Michigan racecar driver John Heinricy headed west for the annual Sports Car Club of America National Championship Runoffs earlier this month with a big target on his back.
Top drivers from around the country were gunning to dethrone this 12-time SCCA national champion (in four different classes) at the Mazda Speedway in California during the Oct. 6-12 national season finale.
“You might think that this is old hat for me after all these years of racing,” Heinricy said about the challenges he faced during the weeklong event. “But that was far from reality. In many respects the pressure was even higher because I’m a past champion.
“Every day, I, along with my mechanics, worked from dawn ‘til dusk on both of my racecars to make sure they were in top condition for qualifying. Each day, setups were checked, double-checked and changed to try to make even the smallest improvements.”
Tensions often run high among the more than 500 drivers who converged this year on Monterey, CA., to compete in the 27 different classes for national championships. Racecars often get damaged during the qualifying sessions and must be repaired in time for their races. During practice and qualifying runs, each driver also is trying to out-think their opponents and to learn the fastest way around the track. Then it’s back to their garages to fine-tune their racecar to make it faster for this specific track.
Most drivers only had one car to worry about in this year’s runoffs. But Heinricy qualified in two classes and had two racecars to manage. Then there were the media pressures: Sports Car magazine picked him to win one class and place second in another.
Leading up to the big event, Heinricy finished the summer season undefeated in six races in his Matick Chevrolet-sponsored Chevy Sonic to gain entry into the runoff’s B Spec class. He was invited to defend his 2013 A Sedan class championship without having to qualify during the 2014 season. In both 2013 and 2014 runoffs, he drove a Pontiac Firebird owned by Tom Aquilante Racing.
“I qualified the Matick Chevy Sonic first on each of the three days of qualifying and qualified the Firebird second each day. So my hopes were very high for a successful championship bid,” added Heinricy.
“Expectations were high and I didn’t want to disappoint the teams and sponsors as well as satisfying myself that I have done my best. That makes it a little harder to get that all-important good night’s sleep each day. Fortunately, there were few repairs to be made during the week and the cars responded well to those tweaks so I could put all my focus on learning the course and improving the car each day.”
His bid to remain A Sedan class champ in the Aquilante team Firebird came Friday afternoon. “I got a good start in the first race and was in second place going into the first turn. The third-place car made contact with my left rear tire causing me to lose some time. I came out of that turn behind a Mustang and another Pontiac Firebird.
“That Mustang pulled out a few seconds lead over the next two laps. I made a pass for second place at the end of the main straight and pulled out a lead over the third-place Pontiac. I was catching up with the Mustang, which was beginning to have problems with its brakes. Right when it was looking like the race was playing into my hands, I developed an engine problem,” said Heinricy. “It was terminal and I had to pull out of the race.”
He was hoping for better luck on Sunday in his Matick Chevy Sonic.
“I was qualified on the pole for my second race. I started great and was first into and out of the first turn. I extended my lead for several laps and my chances for a win were looking very good,” he said.
Until the caution flag went up due to an accident.
“During that flag my Sonic’s engine lost power. I pulled into the pits and my crew quickly reset the electronics. I returned to the track with the engine running great, but I was behind all the other cars because of the pit stop.
“I ran my best laps of the week for the rest of the race and was faster than everyone else,” he said. “But I was unable to make up the lost time from the pit stop.”
Despite the setbacks, Heinricy experienced many good memories during the California race week. One was working again with his favorite racing teams – Joe Aquilante’s Phoenix Performance and Tom Aquilante Racing.
Joe’s son, Andrew, won championships in two classes, including the GT2 class in a Corvette. A Corvette driven by Kyle Kelly won the GT1 class. Tom’s two daughters, Amy and Beth, also raced in the A Sedan class.
Another highlight: “My friend and co-driver for many years of racing, Don Knowles, helped me with mechanical work and coaching all week. We enjoyed dinner one evening with members of the RRDC (Road Racing Driver’s Club) to socialize as well as plan a strategy for naming a recipient of the prestigious Mark Donohue Award to be given to one of the racers for outstanding performance during the weekend runoffs.”
Even with all the hard work and preparation, things can go wrong during a race, reflected Heinricy. “Next year’s work will revolve around taking this year’s learnings and transmitting them into improvements to help us do even better in this sport that we love so much!”
Visit speedcasttv.com to stream on demand video of the 2014 SCCA Runoffs.