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East Coast Challenge Series Race #1

Carolina Motorsports Park

April 30 - May 1

  After a false start at Mid-Ohio, the Factory Five Challenge Series began the series with an exciting weekend at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, SC. Drivers from New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio, and more came with the intent to take the lead in the first points races of the year for the East Coast Challenge. The weekend would also serve as points for NASA’s Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions and the race weekend was called the “Moonshine Run”.

A dozen Factory Five spec racers would race in the weekend and be joined by more than a half dozen students in NASA’s popular HPDE sessions. The jovial interactions among drivers quickly switched to quiet whispers and head-scratching following the Saturday morning practice: this entire field was fast. Really fast.

Tony Buffomante, an experienced driver in his first Challenge race, showed that he intends to compete for the championship by blowing away the three year old track record during the Saturday morning practice. Brian Cates and Brian Cunningham also showed that were picking up from last year by running comfortably ahead of the pace as well. But it wasn’t just the front runners: the entire field demonstrated just how much the cars have advanced over the last couple of years: a quick glance at the Saturday practice showed that the driver in 10th place overall for the Thunder field was running times that would have easily won any previous races at CMP. But a closer look revealed that that same time was only good for 8th place in class. The FFR Challenge Cars were just running up front – they were dominating the entire field of American Iron, CMP, and Super Unlimited cars. Teams wondered what they would have to do to win

Schenck inside - Buffomante *really* inside!

Wondering about competitors quickly gave way to wondering about the weather. A fast moving front was supposed to bring heavy rains and the potential for tornados. Racers, being a smart crowd, all promptly went to their trailers for quiet time and reflection on what to use for a tire strategy in qualifying.

Then the rain came and halted track activities. Over an inch of rain fell in just 45 minutes. Even with the sandy South Carolina soil, the paddock was filled with standing water. The rubber on the racing line was washed clean away, but the timing made the decision in race tires particularly difficult. The track was draining fast and a group of Porsches was supposed to qualify before the FFR Challenge cars would go out. Would the line dry out (especially in the fast sections) or would the tremendous amount of water on the track make rain tires better suited?

Qualifying ended up with a mix of tires. Brian Dobyns, Dave Riha, Jim Schenck and others went out on true rain tires and were substantially faster than the rest of the field with Dobyns and Buffomante earning the front row for the race. Guys on race tires were at least a dozen seconds slower. Dan Elam was the only person to try an intermediate tire strategy as he ran high performance street tires. He later commented “Whatever the question, these tires weren’t the answer!” as he qualified 10th in class and a distant 23rd overall.

By the time the race rolled around the track was mostly dry and the speculation was on who would challenge for the win. A race win isn’t typically decided in the first turn, but that didn’t stop the FFR Challenge drivers from trying. Turn one was pure mayhem as cars slid all over the place. Mau and Mitchum ended up in contact. Buffamonte went flying off track and remerged in turn two right in front of the oncoming traffic and causing Elam to spin. That left Cates to open up a critical small lead. In the end it was defending NASA Mid-Atlantic champion Cates with a two second win over Buffamonte with both cars breaking the previous track record. They finished first and second overall while Dave Riha and Rob Mau took home 4th and 5th. Jim Schenck and Dan Elam (characteristically running on 7 cylinders) finished on the same lap as Sunny Hobbes, Brian Sanders, and Ed Boothman finished just a lap down. Hotshoe Brian Cunningham had mechanical trouble that ended his run after just 4 laps to record a costly DNF. Chris Mitchum fared even worse from his first turn incident as his car was retired when the front a-arms were separated from the frame.

Mau stays smooth and keeps on keepin' on

One planned addition for the Moonshine run was the added incentive of carrying small liquor bottles in some cars and police badges in other cars. The idea was to be the first sanctioned race to involve the transport of alcohol, but logistics problems got in the way. NASA had a demanding post-race inspection that involved a variety of things including inspection of the exhaust headers and various safety items. Several of the cars were disqualified for having “illegal” fuel cells. The confusion stemmed from the fact that no one could produce Factory Five build manuals or packing lists to prove that the “new” fuel cells are legal. The disqualifications were overturned on an appeal, but the NASA Director did stipulate that “racers must have build manuals” at the next event or cars will be disqualified.

If the top guys could break the track record in the damp, everyone couldn’t help but wonder what Sunday would bring. Cunningham didn’t make anyone wait. In practice he blew away the previous day’s track record. For qualifying the track conditions weren’t quite as good, but Cunningham still destroyed the field by running faster than the previous day. Cates, Buffamonte, and Mau turned it up to run personal bests and close the gap. The starting field would surrender the pole to a Viper, but Challenge Cars still represented six of the top 10 spots.

Turn 1 - Mayhem will start soon!

Elam’s car troubles continued for the weekend when Cates tried to pass in turn 11 and resulted in a slide that caused no apparent damage. But an unusual noise brought him in to inspect the car, but an inspection revealed nothing.

The dry conditions also brought Boothman’s confidence back as he edged Sanders for the 28th overall position. Marcus Motorsports worked during the night to repair the Mitchum car and ended up 10th overall and 5th in class.

Cates leads a repaired Mitchum

For the race, the starter and pole sitter brought the field down for a start that was slow and late. That gave Elam a chance for a good start and he picked up four positions before turn 1 to sit on Dobyn’s bumper. The first three turns meant that it was six FFR Challenge Cars in the top eight spots. By turn 7, Elam’s mysterious noise turned out to be a disintegrated u-joint and he watched the rest of the race from a flag station on turn 10. Cunningham’s car also developed a problem after just three laps for his second DNF of the weekend.


First one back to the line wins!!!!
(image courtesy

The Viper Competition Coupe was in first place for this race and pulled steadily away, but it was Buffamonte who led the FFR drivers. Driving a nearly flawless race, he used the first few laps to get a little clear room and stretch out a slight lead over Cates and Mau. Mau dropped back slightly, but Cates managed to keep the interval the same. The hard driving didn’t give the Viper any room to back down and Buffamonte ended up finishing just three seconds behind the Viper. More importantly, he finished two seconds ahead of Cates. Mau took home third with Dobyns and Mitchum rounding out the top 5. Sanders also got it going by finishing on the lead lap with most of the other cars. Easily the most entertaining race was the nose to tail group of Riha, Hobbes, Schenck, and Mitchum. Each turn would see an attack, but the evenly matched cars left Riha nursing a slight lead. That was until a slight bobble exiting turn 11 late in the race let Mitchum get by and hold on.

Way too much fun!!

With the one-two finishes Buffamonte and Cates are now tied for the lead. Each win this year is going to be fiercely contested and drivers who came out with good points can breathe a sigh of relief. Dobyns, the defending champion for both the East and West Coast Challenge series, clearly will be looking to head back north to BeaveRun – another track where Cates ran well last year. Mau also sits in a strong position to make a run while Cunningham and Elam can only wonder where they might run if their cars would only cooperate.


The Moonshine Run may be history, but a full and talented field showed that this season promises to write much more.                

Dan Elam


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