By John Oreovicz IMSA Wire Service
The Mazda MX-5 quickly became an international bestseller when it was launched in 1989. Since then, it’s also been developed into the world’s most popular racing car.
Mazda Motorsports seized upon the MX-5’s sporty appeal and created an aggressive contingency program that benefits both grassroots and professional racers. The first unified national pro championship for the MX-5 was staged in 2006, and the Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BF Goodrich Tires is now firmly established as the top tier of the Mazda Road to 24 (#MRT24) scholarship program that offers young racers a path to professional sports car and endurance racing.
That is why it’s appropriate that, starting in 2021, the MX-5 Cup is sanctioned by IMSA. Six of the seven doubleheader weekends that comprise the 14-race championship will be staged in conjunction with IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship events, starting with the MX-5 Cup’s first-ever appearance at Daytona International Speedway this week.
Every competitor is chasing $250,000 in support on offer for the series champion from Mazda Motorsports.
A field of 27 identical cars is expected, led by defending MX-5 Cup champion Michael Carter in the No. 08 car prepared by Carter Racing Enterprises. Carter, 21, is a junior at Georgia Tech University who balances his racing with the pursuit of a degree in finance.
“Returning to the series as the defending champion for my third MX-5 Cup season is allowing me to have a more relaxed approach,” Carter said. “I get to just go out there and have fun, and I think that’s a great position to be in.
“I’ve been racing at Daytona since 2014, and I’m really looking forward to getting back on the track,” he added. “The racing will be absolutely insane, and I can’t wait for the green flag to drop for Race 1 on Thursday.”
2019 MX-5 Cup champion Bryan Ortiz is also slated to compete in the No. 4 entry from Copeland Motorsports, which is also joining the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge full time this season.
The most prominent newcomer to the MX-5 Cup is Louisiana native Aaron Jeansome, 22, who secured a $110,000 scholarship to the series by outperforming eight other hopefuls in the MX-5 Cup Shootout, staged in November at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. He is driving the No. 24 Provision Motorsports MX-5.
To commemorate the 15th year of the shootout, Mazda awarded a $75,000 scholarship to Chris Nunes (No. 32 JTR Motorsports Engineering) and another $75,000 to Savanna Little, the top female finisher in the competition.
Little joins Hixon Motor Sports, where she will be part of a seven-car lineup that includes fellow promising women drivers Hannah Gresham, Sabre Cook and Loni Unser. The team is managed by respected female racer Shea Holbrook.
Since the start of 2020, new cars entering the MX-5 Cup have been constructed by Flis Performance in Daytona Beach. A turnkey MX-5 Cup racing car costs $80,000.
Production MX-5s built in Hiroshima, Japan, are stripped down, equipped with an FIA- and IMSA-standard roll cage, and fitted with more than 250 dedicated racing components, including a six-speed sequential gearbox. Key components, including the 2.0-liter Mazda SKYACTIVE engine, are sealed to ensure even competition and keep the series cost-effective.
This week’s MX-5 Cup schedule calls for practices on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, ahead of qualifying at 12:25 p.m. ET Thursday. The first race starts at 5 p.m. Thursday, with the second at 10:15 a.m. Friday. All races are 45 minutes in length and will stream live on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold.