Gonzalez, Fassnacht wins races
Watkins Glen, New York “The Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires this past weekend at Watkins Glen International was full of upheavals. However, one thing remained the same: Jared Thomas (#96 in JTR Motorsports Engineering) led the championship.
The top two drivers in the Mazda MX-5 Cup experienced mechanical problems that prevented them from placing strong on the grid in both races. These included defending champion Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) and 2020 series champion Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises), who both failed to qualify and had to start at the end of both races.
Carrying a picture of a recently lost friend on the hood of his Mazda MX-5 Cup, Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 of Copeland Motorsports) capitalized on good draft use and good timing to win Friday’s Stage 7 race.
The 45-minute race was slowed down by four periods of complete caution. This effectively split the race into four mini-sprints. Paulesitter Connor Zilisz (#72 Hixon Motor Sports) led earlier but fell back after the first restart. Zilis’s day went from bad to worse as contact with the wall eventually led to a final warning. The field took the checkered flag behind the pace car, with Gonzalez in front of the field.
Challenging for the podium in the closing stages of the race, the timing for the last warning was perfect for Gonzalez.
“The application is huge,” Gonzalez said. “That’s how I won the race. I continued to draw forward. I saw the leaders in the pack ahead of me and the car felt amazing. I knew we had speed. I knew we could do something about it. It was yellow after yellow so I knew I had to take the lead on the last restart because there were only five minutes left and that was how it ended. Then Joey (Athanasio) made a little mistake and I jumped out at the last second and the train decided to push me because I was inside. All in all it was a good race.”
Newcomer Athanasio (43rd in Formidable Racing Development) almost took the win but ended up in second place, followed by Aidan Fassnacht (15th in McCumbee McAleer Racing), who started the race from the back parts of the 29th car. grid. All three podium finishers celebrated with new trophies and a celebratory splash of grape fizzy juice, with none of the top three coming of age.
Fassnacht also started at the end of the grid in Saturday’s race. His positions on the grid were the result of a technical violation after qualifying. After earning his first MX-5 Cup podium on Friday, the rookie rode the field and entered the winning lane on Saturday.
Fassnacht’s biggest challenger was another rookie, Bruno Carneiro (No. 21 Hixon Motor Sports), who was only 0.075 seconds behind his first win but earned his first career Mazda MX-5 Cup podium.
Only on the first lap Fassnacht took 17 positions. By the 4th round, he had moved up to fifth place and started chasing the leading group, but he had neither a draft partner nor full yellow cards to help close the gap.
“MMR just got in touch with this MX-5 Cup machine,” Fassnacht said. “I couldn’t ask for a better weapon to do my job. I just lowered my head. I thought about trying to get back into the pack behind me and use them to try and catch the (leading) group. Circle after circle, I just noticed that I was catching up with them. I just kept my foot to the right and just kept going.”
For the last seven laps the battle was between Fassnacht and Carneiro; both rookies are aiming for their first win. Carneiro got the better of Fassnacht on the penultimate lap, but Fassnacht regained the lead on the most important lap and only a few feet ahead of Carneiro to the checkered flag.
“I’ve only been here (Watkins Glen International) once,” Fassnacht said. “However, this is the first track where I have experience in the schedule. This track is a special place for me.
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I have seen my father win several different championships here. He came from behind in the MX-5 Cup at Watkins Glen in the rain. That I can share it with him makes it even more special. The rest of my family is here, it’s a really great day.”
A wiser older than his fellow podiums, third-place Thomas hoped his experience would help him capitalize on any rookie mistakes, but by the middle of the race he had to worry about traffic coming in behind him.
Ultimately, he was grateful for the no-warning race and for scoring more valuable points. Thomas now leads the championship with 415 points ahead of Celine Rolland (87th in Hixon Motor Sports). If he manages to lead the championship before the end of the season, the $250,000 payout from Mazda will be his.
It’s a fast turnaround to stages 9 and 10 at Road America, with the cars due to hit the track from Thursday. The Mazda MX-5 Cup will be racing alongside the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series for the first time. Races are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at 10:05 am ET.