BRASELTON, Ga. – Dean Copeland was the car in front when the checkered flag flew on Thursday’s SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup race, the penultimate round of the 11-race Championship at the Petit Le Mans Powered by Mazda at Road Atlanta.
Though Copeland got the best of the field – topping Ara Malkhassian to the line by 0.441-second and averaging 84.959 mph for the race – the 66.04-mile race distance was vintage MX-5 Cup.
Four different drivers led in the 26-lap race that featured 11 official lead changes but came down to a final-lap battle between Copeland’s No. 7 Copeland Motorsports/Sync Speed Inc. MX-5, Malkhassian’s No. 11 ALARA Racing MX-5, and Elliott Skeer’s No. 17 MAZDASPEED/Sparco/CJWR MX-5.
The last time Copeland and Malkhassian were together with the checkered flag in sight, the two made contact and spun across the finish line at Road America in Round Six. In that race, Malkhassian got the win and both left with destroyed race cars. This time, with Copeland in the lead, Malkhassian made a late braking maneuver in Turn 10 and moved briefly to the front, but got into the corner too hot. Copeland let him go to the inside, then passed him back when the door came open, securing the win two corners later.
Copeland led a total of six laps for his first win of the season.
“I was just really hoping to get through the first half of the race and sort it with no beats and bangs and no carnage,” Copeland said. “We were there, and it was really a three or four car breakaway. I saw the double yellow come out [late in the race] and I said ‘oh, no, it’s going to be a crash fest.’ I told Elliott, let’s just line up and try to get away from the carnage. And that’s what we did. Look where we’re at.
“Me and Ara, a close run at the last lap. I wasn’t going to let off the brake, he wasn’t going to beat me through [turn] 10-A. I was going to wreck the car before I let him have it. It’s been a rough year, a long year, and it’s just been a long time coming. It’s so satisfying to finally get it. It’s awesome. It was just an awesome race.”
The early stages of the race were a nine-car train for the lead, with Malkhassian laying back out of the fray and biding his time for the finish. Malkhassian was in 3rd, trailing Skeer and Copeland with Championship leader Steven McAleer’s No. 28 Blue Mercury Capital/Numerix/CJ Wilson Racing in tow when the left-rear wheel of Thomas Neel’s No. 15 Partsgroup Motorsports/NEO/Ballast Inv. MX-5 broke and came off the car, leaving him stranded in Turn Six and bringing out the full course caution.
The two-lap caution period left the top four drivers to get away and battle for the final six laps. Malkhassian did turn the fastest lap of the race to earn the pole position for Friday morning’s season finale, posting a lap of 1:40.792 (90.721 mph), and also led two laps.
“Another great MX-5 Cup race at Road Atlanta, as usual – hammer and tongs the whole way,” Malkhassian said. “We had the car for the race, and there’s so much fighting and goofing around going on early in the race I said, hey, let’s go to the front and see if maybe we can lead it. As soon as two cars hook up, they drive around you, and as soon as I saw that wasn’t going to stick I just stayed in the back and let the thing come to us.
“I went to make my move at the end and I just over estimated how much of a gap I needed to get around him. I had the big head of steam, drove past him, just wasn’t enough to actually close the pass. He made a very brave defense, and he deserved to win. It was awesome.”
Skeer had the best view of the final race lap, sitting in third and looking for a way around. Instead, the 18-year-old settled for his sixth podium finish of the season.
“This was quite the day,” Skeer said. “I got the first-ever rain session this morning, and a crazier race than VIR this afternoon. I love that personally, it was a great race just trying to figure out where to be.
“I noticed that when Dean Copeland started pushing me down the front straight, he wanted to go. We wanted to hook up, try to get ahead of Ara, and just keep it in front. The double yellows were interesting, I saw the car sitting there and hoped the wrecker has a problem getting that up so we could finish under yellow! It was a great race, really fun at the end.”
The driver with the biggest day may not have been any of the race winners, but fourth-place finishing McAleer. That finish, combined with John Dean’s seventh-place in the No. 16 Projections Research/Sick Sideways MX-5, leaves him only having to start Friday’s race to clinch the season-long Championship.
McAleer didn’t hold back much, leading two laps himself early in the race.
Chris Windsor earned his best finish of the season in the No. 38 Windsor Customs/Child Print ID MX-5, getting past the No. 3 OOTSK Performance/Sick Sideways MX-5 of Nathanial Sparks with two laps to go for a top-five finish.
Two of Malkhassian’s ALARA Racing teammates landed in the top 10, with Harrison Williams (No. 00 ALARA Racing/Albrecht & Associates MX-5) finishing a season-best eighth and Tim Probert (No. 26 ALARA Racing MX-5) finishing ninth. Christian Szymczak completed the top 10 in the No. 34 Projections Research/Sick Sideways machine.
David Knight won the Skip Barber Racing School MAZDASPEED Pro Series class race by 0.257-second in the No. 97 Jacuzzi/Pharmanex MX-5 over championship leader Bryan Hixon. Like McAleer in the Playboy MX-5 Cup series, Hixon only needs to start Friday’s race to clinch the championship in the No. 63 HixonRacing.myvi.net MX-5.
Though McAleer has all but wrapped up the Playboy MX-5 Cup Championship with 556 points, there are many positions yet to be decided. Dean sits second with 512 points, just one marker ahead of Malkhassian. Szymczak (480 points), Sparks (463 points), and Skeer (459) are also in contention for top season finishes.