Rounds 3 & 4 of the Masters National

Monday, March 14, 2005 Round Three & Four of the Skip Barber Master’s National was held at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. In three short days these guys experienced a season’s worth of weather conditions, track conditions — and of course, racing.

Friday’s practice sessions were held under beautiful clear blue skies and above normal temperatures (new record high of 88 was set in nearby Salinas).

First practice session and Chris Willcox (who also was one of the few masters that has raced here before) showed why he is the defending champion by posting the fastest lap on his 8th time around the historic 2.24 mile circuit. The afternoon session was a bit of a mix and match with people doing extra practice and we found one of the local championship drivers on the top spot. Jeff Kaiser posted a 1:43.1, four-tenths faster than Willcox’s earlier time.

Saturday brought a new day and new weather. The clear blue and warm temp’s were replaced with fog, cold, and a wet track for the morning qualifier. After the fog lifted, Willcox proceeded to cover the field and beat his own time by just over a second! Peter Tucker took the P2 slot followed by John Peterson. David Casey in his second ever Masters event took the fifth place spot over John Mayes, Gray Gregory (new to the Masters National), Michael Auriemma (first ever MN race) and Jimmy Locke.

Saturday afternoon as the guys got ready for their race, The Fog rolled in. The visibility was poor, but in the truest “never say die” fashion they decided to do their warm-up to check out the track and visibility. The moisture made the track “a bit dodgy” and the fog was getting thick in turns 9 and 10. After everybody made it back to pit-lane, Randy Buck (pit-lane guru extraordinaire) asked for a show of hands of who thought the fog was too thick to race in. Little did the drivers know that the conditions had gotten “worser” (technical term) and Chief Steward Nick Nicholson (from Tuscaloosa, Alabama) had already pulled the plug. In full manififestation of full-blown male ego and flowing testosterone, not one of the Masters raised their hands to Randy’s question. However, when Randy informed them that we would have to put it off until Sunday, not one driver complained!

Sunday morning brought more traditional Monterey weather in March; we had clouds with no fog or rain and temperatures in the high 50’s, low 60’s. It was an earlier than normal morning for the Master drivers as they were scheduled to be the first race of the day.

Race One Willcox led the field to the green, but Lippert timed his start perfectly and by Turn Two had gone from 4th to 2nd. Lippert was looking very racy as he stayed right with Willcox even though he had Tucker attached to his gearbox. In the first handful of laps these three stayed in line and broke away from the field.

Behind these three a great battle raged. Peterson, after a bad start, led the pack. After a few laps he was able to get his rhythm back and pulled away from the field and even looked like he was slightly closing in on the leaders. Behind Peterson was the pack of frothing animals. First Michael Auriemma put the move on John Mayes going into T3. Mayes returned the favor in Five. This all happened in between a five-car train consisting of Casey, Auriemma, Tom Roberts (Western driver trying out the Masters for the first time), Mayes and Locke.

These guys raced each other hard, but clean. At one point two of them went side by side through Turn Four and yet no one hit each other or went off the road!

After the race Auriemma had great things to say about the Masters National. “It was so different from the regional races. In the regionals you have to be a touch conservative to make sure you don’t have car contact, and sometimes you are not quite sure about the guy you are racing against. In the Masters National you can hang it out more and be a bit more aggressive. There is more ‘intimidation factor’ involved. Plus you know these guys have been driving the cars a lot and you can trust that they aren’t going to do anything stupid. After all, at the end of the day our concern is where we are going to meet for dinner to tell our war stories”.

At the halfway point Mayes and Locke fell back a little from the other three and were duking it out on their own. That didn’t last long as on lap eight Casey, Auriemma (who’s name is not easy to type this many times) and Roberts did their best impression of an IRL race and went three wide across the stripe! This put Mayes and Locke back in the game.

Back up front, things began to heat up. Lippert pushed too hard through Turn 10 and went four-off! He does a great job keeping it straight and brings it back on, but Tucker easily drives by for P2. At this point Lippert is still in the hunt, but on the next lap he gets BIG sideways in Five and loses a ton of time and speed. This allows Chris Willcox and Tucker to drive off into the sunset. You would think that Lippert would be able to relax at this point, but Noooooooooo; John “Mr. Consistent” Peterson was close behind and getting closer.

