Tim Holgate was finally able to end his string of bad luck in the penultimate round of the 16th St Racing League from Road America, by taking a dominant victory. The Panther Racing driver looked dominant from the outset, leading the majority of the race and setting a total of seven laps in the 40 lap event that would have been fast enough to qualify him in pole position. This victory was tempered in some way however due to the fact his closest road course rival, Josh Chin was forced to be absent from the race, ending his championship charge, and making the job of closing off the championship easier for Matt Cooke.
There was still a job to be done for Cooke however, as a crash would open the door for Holgate to make the most improbable of comebacks, similar to Dario Franchitti in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series. His unforced error at The Glen earlier in the season would likely play heavy on his mind. For Holgate, he was presented with another opportunity, claiming the International Light Technologies Road Course Championship, a title which almost looked certain to go to Chin before race day.
Qualifying was a frantic affair, as the two groups of sim-racers had 10 minutes each to set their fastest qualifying time. The long track length (The longest of the season) meant that a mistake would be more costly, as most drivers only had 4 timed laps to get the job done. Holgate was in a class of his own, and would be joined by Randolph Chenowth on the front row, albeit 7 tenths slower. Chad Peterson continued his exceptional form by starting in 3rd position, and Cooke lined up on the outside of the front row. A total of 20 drivers made the trip to Elkhart Lake, separated by just shy of 5 seconds in qualifying overall.
Holgate was able to get a storming start up the hill as the green flag waved, taking the early advantage. Behind him Peterson and Chenowth battled for P2 into Turn 1, running side by side through the corner, though Chenowth was able to keep the advantage on the outside line. Peterson would then try his luck on the outside into T2, however ran wide and fell down into the eighth spot on the racetrack. The move of the race occurred into Turn 5 however, with Joe Branch overtaking two drivers by being late onto the brakes, somehow managing to slow his car down and make the apex of the corner.
The field eventually settled down into a rhythm, with all drivers completing the first few laps without real incident. The first retiree ended up being Brad Sanford on Lap 10 due to a single car incident whilst preparing to make his first pit stop of the day. Out front, it was Holgate stretching out his lead to about eight seconds over Chenowth, who in turn was able to gain a 2 second advantage over Cooke. This would be enough for Cooke to take the overall title, and at this stage of the race it did seem as though the Canadian was intent on holding station and not forcing the issue. An error for Chenowth the lap before his pit stop however relegated him to the third position, and allowed Cooke to move into P2.
The first round of pitstops went without issue, as all drivers were able to get onto the tricky pit road without difficulty. As at Sebring earlier in the season, the number of laps drivers could run before pitting varied by upto 3 laps. Martin Miller was able to stretch his fuel the longest waiting until the end of Lap 11 to make his first stop, which put him in prime position later on in the race. Like at Sebring, there were a couple of worried drivers, as they would perhaps have to make a final stop for fuel on the last lap of the race, seriously compromising their track position. With the final run to the flag being a steep incline, coasting to the line would be out of the question, and this meant that a lot of drivers chose the second stint to save fuel. This most notably occurred out front, as Holgate’s lead was cut from 10 seconds down to five.
“I had to save a bit of fuel just to be sure; I knew that there wasn’t much in it,” he said, “and the last thing I wanted was to have to save at the end of the race, especially if I made a mistake somewhere.”
“I had to save a bit of fuel just to be sure; I knew that there wasn’t much in it, and the last thing I wanted was to have to save at the end of the race, especially if I made a mistake somewhere.” — Tim Holgate
The battle between Chenowth and Cooke continued to rage, however as soon as Chenowth was within half a second, Cooke allowed him to take the position, again remembering that there was more on line than track position. Behind, Joe Branch was having an amazing race working through traffic until both him and his Panther Online Racing teammate Neffry Aawg crashed out about midway through the event. Branch’s error occurred in Bill Mitchell Bend, running too much on the outside kerb on the way into the corner which shot him into the gravel then the tyre barrier, and Aawg had two separate incidents at Canada corner. The first saw him be able to rejoin without making any contact, however the second sent him into the barriers and forced him to exit the race.
After the second round of pitstops, Holgate was again able to stretch out a commanding lead over Chenowth, who in turn once again pulled a sizable gap over Cooke. Chenowth’s race came to a violent end whilst working through lapped traffic, after passing Dave Jinks in the run down to Canada corner. When Jinks stepped onto the brakes, the rear end of the car stepped out and he slid across the grass on the inside of the corner, and unable to slow down, collected Chenowth, ending a sterling debut to the series. Jinks was able to carry on for a couple of laps before himself retiring from the event. Post race, Chenowth seemed frustrated, yet knew all to well how big a danger spot the corner is in racing; he’ll return for his home event in Fontana.
Out front, the race continued to be about two drivers, Holgate and Cooke. By taking victory, Holgate was able to finally end a string of bad finishes, and secure the International Light Technologies Road Course Championship. It was a bittersweet victory however, as 15 seconds after taking victory, Matt Cooke crossed the line in 2nd, becoming the 2013-14 16th Street Racing league champion with one round to spare. Speaking after the race, Cooke commented how he wished the championship battle didn’t have to end the way it did, but how relieved he was that he didn’t have to deal with the unknowns of Auto Club Speedway. He also paid tribute to both Josh Chin and Tim Holgate, calling them ‘phenomenal competitors of the highest quality and class.’
The final round of the season takes place this Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. The race will be live on RaceSpot TV from 7PM EST, as drivers look to close-off the season in style.