There was a point not too long ago that Gresham Wagner thought he’d never race again. Not even out of high school, he had undergone a complicated back surgery that kept him immobile for months. When he was able to jump back into his favorite place on earth, the seat of his kart, it wasn’t the same; there was discomfort, there was pain and there was a drop in performance. Wagner was lost without racing in his life, but then he gave a Mazda MX-5 Cup a try and was reunited with his lost love.
Wagner has been around racing all his life. He spent his childhood at short tracks watching his dad race with his mom and grandma. By the time he was five years-old he was in a kart, and things took off from there. With each championship, Wagner moved another step up the ladder to faster and more competitive classes. There was just one problem. Make that two problems: two large curves in Wagner’s spine.
“It was probably around fifth or sixth grade when they first noticed it,” Wagner said. “At that point it really wasn’t that bad. With some people it starts and then stops, but with others it gets worse and worse. They just monitored it, because there’s not a ton of intervention you can do.”
Unfortunately, it did get worse. By 13, everyday movements became uncomfortable, his posture deteriorated, and his stature grew asymmetrical. He now had a 70-degree and 80-degree curve in his spine, creating an S-shape.
His karting did not suffer, which made Wagner reluctant to admit he needed surgery.
“I was a bit immature or didn’t grasp the severity of the situation, because I was just thinking about racing and I wanted to put it off for as long as possible,” Wagner admitted. “My dad stepped in and made the right decision for me. I was concerned about racing and the future of that and I wasn’t thrilled about getting the surgery but looking back, it was the right decision.”
The surgery was performed at the University of Virginia Spine Center. Doctors installed screws in the affected vertebrae which attached to two titanium rods that ran along the length of Wagner’s spine. After straightening the spine, they removed the discs between the vertebrae and injected bone growth hormone, which, over time, fused the gap between the vertebrae. Once healed, Wagner’s spine effectively became one solid bone.
After two months in a hospital bed and even more spent in physical therapy, Wagner was ready to jump back into his kart.
“It didn’t go terrible, but it was so painful,” Wagner recalled. “With just a fiberglass seat and no suspension and how rough of a ride it is, it was super painful and uncomfortable. The bigger issue was with my back being solid, I couldn’t bend or shift weight. It affected my performance and how the chassis was working. I tried a bunch of different seats, but it was a major thing that was always going to cost me time. We couldn’t get it sorted out, so I stepped away from it.”
Wagner stepped away from racing for more than two years. He lost a huge part of his life and at least to his parents, it showed. They were concerned about their son losing the thing that made him the happiest, so they encouraged him to look to cars and getting a racing license.
Wagner chose the Skip Barber Racing school in the Mazda MX-5 Cup car.
“The seating position and the overall comfort was one element,” Wagner explained. “And secondly, I had found out about MX-5 Cup and with the budget I had, the possibility for progression, the scholarships and the competition, I knew that was my goal. I evaluated different options, but I was pretty set on doing MX-5 Cup at some point.”
After some SCCA racing and testing with Sick Sideways, Wagner acquired a used MX-5 Cup car to compete in the 2018 season.
“I did my first race at Barber with Sick Sideways,” Wanger said. “I remember I just wanted to get a top 10 and I finished sixth in my first race. After that I thought ‘I think I can do this.’”
Wagner was a prominent feature on the podium during the 2020 season and scored two wins. Coming out of Rounds One and Two this year at Daytona International Speedway, he leads the point standings.
Surprisingly, Wagner doesn’t need anything special in his driver seat, which he calls the second most comfortable place after his bed.
“The first thing I did when I got the NC Miata for the SCCA races was to put in a full RaceTech seat like Sick Sideways was running in MX-5 Cup,” said Wagner. “I sat in the seat and I was immediately comfortable. I didn’t need to do anything to it. That’s the only seat I’ve ever used in cars. I don’t know what exactly it is, but I’ve never had a single complaint and it’s honestly the best seat I’ve ever been in.”
In that same vein, Wagner doesn’t anticipate any problems with Sebring’s infamous rough ride.
“At this point, I’ve driven the car a lot and been off track a few times, so I know what to expect and it’s maybe not the most comfortable ride, but it’s not an issue.”
Mazda is often praised by drivers for its generous investments in driving talent, but for Wagner the biggest reward he received was just to be back in a race car.
“I was out of racing for two or three years without plans to come back and MX-5 Cup is what lead me back to it,” Wagner said. “I’m thankful for the series, for the opportunity, because I don’t know if I’d ever come back to racing if it wasn’t for that.”