Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires is returning to VIRginia International Raceway after a five-year absence for what may prove to be the championship-deciding races of the season.
With a maximum of 380 points available in each race, the championship is still wide open coming into VIR, but the same cannot be said leaving VIR; one bad race or one dominating win could determine who is in play for the $250,000 championship prize from Mazda in the finale at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
Jared Thomas (No.96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) has been leading the way at the top of the points all season and enters the event with a 255-point advantage. But fellow MX-5 Cup veterans Gresham Wagner (No.5 Spark Performance) and Selin Rollan (No.87 Hixon Motor Sports) have been nipping at his heels all year long. A drive-through penalty for passing under yellow and the resulting 26th-place finish in race cne at Road America hurt Thomas’ point lead, but will it prove fatal in his hunt for the title?
“The VIR rounds definitely could decide the championship, but I still think it will all come down to Road Atlanta,” Thomas said of the season finale.
Wagner, the defending MX-5 Cup Champion, has had a rocky 2022 season, but is slowly mounting a comeback. The Virginia-native is on home turf this weekend, although this will be his first MX-5 Cup race at VIR.
“Virginia has a couple of great club courses, and lots of local short ovals, but VIR is the only professional-level road course in the state, and it’s definitely the closest to me,” Wagner said. “It’s still around a three-hour drive from home, but that’s a lot closer than anything else on the schedule.
“For a long time, VIR has been a go-to for shakedowns and testing, but the first time I ever raced there was earlier this year in the SRO TC America series. I was always a bit disappointed to see VIR leave the schedule just as I started in MX-5 Cup, so I’m excited to have our series back at VIR, both as a home race for me and as a great track in its own right.”
The rookies have turned up their game in the second half of the season. Connor Zilisch (No.72 Hixon Motor Sports) swept the Road America weekend, winning both races from pole. This propelled him to third in the championship.
Joey Atanasio (No.43 Formidable Performance Development) has been a threat all season, but a disappointing weekend at Road America knocked him back to fifth in the championship, and second to Zilisch in the Rookie of the Year standings. That honor comes with an $80,000 prize from Mazda at the end of the year.
Just behind Atanasio in the points is another rookie, Bruno Carneiro (No.21 Hixon Motor Sports), who always finds himself running at the front of the field and if not for a DNF in race two at Road America would be in the championship top five.
A trio to keep an eye on this weekend could be the three drivers who have previous experience at the track in MX-5 Cup competition, Glenn McGee (No.23 JTR Motorsports Engineering), Rossi Lee (No.48 Spark Performance) and Alex Bachoura (No.33 Spark Performance).
In addition to having two drivers on the team with prior MX-5 Cup race experience at VIR and the defending champion who calls Virginia home (Wagner), Spark Performance team owner Nathanial Sparks is, in fact, the last driver to win at VIR. He beat driver Chris Stone to the finish line by a thrilling 0.017-second in 2016.
The stage is set for two critical races in the MX-5 Cup Championship. Race 1 is scheduled for 1:00pm ET on Saturday, August 27. Race 2 will go green at 10:30am ET on Sunday, August 27.
Both races will be streamed live on RACER.com and IMSA.com/tvlive.