No one was safe from the dusty surface of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Round 11 of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires on Saturday. Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) hung on for the win while holding off a charging Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) who finished second. Promising young rookie Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 Provision Motorsports), who won a scholarship to race in the series in the Mazda Shootout, finished third.
Starting second, Wagner took the lead on the opening lap of the race and was under heavy pressure from rookie Chris Nunes (No. 32 JTR Performance Engineering).
Their battle continued after a brief full-course caution and eventually Nunes got the better of Wagner and led six laps of the race. Behind him, Rollan was eager to get the top spot back and was soon nose-to-tail with the rookie. On the slippery track surface, all it took was the slightest of touches for Nunes to spin as the young Californian went for an off-course spin. Luckily, the pack of cars behind him were able to avoid him and he was able to continue.
“We had a great car, it had pace, it was hard to drive because the track conditions weren’t optimal,” Rollan said. “I’m sorry to Chris [Nunes]. I don’t know what happened there. I think he didn’t know that my bumper was there, and he turned, and he spun. I don’t want to race like that, and I’ll go chat with him after. I’m sorry that it happened, and the officials saw it as I guess he made the move.”
Rollan did not get to enjoy his lead for long. Wagner made his move and Rollan fell to fourth just past the halfway mark of the 45-minute race. Wagner held onto the lead all the way to the finish.
“Well, I don’t know where to start because the top three, I mean, it shuffled around a good bit there and it was down to who was making mistakes and who was capitalizing,” Wagner said. “I don’t think anybody drove a good race by the normal standards. It’s just that the track is so tough to get around consistently lap after lap while still being fast, it just invites mistakes, and it catches you out all the time.
“Once I finally get back to the lead after slipping back to fourth, I mean, I knew I couldn’t make any mistakes at that point. And that was what was going to determine the race is whether I slipped up or not. Lots of pressure on myself, but barely hung on and got the win.”
It is Wagner’s third win of the season. He won the season opener at Daytona International Speedway and won Race Two at Sebring International Raceway.
Rollan was only 0.547s shy from taking his fifth win of the season. Such close margins are nothing new in Mazda MX-5 Cup, but the constant position swapping was a little unusual for a track like Laguna Seca where the passing zones are few and the grip offline is non-existent.
“That was crazy out there, that was really crazy,” Rollan said. “Thanks to Hixon Motor Sports, it was a great run. I think that was the craziest race we’ve had all season and especially at a track where you don’t really get much passing, but I’m happy to bring home second. Gained on Michael but lost to Gresham, but still good.”
Jeansonne finally got his first podium of the season, finishing third.
“It feels really good, obviously,” Jeansonne said. “It’s been such hard work getting here. There could’ve been a lot of other races where we had podiums, but so many things have happened to us, so I’m glad to give myself and these guys a result we deserve for all of this hard work.
“It was very slippery. The falloff didn’t get too bad until about halfway through the race and then it was like driving on grease. Everybody was sideways everywhere and that really kept us bunched up because as soon as you had a few clean runs, someone makes a mistake and then you make a mistake, but it was really fun.”
Jeansonne had the largest and loudest cheering section for his first podium.
“I want to thank Mazda, all the series affiliates, and all of my west coast friends that came out to support me this weekend, it’s been awesome,” Jeansonne said. “It’s a great series and a pleasure to be here, and I hope to stay here a little while.”
Though he didn’t make the podium, Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises) may have had the best drive of anyone. The current point leader was forced to start at the back of the grid after a transponder issue prevented him from logging a qualifying time. By lap five he was up to eighth and then third by lap 16. While running second, Carter had a big off-track excursion exiting Turn 6. He fell back to sixth but recovered to finish fourth in the remaining 10 laps.
Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Enterprises), who was quickest in Friday practice, completed the top five after some epic battles with his former teammate Carter.
Alex Bachoura (No. 33 Slipstream Performance) earned the Hard Charger Award for advancing nine positions during the race.
“It was pretty slippery,” Bachoura said. “I think you just take your time, work your way up the field and try not to get in trouble. There was a lot of trouble in this race. I had many close calls. I think I almost hit about five cars. This afternoon was fun. This is what racing is about: it’s about the close calls, the adrenaline, it’s about taking chances and it worked out.”
Rollan will start from pole for Sunday’s Round 12 race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The race goes green at 9:25am PT and will be streamed live on IMSA.com/tvlive.