Starting dead last at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Matt Cooke (Aero-X Racing) knew that it was going to be a challenge to take victory in Round 13 of the 16th Street Racing League season. However, many would say that he made it too easy, coming through the field and eventually taking victory by over 10 seconds. It wasn’t just Cooke making the headlines however, as drivers from championship contenders to part time entrants all found a way of placing their name front and center at the “Magic Mile” — just not all of them for the right reasons.
New Hampshire is a track that always perplexes drivers and crew chiefs alike. Overall, the track has less banking than half the corners at Watkins Glen, and just two degrees of banking on the bottom line means that aside from emergencies, it’s pretty much out of bounds. The fastest times are often found in Lane Three, right in the centre of the racetrack, which means that passing low or high requires determination, and good spatial awareness. The stepped nature of the banking compared to the more parabolic approach at Homestead means switching lanes can be treacherous, and all this whilst traversing at 170MPH around the 1.06 mile race track . . .
Qualifying was full of surprises. Tim Holgate (Panther Online Racing) was able to set a stunning lap that set the early benchmark, which, after being only P17 in practice was a welcome change in fortune. Martin Miller (Banshee Autosport) then pumped in a lap only he is capable of, and was joined on the front row by Chad Peterson (V-Apex / Broken Aero), whose lap looked smooth, steady, and confident. It was the driver at the rear who caused the most headlines however. Cooke got into a partial slide on his first timed lap, and by the time he realized he was lacking the speed and would need to do a competitive second lap, he couldn’t slow down enough before the S/F line to have a second attempt. He’d start dead last, at a track where passing is allegedly notoriously difficult.
At the green flag, Miller got a clean start and gained the early lead; however both Josh Chin (Banshee Autosport / Manly Gamedays) and Cooke had picture perfect starts. Chin was able to get into the top five by the end of Lap Two, whereas Cooke passed 11 (!) cars in the first lap, shades of Tony Kannan at the same track in 2011. Despite two drivers being eliminated in the opening laps (Jon Porzuc/Banshee Autosport and David Sockrider/Impact Racing), the race remained green for the first 15 laps, until Paul Jenkins and Terry Matthiensen made contact coming into Turn Three, sending them both into the wall.
All but two drivers pitted on the first caution, and therefore Niall McBride and Ray Kingsbury (Last Lap Motorsports) restarted on the front row. Holgate got a strong restart, and attempted to make the pass on Kingsbury into Turn One; however the two came together, sending both of them into the SAFER barrier. Not surprisingly, the two drivers had differing views of the incident, but it was clear that this was a huge dent in Holgate’s championship charge. Speaking to the iRacing Brasil crew after the incident, Holgate was far from pleased, and recognized that it’d take a minor miracle for him to secure the championship with three rounds remaining.
The caution flag flew a total of five times in the first 60 laps, with a mixture of medium length runs and two cautions in three laps. Attrition was clearly the story of the day in the early running, with 40% of the sim-racers unable to make it past 1/3 distance. Notable retirees during this period of the race included Joe Branch and Randy Crossno, who fell victim to cold tires and restarts, with Connor Cross, Kevin Cress, and Tim Miller also retiring to their virtual motorhomes earlier than anticipated. One driver who was enjoying the restarts was Neffry Aawg (Panther Online Racing), who was able to get to the lead through the stop/start nature of proceedings.
As the cars restarted with 68 laps out of 170 scored complete, many were hoping for a long green flag run. What transpired was a period of non-stop racing that would take drivers to the end of the race. There were still a number of close calls, including Cooke going three wide into Turn One on the restart; however – mercifully — everyone was able to make it through without incident.
Midway through the first run, Cooke’s championship charge flashed before his eyes when he had contact with Aawg whilst battling for the race lead, though both drivers were able to continue without hitting the dreaded SAFER barrier out of T2. Following the race, Aawg would comment that he did suffer some damage to the front toe, which cost him a chance to battle for the win.
The big moment during the second half of the race featured Chin and Aawg. Coming into T1, Aawg had more momentum while Chin was struggling with his car being tight on corner entry. The combination of the two led to Aawg running into the rear of the championship leader. Chin’s Dallara suffered rear wing damage, relegating him to fall from second to fifth place by the end of the race due to the resulting handling imbalance. It could have been much worse, however, as – arguably – both Chin and Cooke dodged some big bullets in the race to be able to stretch their points advantage over Holgate.
After a strong start to the race, Peterson became the big loser in the first round of green flag pit stops, when he forced to serve a 15 second penalty for speeding on pit road. He would rejoin at the tail end of the lead lap, and go a lap down just after the second round of green flag stops. This left only one Broken Aero driver in the top five — Brandon Litchenberg – who was able to battle right to the end of the race with Aawg. Vick Caudill remained the last driver on the lead lap in sixth spot, and with another handful of laps, may have had the chance to catch Chin in the battle for P5.
The day however, was all Cooke’s. Coming from the rear of the field to winning the race by almost half a lap was his best finish of the season, and places him back at the front of the championship. With three rounds to go, two of which are ovals, he now becomes the favourite for the championship. But as has been the case all season, anything can happen, on any given Sunday night. Speaking about the win, Cooke commented how he knew he had to push at the start, and how it very easily could have gone wrong for him. Aawg, coming home in third was more despondent, stating that of all the podiums he’s ever accrued, this was one where he knew he had enough for the win.
Next week, the series roles on to the bullring of Iowa Speedway. The race will be live on iRacing Brasil at 7PM EST as drivers prepare for 230 roller coaster laps, preceded by the first heat races in 16th Street league history.
Matt Cooke – 437 points
Joshua Chin – 419 points
Tim Holgate – 395 points
Courtney Terrell – 254 points
David Sockrider – 219 points