Its been almost two weeks since I had the pleasure of working with the Mazda MX-5 Cup Series Presented by BFGoodrich Tires at “America’s Nurburgring”, the beautiful Road America. Now that some time has passed and the excitement has calmed, I think it is worth looking back at the weekend as a whole, as the newly formed TUDOR United SportsCar Championship series paired with the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, in addition to the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge, Prototype Lites and Mazda MX-5 Cup, to form the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase. The weekend had a lot on it’s plate, but promised to give fans their fill of racing by weekend’s end.
First of all, I must say that we got lucky and had an absolutely gorgeous weekend for racing. Clear skies and temperatures in the low seventies complimented the vast green space in and around the race track, and made for four very comfortable days. This great weather produced happy race teams and fans alike, as crews were able to focus on car setup for dry conditions, and spectators were able to watch as drivers pushed their vehicles to the limits of speed and traction, instead of sitting under a dripping umbrella as cars slip and slide around cautious corners.
Having the privilege of job shadowing some of the staff members who run the MX-5 Cup, I was able to experience the races from many different perspectives. From the paddock to the media center, I was truly able to see the race from almost every angle. While standing in Pit Out was probably my favorite place to watch the cars fly by, the air conditioned sanctuary that is the Media Center provided a comfortable seat to watch the cars cross the line. As I was essentially a weekend assistant for the head of Public Relations for the MX-5 Cup, I spent a fair amount of time in the media center, as I did my best to help construct press releases between the driver interviews that I conducted after every practice, qualifying and race.
The part of the driver interviews that stuck with me was how down to earth the drivers are. As a racing fan, and someone who is still new to the industry, we tend to put race car drivers on a pedestal. They are often regarded as fearless, super-human speed machines. Now, I’m not going to try to detract any of the drivers’ skills and talents, or that of any team member for that matter, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how “normal” all of them were when they were out of the driver’s seat. While I had a list of questions that I would generally ask, after the interview itself was completed, many of the drivers were happy to take a few minutes to chat with me before I ran off to catch someone else. I had the pleasure of talking with points leader, Kenton Koch, numerous times as a result of his consistently fast laps from practice through race ten. Kenton has firmly established himself as a noteworthy driver this season, but remained extremely humble at every interview and passing conversation. Likewise, Bryan Hixon, a driver in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge class, who struggled to regain his confidence after a sizable crash early in the weekend, was very honest and upfront about being nervous when it came time to get back in the car. After his interview, Bryan and I talked for about ten minutes, and it was the informal conversations like these, that really allow you to get to know the drivers, and all of them were a pleasure to talk meet.
Taking a step back now, and looking at the weekend as a whole, specifically at the new TUDOR series, I think it was great. I know there was skepticism about the merging of ALMS and Grand Am, but when you sit down and watch the race, it is an absolute blast to see all of the different cars and classes battling it out. To add to that, watching these cars race on an extremely fast track like Road America, is motorsports heaven. No matter how much one may like tighter, more technical tracks, there is a part in all of us that can’t help but love seeing these machines wind out to near top speed, as they can on Road America’s three long straights.
Despite the fact that I was at the track for some work experience and job shadowing, being a huge racing fan myself, I took every opportunity I could to enjoy the event as a spectator. As predicted, the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase did not disappoint. Having written about the MX-5 Cup races in a previous article, I’ll brush over that part. As for the rest of the racing, competition was strong. In classic Continental Sports Car Challenge Series fashion, the yellow flag got a work out. While the race came under a number of caution laps, much of this can be attributed to the great racing that took place under green. Drivers were reluctant to give up even an inch, and it was wheel to wheel throughout most of the race. The TUDOR race was similar in that it seemed that every few laps, the yellow flag would reappear to pause the excitement of green flag racing, yet both races managed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
For the smaller series (GT3 Cup and IMSA Lites), while they may not be the star attraction for most fans, they certainly add to the entertainment value of the weekend. In my opinion, it’s nice to see a couple spec series anyway. Without a “mechanical advantage”, if you will, it comes down to car setup and driver skill to win races, and this generally results in pretty close competition, and a race that is surprisingly exciting to watch. Plus, having a wider variety of cars at the track helps road racing appeal to a wider audience, which is a much needed boost for the industry. If the American population could embrace road racing to a caliber similar to our European counterparts, the industry as a whole would flourish and expand.
While Europe may have us beat when it comes to a racing fan-base (excluding NASCAR), road racing in the States won’t be going away anytime soon as a four year contract extension between IMSA and Continental Tires was announced over the race weekend. While this piece of news may have flown under the radar at the time, it guarantees another four years of supply and sponsorship for the TUDOR and Continental series. For race teams, this is huge, as they will not need to adapt setup for different tire manufacturers, and because Continental puts such an emphasis on advertising and advocating auto racing, it brings more positive attention to the world of road racing.
Overall, it was a fantastic weekend to be at Road America. With good weather, good racing, and of course, Road America’s great food, the Road Race Showcase seemed to be the ultimate concoction of racing at one of the nation’s top tracks. My only issue came from an abundance of caution laps in the two major races, but that’s racing, and they were still great to watch. It truly was a weekend to remember, and a weekend that will definitely be worth attending next August.