ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Kent Prather, of Wakarusa, Kan., successfully defended his GT-Lite National Championship in dramatic fashion at the 49th SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Road America.
Prather pulled alongside Robert Lentz, of Chantilly, Va., at the finish line to take the win by 0.023 second. James Hargrove, of Surrey, B.C., finished third.
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Starting from the Gumout pole, Prather’s No. 26 Mazda/Moss/Goodyear/Torco/Carbotech Mazda Miata held the lead to Turn Eight, where second-starting Lentz got by. Four turns later, Lentz spun and relinquished the lead to Prather as rain began to fall on the back half of the four-mile road course. On the following lap, Prather spun from the lead in Turn 13, handing the lead to Steve Sargis who drives the No. 18 SBS Batteries Hoosier Tire Triumph Spitfire.
“I got back into Canada Corner on the second lap and I just turned to the right too hard,” Prather, an eight-time National Champion, said. “I must have been in too low of a gear and I just spun around, but I was going the right direction… It was just a rookie mistake.”
Sargis and Hargrove exchanged the top spot several times until lap seven, when Sargis ran wide in Turn Three and slowed considerable on course, before exiting the track at Turn Five. Hargrove inherited the lead in his No. 38 RaceEnergy/Analytic Systems Honda Civic and, by this point, Prather had remarkably worked his way back to second. This commenced a fantastic duel between Hargrove and Prather that saw the two exchange the lead several times per lap.
“The Honda was making very good power,” Prather said. “I’d catch him pretty good in turn one and turn three and I was able to go faster into turn five, but he could out brake me anywhere. If I went down on one side, he’d just go around me on the other side. It was a really good battle and I just knew that I had to somehow keep ahead of him.”
The battle for the lead enabled Lentz and his No. 60 FGR/Nissan/Goodyear Nissan Sentra SER to catch the dueling duo. Lentz set the Hawk Fastest Race Lap in the process, a 2:35.053 (92.871 mph).
“I was trying to find the limit of the tires on every lap,” Lentz said. “It was raining in a different corner every time. I was already spooked, but I kept my head down and drove it at the limit as hard as I could. Once I could see them [Prather and Hargrove] it was easier.”
On the penultimate lap, Hargrove made a costly passing attempt for the lead in Turn 14 that resulted in contact between his Honda and Lentz’ Nissan.
“Kent was coming in pretty wide,” Hargrove recalled. “I figured he might have left the door open, so I stuck my nose in there and he closed the door. It was just racing. There was more than a little contact, but both cars (Hargrove’s and Lentz’) survived and kept going. Because I lost all the momentum when I hit, Bobby had to give me a shove up the straightaway.”
The loss in momentum enabled Lentz to draft past Hargrove for the runner-up spot and give chase to Prather. What seemed like a sizeable gap became dangerously close by Turn 12. Feeling the pressure, Prather slid wide and into the grass at Turn 14. He pulled back on track alongside Lentz and the two drag-raced up the hill. At the line it was Prather by 0.023-second, the third-closest finish in Runoffs history in the modern transponder era.
“I think I’ve got to get the rookie book out again, because I’m pretty sure I looked in the mirror at the wrong time,” Prather laughed. “All I know is I was going to get a really good run on him going into Turn 14 and he wasn’t going to catch me. The next thing I know I’m off the track! I don’t know what to say other than I missed my apex, but I never let off the gas. When I got back on the track I came on pretty close to him and usually I shift into fifth through there, but I kept it in fourth, because I knew if I shifted I’d lose just enough momentum. So I kept it in fourth and got him by a couple splitter lengths.”
A victim of the race’s early rain shower, Lentz reminded himself to keep hitting his marks until the leaders came into view. His climb to the front of the pack earned him the GoPro Hero Move of the Race.
“I had the same strategy as I did last year, which was ‘attack as fast as possible,’” Lentz said. “I stuck with Kent through Turn Five and started attacking. I got a run on him in Turn Eight. We went barreling down into Canada Corner. I saw the debris flag and figured it must have been leftover stay-dry, because it was our first lap. After we were on the brakes, I could tell it was raining. I just lost it and looped it. I was really lucky, because my competitors took care of me and didn’t take me out.”
While he prepared himself for a last ditch effort to pass Prather in the final corner, he couldn’t have imagined it would finish as close as it did.
“Two years ago, I was racing Peter Shadowen for third place and I was in fourth coming up to the last corner and he drove a defensive line and that gave me a run up the straight,” Lentz said. “I was very focused on driving my line and trying to do the same thing on Kent. I was tickled when Kent took care of it himself and drove off the track! I must have lifted not knowing where he was going to go; it’s obvious Kent didn’t and that was the ball game.”
After blowing three motors in qualifying and enduring an up-all-night rebuild, Hargrove’s Sunoco Hard Charger Award for coming from fifth to third was well deserved, especially considering his lengthy battle with Prather.
“Kent’s car was stronger in one part — he ran really well in a straight line,” smiled Hargrove. “I could out-corner him. I could out-brake him, but if he was in front and took the line away, then I had to follow. He didn’t give me many chances. I took the ones that were there and made some passes, but his car has an amazing motor and after we hit in Turn 14, that gave Bobby the chance to get a run on him, I was able to stay in Bobby’s draft until the end, so I wasn’t too far down on power, but just a little bit. Basically these guys had really good motors… Kent drove a great race and Bobby came back to us and I think all three of us had an absolute blast out there.”
Jonathan Goodale, of Conifer, Colo., finished fourth in the No. 04 Mazdaspeed/Hoosier/JoeApex.com Mazda MX-5. Peter Zekert, of Maryland Heights, Mo., was fifth in the No. 45 Wiseco Pistons/Redline/RKI Group Nissan 200SX SE-R.