CLEVELAND, Ohio (June 22, 2007) – Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Jason Saini always dreamed of racing at the Grand Prix of Cleveland. His dreams came true and them some today when he took the checkered flag at Burke Lakefront Airport for Round Five of the SCCA Pro Racing SIRIUS Satellite Radio Mazda MX-5 Cup. Ara Malkhassian, of Sonoma, Calif., and Andrew Caddell, of Graham, Wash., completed the podium.
Starting second on the grid in the No. 30 Autobarn Mazda/SafeRacer.com MX-5, Saini’s day was nearly ruined on the first lap with a wild ride through the infamous Turn One at the 2.106-mile temporary airport runway circuit.
“After the start I thought I was done for,” Saini said. “Growing up here I’ve seen every wreck that’s happened at Turn One. I just went in there hoping that it wouldn’t happen in our race. I really have no clue what happened. I was running on the outside, because I started second, so I just wanted to hold the outside and not do anything crazy. But all of a sudden, cars just started hitting me from all sides. There were so many cars trying to pile in there it just turned into a parking lot.
“Then, the next thing I know three or four cars spun on the inside of me and I was hung out to dry on the outside, so I drove it in the grass. I’ve seen it before here growing up that if you get in that position and you’re hung out on the outside, if you turn in, you’re going to get hit real hard. I knew I was in a bad position so I just waited, jumped back on the track and I had a lot more work ahead of me from there.”
That work included making up the ten spots he lost at the start while also erasing the five second gap the leaders had built up to the rest of the field in a matter of ten laps. In his charge to the front Saini, who currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas, earned the Hawk Hot Lap for the fastest lap of the race, a 1:29.151 (85.042 mph).
When Saini caught the lead pack of Malkhassian and Caddell on lap 10, a three-way battle began for the win. Although a podium was more than enough to keep his lead in the Championship points and finishing was crucial, Saini was motivated by the thought of a hometown win to fight until the end with both Caddell and Malkhassian.
“I definitely wanted the hometown win,” Saini continued. “I’ve dreamed of racing here. This is a pretty special win for me. I wouldn’t be racing if it wasn’t for this place and to come here, go all the way back to 15th and come all the way back for the win, it’s a dream night. Yeah, the Championship was always in the back of my mind and I knew I needed to finish and if I finished behind Ara I could still maintain my lead in the points, but I wanted to win. My family is here, my friends are here, even my old neighbors are here. This is just fantastic.”
Starting fifth on the grid, Malkhassian’s race began much like Saini’s, but with a more successful outcome at Turn One as he slid his No. 11 Alara Racing MX-5 in behind polesitter Caddell.
“Matt [Cross] had a bad start,” Saini said. “I cleared him and went back to the right, so at this point I was directly behind Andrew. I just decided to hug the right side and play it conservative. Then out of nowhere, a car comes flying across. It knocked into me. After the impact I kind of looked around and realized I was pointing in the right direction and just put my foot down. Andrew was coming up the outside and we had a drag race. He led the first couple laps, but then I was able to gather my composure and challenge him.
“I knew Jason was coming, I could see him in my mirrors. I knew it was going to be a three-way fight at that point. We [Malkhassian and Caddell] had a nice breakaway going and it was pretty much the two of us, but Jason was really cooking and was able to catch up to us. We went back and forth a few times and it was really good racing. Nobody had a distinct advantage around the whole track. We each had parts of the track that we were better. We really challenged each other and showed our strengths and weaknesses. It was a constant challenge; any little mistake or any missed shift and there’s someone breathing down your neck.”
Although it was his first podium since winning at Road Atlanta in April, it was a bittersweet runner-up finish for Malkhassian who led the most laps during the 63.18-mile, 30-lap race, but was unable to retake the lead from Saini on the final two.
“It’s a really great track and we get to let the cars run wide and fast,” Malkhassian said. “These two guys gave me a heck of a battle, but I was hoping that the race would end about two laps before it did.
Fresh off of his first professional motorsports victory at the Grand Prix of Portland, Caddell looked to be the man to beat starting on pole, but even he was not immune to the scuffle in Turn One on the start.
“I got into the side of Matt Cross when he was inside me and ever since then the tow was knocked out,” Caddell said. “The car handled good for the first half of the race, but it eventually went off and that’s when Jason got by me.”
Caddell began to fall back after being passed by his teammate for second, but resumed the charge late in the race as the battle between Saini and Malkhassian heated up. Caddell did his best to make it a one-two finish for Team MER, but Malkhassian held strong and Caddell’s No. 30 TeamMER/AimSport/PinnacleMazda MX-5 would cross the finish line in third, for his second podium of the season.
“I caught back up to them [Saini and Malkhassian] when they were fighting, but I just couldn’t get by Ara on that last lap. There weren’t any team orders or anything, we were out there just racing and wanted to finish up there and make it a great show. Plus, we had [team manager] Juliann on the radio screaming at us that we needed both cars to finish and that’s all I wanted really. I was happy with a podium.”
Starting 12th in the No. 09 O Water/Alex’s Lemonade MX-5, John C. Kuitwaard, of Wantagh, N.Y., made an impressive run through the field to finish a career-best fourth. Andrew Carbonell, of Miami, Fla., equaled his best finish of fifth in the No. 58 BSI/Team Garcia/MOMO/Joe Gibbs MX-5.
Jesse Combs, Brad McAllister, Todd Buras, Rick Bellew and Elivan Goulart completed the top ten.
Saini increased his lead in the Championship to 32 points ahead of Malkhassian. With his second-consecutive podium, Caddell now trails Malkhassian by only six points.
The Mazda MX-5 Cup teams will put on another great show Saturday, when the series doubleheader at the Grand Prix of Cleveland continues with practice for Round Six of the Championship starting at 7:30 a.m. (EDT), followed by qualifying at 4:15 p.m. and racing at 7:20 p.m.