SONOMA, Calif. – Round four of the Trans-Am presented by Pirelli West Coast Championship Series started out somewhat leisurely, with a pair of hour-long Friday test sessions and two Saturday practices.
Then it got crazy in a hurry.
A split qualifying round – 10 minutes for the TA/SGT/GT group and another 10 minutes for TA2 powered by AEM — led to intense, dramatic and dizzying moments for all in one of the largest-ever West series Trans-Am fields.
As if the 2.52-mile, 12-turn Sonoma road course, featuring some 160 feet in elevation changes every lap, was not challenging enough, the field had the clock to battle as well.
Driving the family-prepped No. 72 Berkeley Jet Drive-backed ex-Frank Emmett Chevrolet Corvette in the flagship TA class, Michelle Nagai snatched the pole away from veteran Simon Gregg, with her 1:38.583 lap narrowly edging Gregg’s time of 1:38.713.
“He (Gregg) was so gracious, shook my hand, congratulated me,” said Nagai, whose husband Steve preps the immaculate Corvette parked in the family’s local marine jet drive manufacturing facility. “Everything ran so well today — I was so determined to get this.”
Fastest in one of Friday’s test sessions and in with a real shot at the TA pole, Michael Fine will start Sunday’s race from the back after the differential housing in his No. 66 Architectural Glass Systems Chevrolet Camaro suffered a crack in Saturday practice.
If TA qualifying can be described as a focused duel between two Corvette drivers, then TA2 is best labeled a free-for-all, as the unexpected happened almost everywhere on track.
Shockwave Marine Suspension Seating owner David Smith brought four cars to Sonoma, one for 17-year-old soon-to-be high school senior Derek Kraus, who is one of the fast-rising stars in the hard-fought NASCAR K&N Pro Series.
Kraus has tested at Sonoma but Sunday’s race will be his first in a TA2 car, and he wasted no time in displaying his talent – in two different Shockwave Chevrolet Camaros.
The engine in his No. 5 blew up in spectacular fashion in the 20-minute practice session right before qualifying. Team owner Smith stepped out of his No. 11 and turned it over to the Stratford, Wis., teen.
The crew tracked down all the seat padding they could find and Kraus jumped in confidently, reeling off a 1:38.183 — good enough for the overall pole — in an already short session made even shorter by a full-course yellow to retrieve a stranded car.
“I’m so grateful to David [Smith] and his Shockwave crew for giving me this chance to run here this weekend,” said Kraus. “Seat time at the track is always the biggest thing. [The 11 car] was maybe a little bit different, maybe rolled a little bit more, but other than that — it was fine.”
The yellow flags caught out driver coach Chris Cook on his hot lap and forced him to slow. Cook, wheeling the third of Smith’s four Shockwave Camaros and providing plenty of coaching through the weekend, had to settle for second in TA2 with a 1:39.507.
Fastest in morning practice, TA2 West points leader Anthony Honeywell was also ready to battle for the pole, but the Tulsa, Okla., CPA was also caught out by the yellows, never able to regain momentum, ending up third with a time of 1:39.189.
The back of the grid will be crowded with frontrunners looking to move up quickly tomorrow, as several other TA2 contenders were sidelined with a wide assortment of mechanical woes, including Lawless Alan, Thunderhill and Laguna Seca TA2 winner Brad McAllister and Michele Abbate.
Sadly, Fontana winner Nicholas Rosseno lost an engine on Friday and had no spare. Rosseno’s fate echoed the setback faced by Trans Am legend Greg Picket, who was forced to miss out on the Sonoma round after having a fast start to his West Coast title campaign.
Like the West Coast Championship in general, the SGT and GT classes are growing thanks to the promotional efforts of friends and rivals Roger Eagleton and Beau Borders, who will start third and fourth in GT.
California’s Clark Nunes won the GT pole with a 1:45.084, while Colorado’s Joe Bogetich was second quick at 1:46.777.
Oli Thordarson, who posted a lap of 1:46.306, was the only qualifier in SGT.