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SCCA racing underway in run up to the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring

John Dean sets the early pace in Practice One at Sebring.
John Dean sets the early pace in Practice One at Sebring.
Mark Weber

For the past two days, the racers of the Sports Car Club of America have been busy with on track activities at the Sebring International Raceway in preparation for the twin opening races of the 2014 SCCA Pro Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires season. Hometown driver John Dean, of Sebring, Fla. set a fast lap of 2:31.372 (87.995 mph) around the 17-turn, 3.74-mile course during opening practice on Wednesday, March 12, followed by Sebastian Landy, of Great Falls, Va., and Kenton Koch, of Glendora, Calif., respectively.

“I didn’t get to drive yesterday [at the promoter test day] because we fell behind a little at the shop with other projects,” said Dean, driver of the No. 16 Projections Research/PPG MX-5. “I was worried that we would get behind by not getting that data, but the other guys are really solid. We had some really old tires, from the middle of last year, on the car and it felt great. Being fastest at my home track in the first three laps I turned felt really good. I have a lot of friends and family that are watching live timing, so I’m sure I’ve got a million text messages. We’ll just learn from this as we move into the second practice and qualifying.”

Landy, as part of Atlanta Motorsports Group’s return to the series, turned a 2:32.658 (87.881 mph) while driving the No. 41 MX-5.

“We had a lot of stuff to work out after yesterday, but I think we’ve got them fixed,” Landy said. “It’s tough to say what will happen for the rest of the event. I don’t think anyone has gotten a handle on the new tire yet, so whoever can figure that out the quickest will have an advantage.

In his debut in the Cup class, driver of the No. 12 ALARA Racing/Mazda Motorsports Development MX-5, Koch showed he has the pace to be a contender as he set a 2:32.744 (87.779 mph).

“I didn’t know what to expect coming into the weekend, since I haven’t driven with these guys before,” Koch said. “My only experience for the past three years has been running with the Skip Barber guys. Jumping into a new class and new car is a different world for me. Being top three in this practice, and the quickest in the final session yesterday, it feels good. We still have some time left on the table, so things are looking up. But, you can’t predict anything at this track.”

Palm Beach County native and SCCA National Champion Andrew Charbonneau, of Delray Beach, Fla., finished the practice session in fourth, setting a time of 2:32.085 at the controls of the No. 15 ALARA Racing MX-5.

Series sophomore Patrick Gallager, completed the top five, turning in a lap of 2:32.149 while driving the No. 28 MedBuild/Henry Schein/ModSpace MX-5.

Robby Foley, of Randolph, N.J., set the fastest time in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge class with a 2:33.913.

“We were the first session this morning, so that track was a little dirty,” Foley said. “Once I was able to get some heat in the tires, I was able to click off some pretty decent laps. We have a little bit more to dial in, but the car should be pretty good for qualifying.”

Joey Bickers, of Moorpark, Calif., set the fast time of practice two , followed by local driver Andrew Charbonneau, of Delray Beach, Fla., and Florida resident John Dean, of Sebring, Fla., in third.

Driving the No. 29 Mazda Motorsports Development MX-5, Bickers looked more like a veteran instead of the rookie he is, with a best time of 2:32.987 (87.071 mph).

“That session was the best for me, because I’ve really started to get comfortable with the car on this track,” Bickers said. “All day I’ve been struggling with getting up to speed, working on my driving skills instead of the car. Right now, I think the car is in a good place After that session I feel a lot more confident, in terms of driving. I come from racing in Spec Miata and Formula Fords, so there are a couple differences to which I have needed to adjust. There is more horsepower, more grip and more braking power in these cars.”

Charbonneau's fast lap of 2:33.077 (87.015 mph) was made possible, in part, due to his his ten years of racing experience in many different types of cars, which has helped him adjust quickly to his No. 15 ALARA Racing/Michelob Light MX-5.

“This is my 10-year anniversary of when I started racing,” Charbonneau said. “I’ve won a lot of races, including a National Championship, and been able to race in a lot of different classes. I have always wanted to go pro racing, and this opportunity presented itself. So, I thought this was the perfect way to celebrate my anniversary. These guys at ALARA Racing have prepared a great car. I got really lucky by getting on the right team with a great group of guys to make sure I have good equipment.”

Driving his No. 16 Projections Research/PPG MX-5, Dean's lap of 2:33.276 (86.902 mph) was nearly 1.904 seconds slower that his time in the opening session.

“For me the track felt a lot different than it did in the morning,” Dean said. “It was just difficult out there in the afternoon session, but at a team I think the Sick Sideways guys did a great job. We were really able to work together and get some good data from the session. Our tires are toast. We’ve been using tires from last year. The first time we’ll be on the BFGoodrich Tires g-Force R1 S’s is during qualifying. I use the R1 S on some other cars that we have in our shop. They’re a little bit wider, but they perform really well just like their other tires.”

