Little Trouble in Big Willow
Team Honda Research Drivers Take Convincing Victories in the Touring 3 and Showroom Stock B Classes at Big Willow
Team Honda Research (THR) drivers Sage Marie, Lee Niffenegger and Matt Staal drove brilliantly to collect maximum points for the national run-offs. Marie won the Touring 3 (T3) class and Niffenegger and Staal swept the Showroom Stock B (SSB) class with a 1-2 finish.
Last weekend’s race at Willow Springs International Raceway, a.k.a. Big Willow, marked the second consecutive high-speed race the Team Honda Research drivers and their vehicles would have to tame. Although both the roval (road course + oval = roval) at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana and the big track at Willow Springs are both fast, their track layouts are completely different. At Fontana, speeds of 130 mph 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 change to BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDW summer tires–the rain tires for the Honda Racing team–for the first practice session of the weekend. Two-thirds of the way into 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 have to start from the rear of the field for the race. Marie and Staal would later trek down to the shop in Torrance to pick up a replacement throttle body and back to the track in Rosamond to perform the (quick) repair on Saturday evening.
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 qualified 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. “We don’t totally know what the MINI is running because it’s difficult to tell how stock it really is,” said Niffenegger. Unlike the race at Fontana, Honda Racing drivers would not be starting from the pole position in their classes in Sunday’s race.
Clear, sunny skies presented themselves to the Honda Racing team for 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 top 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 position he regularly belonged.
Staal spent the early laps of the race looking for a way around Brecht’s MINI. While he was doing that, Niffenegger used the advice Staal gave him the previous day about using fourth gear more on the back section of the track to close in on his Honda Racing teammate and Brecht. After a few more laps, Niffenegger caught and passed Staal and set after the little MINI. In less than two laps, Niffenegger took the SSB class lead and never looked back.
In the initial stages of the race, Marie safely carved his #4 Honda S2000 through the slower traffic consisting of cars in lower classes. His competition for the weekend was two 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 look easy to reel in and pass his Touring 3 competitors. He also was unaffected by the spins third-place finisher Steve Schmidt and overall race winner Ryan Cashin had with their C5 Chevrolet Corvettes.
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 to the checkered flag. Niffenegger observed 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 leaders by him. Using one of the Corvettes like a fullback, Staal followed the lead block to catch and get around Brecht’s Cooper S.
Because of the design of the track, the high speed right turns wore the left side BFGoodrich g-Force R1 tires heavily. “There was one lap when things got hairy for me in Turn 9,” Staal shared after the race. “It felt like I ran over some of the marbles.” Staal successfully kept the MINI behind him for the rest of the race to secure the SSB 1-2 sweep for THR.
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, 2010. 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 in tact.
For the complete gallery of photos from the race weekend, please visit here.