ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – After 11 SCCA National Championship Runoffs starts, Jason Byers, of Livonia, Mich., finally claimed his first National Championship, beating defending champion Michael Mallinen, of Liberty Lake, Wash., for the Formula Atlantic title.
Keith Grant, of Germantown, Tenn., finished third.
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At the drop of the green flag it was Grant who launched into the lead, but he was never comfortable there, with Byers and Mallinen all over his rear wing. By lap two, Byers made the move in Turn Five to reclaim the lead.
“I was driving hard, doing some drafting, making sure I hit my corners right and just made the best of my situation at the time,” Byers said. “Being the third car in line, they [Grant and Mallinen] were definitely punching a hole for me, so I was able to work with that.”
Mallinen followed Byers around Grant and gave chase to the No. 28 Swan/Hoosier Swift .014a Toyota. Mallinen’s No. 71 Hoosier Tires/TRD/Swan Racing Swift .014a Toyota streamed past Byers on the front straight to start lap three, but Byers took the spot right back in Turn Five. It was an exchange that would continue for the remainder of the 13-lap race, which the Formula Atlantic class shared with the Formula 1000 (FB) class.
“We (Byers and Mallinen) had two real close ones,” Byers recalled. “Coming down the center straight (from Turn Three to Turn Five) he gave me less than an inch. I was running half the left tire off the track and squirming down the straightaway. At least it felt that way. On another exchange I caught an FB (Formula 1000) coming into Turn 14 and I lost a little gap and Mike was able to draft me coming into Turn Five. Again, he left me a little less than an inch on the exit. But, I wasn’t going to give up. I really wanted this one.”
The pair’s lap 11 exchange in Turn Five earned Byers the GoPro Hero Move of the Race Award.
On the final lap, Byers crossed the line with only 0.643-second on Mallinen who turned the Hawk Fastest Race Lap and a new Formula Atlantic record at 2:01.496 (118.522 mph). Despite this, Byers faced no serious challenge from Mallinen for the lead. He claimed his first Runoffs win by 1.050 seconds.
“Fortunately, they didn’t give me the ‘one to go,’ otherwise I probably would have screwed up,” joked Byers. “So I just kept it as clean and quick as possible. I was very thankful to see the checkered flag. This feels very satisfying.”
Though he is only officially credited with leading one lap at the line, Mallinen not only had a great start, but made several clean passes on Byers for the lead. The 2011 FA Champion was clearly having a fun race at Road America.
“The start was great,” Mallinen said. “I had a wonderful start and Jason [Byers] did not. I went up the inside and had about an inch to spare against the inside wall, but made it through. I dropped behind Keith [Grant] and the first three or four laps were hectic and everybody was nose-to-tail. Jason and I were lucky enough to get in front of Keith. Then, I focused on Jason. He and I had a wonderful battle. It was great racing. We both gave each other an inch, but no more, and we were both right on each other.”
Grant led the race early thanks to a poor start from Byers, who admitted after the race that he missed a shift.
“At the start I don’t know what happened to Jason, but he hesitated and I pulled ahead of him,” Grant said. “After that I was going down to Turn Five and I got passed by three people all at once. I made a bad decision and tried to tuck to the inside, but that didn’t work. Once they got by, they just continued to pull away.”
Once Byers and Mallinen pulled away, Grant had to defend the final podium spot from Jeff Kowalik, of Cape Coral, Fla. After a couple brief exchanges, Grant had the final podium spot firmly in hand, but had too much ground to make up on the leaders.
“Jeff [Kowalik] was able to pull up to me a few times when we hit traffic once or twice, but for the most part I was able to maintain a solid gap between us,” Grant said.
“My car wasn’t handling quite as well as I hoped it would, so it was a handful throughout the race. I wasn’t really confident, so I just wanted to maintain my spot. I hoped that I would look up and something might happen that I could finish in the lead, but it didn’t.”
Kowalik finished fourth in his No. 77 Northcentral Mazda/Hoosier Swift 016a Mazda. Lewis Cooper, of Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., was fifth in the No. 60 Martini/Voss Water/St. Charles Wine Swift .014a.