SportsCar Feature: How To Win The Runoffs

This article first appeared in the October, 2021 edition of SportsCar Magazine. Everyone can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here. To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here. While much of this information was targeted specifically at Road America at the time, much of it can still be applied to the Runoffs this year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and for years to come.

Four top racers share their secrets for success at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Road America 

Some things you remember clearly even though they happened long ago. My first trip to Nelson Ledges was the first time I raced outside my home track of Summit Point. While famously short on amenities, Nelson is a fabulous layout with the highest average speed in the Northeast Division. I was screwing up my courage for the fast turns, but it was the slow final corner that was confounding me. I approached Carl Salamon who was on the FV pole and seemed quite at home. I introduced myself, complimented him on his qualifying run and said, “Can you tell me what line you run through the last turn?” He didn’t hesitate. On the dusty hood of a nearby parked car, he drew the turn, then added his line. “Try that, you’ll like it,” he said. It worked like a charm. My motor blew up, but that wasn’t on Carl.

The pros are unable to be this open as there is so much on the line. But it is easy to overlook the resources the Club racer has available in the paddock, if only they reach out. As in all aspects of life, you should pay attention to who you are asking. Some folks want to keep their cards close to their vest. A lot of competitors, however, are like Carl. I think he figured that if I got faster, it would push him to be better himself. Mind you, he was no pushover on track, but his response set the tone for me of how a true racer interacts with competitors.

How many would-be racers give up because they feel frustrated and overwhelmed? Over the years I probably ran some 30 races at Nelson and claimed my fair share of FV checkers. I never forgot what Carl showed me. And, in 32 years of running, whenever a competitor asked me a question, I’d try my best to give them a straight answer.

When I stopped racing and I was selling my equipment, a number of drivers thanked me for how much I’d helped them in racing. I just thought they were being polite. Mild mannered Ray Qualls got all in my face about it. “You need to understand, you can explain things so we can get it. You should be an instructor!” Driving home that night I thought about giving the driver coach role a try. Six weeks later I worked with Rick Shields in FV when he won the 2010 Runoffs at Road America and received the Kimberly Cup as the SCCA’s most improved driver. In six prior attempts, his best finish had been ninth. I had a great time. As one door closes, another opens.

And it all began with a question asked. So, in that vein, we posited questions to four gracious SCCA road racers to discover their secrets of succeeding at Road America this October when the SCCA National Championship Runoffs returns to the circuit for the first time since 2013.

Michael Varacins: The King of FV

Michael Varacins is the most successful driver the FV class has ever seen, winning the Runoffs seven times. With his dad Al as his crew chief, he cut a swath through this tightly competitive class. His first Gold came at Road America in 2009 with a dominant win by 25 seconds. He took the Runoffs pole five years straight at Road America, 2009-’13, winning gold in three of those races and a bronze in another. On three occasions he won the Chicago Region Triple Crown Award for winning the Sprints, his Division, and the Runoffs in the same year. His subsequent Runoffs record is simply staggering: a pole at Laguna, gold at Daytona, gold at Mid-Ohio, gold at Indy, and gold at Sonoma. Between 2009 and 2014, Michael lay claim to six consecutive Runoffs poles and qualified on the Runoffs front row an astounding 12 years straight. Since 2006, he had a podium Runoffs finish 11 out of 14 years, including his seven wins. Michael won the Mark Donahue Award in 2009, the President’s Cup in 2018 and is a member of the Road Racing Drivers Club. Most recently, he has been exploring the FC waters and is gaining traction there.

He’s also remarkably open about a number of Runoffs topics.

Drafting during Runoffs qualifying: “Qualifying at Road America is significantly different than at most other tracks. The sheer length of the lap means you are not going to get many shots at it, particularly if you are one of the last ones coming out of the false grid. I try to get a decent lap in by myself just to get in the show. The rest of the session I’m looking at how other cars are lining up to present the best drafting opportunity. The worst thing that can happen is that you get stuck in a quagmire of cars battling one another. The more you think ahead, the better.

“In FV, you need three drafts in a lap to get a pole position time here. It can take four to five laps to have the circumstances develop to give you a shot at this. Coming out of Turn 14 and to a lesser extent Turn 8, I note where cars are running. I do the math in my head as I’m driving to figure out how much draft benefit I can get for that one magic lap. It might take all three qualifying sessions to get it right. You can’t wait for a good drafting opportunity to fall into your lap. You have to actively make it happen.”

Saving ground: “You want to be careful not to add unnecessary distance to your lap. I’d recommend that people look at an aerial view of the track. It is a wide track and the time it takes to run extra ground adds up. Places like Turn 1, the run from Turns 3 to 5, and the run to Canada Corner can cost you time. In FV, you can enter the Carousel fully on the right, for example, there’s no need to enter mid-track or to the left. Don’t cover ground you don’t need to cover.”