For the 2014 season, all cars in the Mazda MX-5 Cup class will run the softer-compound BFGoodrich Tires g-Force R1 S. The change should result in more grip with the same durability of the g-Force R1 used last season. The Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge cars will still use the g-Force R1.

Kenton Koch, like Dean, lost time during the second session of the day for the Mazda MX-5 Cup. Koch drove his No. 12 Mazda Motorsports Development MX-5 to a best lap of 2:33.330 (86.871 mph).

Dean Copeland was also slower during this outing, but minimized his loss in speed from the first to second session. His lap of 2:33.491 (86.780 mph) was only 0.788-second slower than his best lap from the first session.

Ben Albano, of Greenwich, Conn, was the fastest driver in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge class, setting a time of 2.36.343 (85.197 mph).

“A lot of rubber was laid down from the previous sessions on track,” said Albano. “We were changing tire pressures a lot during that practice to maximize the grip. Basically, we were doing three lap stints, then coming to the pits for an adjustment. In a way, it was practice for our qualifying session, as you can really get three maximum laps in before you need to back off, allowing the tires to cool a bit.”

Zach Lee, of San Antonio, Texas, was the second fastest in the class with a 2:36.615 (85.049 mph) lap. Bryan Hixon, of San Antonio, Texas, completed the top three after setting a time of 2:36.650 (85.030 mph) in his No. 63 Blackmore Partners/xBorder Food & Wine SBMX-5.

In qualifying for Thursday's first race of the the SCCA Pro Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires season, local hero John Dean, of Sebring, Calif., captured the pole position, with Kenton Koch, of Glendora, Calif., starting second, followed by Nathanial Sparks, of Spanish Fort, Ala., in third.

Dean snatched the top spot with a fastest lap of 2:30.612 (88.439 mph), asserting himself as a candidate for pole early in the session. By the end of lap two, Dean topped the time sheet. He was bested by Dean Copeland on lap three, however Dean retook the top spot after the next circuit. From that point on, Dean was only challenged for the top spot by Sparks for the remainder of the 30-minute session.

“I came out of the gates really hard,” Dean said. “I was able to gap the driver behind me fairly well and that just freed the mirrors up. Then, I just kept my head down, pushing hard. We are just really happy. Before the session we had to make a transmission change and then we found we had a bad wheel bearing. That part was changed minutes before we left for the grid. The car worked flawlessly and was just awesome. We’ve got three generations of John Deans here. We have such a great team, a great collaboration of people. It’s just so great to make this happen here, at home.”

Koch spent the entire session amongst the top-five positions throughout the entire qualifying run. At the controls of his No. 12 ALARA Racing/Mazda Motorsports Development MX-5, Koch put in consistently fast laps, slowly bringing his lap times down. In the end, Koch posted a best lap of 2:31.612 (88.091 mph).

“As a racer you always want to do better,” Koch said. “But, you can’t expect to be on the pole every race. You take what you can get, and P2 is definitely a good thing. It will be cool to start on the front row at Sebring. It’s such a historical track and I’m pretty excited about it. ALARA Racing, and Ken [Murillo], did a great job putting the car together. In the last practice, the car was pretty tight. So, we took a big swing at it and went in the right direction. We didn’t hit a homerun, but we made it to the wall.”

In the No. 8 OOTSK Performance/Bimmerworld MX-5, Sparks qualified third with a best lap of 2:31.282 (88.047 mph), putting to rest some of the concerns Sparks had regarding his outright speed during the two practice sessions.

“The whole weekend has been pretty worrisome,” Sparks said. “We had some really old tires on there and were really slow. I was banking on the fact that new tires would affect that and allow us to pick up the pace. I felt good and was P1 for a while. Unfortunately, I was knocked out by my teammate, John Dean. I’m going to give him a hard time about that tomorrow, but I’m really glad we’re here. I’m looking very forward to the race tomorrow. I’m planning to follow my teammate into Turn One tomorrow, so we’ll see where that takes us.”

Sebastian Landy started Thursday’s race from the fourth position in his No. 41 Motorsports Group MX-5 by setting a fast time of 2:31.364 (87.999 mph).

Dean Copeland took to the lights for the standing start in the fifth position in the No. 7 Copeland Motorsports/SyncSpeed Inc. MX-5 with a best time of 2:31.691 (87.810 mph).

Bryan Hixon, of San Antonio, Texas, took pole position in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge class. In the No. 63 Blackmore Partners/xBorder Foods & Wine SBMX-5, Hixon tripped the timers with a best lap of 2:34.055 (86.462 mph).

“I spent a lot of time thinking about the tire strategy last night,” Hixon said. “I went ahead and left the tires used during the test day on the car. It really turned out working working for us. I was also thinking there may be a small rain shower, so I put my fast laps in early. I’m still trying to figure out what my strategy is going to be for tomorrow. I got lucky, followed the rules and pulled it off.”

