348 Challenge at Willow Springs

The competition was awesome - as the cars were vying in the next to last race of the series before going to Mungello, Italy for best driver, car and overall team support. In all there are 41 cars entered with 14 sponsoring dealers and observed by this writer was a consistency and uniformity of cars not seen since Formula Ford.

The dealer maintenance and tune program, with tires sponsored by Pirelli, has turned out a fast, colorful, competitive race/street car capable of great times on fast tracks around the US With all our respect to the great crews who replaced body parts, running gear, and even engines, if needed, these racers were separated by only their individual skills.

Equipment "big rigs" and their cars arrived at the Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, CA on Thursday for warm-up and track tune. By Saturday, the trial runs and eventual qualifying heats were hotly contested - both by the 100 degree weather and the drivers. Pole position for the first race was captured by John Marconi (#23), supported by Newport Imports.

On Sunday, the cars gridded on the track for a pace lap led by Dick Marconi's fly-yellow Daytona spyder. The spyder led the cars around the track once and then veered off into the pits. As the pack approached the start/finish line, the starter felt that the cars weren't properly aligned so the green flag didn't drop and they went around again. This time the green flagged dropped and they were off! John Marconi got a great start and led the grid into Turn One. In fact, even though Cort Wagner (#25), supported by Ferrari of Beverly Hills, drove a great race, John Marconi never lost his lead and they went on to finish one, two with only a few tenths of a second between them after 20 minutes of hard racing with lots of lapping the back field.

Speaking of the back field, that's where the most interesting racing was going on, with four cars spinning off the track at various times and places, raising big clouds of dust. Fortunately, no one was injured and only minor car damage occurred.

Saturday night brought on a great dinner as arranged by Cris Vandagriff of Ferrari of Beverly Hills. Dinner was set at the Mission Bell Ranch, a beautifully unique historical setting in the west Mojave desert. The cuisine was country French and sumptuous. Music, good food, wine, and a little unexpected swimming in the pool all combined to create a beautiful evening under the desert stars.

The 348 Challenge rules state that the drivers grid in the second race according to their finish in the first. This again placed John Marconi at the pole with Cort Wagner along side him. Ron Profili and Gerry Jackson shared the 2nd row. Given Marconi's skills and home-court advantage at Willow Springs, many feared that the second race would be a repeat of the first but it wasn't so.

The Daytona again paced the first lap and veered into the pits. The cars looked well aligned coming down the front straight towards the start/finish line and everyone held their breath to see if the green flag would drop. No one knows exactly what happened but for some reason John Marconi's car visibly slowed coming up to the start/finish line. Perhaps he sensed he was at a disadvantage to Cort Wagner and wanted to assure that they went around another time or maybe just wasn't quite ready but either way it didn't work to his advantage because the green flag dropped just as he slowed. This caused quite a commotion as the cars directly behind Marconi (Ron Profili especially) had to swerve to avoid rear-ending him. Because Cort Wagner was beside Marconi, he never had to slow and therefore got off to a great start, as did the other cars behind him. This meant that by Turn One, Marconi was back in fourth place. But not for long.

Showing his driving skills, Marconi almost immediately regained second place by passing Randy Mills in Turn Two and Gerry Jackson in Three. But it was too late. With no one in front of hi