BRASELTON, Ga. – Needing only to start the race to clinch the 2012 SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup, Scottish-born Stevan McAleer punched his championship dance card with a win in the season finale on Friday morning at Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda at Road Atlanta.
The race podium finished mirrored the championship, with Ara Malkhassian and John Dean finishing as the top three.
The 28-lap race featured a remarkable 18 official lead changes amongst five different drivers, with McAleer’s No. 28 Blue Mercury Capital/Numerix/CJ Wilson Racing MX-5 averaging 93.728 mph in the 71.12-mile race.
The long straightaways at Road Atlanta create a drafting opportunity for the identical Mazda MX-5 machines, keeping the field tightly bunched through the race. The lead pack featured a nine-car train for most of the race, with every driver trying to decide what strategy leaves them in contention at the finish.
McAleer floated between first and fifth through the race, then put himself on the point with two laps to go. With Malkhassian’s No. 11 ALARA Racing MX-5 and Dean’s No. 16 Projections Research/Sick Sideways MX-5 battling through the final lap, McAleer inched ahead for a 0.963-second lead.
“I got into a rhythm and I felt the car was quick,” McAleer said. “I dropped back a little bit mid-race, and it ended up that they started their usual fighting. For me, John and Ara were going to go at it at some point, it was guaranteed. They said it was five minutes to go on the radio and I went for an outside move on all of them in 10 and managed to pull it off. They pretty much ran side-by-side for the next three or four corners, and I went on and made sure everything was perfect.
“I actually didn’t see the checker! I heard about a flag coming out, but I swear it looked like a blue flag. I actually looked in my mirror, I was like ‘why am I getting a blue flag here?’ But to end the championship with a victory is unbelievable.”
The newly crowned champion and Rookie of the Year finished his season with three wins, two runner-up finishes and three third-place finishes in his eight races, scoring 617 points to win with a 49-point advantage.
“The guys have been talking about it, even some of the guys from a few years ago, they said this is quite possibly the toughest season they’ve had in the MX-5 Cup,” the 2012 Champion said. “We knew right from the get-go that we were obviously a contender at Sebring, but we also knew that it was always going to tighten up and all the guys were coming. We just tried to be as fast as we could and be somewhat sensible on some passes. You win championships with podiums, podiums, podiums, and I think that’s eight of 11 podiums.
“We didn’t even know if we were going to make Sebring. We scraped some funding together to get the first race, and it’s just unbelievable. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. My Dad is here, and my younger brother. My Dad’s pretty good luck – he’s been here twice and now we won here, so maybe I’ll bring him along next season!”
The battle for second on the final lap was concurrent to the battle for the Championship lead. Dean’s Mazda led the most laps and picked up two bonus points, but when Malkhassian bounced back from a low of eight-place on lap eight, the pressure was on.
Malkhassian, the day’s polesitter, finished second by a lone point – thanks solely to having a slight lead across the stripe after lap 22. It’s the highest career point finish for Malkhassian, who has missed just two races in the Series’ six-year history. Malkhassian also set the fastest race lap in a record 1:39.654 (91.757 mph).
“That was the hardest race I’ve ever had,” Malkhassian said. “So many different people were in the front, and so many different personalities and we had to fall back for a little while, let everything clear out, and work our way back up to the front. We have strategy that we try to use every time here, it’s just John Dean had a hellacious run out of five and I had to defend too hard. That allowed McAleer to escape, otherwise we had a shot at doing the move, but it didn’t happen. What a great event, a great Mazda, the BFGoodrich Tires and the Hawk pads, it was great for ALARA Racing.
“It’s a great season. We ended up going to a lot of the tracks that we do well at. We were right there all the time, and it feels good to be competitive in our advanced years. The ALARA Racing guys and Ken Murillo do a great job, we got the fast lap at a number of places and it shows the car has speed potential.”
Dean, whose four race wins are the most of the season, finished third in points in his rookie endeavor. The Sick Sideways driver led a total of 12 laps in the race before falling just shy of the runner-up spot.
“The nature of the track is a big draft, and track position is important,” Dean said. “Your enemies turn to friends and your friends turn to enemies out there, and that’s part of the fun. It’ll be fun to watch on Velocity when we get to watch this race later, but we’re just trying to leapfrog and keep a car between me and Ara. We were able to do that early on, but he had a lot of speed at the end. We fought right to the last corner and he ended up getting us to the line and squeaking us by in the championship.
“I won the most races this year, I feel pretty good about that. I had a penalty early in the season, and so the rookie season was a big learning experience for myself as a driver and us as a team. If we are able to come back next year, you’ll see us there. We’ll be strong.”
Dean’s teammate, Christian Szymczak, finished fourth in the race and fourth in the Championship in his rookie season in the No. 34 Projections Research/Sick Sideways MX-5. Szymczak started eighth and moved around Thursday race-winner Dean Copeland’s No. 7 Copeland Motorsports/Sync Speed Inc . MX-5 for fourth on the final lap.
Copeland, who started 10th based on fast lap from Thursday’s race, worked his way into the lead for lap 16 and 17 before finishing fifth.
Nathanial Sparks ran the race in the rear of the lead pack, unable to move to the front but hanging in for a sixth place finish in the No. 3 OOTSK Performance/Sick Sideways MX-5 and a fifth-place championship finish.
Elliott Skeer had his No. 17 MAZDASPEED/Sparco/CJWR MX-5 in the lead with two laps to go, but the 18-year-old fell back in the draft and then ran wide on the final lap after a bump trying to make up the gap, finishing seventh. Skeer finished sixth in the championship, just five markers behind Sparks.
Marc Miller drove the No. 29 ModSpace/Monticello Motor Club/CJWR MX-5 from the rear of the field to the battle for the lead with just three laps to go, but a tire going flat forced him wide with two laps to go and into an eight place finish. Harrison Williams’ No. 00 ALARA Racing/Albrecht & Associates MX-5 finished ninth, just ahead of teammate Brent Mosing’s No. 10 Frank’s Int’l/ALARA Racing MX-5.
Bryan Hixon clinched the Skip Barber Racing School MAZDASPEED Pro Series class Championship with a win on Friday morning in the No. 63 HixonRacing.myvi.net MX-5 over championship runner-up David Knight’s No. 97 Jacuzzi/Pharmanex MX-5.