Johan Schwartz, of Charlotte, N.C., started in the second position in class with a 2:34.878 (86.003 mph), driving the No. 98 Promatex/Pipefish/Instrumart SBMX-5. Robby Foley, of Randolph, N.J., started third after setting a time of 2:34.884 (85.999 mph).

In the race itself, rookie Kenton Koch, of Glendora, Calif., started his bid for the 2014 SCCA Pro Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires Championship by winning Round One at Sebring International Raceway as part of the 62nd Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida. Local favorite John Dean, of Sebring, Fla., finished second, followed by Sebastian Landy, of Great Falls, Va., in third.

Driving the No. 12 ALARA Racing/Mazda Motorsports Development MX-5, Koch was scored as the leader only once during the race that average 77.919 mph, but it happened to be the most important lap, the last one.

Koch spent the entire 16-lap race in the lead group of cars, but spent most of his time in second trying to force then-leader Dean into a mistake. All the while, Koch was holding off challenges from Landy in third. Koch had to wait until the last turn of the last lap to make his move for the lead. On the approach to Turn 17, Koch was able to take the inside line. Driving through the dirty, unused part of the inside of the turn, Koch was able to hang on and win the drag race to the line.

The marks the second year that a last-lap, last-corner pass was the decisive move of a Mazda MX-5 Cup race at Sebring. Last year, Elliott Skeer took a win over Christian Szymczak year in much the same fashion.

“I didn’t think I had anything for Dean Copeland and John Dean when they were up front,” Koch said. “If the opportunity arose I would have taken advantage, but then Copeland dropped out allowing me to get back up to Dean. Without a drafting partner I was able to get to Dean’s rear bumper, but he was getting out of the corners really well. I was having some problems getting the power down coming out of Turn 16. I was working to improve that the whole race. When it came down to crunch time, I was able to get a good run off 16 headed into Turn 17 on the last lap. I was surprised how emotional it was to win that race. I could feel the tears in my eyes after crossing the line. It’s a long season, but this is a great way to start the year.”

Throughout the race, Dean did everything he could have done to bring home the win. Starting from the pole in his No. 16 Projections Research/PPG MX-5, Dean led the first two laps. Dean Copeland then took a turn at the front on lap three, until Dean reclaimed the lead one lap later. Two laps later, Copeland was back in the lead for two laps before his clutch gave out. Dean reclaimed the point and held it until lap 16.

“It was really close at the line,” Dean said. “I would have liked to have been the one to win the race, but we had a really good run. The car worked pretty well. I may have missed on a setting, but it worked well. I couldn’t break away from the field, and after two laps I stopped even trying to drive away from the pack. I just tried to keep the tires under me and ran a bit defensively so I could lead the most laps. It’s important to do that for championship points, but it’s just tough leading the last lap until the last corner and not getting the win.”

Landy recorded his best career finish in the series, completing the podium in third, successfully defending his position after battling with Ara Malkhassian for the final podium position.

“My progression from last year to this year has taken a lot of hard work, both from me and the standpoint of the car,” Landy said. “The Atlanta Motorsports Group crew has done a wonderful job working on, and prepping, the car. You couldn’t ask for a better car at this racetrack. It takes a special finesse to get the most out of these cars, which is different from a lot of other cars. Third is a great way to start the year.”

In the No. 11 ALARA Racing MX-5, Malkhassian made sure it wasn’t just a young man’s game at the front. He showed the mistake-free, quick pace commensurate with his experience in the series. He made sure young Landy earned his third-place finish.

Rookie Lucas Catania also made a good showing in his maiden race, finishing fifth in this Mazda MX-5 Cup field. Driving his No. 17 Atlanta Motorsports Group/N.Y. Spine & Wellness/SOS MX-5, Catania was the second Atlanta Motorsports Group-supported car in the top five.

In the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge class, Drake Kemper, of Toluca Lake, Calif., notched his second career win in the class. Driving the No. 99 Royal Rugby SBMX-5, Kemper kept his nose clean, taking advantage of then-leader Robby Foley getting tangled up with another car.

“I didn’t qualify as well as I would have liked,” Kemper said. “The car just didn’t feel great. In the race, I had an awesome start and got into second by the end of lap two. Robby [Foley] and I battled until the double yellow came out, which hurt me and helped him. We kept running together after the restart until he [Foley], was taken out by some other cars. Entering Turn 7, he was hit by a couple cars that got on the brakes too late to make the corner.”

Bryan Hixon, of San Antonio, Texas, drove the No. 63 Blackmore Partners/xBorder Foods & Wine SBMX-5 to a second-place finish, followed by Johan Schwartz, of Charlotte, N.C., in the No. 98 Promatex/Pipefish/Instrumart SBMX-5.

Round Two of the SCCA Pro Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires is set to start at 7:45 a.m. (EDT), on Friday.

Stay tuned to this column for more updates leading up to the second endurance race on the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship calendar, as well as post race reviews, interviews, and more!

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