It’s not every day that a new form of motorsport is invented, but that’s sort of what VTEC Club did two years ago with their inaugural running of the Touge Stage on Willow Springs’ tight and technical Horse Thief Mile circuit. Switching things up this year, the competition took place on Streets of Willow instead.
The Big Idea
We say “sort of,” because despite being a huge hit with drivers, it didn’t really stick after that first event. Chalk it up to the staff being busy with running a full points season of time-attack competition—in between their day jobs and businesses—or a few areas of improvement that needed tending to on the production side of things. Either way, drivers and crew left with a commitment to give it a shot again when the time was right. And here we are.
The concept is refreshingly simple, and akin to the touge battles of Initial D that we all fantasized about as budding gearheads. As opposed to running a full course with a start/finish line, a one-way route is selected, starting and finish “boxes” are drawn out, and competitors line up on the grid for mano-a-mano dogfighting bouts.
In a Formula D-style start, two drivers pull into the start box side-by-side, with each selected either as the lead or follow car. A street-race-style flagger bumps the cars in and starts the race with the drop of their hands.
The lead car launches out of the starting box as fast as possible, and the follow car pegs throttle to keep pace. The two roar through the course at full speed, the lead car trying to outrun his foe while the follow driver tries to balance pace with proximity.
Lead drivers are allowed to employ any driving strategy they like, choosing whatever corner entry speed or angle of attack best suits their car, or giving up slower corners for the benefit of speed in others—so long as they don’t purposely brake-check or sandbag the follower.
All the while, the follow car has one job: stay on the bumper of the leader. As the end of the sprint nears, the two cars sail through the finish box. If the lead car exits the box entirely before any part of the follow car can enter it, the leader advances. But if any part of the follow car enters the box while any part of the lead car is still there, the follow car gets the win.
Each pair runs the course twice, switching off in the lead and follow position. Each competitor has to win a lead and a follow to advance, and battles will go on in one-more-time fashion until that happens.
A prior time-attack style qualifying session paired up competitors, with the faster qualifiers going against the slower qualifiers at the start of the brackets. It might seem like faster cars would have an advantage, but there were plenty of surprising upsets this time around, and drivers seemed to win or lose battles from the follow position.
Several fast competitors applied and were hand-selected by VTEC Club staff to participate in the return of the Touge Stage, including perennial hotshoe Billy Jang and his VTEC Club Group N-class S2000, laying down a fast 1:25.410 in qualifying.
Hot on his heels was Daniel Domingcil in his own S2000, with a 1:25.749 qualifying best, followed very closely by Brandon Porambo in yet a third Honda roadster, with a 1:25.900 quickest click.
But running the fastest lap of the day was Ricardo Hernandez, with a slight 1:24.041 lead in—you guessed it—another S2000. All told, Honda roadsters filled seven of the top 10 qualifying slots. The first to break their thunder was Andy Hope in the Hasport turbo/K24-swapped Honda Prelude, claiming the seventh spot.
Andy is a Porsche Experience Center driving instructor and has lots of experience in time-attack competition and even wheel-to-wheel racing. The Hasport Prelude is an equally capable machine, and made its first trip to the track after some repairs and enhancements. If ever there was a FWD team capable of topping Honda’s canyon-carving S2s in a touge battle, our money was on this one.
A full field of 24 drivers took to the grid for tandem battles, including some low-key factory efforts. There were close finishes, there were blowouts, but the most exciting moments came with the upset victories.
Rocco Pedreira and his extreme-underdog Honda Fit taking out Brian Salmeron in his quicker DC2 Acura Integra was one such moment. In an S2000 duel, twelfth-seed qualifier Roberto Estrada knocking out fifth-seed Paul Parquette was another.
By the time the Finals were set, no one could’ve called it through the numbers. Seventh-seed Andy Hope had battled up his side of the bracket, ousting number two and three qualifiers Billy and Daniel, respectively. All the while, fourth-seed Brandon Porambo had battled through his side, toppling qualifying leader Ricardo in the process.
After a very close first bout, and after a successful one-more-time round, it was official: Andy’s hopes had fallen to the new touge king: Brandon Porambo.
And if all that wasn’t surprising enough, here’s the real kicker: Brandon isn’t a nobody. He’s very well-known in SCCA autocross circles and among SoCal’s canyon racers who frequent actual touges like Tuna Canyon, the GMR complex and others near L.A., Orange County, and San Diego.
What’s next for Touge Stage? If their first event was a fun experiment, this was a successful proof of concept. VTEC Club organizers are cooking up some improvements that will bring the action even closer to spectators, and improve the experience for drivers. No next event is on the books, but when and wherever it’s announced, you can bet we’ll be there.