Jim Richmond had a spare clutch, so Hicks would be off again to Simon Peck's lift to try and save a chance at the Championship race on Sunday. Starting at the back is better than not starting at all.
Fonseca again had a solid drive, finishing first in the qualifying round, with multiple drivers now dipping below 1:50.
The Main Event
Sunday's Western Championship Race would line up:
Two of the fast drivers, Hicks and Williams would start from the back and have to work through the field, Fonseca looked to break away from pole, while Peck, JP and the rest of the grid didn't want to let that happen. Every car was a card and the green flag was the shuffle. The next 45 minutes would determine who would come up aces and who would come up 8's.
It was a clean start, everyone making it down the main straight to the second corner hairpin without incident. Sharp drawing even with Atteberry into 2, but Atteberry keeping the inside position through 3 and holding. Hicks and Williams took two spots halfway through lap 1. The field was tight up the back straight and down the Corkscrew. Turn 11 is one of the best passing zones on the track and Sharp made a move, trumping Atteberry on the inside of 11. However, Sharp left it a little late and ran up on JP, giving him a bump, but costing nothing more than an orange cone's life. Everyone maintained their composure and raced on.
Fonseca opened a small gap. JP and Chuck Sharp running nose to tail, while Williams and Hicks had worked their way to Atteberry. Every position was contested and there were position changes everywhere except at the front.
Lap 2 and the cars dealt out in this order:
Fonseca began to open a gap, benefitting from a Peck error out of 11. Peck then settled in and began controlling his pace to JP, both of them trying to reel in Fonseca.
Williams went wide on Atteberry out of 4, touching the dirt, but kept his foot in it to maintain momentum and got and side by side going into 5. Hicks followed Williams' bumper to force his way in on Atteberry as well, but Atteberry fought back, keeping his spot when the trio dove down the corkscrew.
JP tried to reel in Peck. Hicks was all over Atteberry, Atteberry dropped a wheel outside of 4, Hicks claiming the position.
Williams worked his way through the field and passed JP into 11 to claim third.
Behind them Bajo passed Riddel, so every position on the grid was in a battle. Williams took the lap to close in and then was all over Peck, staking a claim to the inside of 11. Peck held and came out in front onto the main straight, the defensive lines allowed JP to fill Williams' rearview.
Williams ran two feet behind Peck through the corkscrew, but Peck held firm. Four cars bumper to tail: Peck, Williams, JP, Sharp, as Fonseca began lapping backmarkers. Williams took a peak at Peck as they streamed downhill through turn 9, Peck giving room but Williams deciding that discretion was the better part of valor.
Peck took a middle exit coming out of turn 3 giving Williams a run through 4, finishing the job on the inside of turn 5.
Fonseca had 8 seconds on Williams, but at Williams' current pace it would not be enough gap to last the race, so Fonseca continued to push before the impending battle. Williams went wide coming out of 4 having overdriven the car, eyes on the leader, hungry for the win, but pulled it back into shape with ease. E30 lapped traffic came through the aces end of the 944 grid. JP still barked at Peck's tail, looking for an opening. Sharp pulled off after a breakage with 7 laps registered, and Hicks moved up on Atteberry.
Williams was gaining about a second a lap on Fonseca, both leaders otherwise efficiently working their way through lapped traffic fairly evenly. JP kept hounding Peck and Hicks looked to close the gap to JP.
Halfway through the race an E30 dropped wheels off on the outside of turn 10, throwing a big cloud of dust into Fonseca's windscreen. Safety was briefly on track between corkscrew into 11, and the distractions allowed Williams to halve the gap. It was only a matter of time before Williams got Fonseca as they came through the infield a lap later.
JP had an off coming out of 11 and Hicks drew the position accelerating down the main straight. On the next lap, not satisfied with his progress so far, Hicks went off trying to run down Peck, costing himself time. Peck, having spent the first half of the race defending against JP, now tried to shake off a cheap suit named Hicks.
Williams had opened several seconds on Fonseca. They had a gap to Peck who had a second on Hicks, who had a second on JP. All the drivers were gasping at this point, trying to hang on, keep their cars on the track.
Closest battle was Hicks on Peck, battling through a cloud of dust thrown up by an E30 in front of them. Peck went wide around the slow moving backmarker, Hicks checked up until they could resume, JP ready to pounce on any big mistakes the pair might make.
The white flag flew. Hicks again drew up on Peck, slight lock and a bit of tire smoke as Peck kept inside position as their cars came into turn 2, half a car length apart as they stomp towards turn 3. Hicks' nose on Peck's bumper coming out of the corkscrew with Peck holding steady.
They would finish:
Unfortunately in post-race dynos, Fonseca's car blew 17HP higher than before despite zero engine changes during the weekend. Nearest guess is that the car wasn't at race temperature for the earlier pulls. Despite numerous retests, the stewards were forced to reposition him to the back, a bitter end for such a consistent drive at the front of the grid.
Despite that, and the mechanical gremlins, it was a great weekend. Come out to your next local event, and do what you can to make Championships next year. As a final note, paint your 944 some color other than red to help your trackside writer keep track of everyone.
* photos courtesy Fonseca Racing, Chuck Sharp and Tim Comeau.