The Best Racing Series?
By Winding Road Staff
October 04, 2016
Reflections on The 2016 MX-5 Cup And "Lower" Series In General
There are many contenders for the greatest racing series. In modern times, we can quickly think of many good series in certain years and you probably can too. Top of mind we might conjure up the 1990 F1 season, with the epic Prost-Senna battle redux or the 1970 Can-Am season that featured an amazing collection of cars like the AVS Shadow Mk 1, the Chaparral 2J, the Ferrari 512, the Autocoast Ti22, the Porsche 917K, the McLaren M8D and many more. Of course, no one has raced in every series ever. So, no one really knows what the greatest series is/was. And, across drivers there are reasonable disagreements about what would make the greatest series.
A point we want to make here is that a lot of really good racing comes from outside flagship racing series like F1 and WEC. We would even go so far as to say that the best racing comes from the "lower" series, if you are interested in close competition throughout a race, because truthfully close competition front-back, end-end is pretty rare. Examples of great racing in lower series are V8 Supercars and British Touring Cars. In the US, Pirelli World Challenge GT and GTS offers some pretty good competition, but the series that is most like V8 Supercars and BTCC for close competition may actually be SCCA Pro Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup.
One difference between MX-5 Cup and V8 Supercars or BTCC is that amateur racers who have the relatively modest funding necessary can run in MX-5 Cup, something that really isn't nearly as easy in BTCC or V8 Supercars. Given the greatness and accessibility of MX-5 Cup, we thought some readers might enjoy a few reflections on why the series works so well. And, having just completed a season running six cars in MX-5 Cup, its character is very fresh in our minds.
The Formula For Greatness
All three of these tight series feature close competition -- literally wheel-to-wheel -- with lots of lead changes from the green flag to the checkered. In the case of MX-5 Cup, this is down to a simple but not often used formula of truly spec car, drafting-oriented aerodynamics, low cost, big field and epic tracks. Once you are in the series, you begin to appreciate how carefully SCCA Pro, Mazda and Long Road Racing have crafted the car and the competition format to produce the close racing we saw in 2016 in practically every round. One example of this is the way the qualifying format rewards drivers who can throw down two fast laps out of the box running alone. In contrast, the car and race format put a premium on passing skills and teamwork, yet quickest lap times matter almost not at all. The best performance thus requires a variety of skills, which makes MX-5 Cup an excellent venue for driver development.
The other element of MX-5 that makes it work is its deep field of driver talent. There were over 50 drivers running MX-5 Cup in 2016, which helps. But what really does the trick is that there are so many highly skilled drivers go about each race and each season in somewhat different ways. When you have drivers who as a group do so many things well, you have many opportunities to learn. Take a look at these skills and see if you don't think you could learn if you had to compete with them 12 times per year.
The Fast Four: John Dean II, Robby Foley, Nikko Reger, Mark Drennan
This group won 8 of the 12 races this year. But even these front runners do different things well. John Dean can throw down a great qualifying lap on demand better than any other driver. He is fast in all phases of a race, and after watching him it comes as no surprise that he was the 2015 champion. Reger can churn out fast lap after fast lap and put a gap on the field when he likes a track, but all tracks don't suit him equally. Foley and rookie-of-the-year Drennan can run on the edge of adhesion and are awesomely creative at using that skill, but the ragged edge occasionally bites them.
The Consistent Three: Ara Malkhassian, Nathanial Sparks, Dean Copeland
Each of these drivers won one race this year, but that isn't the key to their strategies. Watching them across twelve rounds you realized that they understood that a P3 or a P5 wasn't a bad thing. After a while, if you have enough thirds and fifths, you are the points leader. And, if you can run P3, occasionally you'll be handed a second when someone crashes or seize an opportunity to take the win when a competitor bobbles. It is important in understanding the series to note that the overall winner in 2016, Nathanial Sparks, comes from this group. So does the second place finisher in the final points standings, Ara Malkhassian. Consistency has its rewards: just ask Sparky about his $200,000 check.
The Wolf Pack: Drake Kemper, Tim Barber, Chris Stone, Glenn McGee, Nick Bruni, Sarah Montgomery, Corey Rueth
Each of these drivers had their moments, finishing eighth or higher in at least one race. And sometimes these drivers -- especially Kemper, Bruni, Stone and Barber -- threw a real scare into the leaders by finishing second or leading a race. That kind of performance keeps the front runners honest. And, since five of these drivers are rookies, somehow you know that if they come back they'll be going faster next year.
Of course there are two other important groups in the driver ranks. One is those drivers who are quickly developing, especially the rookies who are young and had to learn all or most of the tracks at each event. Could someone emerge from that group next year to challenge the "old" guard? The other important group, of course are new, talented drivers who enter the series, typically from Spec Miata or karting.
This rich driver structure, with many excellent drivers displaying diverse skills in an environment that encourages and rewards driver development, is what really makes MX-5 Cup so great.
If you are interested in racing in MX-5 Cup in 2017, please contact us for complete information on the series and our full range of race engineering services.