With six to go things started to fall apart in mid-pack. Lap eight and Casey goes four-off exiting T2. He repeats this at Eleven the next two laps! Maybe he used his car up, maybe it was himself, but on lap 10 he gets wide in Six and drops wheels. He tried to keep it straight, but the famous inside retaining wall jumped out and grabbed his car (don’t feel too bad, David; you weren’t the first, you won’t be the last).

This sends us into a full course yellow. We have to give some credit to Casey. On three wheels (none of them pointed in the same direction) he drives the car off the racetrack and out of harm’s way. The crew does a great job picking up the pieces and fixing the tire wall and after two laps we are ready for the re-start. This is going to be a two-lap dash for cash (well, sort of).

On the re-start, no surprise that Willcox gets the jump on Tucker. Auriemma, attempting the greatest re-start of all time, goes four-off exiting 11. The yellow allowed Peterson to have a shot at Lippert and he pulls it off going into Five and takes P3. As they scream across the stripe and see the white flag it is nose to tail, Peterson, Lippert, Roberts and Mayes. Close behind this gaggle is Gregory and Locke. Lippert tries a late pass into T5, but Peterson shuts the door! Gregory spins in Five and gives that position to Locke (who just before the yellow spun exiting turn nine, woof!).

Last lap-last turn is all that was left for these guys. Late braking, late looks, and two wide at the apex, it was ugly! Surprisingly no one hits each other and they make it through. Whew! At the checker it is Willcox, Tucker, Peterson, followed by Lippert and Mayes rounding out the top five. Roberts won over Auriemma for sixth followed by Locke and Gregory.

Race Two was a much more mundane race (except for Mayes). Maybe because they had to race twice in one day? Fatigue? Experience? We will never know for sure. What we do know is that with time constraints for catching airplanes, the group decided to forego qualifying so that they could get the second race in sooner. The grid was decided by finishing position of the first race.

Willcox, from pole, again got the jump and pretty much never looked back. As the field behind him sliced and diced, he sailed off and eventually won with a 15-second cushion. Way to go Chris! Is anyone this season going to be able to give him a run for his money? Time will tell.

Tucker, starting second, got hung out going into Two and fell back to fourth. End of the first lap and he got passed for fifth going into T11. This killed his exit and before he knew it his race strategy was out the window and he was solidly in the middle of the pack! In fact, on lap five Tucker spun in the last turn and dropped all the way to seventh. He clawed his way back to the front, which involved side-by-side action with Casey through the Corkscrew! His hardest challenge was getting past Auriemma as these two passed and re-passed each other. Eventually Tucker prevailed and brought it home in the P4 position.

Peterson started third and ended up in the bridesmaid position. After getting by Tucker on the first lap, Peterson held second place for every lap, but he had to constantly watch his rear end. Big Dick Lippert also got by Tucker on the start and applied the pressure on Peterson the whole way.

John Mayes was “Mr. Exitement” of the race. He started fifth, but on the start fell to eighth. Lap two he made up two spots getting by Locke and Gregory. Lap three and he was back where he started. From there he moved up all the way to third, but that only lasted a couple of laps. Too aggressive on the power and he spun exiting Eleben. By the time he got to the stripe he was right back where he was, P8. Then on lap 12 he spun in the Corkscrew and got high-sided on the curb. The instructor and corner worker did a great job of getting him out of there, but when all was said and done he was in 10th, which is where he finished.

Tom Roberts had a great first race, but was also running the Regional. With the weather delays he forewent running the second race to save his strength. In his place was substitute driver, Jeff Kaiser. Kaiser battled early on with Casey until Kaiser spun in T11. He had a great charge back up through the field to P6 and rekindled his battle with Casey, and on occasion, Mayes. In the end he wound up in seventh.

Auriemma ran a great race defending and passing those that made errors. He started sixth, made it to fourth and eventually finished fifth. In the process he had to battle with Locke, Tucker, Mayes, Casey and Kaiser.

Locke had a tough race, even though he drove one of his better races. He finally got a handle on the track but he had to go to the back-up car for the second race and the crew miss-calculated on the set-up. He started seventh got to sixth on the start, but fell back to ninth where he eventually finished.

Gray Gregory had a good start and was looking racy. He moved from 10th to seventh on the start, but on lap two spun in the Corkscrew. Lap three he got by Kaiser (after his mistake) and then Locke and Mayes. Kaiser ended up getting back by Gregory, but Gregory drove solid to land in the eighth place spot.

So ends the story of Laguna Seca. The time off will be short as these guys reconvene at Daytona in April. Who will have the upper hand there?

Todd Snyder

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