Starting from seventh on the grid at his favorite track, Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) kept his nose clean and his brakes cool to win his first Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race of the season. He was followed closely across the line by his teammate, Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports).
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The tight and unforgiving nature of street course racing can sometimes lead to an increase in on-track incidents. That was certainly true on Saturday at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where Round Four of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup was in a full-course yellow situation before the entire field even made it through Turn 1.
Too many cars going for the same piece of real estate at the start resulted in Woody Heimann (No. 82 JTR Motorsports Engineering) on his roof. Thankfully the safety team was on the scene within seconds and Heimann was able to exit the vehicle and walk away.
When the race restarted, Daytona race winner Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 Copeland Motorsports) led the field to the green flag, having passed polesitter Glenn McGee (No. 23 JTR Motorsports Engineering) at the initial race start.
This time, in Turn 1, it was Friday’s race winner Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) getting together with McGee. McGee got the worst of it, spinning around and unable to get going until the full field was past. Thomas was issued a drive-through penalty for incident responsibility but went on to finish seventh.
Rollan was using all of this to his advantage and was up to third by lap six.
The field had eight more laps of green before the next full-course caution came out for rookies Dante Tornello (No. 27 Hixon Motor Sports) and Aidan Fassnacht (No. 15 McCumbee McAleer Racing) colliding in Turn 10. Both cars were unable to continue.
During those eight green laps, defending champion Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) took over the lead from Gonzales.
On the second restart, Rollan was able to grab the lead after Gonzalez went straight into the Turn 10 runoff with a mechanical problem.
The race remained green to the finish and Rollan held the lead the whole way.
“Those were some crazy opening laps and really busy for the starts and restarts,” Rollan said. “But there isn’t much give and take—you have to take whatever you can get here. Tyler [Gonzalez] was strong but I think had an issue.
“I’m so happy to win the race here at St. Pete again. It’s been a little while since the last win so it feels great. I’m also ecstatic that Connor [Zilisch] was in second. He was making me a little nervous at the end, but I think he had the drive of the race, 20th to 2nd, and I’m really happy for him. Really a great day for Hixon Motor Sports and the Austin Hatcher Foundation car, it looked awesome and it’s great to have this result for the points.”
Zilisch began to catch Rollan toward the end and tried to draft past his teammate down the front straight but came up 0.061s short. Remarkably, Zilisch started the race from 20th and his drive to second earned him the Hard Charger Award in addition to his first Mazda MX-5 Cup podium.
“I could not have done it without the Hixon team,” Zilisch said. “The car was just awesome and I could put it where I needed to put it. It’s been a rocky start for the team this year so I’m proud to be part of this 1-2 finish and to be on the podium with my teammate Selin. It was an awesome race. I just needed a 48-minute race rather than a 45-minute one! But I’m happy to take second and move on to Mid-Ohio and hopefully get on the top step there.”
The 2021 MX-5 Cup Rookie of the Year, Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing), did well to finish third considering he spent his race in some of the toughest fights of the day.
“The car was really good,” Paley said. “I had some contact early on and got unlucky on some of the restarts. The race was pretty crazy in the beginning and I got caught out a couple of times. At the end, I had good pace but with the damage to the car it wasn’t enough to catch Conner. I was a little lucky with some of the guys ahead of me getting penalties, but I’m happy with the podium, especially with everything that went on in the race.”
Chris Nunes (No. 32 Formidable Racing) narrowly beat Paley to the line but had to settle for fourth. Justin Piscitell (No. 89 McCumbee McAleer Racing) completed the top five.
MX-5 Cup has a bit of a break before it resumes for Rounds Five and Six at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, May 13-15. All races are streamed live and archived on the RACER magazine YouTube channel.