Mazda MX-5 Cup Rookie Contest is as Close as the Race Finishes
 September 10, 2021| 
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2021 MX-5 Cup Rookies

If there’s anything closer than the finishes of an Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires race, it might just be the Rookie of the Year competition. Thanks to its cost-effective platform that allows drivers to break into professional racing, the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup is overflowing with rookie talent vying for an $80,000 year-end prize.


As the series heads to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for Rounds 11 and 12, Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) leads this impressive crop of rookies. Paley has been knocking on the door of his first win since Round One, when he finished second at Daytona International Speedway in a race where the top 10 cars were covered by less than a second at the finish line. That performance is all the more impressive when Paley admits that the draft has been his biggest learning curve in MX-5 Cup.


Pitman-RdAm-080521-GB-11747“I’ve never really been in a series, in cars, where pack racing is so prevalent,” Paley said. “You really need to work with each other and make friends at the track and use the draft to your advantage. At Daytona the draft is worth five seconds and at Road America it’s worth a couple of seconds and it’s not something I’ve had much experience with.” 


Paley very nearly got his first win at Road America but came up 0.008-second short.


“I think the last race at Road America was my best of the season, even though I finished second,” Paley said. “That was the smartest race I’ve ran. The best race I’ve ran driving-wise and strategy-wise. I just got a little unlucky at the end.”


The man chasing him in the rookie points is Chris Nunes (No. 32 JTR Motorsports Engineering) and he is the only rookie to score a win thus far in the ultra-competitive season. Nunes crossed the line second but was elevated to victory following post-race technical inspection.


21-08-06_RdAm_Gavin-15352hr“No racer likes to win by default, but for points a win is a win,” Nunes said. “There is so much that has to happen for a rookie to win a race, but if all the stars align with car performance, set-up and others racing clean, then I believe I have the speed and strategy to be on top of the box again this year.”


Nunes stands out from the rest of the rookie field, and in fact from the rest of the entire grid, as he comes from the world of off-road racing. Last year was Nunes’ first time racing on pavement.


“Racing on any of the IMSA tracks are totally new to me and I had to learn the tracks quickly,” Nunes said. “I also had to learn how to draft and where the passing opportunities are on each track. I even had to learn how to work as a team. Let’s not forget that I also had to learn my new car without any time to train. All these things are new to me, and I have not had experience within my past off-road racing.”


Despite only having one year of Spec Miata racing under his belt, Nunes’ ability to learn and adapt quickly impressed the judges at the 2020 Mazda Shootout and earned him a $75,000 scholarship for this season.


StPete_042421-4541Much like Nunes, everything in MX-5 Cup is new to Jenson Altzman (No. 13 McCumbee McAleer Racing). Altzman is making the transition from karting to sports cars and he’s hoping to get his first podium by the end of the season.


“Most people don’t know that my first time driving an MX-5 Cup car was the month before my first race at Daytona, and prior to that I had only driven a proper race car once,” Altzman said. “Regardless, I think I have adapted quite quickly; I’ve felt really comfortable in the car since the second day I drove it, and I managed a sixth and fourth-place finish in my fourth and fifth races, not to mention that every track on the calendar is new to me.”


For many rookies, MX-5 Cup has proven to be an excellent stepping stone from karting to professional racing.


“There are so many things MX-5 Cup can teach a driver,” Altzman said. “Due to the short wheelbase and almost non-existent aerodynamic downforce, these cars do a great job at teaching car control. Combined with lower horsepower making these cars very draft-dependent, you’re forced to be near perfect for good qualifying results and to be able to stay in a pack during races. To top it all off, being able to race alongside other IMSA series makes for great opportunities to showcase your talents to other teams. I believe a lot of what is learned to be a front runner in MX-5 Cup can make the transition onto the next step much easier.”


MidO_051621-3550Even experienced drivers have found their rookie MX-5 Cup season to be an eye-opener. This year’s Mazda Shootout winner Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 Provision Motorsports) may not have to learn all the tracks, but he’s found plenty other challenging aspects of the series.


“I’ve always been a pretty good qualifier and the difficulty to qualify well caught me off guard,” Jeansonne said. “Things I have experience with are even harder in this series, like managing mistakes. Usually, if we have a drive-thru, I’ve been able to overcome things like that, but in this series, going back out and then you can’t find the pack you want to run with or maybe they’re not as fast as they were when you first went out so whenever you get a draft, they hold you up. There’s less room for error in qualifying in this series than any other series I’ve been in. I’ve had qualifying sessions where I felt quick and then I was 11th.”


Jeansonne has two fourth-place finishes this season and is surely on the verge of capturing his first MX-5 Cup podium.


21-08-06_RdAm_Gavin-13789hrFellow rookie Luca Mars (No. 41 Copeland Motorsports) has found brake and tire management to be the trickiest aspect of MX-5 Cup racing. Although, based on recent performances, it appears he’s gotten the hang of it.


“My best performance this year has to be Race 2 at Mid-Ohio when I drove from 16th to third,” Mars said.

Mars swept the Hard Charger Awards at Mid-Ohio, picking up a combined 17 positions in the two races.


These five rookies are separated by 540 points with four races to go and there is a maximum of 350 points available in each. It seems this Rookie of the Year contest could come down to the final lap of the season. One lap for an $80,000 prize from Mazda. 

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