HPD Blog

Monday, March 8, 2010

Little Trouble in Big Willow

Team Honda Research Drivers Take Convincing Victories in the Touring 3 and Showroom Stock B Classes at Big Willow

Sage Marie leads his Team Honda Research teammates through Turn 4 in the early stages of the race

Team Honda Research (THR) drivers Sage Marie, Lee Niffenegger and Matt Staal drove brilliantly to collect maximum points for the 2010 national championship run-offs during the February 28th Sports Car Club of America National event at Willow Springs International Raceway. Marie won the Touring 3 (T3) class, while Niffenegger and Staal swept the Showroom Stock B (SSB) class with a 1-2 finish.

Matt Staal and Lee Niffenegger hustling their Honda Civic Si Coupes to second- and third- place qualifying efforts in Showroom Stock B

The race at Willow Springs, a.k.a. Big Willow, marked the second consecutive high-speed race for the Team Honda Research (THR) drivers and their vehicles. Although the roval (road course + oval = roval) at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana and the big track at Willow Springs are both fast, their layouts are completely different. At Fontana, speeds of 130 miles per hour or more are reached as the cars storm down the back straightaway. While speeds at Big Willow are well over 100 mph, the shorter course length and flowing nature of the track give drivers little time to rest. Niffenegger calls it a "fun 'old-school' track" that he considers one of the bravest in North America, with Mosport in Canada being the other.

Inclement weather presented the Team Honda Research drivers with their first challenge of the weekend. The precipitation necessitated a switch to rain tires for the first practice session of the weekend. Two-thirds of the way through practice, Marie experienced trouble with the throttle body of his #4 Honda Racing/HPD/BFGoodrich Tires Honda S2000. This would sideline Marie and his S2K for the rest of the day. It also meant he wasn't able to qualify, and would have to start from the rear of the field for the race. Marie and Staal would later trek down to Torrance to pick up a borrowed throttle body from Hondata’s Doug MacMillan, then back to the track in Rosamond to perform the (quick) repair on Saturday evening.

Seen here in qualifying mode, Niffenegger attacks the second part of Turn 4, home of the Budweiser Balcony

Track conditions were better for qualifying as the rain waited until the end of the session to return. Staal qualified his #53 Honda Racing/HPD/BFGoodrich Tires Honda Civic Si Coupe second and Niffenegger placed his #42 Honda Racing/HPD/BFGoodrich Tires Honda Civic Si Coupe third. Tom Brecht grabbed the pole in Showroom Stock B with his supercharged #25 R53 MINI Cooper S. Unlike in the race at Fontana, THR drivers would not be starting from the pole positions in their classes in Sunday's race.

Civic Si vs. Cooper S - It would only be a handful of laps before the victor would be decided

Clear, sunny skies presented themselves for the morning warm-up and the race. With the previous day's troubles (rain and a bad throttle body) behind them, the Team Honda Research drivers were poised to drive their way to the tops of their classes. The Showroom Stock B contenders would begin the race in the middle of the pack, while Marie would have to carve his way through many slower vehicles to return to the front of the field.
Staal spent the early laps of the SSB race looking for a way around Brecht's MINI. After a few more laps, Niffenegger caught and passed Staal and set after the MINI. In fewer than two laps, Niffenegger took the SSB class lead and never looked back.

Lee Niffenegger barrels down the hill from Turn 4 to Turn 5 with the class lead comfortably in-hand
In the initial stages of his race, Marie safely carved his #4 Honda S2000 through slower traffic consisting of cars in less powerful classes. His primary competition for the weekend was the Mazda RX-8s driven by Lynne Griffiths and Michael Sullivan. Marie's best lap of 1:36.461 was significantly faster than the 1:37.777 and 1:39.834 Griffiths and Sullivan could muster, respectively. (For reference, Niffenegger clicked off a 1:37.641 and Staal turned a 1:38.078 in their Honda Civic Si Coupes.) With the speed he had, Marie made it appear easy to reel in and pass his Touring 3 division competitors. He was also unaffected by the spins of third-place finisher Steve Schmidt and overall race winner Ryan Cashin in their C5 Chevrolet Corvettes.

Marie approaches Turn 5 with the class win well in- hand

Back in SSB, the highlight of the second half of the race was Staal's pass of Brecht's MINI for second place, and his defense of the position during the run to the checkered flag. Niffenegger observed that the MINI couldn't keep a consistent pace and fell off as the race progressed. When the race-leading Touring 1 (T1) class Corvettes came to lap the SSB field, Staal keenly realized he could have a great opportunity to get a big run on the MINI as Brecht would have to acknowledge the blue flag and let the faster traffic pass him. Utilizing one of the Corvettes like a fullback, Staal followed a lead block to catch and get around Brecht's Cooper S.

Because of the layout of the track, the high-speed right turns taxed the left side tires. "There was one lap when things got hairy for me in Turn Nine," Staal shared after the race. "It felt like I ran over some of the marbles." Staal successfully kept the MINI behind him for the remainder of the race to secure the SSB 1-2 sweep for THR.

Staal accelerates his #53 Honda Civic Si Coupe out of Turn 4 with Brecht's MINI Cooper S trying to keep pace
Next up for the Team Honda Research drivers is another fast track, the long straights and fast turns of Thunderhill Raceway on March 13-14. Staal considers it one of his favorite tracks and should have a strong showing there. Marie and Niffenegger are also positioned to do well and keep their winning streaks intact.

For the complete gallery of photos from the race weekend, please visit here.

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