The streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.’s Old Bayside and Marina neighborhood is the only stop on the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich calendar where drivers and teams must contend with a temporary, barrier-lined racetrack.
And as 2021 Race 1 winner Selin Rollan reveals, if you want to be at the sharp end in this weekend’s doubleheader street fight, it’s very much a mental game.
“This track is tough because there are no simulators for it, so the most you can do before you head there is watch some video,” says 27-year-old Rollan, driver of the No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports machine. “It’s different to other tracks because you have to leave a little more margin on the table. For me, I can touch a mirror (to the wall) and that’s the limit. But what it takes to get there is so much more concentration.”
It’s not only the walls that make a difference around the downtown track, which also incorporates the runways of Albert Whitted Airport — it’s also the unrelenting nature of the layout.
“We never hit fifth gear and many of the corners are first gear,” notes Rollan. “And, it’s just 1.8 miles long — only half the distance of Daytona International Speedway’s road course — so there’s never a chance to mentally catch up. It’s exhausting.”
Rhythm, then, becomes all important.
“I’ve found the walls here in St. Pete before, and it’s not fun,” says Rollan. “So it’s important to keep a little bit in the tank mentally, at least through Race 1. In Race 2, you can take a bit more risk, but still, you never want to hit the wall.”
At a track where grid position takes on extra importance, the challenge is in finding the limit of the aforementioned margins quickly.
“This is my third time here, and I’ve been quick every time, so I’ve got the hang of it,” adds Rollan, a keen private pilot who lives in Orlando and often flies into Albert Whitted Airport for lunch at the Hangar Restaurant. “I definitely want to be starting in the first two rows, and that means qualifying is key here. Track position is important also, because the conditions are hard on the car. We’re grouped more tightly here, the weather is hot and there’s not a lot of airflow, so engine temps and brake fade really can play a factor — and that also plays into the huge mental role, because you do have to take care of the car more than maybe elsewhere else.”
When it comes to race time, the mental game really needs to step up. The tight nature of the track and the menace of walls is ever present, but with the right approach they can also become an advantage.
“Race craft really becomes crucial here,” explains Rollan. “It’s low speed and there’s not much opportunity for drafting and passing. So, getting into the head of the person in front of you is a viable tactic. If you can stay on their bumper, you’re probably faster, so that’s when you start moving around a bit behind to force a mistake to gain a position, rather than relying on pure speed.”
A packed field of Mazda MX-5 cars around the streets of St. Pete is sure to provide a steady stream of thrills and incidents. Whoever can hold it together under foot and in the head will be a potential winner in a race where almost anything can happen.
Race 1 of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup’s St. Pete doubleheader is set for 4:40 p.m. ET on Friday, Feb. 25, with Race 2 going green at 10:00 a.m. ET on Saturday, Feb. 26. Both races will be streamed live here at RACER.com.