The St. Petersburg street course was cruel to many drivers in Round Five of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, but Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) didn’t put a wheel wrong and was first to the checkered flag. He was followed across the finish line by polesitter Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises).
The 45-minute race opened with a brilliant battle between Carter, Rollan and Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance), with each taking turns at the front.
While the track is one that is notoriously difficult for passing, the Mazda MX-5 Cup drivers once again defied expectations by exchanging positions lap after lap around the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit.
“That was fun, having the three of us there,” Rollan said of the three-way fight for the lead. “We race against each other a lot. It surprised all of us I think that we were able to pass as much as we were able to.”
Even with the position swapping, the trio soon pulled away from the rest of the field. The trio became a duo, however, when Wagner pulled his car onto pitlane. The championship leader climbed out of his car after a broken drivetrain ended his race with 25 minutes left on the clock.
Wagner wasn’t the only early retirement; Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering), Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) and Justin Piscitell (No. 89 McCumbee McAleer Racing) all suffered mechanical issues which kept them from pushing to the finish.
While those four were able to stop out of harm’s way, Drake Kemper (No. 99 Provision Motorsports) brought out the race’s only full-course caution after he went off course and into the Turn 4 runoff area. Having started the race at the back of the pack after a setback in qualifying, Kemper had side-to-side contact with a competitor while battling for position in Turn 3, and went off course in Turn 4, making contact with the wall in the runoff area.
The clean-up in Turn 4 was lengthy and when the green flag came back out, there was less than two minutes left on the clock, making for a one lap sprint to the finish.
Rollan had secured the lead over Carter before the yellow, but now the two did not have the security of a large gap to the rest of the field.
Rollan knew he had to be perfect. He hit all his marks and Carter had nowhere to challenge. Rollan took his second win of the season by 0.53s over Carter.
“How long that last yellow was…it was kind of wild,” Rollan said. “I didn’t know until half a lap to go that it was the last lap. I just took a deep breath and thought, if I don’t make a mistake, it’s mine. I’m so happy. The Hixon Motorsports/Autism Speaks car was on rails. It was great.
“I feel sorry for Gresham (Wagner), he’s a good friend and I feel bad that he had a mechanical, but he’ll be back with a vengeance and will be stronger later this afternoon. It won’t be easy to do this again, but we got one of two down and I’m really happy. The track will be different this afternoon so we will have to compensate for that, but we will figure something out to be fast.”
Carter also enjoyed the amount of passing that took place during the race and was satisfied with a second-place finish.
“The opening laps were fun,” Carter said. “I enjoyed that. It is hard to pass in this place, so I just wanted to lead, but I lost the lead on the start, then I took it away from Gresham — we had a good race, and then I fell to second.
“We were just running our laps, the three of us,” Carter continued. “I’m not sure what happened to Gresham, but it’s always unfortunate when a guy gets knocked out with a mechanical. I hate that for him. On the restart, I didn’t know how many laps we were going to get but it is good to come home second — congrats to Selin and to Chris (Nunes) on his first podium.”
Starting from eighth place, rookie Chris Nunes (No. 32 JTR Motorsports Engineering) secured his first MX-5 Cup podium with a third-place finish. Nunes was the runner up in the recent Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout and recipient of a $75,000 scholarship from Mazda.
“Honestly, it feels great,” Nunes said. “I am so honored and privileged to be racing here with the support of Mazda. This is just about my one-year anniversary since moving from dirt racing to asphalt, so this is a dream come true to be racing this Mazda in St. Petersburg on this IndyCar weekend. This is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever experienced in all of my life!
“I learned a lot of car control racing in dirt, and they also have no runoff, its walls just like it is on a track like this, so I am super comfortable here and really excited for the next race!”
Two more rookies completed the top five: Jenson Altzman (No. 13 McCumbee McAleer Racing) and Dan Williams (No. 38 Copeland Motorsports) completed the top five.
After a tough qualifying, where he made hard contact with the Turn One wall, Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 Provision Motorsports) made a charge from 22nd on the grid to 11th at the finish in a backup car. The performance earned Jeansonne, winner of the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout Scholarship, the Hard Charger Award.
“It feels great,” Jeansonne said. “I just hope my teammate and friend Drake Kemper is OK after that impact that he had. We started in the back after this team stayed up all night to have the car ready for the race this morning. Just unbelievable heart from the team. Everyone has been so positive and supportive of each other. I’ve never really seen anything like it. I was out there driving as hard as I could for them. It wasn’t the greatest circumstances, but this one was for them. Thanks to Mazda Motorsports for the scholarship and for the opportunity to be racing here. I’m really grateful for the outcome despite the rough start.”
Carter will start from the pole again for the Round 6 race later today at 4:20pm ET. Wagner is provisionally slated to start alongside him and Rollan will start third.
The race will be streamed live on IMSA.com and NBC Sports Gold TrackPass, with commentary from IMSA Radio’s John Hindhaugh and Shea Adam.