ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Pole winner Jim Drago, of Memphis, Tenn., won the 2012 Spec Miata National Championship by holding off teammate Craig Berry, of Tyler Texas, from start to finish at the 49th SCCA National Championship Runoffs® at Road America.
Andrew Charbonneau, of Delray Beach, Fla., finished third after a last lap battle with rookie Stephan Tisseront, from Great Falls, Va.
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Starting from the Gumout pole, Drago led the Spec Miata field into Turn One, his mirrors full of action behind him, but without a serious challenge for the lead. Drago’s No. 2 East Street Racing Mazda Miata led Berry’s No. 29 Berry Marble and Granite/East Street Racing Mazda Miata out of the first turn with a trail of seven cars nose-to-tail behind them.
“I kept looking back at that pack thinking ‘maybe two more corners and I’ll be able to break this,’ but Craig [Berry] and I set our cars up identically,” Drago said. “His [Berry’s] car was loose in a couple of spots and mine was tight in a couple of right-hand turns. Where I would get tight in turn 12 and 13, I’d have to back off a little bit and Craig would really gain, but I could gain enough through the Carousel or in Six, Seven and Eight, that it would take him the whole way to get back; so I could over slow 12 a little bit to keep that gap.”
As battles raged on behind him, Drago kept his focus forward, whether it was Berry or Charbonneau in his rear-view mirror. Even on lap six, when the two split Drago entering turn one, Drago could not be pressured into a mistake.
“I think we’ve all been around enough now, and with Craig being my teammate, I didn’t have to watch my mirror as much,” Drago said. “Andrew is another guy I’ve raced with inches apart for mile after mile, so it’s not so intense to the point that you’re worried about it; we trust each other completely. It’s a different kind of racing and it’s very enjoyable when you can race that close with people and not worry about it.”
The battle between teammates reached a climax on the last lap when Berry finally made a move for the win. A quick glance by Berry in turns 12 and 13 prompted Drago to take a defensive line through the final corner. As the two streamed past the finish line, it was Drago for the win by 0.185 second.
“I knew in my mind I was a little bit better out of Three, so I tried to go like hell out of Three, Five, Six Seven and Eight and get enough of a gap that I could get down the back straight without Craig getting to me,” Drago recalled. “Going into the Carousel, I thought there was no way he was even going to be close, but then that draft came up and all I could see was that black and green 29 coming! I took the middle of the track and stayed defensive on those last couple of corners. We went up the hill closer than I would have liked, but Craig’s a teammate and if the roles were reversed we would have followed station identically.”
After dispatching Charbonneau halfway through the race, Berry was finally able to focus his attention squarely on Drago.
“We did have a strategy,” Berry said of himself and teammate Drago. “I was hoping we could keep nose-to-tail and get away from the pack and then battle it out for the last two laps. It did not take long for me to realize Andrew [Charbonneau] was going to be part of this race and that the plan was not going to work out!”
After shadowing Drago for five laps, Berry made his intentions known on lap 13. Unable to complete a pass in turns 12 and 13, Berry lost the momentum he needed to draft past Drago up the hill and across the finish line.
“I had a good run through the Kink and down the back straight,” Berry said. “Jim moved over, and that’s what you have to do, so I tried to take him outside, inside and across and pushed him up the hill, but it wasn’t enough.
“It was really tough,” Berry concluded. “We missed the setup just a little bit and I had a loose car in the right handers, so I couldn’t get on the throttle as early as I could earlier in the week. I knew Jim was going to have to make a bobble, so all I tried to do was get as close as I could to him and hope that he’d make a mistake. I knew it would be a good finish either way because we’re teammates and he’s helped me all year.”
Starting fifth in the No. 67 Auto Tecknick Not East Street Mazda Miata, Charbonneau had a great start and moved into fourth. On lap six, Charbonneau was around Berry and into second, challenging Drago for the lead. Charbonneau made a move on Drago in Turn One to start lap six, taking the lead. It was short-lived, with Drago back to the front in Turn Five. The pass dropped Charbonneau to fourth behind Berry and Patrick Sandlin’s No. 58 East Street Racing/Community Mortgage Mazda Miata.
Three laps later, Charbonneau passed Sandlin for third in Turn One , but the two continued to jockey for position. They made contact, sending Sandlin into the wall at Turn Two and ending his day.
“I had the pass made in Turn One,” recalled Charnonneau. “I gave him [Sandlin] room, but then he pushed me over a little bit and in my opinion, he jerked the wheel and put me into the grass. I was able to save it and get back on the track.”
Charbonneau kept his car on course, but dropped to fourth behind Danny Steyn. He was back to third a lap later, but with a mirror full of Stephan Tisseront’s No. 09 Ti-Speed Engineering/OPM Mazda Miata. On the final lap, rookie Tisseront went to the inside of Charbonneau into Turn Five, but the veteran got him right back on the exit.
“I anticipated he was going to make that move,” Charbonneau said. “I don’t think he realized I was going to double pass him. We got up to the bridge [Turn Six] and he kind of pushed me over a bit. I had carried more momentum through Five and I finally got him going into Canada Corner and continued from there.”
Charbonneau claimed the final podium spot, plus the GoPro Hero Move of the Race for his exchange with Tisseront, who finished fourth in his Runoffs debut.
Steyn, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., completed the top five in his No. 39 ADEPT Studios/ROSSINI Engines/OPM Mazda Miata.
Ninth-place Patrick McGinnis, of Saint Louis, Mo., set the Hawk Fast Race Lap with a 2:42.943 (88.374 mph).