“There’s a new sheriff in town,” the Speed Channel announcer Greg Kramer said after Ryan Pilla drove an MX5 Spec Mazda to a win in a Sports Car Club of America race last month at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville.
From sheriff, Pilla soon ascended to attorney general status as he followed up the Jersey win with an American Road Racing Championship at Road Atlanta, a race for Mazdas that attracted “all the top drivers from Canada to California
. . . the best of the best.”
Pilla had won that same race in 2003, though he hadn’t been back in the interim, rendering the successful defense of his eight-year-old title all the more satisfying.
Sixty-four qualified (Pilla being third) and four, driving at speeds between 80 and 135 miles per hour, dueled for the top spot, with “the Car Doctor,” who avoided a wreck by veering onto the grass in the last lap, taking the checkered flag.
“The accident was in the middle of the track. The other guy went right and I went left, onto the grass, pedal to the floor. People in the paddock were saying afterward that it was the ballsiest move they’d ever seen.”
“The top four,” he added, “all finished within a couple of car lengths of each other. . . . It was like a swarm of bees at the start with those 64 cars going down the main straight.”
Pilla, whose popular shop is on Scuttlehole Road in Water Mill, not far from the late lamented Bridgehampton Race Circuit, where he also used to compete, gave a lot of credit to his six-man crew. “There were two mandatory five-minute pit stops the drivers had to take. Even if you were ready to go in three minutes, you still had to wait the full five, behind the wall. The timing of these pit stops was important. After the second one, I came out 100 feet in front of the first-place car.”
The ARRC championship crowned a singular season for Pilla that began when he and Harvey Siegel, who had commissioned him to convert the car temporarily into “a monster dragster,” broke the world MX5 Spec Mazda speed record at the Bonneville Flats in Utah.
At the time, Pilla said, “Never before in history had this street car, which can only get up to 105 ordinarily, gone at such speeds [165 and change]. The record we broke was 157.9 miles per hour held by a factory Honda. . . . I’d be shocked if somebody tops our record.”
To prepare for New Jersey and Road Atlanta — with a trip to a 13-hour Enduro in Virginia sandwiched in between — Pilla and his crew converted the sleek, flaming red-and-yellow sports car on whose hood his logo is emblazoned “from a straight-line dragster into a Spec road racer, redesigning the suspension and replacing the high-horsepower engine with a lower horsepower one because on road racing tracks you’re making lefts and rights and going up and downhill, not driving in a straight line.”
His chief rival at the Motorsports Park, Yiannis Tsiounis, a Brazilian with whom he traded the lead many times before taking over on the final turn on the way to “a white-knuckle finish,” was reported to have said that Pilla had been the toughest opponent he’d ever raced against.
He had just wanted to finish at the 13-hour Enduro at Siegel’s Virginia International Raceway in Danville, the Car Doctor said when asked how he’d done there. “There were four of us, though the others weren’t as fast as I was. Simply finishing — we were eighth over all, among 125 cars — was a huge accomplishment. I drove three stints of an hour and a half each.”
Having done it all with his Mazda this summer and fall, Pilla said he and a couple of teammates would race this winter in Sebring, Fla., and Miami.