By Vincent Delforge, special to KickinTheTires.net
For the return of the West Series to the Portland International Raceway after a nine-year hiatus, one thing is certain, we had a show! A great show or more precisely, madness!
However, under the two practices and the qualifying session, we could have feared a solo walk from Jake Drew. The Bruncati Racing rookie who placed his No. 9 Ford at the top of the charts during the three sessions! Easily securing his second career pole after one gleaned from the other road track of the season in Sonoma, CA in June.
Apart from a few spins and escapades in the grass, not much in particular during practice, aside from engine issues for Taylor Gray, Dave Smith and newcomer Caleb ‘The Lawman’ Costner. While Gray and Smith changed engines and continued their adventure, Costner was unfortunately forced to withdraw.
“This one is tough,” admitted Costner. “Unfortunately, we will not be making the race today due to a major mechanical failure during first practice.”
Performance P-1 Motorsports planned to rent the backup engine from Kart Idaho Racing. But John Wood’s team eventually had to use it themselves to replace that of their driver Dave Smith who broke in qualifying. PP1M failing to fix the problem after hours of effort. Joe Nava, the owner, summed it up perfectly: “We tried.”
Big disappointment for the team and the driver. We should nevertheless find Caleb at the All American Speedway in Roseville, Calif. For his return to the West Series, Stafford Smith suffered a big problem during practice.
“Slow today but really old tires and engine was cutting out due to fuel pump and the fuel delivery is proving difficult to fix,” Stafford Smith explained.
17 drivers start their engines at the signal of the grand marshal for the race, Team Penske’s NTT IndyCar Series driver Simon Pagenaud. The Penske driver is sponsored by Menards.
For Todd Souza, it was the start of his Stations of the Cross. During the first pace lap, it is a victim of its mechanics. Electrical problem, engine cut … Nothing works. Despite the efforts of the CCR team led by crew chief Michael Munoz, Todd will not be able to take the start. Well, not right away.
As soon as the green flag waved, a whirlwind of madness will take hold of the field. Taylor Gray took the lead on the first braking on polesitter Drew. It was more chaotic behind the lead duo. PJ. Pedroncelli, second on the starting grid, spun. Eric Nascimento was hit by Bridget Burgess. Nascimento returned to the pitlane with the right front tire punctured, losing one lap in the process.
The second lap started with Drew taking power over Gray. Drew quickly widening the lead over the Gray-Cole Moore-Jesse Love lineup. Lonely at three seconds was Takuma Koga, himself nearly three seconds ahead of the rest of the field led by Tim Spurgeon.
On the fifth lap, Trevor Huddleston went for a 360° spin in Turn 4 after contact from Joey Iest. Bobby Hillis, Jr. also spun to avoid the driver of Ford No. 6.
Drew seemed like he was on another planet. Seven laps in he had over a four second lead on Gray. Burgess continued her charge forward, this time getting by Pedroncelli by pushing him into Turn 5. She entered the top-10. One lap later she was eighth. They are already only 14 in the leader’s lap.
9/11 Tribute and Mid-Race Madness
The ninth lap began with a tribute to the victims and to the emergency services of the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York City, N.Y., the Pentagon, and United 93. As Todd Souza finally started his race, he provoked the first caution. Paul Pedroncelli (No. 31) received the free pass.
The restart was a disaster for Drew. In addition to being overtaken by Cole Moore at the first chicane, he was harpooned by Takuma Koga who literally climbed over him. Incredibly, both drivers continued and returned to the pits for repairs. Somehow, they only had cosmetic damage. A few less pieces of bodywork and a lot of tape to refine the aerodynamics of the cars and off we go! It appeared Koga was pushed by Burgess into Drew. Jesse Love went through the pitlane and found himself at the end of the field.
At the restart, all the drivers are again on the lead lap, except Souza. Moore leads ahead of Gray, Dave Smith, Burgess, Stafford Smith. Dave Smith slammed into Gray in the first chicane, but Gray seized the lead on the next turn as Moore slipped exiting the chicane.
The third yellow flag of the day waved for … Souza, after he stalled on the backstretch. Drew climbed up to ninth after restarting 15th. Nascimento was the free pass. Pushed by the tow truck to the pitlane, Souza’s adventures were not over just yet.
