SEBRING, Fla. – Rookie Kenton Koch started his bid for the 2014 SCCA Pro Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires Championship on the right foot, winning round one Thursday at Sebring Int’l Raceway as part of the 62nd Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida.
John Dean finished second, followed by Sebastian Landy in third.
Driving the No. 12 ALARA Racing/Mazda Motorsports Development MX-5, Koch was scored as the leader only once during the race that average 77.919 mph around the 17-turn, 3.74-mile permanent airport course. However, it happened to be the most important lap, the last one.
Koch spent the entire 16-lap race in the lead group of cars, but spent most of his time in second trying to force then-leader Dean into a mistake. All the while, Koch was holding off challenges from Landy in third.
Koch had to wait until the last turn of the last lap to make his move for the lead. On the approach to turn 17, Koch was able to take the inside line. Driving through the dirty, unused part of the inside of the turn, Koch was able to hang on and win the drag race to the line.
The marks the second year that a last-lap, last-corner pass was the decisive move of a Mazda MX-5 Cup race at Sebring. Last year, Elliott Skeer took a win over Christian Szymczak year in much the same fashion.
“I didn’t think I had anything for Dean Copeland and John Dean when they were up front,” Koch said. “If the opportunity arose I would have taken advantage, but then Copeland dropped out allowing me to get back up to Dean.
“Without a drafting partner I was able to get to Dean’s rear bumper, but he was getting out of the corners really well. I was having some problems getting the power down coming out of turn 16. I was working to improve that the whole race. When it came down to crunch time, I was able to get a good run off 16 headed into turn 17 on the last lap.
“I was surprised how emotional it was to win that race. I could feel the tears in my eyes after crossing the line. It’s a long season, but this is a great way to start the year.”
Throughout the race, Dean did everything he could have done to bring home the win. Starting from the pole in his No. 16 Projections Research/PPG MX-5, Dean led the first two laps. Dean Copeland then took a turn at the front on lap three, until Dean reclaimed the lead one lap later. Two laps later, Copeland was back in the lead for two laps before his clutch gave out. Dean reclaimed the point and held it until lap 16.
“It was really close at the line,” Dean said. “I would have liked to have been the one to win the race, but we had a really good run. The car worked pretty well. I may have missed on a setting, but it worked well.
“I couldn’t break away from the field, and after two laps I stopped even trying to drive away from the pack. I just tried to keep the tires under me and ran a bit defensively so I could lead the most laps. It’s important to do that for championship points, but it’s just tough leading the last lap until the last corner and not getting the win.
“Turn 17 is so tough to defend, because if you do too much you run the risk of dropping back to third. [Koch] got a good run out of Turn 16 and was just able to squeeze by. I was hoping to try and hold the position around the outside, but both cars were just dancing through the corner. It got a bit risky, so I breathed the throttle to keep the car in second.”
In the No. 11 ALARA Racing MX-5, Ara Malkhassian made sure it wasn’t just a young man’s game at the front. He showed the mistake-free, quick pace commensurate with his experience in the series. He made sure young Landy earned his third-place finish.
Rookie Lucas Catania also made a good showing in his maiden race, finishing fifth in this Mazda MX-5 Cup field. Driving his No. 17 Atlanta Motorsports Group/N.Y. Spine & Wellness/SOS MX-5, Catania was the second Atlanta Motorsports Group-supported car in the top five.
In the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge class, Drake Kemper notched his second career win in the class. Driving the No. 99 Royal Rugby SBMX-5, Kemper kept his nose clean, taking advantage of then-leader Robby Foley getting tangled up with another car.
“I didn’t qualify as well as I would have liked,” Kemper said. “The car just didn’t feel great. In the race, I had an awesome start and got into second by the end of lap two. Robby [Foley] and I battled until the double yellow came out, which hurt me and helped him.
“We kept running together after the restart until he [Foley], was taken out by some other cars. Entering Turn 7, he was hit by a couple cars that got on the brakes too late to make the corner.”
Bryan Hixon drove the No. 63 Blackmore Partners/xBorder Foods & Wine SBMX-5 to a second-place finish, followed by Johan Schwartz in the No. 98 Promatex/Pipefish/Instrumart SBMX-5.