944 Pilots Face a Road Atlanta Wake-Up Call
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Craig Smid leads Jonathan Foulds at the bottom of the famous downhill. Photo by Aaron Ambrosino, Hudson Champlain Region.

by Patti Mascone

The months between Sebring and Road Atlanta form a mini-off-season for Porsche Club Racing and the 944 Cup, where race teams can finish car-preparation work - or address mechanical flaws the season opener exposed - before the latter tackles its South schedule for spring.

But there's no rest for the weary, as April greeted the 944 Cup contingent with a wake-up call, literally, at the high-speed southern circuit, known for catching cars in sticky run-off areas, the looming proximity of concrete walls, and testing the racecar's front and top ends.

The race grid of 31 front-engine Porsches was pretty evenly divided among the SP1, 2, and 3 categories, with SP1 showing noticeable growth. (The prior Cup and Super Cup designations are now gone in favor of PCA acronyms.) Since SP1, popular on the West coast, runs with the tightest restrictions, it's all about competition and not the preparation budget. And both the 2015 PCA-SP1 champion and runner-up - Chris Blazer and Steve Coomes - were on hand to defend their dominance.

One's "A" game had to be in place from the get-go on qualifying day because the schedule did not include warm-ups; so competitors went directly to qualifying. The green, damp track called for conservative driving, which clashed with the impulse to earn track position for the race start. Two entrants left the session right away, including one as a result of a spin on cold tires and another due to a steed going up in smoke.

Lap times were well off the record-setting pace of recent times, with the eventual SP3 polesitter Karl Poeltl, 2015 national champion, resting early on a 1:39. This was probably a smart call, as once Denny Hiffman secured a 1:40 lap time as the session ended, his 968 clouted the front wall, the driver probably blinded by the low sun in the final downhill turn.

Behind them, Fred Beasely (SP2) conquered improving conditions to earn the class pole at 1:45, with Tim Pruitt his closest chaser, one second behind. Dave Rodenroth, the 2014 South 944 Cup champion returned to SP1 for this event - for the first time since 2006 - and took the pole in the other spec class. Alas, Rodenroth was soon out with an oil leak, leaving Sprints 1 and 2 to Coomes and Blazer, who each scored a class victory. While Nort Northam (SP2) kept pace with Beasely in lap times, the latter Florida driver opened an insurmountable lead over the former one.

The most exciting news, however, was the reemergence of Hiffman (SP3) on the sprint grid - Poeltl gave up his 968, so Hiffman could return to action. Although Edward Dunne, the outside polesitter, took the first sprint, HIffman climbed to a top-ten from the back of the pack (starting there due to the driver change). The incoming points leader then climbed to sixth-place in the second outing to continue collecting critical counters.

Enduro racing was a messy affair come Sunday morning for a grid that was reduced by steering rack failures, incidents, and those electing not to tackle the 90-minute event. At least three drivers spun or lost control in traffic, and a pair of Boxsters in the kitty litter near the famous bridge brought out a late-race double yellow. The toll of all this untidiness was 7 DNFs among the 944 Cup drivers, including retirements by Blazer (SP1) and the team of Dunne and Tom Collins (SP3). When the dust settled, a consistent Craig Smid drove his 1988 951 to a top-eight overall and an SP3-class win. The next two SP3 finishers, Newsom Baker and Tim McLean, completed 47 laps just a fraction of a second apart. In SP2, Northam bested Beasely, while Coomes was 29th overall in the mixed-series grid, taking SP1.