On the ensuing restart, Gray led the charge ahead of Moore, Dave Smith, Burgess and Huddleston who took advantage of Stafford Smith’s braking error to move into the top-five. Stafford losing four positions from the first chicane. In a few laps Jesse Love, followed sum his shadow by Jake Drew continued his comeback and is now in the top-five.
Drew was the fastest on the track and passed both Love (23rd lap) and Dave Smith (24th lap) in quick succession to find himself fourth. On the 25th lap Burgess found a new competitor in P.J. Pedroncelli. The duo made contact several times.
On lap 27, Gray was now over three seconds ahead of Moore and five seconds over Drew, who just passed his teammate Huddleston. It only took two laps for Drew to come back and then overtake Moore for second. At that moment, Nascimento spun following contact with Spurgeon.
Halfway Break and Ensuing Chaos
Gray was just 1.7 seconds ahead of Drew when fourth caution is waved. That caution was the five-minute break. Everyone pitted. Sarah Burgess (owner and crew chief of the No. 88), helps Bobby Hillis with the refueling but it takes a few seconds too long. 27 seconds to be precise, coincidentally like Hillis’ number. That results in a penalty. He had to start again at the tail of the field.
At the restart, Gray was surprised by Moore and then hit by Drew. Another caution waved because the driver of the DGR Ford No. 17 stalled and was unable to restart his engine. He lost a lap. In the front it was the BMR duo with Moore leading Love. Drew was third despite small battle scars from his collision with Gray on his front bumper.
On lap 36, during the caution, Souza took to the track again to complete his second lap of the race. But during the next lap, at the restart, when all goes well for the first time of the day at the first chicane… Souza slowed… and managed to limp back to the pitlane. Meanwhile Drew passed Love and then Moore to regain command of the race. P.J. Pedroncelli also climbed back and on lap 41 he took second place.
This is when the sixth yellow flag is waved for… Todd Souza once again. He stopped at Turn 3. There was also debris at Turn 9. This yellow flag benefitted Taylor Gray, who receives the free pass. For Huddleston, the back-to-back allowed him to go to pit road to resolve a vibration with the front left wheel.
Finally, the restart was a calm one. Drew quickly widened the gap on P.J. Pedroncelli and Love. Nascimento is very aggressive on Moore for the fourth position. Suddenly Pedroncelli lost speed. His car slipped a lot in the esses and he lost three positions in the process. Gray left 15th and climbed to seventh position. He made a brave move to pass Koga in particular.
He passed Dave Smith on lap 49 and despite going through the grass at Turn 11 he managed to gain an advantage over Pedroncelli to enter the top-five.
The seventh caution of the race waved on lap 52 when Hillis spun trying to pass Rodd Kneeland in Turn 12. Burgess also slowed to a halt against the fluorescent orange Chevrolet. While she manages to start again quickly, Hillis’ engine took a long time to restart, costing him a lap. He was at the door of the top-10. However, Bridget won’t go much further. Her motor gives up less than a lap later, losing oil between Turns 4 and 11.
Overtime and Controversial Finish
This pushed the race into overtime, extending the race from 57 to 58 laps. This one-lap restart will be the final one. With the tension is at its maximum, Drew and Love rub the doors before the restart. Drew’s restart is a little miss by spinning his tires and Gray comes to give him a ‘love tap’. It’s enough to force Drew into going straight into the chicane and cut the turn 2. He’s not the only one as Nascimento and Kneeland will do the same. Spurgeon spun Stafford Smith. It’s once again a mess in the first few corners. Koga pushed Kneeland on turn 3 to take the seventh position. After more contact, Moore struggled to the finish with a broken left front spindle and tumbled down to the 12th.
Meanwhile, Drew escapes and takes the checkered flag first, 1.2 seconds ahead of Nascimento and 3.2 seconds over Gray. It appeared that Drew had just won his first career victory. His crew members celebrated on the wall of the pitlane. Drew came to a halt at the finish line, waiting for the checkered flag to be handed to him.
