Teams in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires faced a wet Daytona International Raceway to kick off the 2022 season. In typical MX-5 Cup fashion, the 45-minute race consisted of a door-to-door four-wide sprint to the finish line. This sprint was won by Tyler Gonzalez (#51 Copeland Motorsports).
The first Mazda MX-5 Cup race of the season was an exercise in car control. Rain and cold temperatures created a very slippery race track, and all 31 cars created a haze of spray as they took the green flag.
Sam Paley (#28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) started from pole, but as the field stretched into Turn 1 he fell behind in the mix of cars looking for grip. Instead, third starter Connor Zilisch (#72 Hixon Motor Sports) and outside poleman Selin Rollan (#87 Hixon Motor Sports) took the lead.
Gonzalez got off to a great start, moving from 12th on the grid to third on lap three and didn’t let Zilisch and Rollan get away. As this trio battled for position, MX-5 Cup regulars Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises) and Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) were ready to pounce, as was Chris Nunes (No 32 Formidable Racing), which is in its second year of MX-5 Cup competition.
The leading pack of six changed order at each turn because someone was slipping wide or misjudging the braking zone. The action was halted midway through the race with a full four-lap yellow course.
Defending champion Gresham Wagner arrived on the scene after the restart and briefly took the lead, but was handed a passing penalty for being responsible for the incident, ruling him out of contention for victory.
Rollan regained the lead, but in a similar scenario to last year’s season opener, he had a big target on his back coming out of the final corner. Behind him, Gonzalez, Zilisch and Nunes finally rolled out at the very last minute and the foursome crossed the finish line door to door.
The timing screens declared Gonzalez the winner with a 0.062 second lead over Nunes. Rollan crossed the line 0.002s behind Nunes. Zilisch was still 0.06 seconds behind in fourth.
“I raced in the MX-5 Cup a short time ago in 2019 and this is my first year back,” Gonzalez said. “My guys at Copeland Motorsports really helped me out by giving me a great car that was fun in the rain. It’s fun to be back with MX-5 Cup. There’s always fun racing with the way Mazda has set up these cars, I’m doubling down this weekend, competing in both the MX-5 Cup and the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, just hoping to win them all.
Gonzalez will start eighth in Friday’s second moto.
Like the crowd watching the race, Nunes admitted he wasn’t quite sure how he managed to finish second.
“Honestly, I’m speechless,” Nunes said. “I’m shaking. If it hadn’t been for my Kicker Audio keeping me cool and collected throughout this event, I don’t know if I could have made it. The BFGoodrich tires kept these cars under our feet throughout the race. Unfortunately, in the rain at Daytona, our plans may not come to fruition. My plan fell through, so I found new strategies on the fly. With quick reactions, I was able to take second place. I have no idea what happened in that last drag race until the finish. Everyone was pinching each other at the bottom of the track, so we all had a bottleneck. I bet all the fans watching loved this type of racing, and we can’t wait to put on more great events for them.”
After all four cars crossed the finish line, Rollan pulled over and hit the wall. He was able to walk away from the incident, but his crew have a long night of repairs ahead of them.
“I didn’t want to be first in line,” Rollan said. “They had a weird stack coming to the tri-oval. I didn’t know how it happened, so I just picked a route and finished first. I had a rift with Tyler [Gonzalez] so in turn 5, I slowed down so he was on my bumper. I couldn’t do anything at the end. It was a tough race there. I hope my car is okay – it’s broken down right now. I know my Hixon Motorsports team can help me and we can come up with a plan. Thanks to Hixon Motorsports for all their help. The Austin Hatcher Foundation car looked and felt fantastic because of them. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
Rollan starts Friday’s race on pole position.
Zilisch, the latest Mazda Shootout scholarship winner, finished fourth despite several setbacks that could have ended his run. He was the highest ranked rookie in the race.
Thomas, himself a former scholarship holder, rounds out the top five.
Zilisch runner-up in this year’s MX-5 Cup Shootout, Bryce Cornet (#65 Hixon Motor Sports), received the Hard Charger Award for starting 28th and finishing 13th.
Round two of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup goes green on Friday, January 28 at 10:15 a.m. ET with live coverage on RACER.com and IMSA.com/TVlive.