NASCAR XFINITY Weekend at Road America ’23

[Pete Gorski Photo]

One for the mantel, Sam Mayer with his first NASCAR Xfinity winning trophy. [Pete Gorski photo]

by Pete Gorski

Let’s get this out of the way right here at the top. There are more than a few people in Wisconsin (and probably some in downtown Chicago) who wish that the Xfinity Road America 180 on Saturday was the opening act for a Sunday Cup race. But it wasn’t, and that’s…ok. The drivers of the Xfinity series still gave their all, and put on a show just like they have for the last thirteen years. More on the NASCAR part of the weekend later.

Three other series ran with NASCAR over the weekend — GridLife, Porsche Carrera Cup North America, and the Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car. The Carrera Cup is a long-running and familiar series, running as support with many different sanctioning bodies over the years. The Optima Search is maybe less well-known, but has been around for many years as well. GridLife…this was my first exposure to their particular form of motorsports.

For this event, GridLife ran multiple Track Battle Time-Attack sessions interspersed with mixed-class races, emphasis on “mixed”. While some of the cars appear professionally prepared, as their announcer stressed, these cars are all built in a garage. I think the distinction he was trying to draw is, these aren’t pro teams or prep shop specials (Because aren’t those cars built in a garage too? Anyway…), they’re developed and maintained by the people who drive them. But clearly these folks know what they’re doing. Some of the cars, especially the front-runners, produced serious speed and looked the part. I suspect a few entries may have been getting some experience on the new surface for the upcoming Michelin Pilot and World Challenge events.

There’s that famous quote from Ernest Hemmingway about there being only three real sports, everything else is just games. And yes, racing (one of his three) is a serious activity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun or display some humor. Whether it was the hashtag GoFastOrSuck on a Mitsubishi Evo, a Duck Hunt-inspired livery on a Mustang, or the Good and Plenty colors on a first-gen NSX, there was levity, at least in this regard, that you don’t see in capital-P pro series.

The aforementioned variety made for an interesting symphony of engine notes too. That Duck Hunt Mustang? You could hear its blower whining from two turns away, with waste gates from the many turbo-ed motors thwapping away as they sprinted from turn to turn. And of course the smaller displacement cars make their distinctive high-pitched whir.

Perhaps the most “unique” entry of the weekend ran in the Touring Cup portion — a Honda Odyssey minivan, and a fairly stock one at that. It may not have been the fastest set of wheels out there, but it sounded better hustling into Turn 8 than you might expect.

As a known commodity, the Porsche Carrera Cup provided what you’d expect them to — a large field of well-prepared 911s with some spirited competition at the front. Most sports car series feature different manufacturers, often with different engine configurations, producing their own specific engine notes. Unless you’re a regular fan of single-make series, hearing 30+ cars blast past you producing the exact same engine sound…well it’s not bad, it’s just unusual.

The Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car entries are similar in style to the GridLife folks, in that they’re heavily modded machines. But the Optima cars are different in one big way, and it’s right there in the name — they’re street-legal, not racecars. Their weekend was comprised of a variety of competitions: a start-stop exercise, lapping on the full 4.048-mile course, and an autocross session, this year run on the Briggs and Stratton Motorplex course. I checked out some of the autocross action after the Xfinity race. I think the narrowness of the Motorplex course (it’s predominantly used for karting) worked against the bigger cars.

So…the Xfinity race. It’s an interesting dynamic, the way their weekend runs. It wasn’t until 4pm Friday that the stockers went out for about 50 minutes of practice, followed by another 50 minutes of qualifying. And with their race scheduled to end around 4pm Saturday, they were really going to be in town for only about 24 hours.

This was the fourteenth time the Xfinity series has run at Road America, with the previous two visits run as the Saturday opener for the Cup race. The big story before the green flag fell was the presence of three Wisconsin drivers in the field, Josh Bilicki, Parker Retzlaff, and Sam Mayer. By now you’ve probably seen the dramatic green-white-checker finish that saw the trio of Justin Allgaier, Sage Karam, and Mayer battling between Turn 6 and Turn 8, with Allgaier spinning under braking in Turn 8 and Mayer running wide in Canada Corner. Karam then joined the many drivers (and not just in this series) who found themselves running wide on the exit of Turn 13, giving the lead to a lurking Parker Kligerman.

Mayer ran inside Kligerman at Turn 14, taking the lead as they powered up the long front straight. Mayer defended well, especially when you consider that due to an extensive oiling of the track earlier in the race, large segments of the new surface were coated in grip-reducing oil-dry residue. He held on to take his first Xfinity win in front of a vocal crowd of supporters.

The only thing Mayer didn’t get quite right was the expected and eagerly-anticipated victory donuts in Turn 5. Running a little deep into the paved runoff, he seemed to be setting up for the tire-smoking ritual, but then changed his mind. Turning back toward the track, he drove across part of the gravel trap and, no doubt not wanting to beach the car, got back on the throttle…damaging the front end as he bounced back on to the pavement.

Oh well. They say winning makes everything better, and it’s not the first time a car has rolled into Victory Lane sporting some damage. Here’s hoping he has more opportunities in the future to get that burnout game in shape.

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