Local Racer Delivers with National Championship
Clark Toppe Wins Mazda Prototype Lites Presented By Cooper Tires Lites 1 By One Point
By Paul Kelly
When Clark Toppe crossed the finish line bathed in sunshine on the morning of Sept. 30 at Road Atlanta, he felt a mixture of sensations unlike anything in his life.
Sweet exhilaration. And incredible relief.
Toppe, 19, from The Woodlands, won the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires Lites 1 championship by just one point, 238-237, over his 17-year-old JDC Motorsports teammate Austin Versteeg.
The teenage teammates staged a compelling, taut duel for the entire season at racetracks across North America in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA)-sanctioned series, which features prototype sports cars that reach speeds of 170 mph.
Toppe led Versteeg by just three points entering the season-ending Round 14 on Sept. 30 at Road Atlanta. He needed to finish second or better in the 45-minute race to clinch the title. That’s exactly what he did, hanging on for the title by one point after Versteeg won the race.
“That race was just so long,” Toppe said. “I was just trying not to put a foot wrong. I was anxious the whole time. I didn’t want to make any mistakes. That just immediate change of mental state crossing the finish line was just awesome, just knowing the year was over and I had won the championship. Knowing I had won my first professional championship will stick with me for a very long time.”
Toppe, a 2016 graduate of The Woodlands High School, entered this season as the leading contender for the championship. He finished second in the standings as a series rookie in 2015, moving to sports cars after starting his racing career in karting and junior open-wheel competition.
JDC Motorsports teammate Kenton Koch won the 2015 Lites 1 championship, and it quickly became apparent that Toppe’s toughest competition in 2016 once again would come from under the same tent in the paddock. Toppe and new teammate Versteeg turned similar lap times during preseason testing.
“He was really quick, and like always, we were really close to each other,” Toppe said. “I knew right away he would be one of my biggest competitors. I had a feeling it would be me and Austin going after it.” That feeling became reality on the racetrack.
Toppe won the season-opening race in mid-March at Sebring International Raceway, but Versteeg earned his first career victory the next day in Round 2. That set a trend for the rest of the season, as Toppe and Versteeg finished 1-2 in either combination in eight of the series’ 14 races.
Versteeg, who led the series with nine victories, went on a tear at the next event, in early July at Watkins Glen. He swept all three races during that event weekend. Versteeg’s dominance, combined with Toppe’s failure to finish Round 5 at Watkins Glen due to an accident, put Toppe into a 22-point hole with nine races remaining.
That doesn’t sound insurmountable, but just two points separate each finishing position in class from first to sixth and one point separates finishing positions seven through 15th. The math didn’t favor Toppe, especially since he and Versteeg were the dominant drivers in the series and stood on the first two spots of the podium after most races.
“Right at that moment (crashing at Watkins Glen), I was like: “Wow, this is kind of bad. The only way I can get back into this is if he has a DNF (did not finish),’” Toppe said. “I didn’t really give up or think it was out of reach. I always thought anything could happen, and anything did.”
The entire season – and Toppe’s title hopes – did a U-turn at Rounds 8 and 9 in mid-August at the Grand Prix of Trois-Rivières in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. Toppe entered those two races 22 points behind Versteeg. The title scenario looked bleak.
But Toppe won both races on the streets of the Quebec city while an accident and a mechanical problem dropped Versteeg to sixth in both races. After earning his third and fourth wins of the season, Toppe was just two points behind his teammate and rival with five races remaining. There was new life.
“That weekend definitely changed my mentality and gave me a lot of confidence,” Toppe said. “It got my hopes up, for sure, to know I was back in the fight. There was still a chance.”
Toppe and Versteeg resumed their race for the championship in early September with three pivotal rounds at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California.
Versteeg won two of those three races but finished 13th in the other. Meanwhile, Toppe converted his growing focus on consistency into two runner-up finishes and a fourth-place result. That was good enough to boost him into the lead of the standings for the first time since late June, building a five-point gap over Versteeg.
Toppe entered the final two rounds of the season, at Road Atlanta, knowing he needed to finish second or better in both races to guarantee the title. He followed that road map perfectly despite intense