With six drivers that have claimed wins in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich® Tires competition including two previous champions, the talent and experience in the 2021 field runs deep.
But there is a serious crop of rookies set to do battle for the $80,000 on offer from Mazda for the top Rookie this season, and one of them was able to capture a victory on Sunday: Chris Nunes (No. 32 JTR Motorsports Engineering) claimed his first career win at Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course.
Previous Mid-Ohio winner Gresham Wagner, who won at Daytona and Sebring earlier this year, finished second, with another impressive rookie, Luca Mars (No. 41 Copeland Motorsports), netting third.
The 45-minute race saw action early as the first of two full-course cautions periods came out on lap three when Jenson Altzman (No. 13 McCumbee McAleer Racing) got turned sideways just after the crest of the turn five hill, leaving him to be hit twice- first by an unsighted Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 Provision Motorsports) and then Loni Unser (No. 92 Hixon Motor Sports) close behind.
On the restart, Jared Thomas was up to second and before the next yellow, he had raced into the lead. Shadowing Thomas at every turn was his teammate Nunes.
Polesitter Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) hounded the teammates for the final 10 minutes of green flag racing, but the pair were a united front and took the checkered flag 0.158-second apart. Thomas crossed the line first but saw his result nullified following technical inspection. This gave Nunes his first MX-5 Cup win.
“I’m honored and privileged to even be racing MX-5 Cup underneath the Mazda Scholarship,” Nunes said. “I took second place to my teammate in first, however, the car he rented didn’t pass tech, which put me into the first position. It’s not the way I wanted to get my first professional win, but I’ll take it. I couldn’t have done this without my Kicker Audio, keeping me cool and collected during the race. The SureCan gas can kept my car powered the whole entire race. My BFGoodrich tires kept my car planted under my feet the whole race and overall, I came out with the win. I can’t complain. It puts me in the lead for Rookie of the Year and fourth overall in points.”
Wagner had a power issue early that required him to restart the car and he fell all the way back to 13th. He displayed tremendous determination and was back with the lead pack after the second full-course caution.
He did lead briefly, but once he fell behind the JTR teammates, he was relegated to second in the final order.
“I had an issue on the technical side that forced me to shut off the car to restart it under green,” Wagner said. “At the first caution, I was in eighth and knew if the issue stopped, I had a chance at winning the race. It was a lottery while going through Turn Four if the car would have a problem. I thankfully avoided the contact in Turn Five because I was down on power and had a hand off the wheel ready to restart the car. It was a tough race, but I am happy to bring it home.”
Luca Mars (No. 41 Copeland Motorsports) made it two rookies on the MX-5 Cup podium. Not only was it his first podium, but Mars topped it off with his second Hard Charger Award of the weekend. Mars picked up 13 positions in the race.
“Starting from 16th, it was a crazy race from the beginning,” Mars said. “I kept my head down and kept pushing. Some cautions helped me out along the way. The car was really fast and felt good. I was able to catch the leaders but didn’t have enough to make a move there at the end. I did get my second Hard Charger Award and I’m getting more experience by the day. I’m glad I got my first podium and I want to thank all the guys at Copeland: Dean [Copeland], Kevin [Copeland], my mechanic Rob [Greenwood] and Dan [Schlosser] and all the guys. It was a fun race and I’m looking forward to Road America.
The rookie success kept coming with Juan Diego Hernandez (No. 59 Team Guatemala) finishing fourth. Hernandez hasn’t been to any circuit on the MX-5 Cup schedule but is improving by leaps and bounds with each race.
Justin Piscitell (No. 89 McCumbee McAleer Racing) completed the top five.
Hernan Palermo, in the No. 20 Slipstream Performance Mazda, scored his first-ever fastest lap in an MX-5 Cup race. Palermo turned a 1:36.217, but a drive-through penalty for the incident that brought out the first full-course caution held him to an 10th-place finish.
A recap of Mazda MX-5 Cup Rounds Seven and Eight from Mid-Ohio will air on NBCSN, Tuesday, May 25, at 3pm ET.
Next up on the schedule is Rounds Nine and 10 at Road America, August 6 – 8.