AI West Race Report - Infineon Raceway, September 2004
Round 6 of the American Iron West 2004 season took place at Infineon Raceway (Sears Point) on September 11 & 12, 2004. The weather was warm and clear, with larger than usual crowds attending because this was a heavily-advertised NASA Hyperfest weekend.
This race weekend had an unusual format, with a practice session and a qualifying race on Saturday. Instead of qualifying and setting the race grid by lap times, the race grid was to be set by the finishing order in the qualifying race. The cars were gridded for the qualifying race in inverted order of their season total points. As the #91 MM Shop Car is used primarily for testing, it has seen limited racing action this season, and driver Mike Croutcher was next to last in season points. That put the MM car second on the AI grid, behind the Camaro of Nick Steel. Four AIX entries were gridded first, followed by the seven AI entries. A field of over 30 CMC cars was gridded behind the American Iron field.
The standing start was wilder than usual, with a traffic jam as some cars bogged, and others swerved around them. The resulting fender-banging melee carried on through turn two before settling down. Mike tucked in behind Keith Videtto, with Vageli Karas close behind. These three pulled away from the rest of the AI field. Karas was soon black flagged for allegedly exceeding the sound limit, giving him a DNF at his home track. Croutcher and Videtto swapped the lead twice in a close fought battle, until Croutcher spun into a tire wall on the last lap as he moved to pass Videtto again. Croutcher recovered to cross the finish line in third, a notable accomplishment for his first visit to Infineon Raceway.
The grid for the first of Sunday's two races was set by the finishing order of Saturday's qualifying race. That put the MM #91 in the third grid position, behind pole sitter Keith Videtto and Nick Steel. This race began with a rolling start, which let the four AIX cars get out in front of the AI cars. Karas quickly moved up from last to the third position, right behind Mike in the #91 MM car, who was at most a few feet off of Videtto's bumper.
After several laps of this nose-to-tail procession of the three lead cars, Mike made a move on Videtto, out-braking him on the entry to turn 3. With the MM Shop Car in the lead, Videtto stayed close to Croutcher's back bumper, and was in turn hounded by Karas on his own rear bumper. Karas then found his way past Videtto. After several laps of this exciting and close racing, a CMC car spun into the wall at Turn 10, partially blocking the track, and leaving a pool of oil to dodge. Once past the local caution at Turn 10, the three leading AI cars raced another lap, back to the incident, with no change in order. Once past the wrecked CMC car for the second time, a full-course caution was declared, with yellow flags flying all around the track. The pace car came out, and led the field around for the next three laps, as the safety crews tried in vain to get the uncooperative CMC Camaro off the track.
The finishing order saw Croutcher take the AI win in his first visit to Infineon raceway, besting the home track veterans of Karas and Videtto. This was the first win for the new MM Shop Car, coming in just its third weekend of NASA racing. Croutcher led Karas (driving Mike Armstrong's MM-equipped Mustang) across the line, followed by Videtto. Ryan Walton finished fourth in his MM equipped Mustang. In AIX, Kevin Chambers took first place, followed by Guy Drier in his 1966 Mustang. Bill Daffron finished third in his MM-equipped Mustang. Neal Herschorin was forced to retire his MM-equipped Mustang with ignition failure.
The second race of the day was scheduled to start in just three hours. Grid positions were set by the finishing order of the just-completed morning race. Croutcher was on the AI pole, immediately behind the three starting AIX cars. Karas gridded second, followed by Videtto. As per a vote by the AI drivers, this race also began with a rolling start. The superior horsepower and torque of the Karas-piloted Mike Armstrong Mustang saw him pass Croutcher on one side as the green flag dropped, while Videtto jumped the flag and passed Croutcher on the other side.
Within a half lap Croutcher moved past Videtto, and set his sights on reeling-in Karas. Leaving Videtto behind, Croutcher moved the MM #91 up to Karas' rear bumper. After just three laps of close racing Croutcher was forced to pull the MM Shop Car off track with a broken engine. Karas easily kept Videtto at bay until Videtto retired a few laps later. Karas took the win in Mike Armstrong's MM-equipped Mustang, and Nick Steel took second in his Camaro. Also in his first time at Sears Point, Ryan Walton finished third in his own MM-equipped Mustang. Bill Daffron was awarded second place in his MM-equipped AIX Mustang.
Another exciting NASA American Iron race weekend saw Mike Croutcher drive the new MM Shop Car to its first victory, in only its third race weekend. Croutcher not only bested the competition at their own home track, he also did it as a novice, in his first time driving at Infineon Raceway.