Blinded by the Light: “The sun can be an issue going into Turns 13-14 in early morning sessions. In late sessions, approaching Turns 3, 6, and 8 can be problematic. Sometimes it is just a sheen on the track surface, but it can affect your view of your reference points.”

Planning for the start: “Post-qualifying, spend some time reviewing the grid and think through possible race scenarios. The long straights create a unique race dynamic. I know that things are quite fluid, and everyone is trying to implement their own strategy, but if you think about short versions of different scenarios, it is more likely that it can fit together. Where is the separation most likely to happen? That may affect your choice of who you are going to choose to be behind.”

Take a Day Off: “It can be difficult to make this happen, but it can be good for your head to get away from the racing and the noise during the qualifying week at the Runoffs. Go for a long bike ride or a hike in the Kettle Moraine. Get a mental reset, even if it’s just an afternoon off.” 

Michael Lewis: Strong Man in the Ground Pounders

Michael Lewis has some serious experience at Road America. In a driving rainstorm, he won the Road America round of the SCCA Pro Racing Trans Am Championship in 2001 in a Jaguar XKR. In 1998, he finished second there by 0.7sec to Paul Gentilozzi, both running Mustang Cobras. He has run everything from GT-1 to GT-3 to GT-L to FF to two entries at Le Mans – yes, the one in France. He owned and ran a Trans Am team and an ALMS prototype teams for years.

During the five years the Runoffs was at Road America from 2009-’13, Lewis scored three golds and a bronze in his GT-1 Jaguar XKR. He has a total of nine SCCA National Championships, including six in GT-1 and three in GT-3, that one in an RX-7. His Runoffs hardware includes a total of 11 poles and 19 podiums. “Road America is the Spa of North America,” he explains of the track. It tests both skill and courage. All drivers love it and want to do well there. It is one of the few tracks in the world that makes you feel as if you’re going somewhere rather than just turning laps.”

Aero vs. mechanical grip: “Everyone wants to lay the wings back because of the three long straights, but like Daytona International Speedway where the infield is the key, Road America is all about Sectors 2 and 3 and getting the car working through the twisty bits using mechanical grip as much as possible.”

Hardest parts of the track: “The Kink, when it comes to raw courage, but carrying speed through Turn 1 and getting maximum braking into Canada Corner are two of the more important technical areas that will drop more time from your lap. But the Kink will take the most time to work up to.”

Common mistakes: “A lot of people leave time on the table by braking too timidly into Canada Corner, and for good reason; if you go off there, your day is probably done. You can go surprisingly deep in that braking zone, but you must work up to it by moving your brake point in five-foot increments. In Turn 1, a lot of people over-slow. Get off the brake pedal earlier and roll more speed in. Use all the exit curbing, and then some.”

Prioritizing corners: “People are going to say the Kink, and yes, it is important, but it basically is what it is and not a lot of driver input is going to change it. The final corner is important because it leads onto a long straight and is almost immediately uphill. So, you pay twice if you don’t get a good exit.

“The entry to Turn 14 is key as it is not configured in such a way to where you use the biggest arc. To do so you’d have to give up quite a bit of entry speed to get left for turn-in. The best compromise I’ve found in big horsepower cars is to try and be about five to six feet from the left but carrying good speed both at turn-in and throughout.

“A lot of people will also point to the Carousel, but again you can only get what the car is willing to give there from a driving standpoint. It is important to search out maximum grip as it seems to change throughout the day, particularly in the wet.”

Danger areas: “Without question, the kink. There are walls on both sides, and they are very close. You can write off your [Runoffs] in the blink of an eye. A lot of drivers also get into trouble exiting Turn 1 by getting loose and their attempts to correct throw them into the inside wall which, again, is quite close to track edge. There’s room for mistakes at Road America, just pick your spot to go all top gun wisely.

Weather considerations: “If there’s rain in the area, it seems to be magnetically drawn to Road America. The track surface has enough tooth to stay on slicks through a light drizzle if your tires are warm, but if the tires cool, you are toast.

“This track is long enough that it can be raining in the Carousel and dry at start/finish. It will remain disastrously wet in the Canada Corner area and in between all wooded spots long after the front straight appears dry. I won’t even get into the running water across the track back near the Kink. Ask the IndyCar guys....”

Preston Pardus: Spec Miata Champ and NASCAR driver

At the 2020 June Sprints, Preston Pardus won in Spec Miata on Saturday and took second on Sunday, all the while hooked up with Jim Drago. “Any time you can run with Jim, you are having a good day,” he says. Preston had a very good day at the 2017 Runoffs, too, where he took the gold at Indy, besting an astounding 86 competitors. At the 2019 Runoffs at VIR, he snagged the silver medal. Making a big step up with a pick-up team put together by his dad, Dan, a former NASCAR racer, Preston competed in two NASCAR Xfinity Series road course races in 2020 finishing 10th at Indy and eighth at Road America, where he started 37th in a no practice, no qualifying format, and even led toward the end of the race. Preston is fast at every track – but especially Road America.