But officials signaled to wait. They analyzed the restart and determined that both Drew and Nascimento cut the chicane and didn’t perform the required stop-and-go to avoid a penalty. Both received a 30-second time penalty applied after the checkered flag.
It was Taylor Gray who inherited the win, the second in his career after winning in 2020 at Bakersfield. He finished ahead of P.J. Pedroncelli who achieved his best-career result. Love, Iest and Koga rounded out the top-five. Spurgeon, Huddleston, Stafford Smith, Paul Pedroncelli and Drew completed the top-10.
Nascimento was relegated to the eleventh position. Spurgeon also achieved his best career finish which was his first top-10. Koga equaled his best performance with a fifth-place finish for the second time in his career.
Takuma Koga: “Top 5! Very tough and wild race!”
Bridget Burgess: “Started 10th and drove up to 4th unfortunately after fighting several battles on track and almost surviving the race, my motor shut down. I finished 16th. My team and I are driving home at the moment but I’m ready for tomorrow morning to pull the car out and start working on it as soon as possible. Let’s get ready for Vegas baby!”
Bobby Hillis Jr: “Such high hopes going in and then complete disappointment. Have no one to blame except myself! Haven’t screwed myself road racing in over ten years. Two big mistakes the second worse than first and it sealed my fate. Car was VERY FAST, and the good news is that it’s still in one piece.
“Was working my way forward from the start despite a pretty wicked vibration that I suspected was in the old tires that I started on. As I said the car was fast and I should never have done it but I did a bit of a divebomb move going into turn one. Knew it was a mistake as soon as I pulled out to make the move! Over cooked the corner and ran into the guy I was trying to pass. Turned away from him as soon as we made contact and spun myself out.
“Don’t think I lost a position, but I lost a lot of time to the leaders. Caution came out a few laps later and I caught back up. Almost no harm no foul and shortly thereafter was the halfway break. Myself and the No. 88 team combined crews to service both cars. The guys were great, and they serviced both cars but a little bit slow. We got a penalty for going over the allotted time by maybe 27 seconds. Didn’t really understand that one and I had to start at the back of the field.
“They were just finishing up the fuel when the officials said time to go. Were they supposed to just stop?! I wouldn’t have made it all the way to the finish. Bad penalty in my opinion.
“Green flag out for the start of the second half and I started moving my way forward again. The new tires were BRILLIANT as always and the car was even faster! Lost my patience again going through the esses and the last corner. Gained about 10-15 car lengths entering the esses on the car in front of me. It was like he threw out the anchor!
“Drove underneath him (Rodd Kneeland) going into the final corner leading onto the front straightaway. The car just stepped out and I went around. Didn’t really think that I should’ve spun, and I didn’t know what happened. Got my answer under the caution. They put kitty litter down from the corner before the backstretch all the down the backstretch and all the way through the esses.
“Anyway, they didn’t throw a caution right away and I almost got hit several times because I was sitting sideways in the middle of the last corner stalled. Caution finally came but not until after I went a lap down. It was a very long caution to clean up all the oil and kitty litter. Green, white, checker finish with no time to make up any more positions. Very disappointed! Especially since even my spotter said that the car was blindingly fast and maybe even fast enough to win! Doubt it but you never know…”
West Series Solidarity
The beautiful story this weekend is about the incredible solidarity in the West Series. A real family. Bobby Hillis, Jr. arrived alone in Portland. Ed Ash his crew chief and Ryan Hale his spotter were quarantined because of positive tests for Covid-19. Rest assured they are fine. Three volunteer mechanics came to help, Bill Sedgwick (crew chief No. 6 at Bruncati Racing) seconded one of his mechanics for the practices.
Bill McAnally (BMR) provided a rear end gear as Bobby’s was not performing well. Sarah Burgess and her BMI team offered to help out in the pitlane during the race. Thank you all from the bottom of our heart. As Bobby said: “All the help it’s GREATLY APPRECIATED!”
In the Championship Jesse Love is now 19 points ahead of rookie Jake Drew and 20 points ahead of his teammate at BMR Cole More.
Next race on the Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 23 for the Star Nursery 150.
Complete results on Racing-Reference www.racing-reference.info/race-results/2021_Portland_112/AW/
Featured Photo Credit: Photo by NKP / NKP Photo