Even an Unser can learn a thing or two about racing, that’s why Loni Unser (daughter of Johnny Unser) chose the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires.
But this this 23-year old isn’t depending on her name to take her places in motorsport, she’s working for it.
Unser dipped her toe in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup water for a few races in 2019. She returned to the series this year and has shown impressive pace. Her progress has come the old-fashioned way, via studying and practice, and she’s surrounded herself with the perfect mentors.
Even if she’s not in the top five every race, Unser knows that Mazda MX-5 Cup is giving her the skills to succeed in any form of motorsport.
“I’m super lucky to be racing in this series because I think the amount it’s helped me grow and develop as a driver is tremendous,” Unser said. “The amount I learn each weekend about race craft and driving these cars and racing at this level… I just gain so much as a driver from it.”
As many drivers have said, MX-5 Cup is the ultimate place to learn about close, door-to-door, pack racing. It requires knowledge of how the draft works and also how to plan ahead, corner by corner and lap by lap.
“My race craft has improved a lot,” Unser said. “Just learning how to race when the draft in these cars is so huge, learning how to make passes that are going to stick. I experienced at Road America that if you make a pass and you can’t make it stick, you get freight-trained in this series. Any single mistake you make really hurts.
“Starts are something I’m always working on. Figuring out how to gain positions rather than lose positions is so important. Making the decisions and recognizing when certain things are happening and what to do in that situation. If two people are passing in front of you, you need to be perfect with that corner, so you can capitalize and pass those two cars.”
Unser has a wealth of resources to help her at Hixon Motor Sports. From driver coach Andrew Carbonell, to teammate and MX-5 Cup veteran Selin Rollan and team manager Shea Holbrook. Unser thinks of her team as a second family.
“Andrew [Carbonell] has been an incredible help,” Unser said. “He does a really great job preparing us for events by sending us track notes and then we have long data sessions during the weekends and testing. We focus on gaining speed and setting up passing drills. He’s expertise has been so valuable.
“Also, racing with Selin [Rollan] we get extremely valuable data. Selin is so nice in helping me and our other drivers develop. He always tries to help us out if he sees us in qualifying.
For Unser, not all of the learning is focused on lessons in lap time.
“It’s been super awesome to have Shea [Holbrook] as a role model,” said Unser about the Hixon team manager. “Hearing from her experiences and how she runs the team has been super valuable to me. She’s one hard-working, strong woman, so it’s cool to be able to look up to her.”
To date, one of Unser’s most impressive performances came at a track she’s never been to and a temporary street circuit at that: St. Petersburg. She was in the mix the entire weekend, making some standout passes. She finished in the top 10 in both races.
“Going into St. Pete I was pretty nervous because I’d never raced a street course and it’s something I’d been working on as a driver, to be able to go to a new track and learn it quickly,” Unser said. “I did as much prep as I possibly could. I was able to run the track in my head as if I was running it in real life and get the times I want to see while I’m visualizing. I would do a lap in my head and it’d be very close to the goal time I’d set for myself. Then to finish in the top 10 and run all the way up to P6, I was kind of blown away and super happy with that performance.”
Certainly, it’s not just her on-track performance that makes people stop and take notice, it’s also the last name emblazoned on the windshield of her car.
“A lot of people come up and ask, ‘are you a real Unser,’ and I explain the family tree to them,” she laughed. “It’s really fun to see that fans are able to come back to the track and I love to connect with fans and share the love I have for the sport.
“My family is cool and I’m so lucky to be a part of the family, but when I’m at the track I don’t want to be recognized as a ‘female racer,’ or an ‘Unser,’ I just want to be treated as any other competitor. I’m super lucky to have the family name, but for sure it’s pressure.”
Unser is now on the cusp of finishing her first full MX-5 Cup season. Only the final two races at Road Atlanta, November 10 – 12, remain, and she’s setting some big goals for herself.
“I’d really like to get more top 10 finishes,” she said. “It’s pretty ambitious, but I’d love to get a top-five finish. Everything would have to go right, and I’d have to have some luck on my side. I’d have to prepare as much as I can by spending time on the simulator. That’s a goal of mine and also being able to walk away from every race and say I did the best I could do with what I could control. Being proud of the way I drove after every race is something that’s important to me.”