Issues for first time Road America visitors: “One of the biggest issues for me when I was learning Road America was to be sure to maximize my corner exit speeds. In Spec Miata, corner exit speed is everything and it will determine how much ground will be lost or gained down the straights. Because Road America’s straights are some of the longest in SCCA Road Racing, you need to make sure you can back up your corners enough to set up an ideal exit for every corner. This is particularly true for Turns 3, 10, and 14.”

The longest week: “It is such a long event; you don’t want to use up your equipment early in the game. You really want to make sure that when it’s race day, your car is in good shape and not worn out from the many practice and qualifying sessions.”

Hardest parts of the track: “The big challenge for our class is to pull off a clean pass. Although in Spec Miata it’s easy to initiate a draft pass down the straight, if you’re unable to complete the pass, you will be in jeopardy of getting left out of line and multiple cars will pass you.

“The way the track is laid out, every other corner is a switchback, which means that you will be in the less ideal line if you are not single file going into a corner.

“Without a doubt, you are going to want a great handling car through Turns 3 and 14 to propel you onto the long straights. You also want a great car through the Carousel because the comfort factor is low even on a good handling car.”

Best way to learn the track: “Run laps on iRacing. It’s a great tool to use because each circuit is laser scanned and is recreated virtually to perfection. I would also highly recommend watching recent SCCA races from the past few years.”

Importance of the draft: “Drafting will be everything in the Spec Miata race – there will not be a single car breaking away. It all depends on how the race plays out, but with how the draft works there, it can either be a two-car breakaway or a 10-car pack race. It has gone either way for every Spec Miata race at Road America.”

Danger areas: “Trying to go side-by-side through the kink.” 

Scott Rettich: Mr. June Sprints

As far as we can figure, Scott Rettich has won more June Sprints races than anyone. He has won the June Sprints six times in FE, four times in SRF, and once in FE2. Contesting the Runoffs primarily in FE and SRF3, he has an impressive six golds in FE. During the Road America Runoffs years from 2009-’13, he had six podiums and five poles. Scott has won the Chicago Region Triple Crown Award three times, his reward for taking the Sprints, his Division crown, and the Runoffs in the same year. Racking up a resume like this in spec classes in no cakewalk. He is also the owner of Alliance Autosport, which provides arrive-and-drive services in SRF3, FE2, and Trans Am 2. Put simply, he knows of which he speaks.

Most common mistake at Road America: “There are a number of braking zones at the track where, due to the length of the straights, you arrive carrying more speed than you are used to. Drivers try to brake too late, lock up on entry or fall off on track out. They simply try to get more out of the turn than it can give them.”

On drafting: “In many classes, it’s super important. But you must be mindful of who you are running with. You can’t run around with a back marker and expect to qualify up front. Drafting is an art form – some drivers pick it up quickly, while some never do.

Danger areas: “You have to respect the Kink, that’s for sure. You can’t turn in too early and you can’t lift mid-corner. The car has to be settled and it has to stay settled. This is a place where bad things can happen. You have to work up to it and have a thoughtful approach to your run through here.”

Hardest turn: The Carousel, especially for a formula car. It determines your run all the way down to Canada Corner and it can be tricky to get your car to maintain full grip past the middle of the turn as the road falls away there.”

Aero vs. mechanical grip: “We are pretty trimmed out [in FE2]. We are lighter on aero here than any track other than Daytona. Ideally, drivers will have had experience driving cars with downforce prior to running Road America. It is common to see some drivers doing well where mechanical grip is the dominant factor but then fall down by 8 to 10 mph where aero is involved. They need to be aware of what a formula car can do with downforce. There is a reason we don’t take new drivers to Road America.”

Importance of running the test days: “It’s very important to help you get up to speed. I’ve run there a lot and I still sometimes run the test days. The turns on this track are not complex from a technical standpoint but getting the last bits of speed can be quite difficult – for example, getting the perfect balance through the Carousel. Running the test days also helps to confirm that you are comfortable with your car setup.”

Where can you pass?: “A lot of my wins have come on last-lap passes – that’s the only lap you need to lead. The traditional spots are going into Turns 1, 5, and Canada Corner. But it’s really important to come out of Canada Corner strong, so you don’t want to give up exit speed with a late pass going in. The outside of Turn 13 is a possibility, and obviously the last three turns on the last lap are super critical.”

Weather considerations: “You have to be ready to deal with anything. The June Sprints have been run when it’s 70 degrees F and on other years when it is 95 degrees. In October it could be quite cold, which may well affect the first part of the race.”

Break the tension: “The Runoffs goes on for a long time. It’s a great idea to get away from the track, if at all possible. The area has lots of attractions and interesting things to do. Don’t let the event get the best of you.”

 

Words by James Kearney
Image by Jeff Loewe