By Heather Hadley
A little over a year ago, I had my sights set on NASCAR.
I wanted to go late-model racing at the biggest short track events of the year. I had already started calling teams to get an idea of pricing and when I could start. I gathered all the information I could and compared it to our budget.
Then I realized that my plan, the one I had moved to Charlotte, NC for, was not going to work. I knew I needed to make a change.
I began looking into other options I could pursue and drew inspiration from IMSA drivers at the PitFit Training facility in Cornelius, NC. I asked them how they started in IMSA to get to where they are now, and almost all of them gave the same answer: The Mazda MX-5 Cup series.
They explained how challenging the series is. And how it’s crucial to driver development to spend as much time with the series as possible.
After doing a fair bit of research on the Mazda MX-5 Cup series and on the car itself, I was ecstatic. It was everything I could want in a series.
I decided my next step would be to attend the MX-5 Cup shootout and contend for the Women’s Initiative Scholarship, an opportunity that could change the trajectory of my racing career entirely.
I showed up to the 2022 MX-5 Cup Shootout with one test session under my belt and with one major goal: to learn as much as I could and make progress over the course of the two days.
My background is primarily in Legend Cars, so my biggest hurdle would be adapting to an entirely different type of car and corresponding discipline. But the various coaching sessions we had over the two days – with industry professionals like Tom Long and Andrew Carbonell – proved to be extremely valuable. I was able to make significant progress and put down some strong laps times.
With the help of everyone at Mazda Motorsports and Flis Performance, I became the Women’s Initiative Scholarship recipient for the 2023 season in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup series presented by BFGoodrich Tires!
Suddenly my hard work was paying off, and my spontaneous decision to switch to road racing looked like it might have been a good one.
Rounds 1 & 2: Daytona International Speedway
The Mazda MX-5 season started out with the biggest event of the year, the highly-anticipated Rolex 24 at Daytona.
It was nothing like the test event we had just weeks before. This time, it was completely filled with spectators, eagerly awaiting IMSA’s biggest endurance race of the year on Sunday. This meant there were quite a few more cars joining us on track for practice of their own.
In race one, I had gotten up to pace, but quickly found out how important the draft is. I spent almost all of the 45-minute competition by myself after losing the cars ahead of me. So I knew I needed to switch things up for the second race.
In race two, I was immediately more aggressive and began making passes. But later in the race, after having made my way up to 17th (from 25th), I got collected in an accident. However, even with an unlucky end to the weekend, I was happy to have made my way onto the podium in my first professional race. I stood proudly with the Top-Finishing Female Award!
Rounds 3 & 4: The Streets of St. Petersburg, FL
The second race weekend was our only event of the year with the NTT IndyCar Series. Racing on a street course would be a new experience for me, but I made progress through the weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg.
Starting the first race from 25th, my primary objective was to move up through the field. Because this course is so narrow, my plan was to remain patient and capitalize on any mistakes made by the drivers ahead of me. Thankfully my strategy seemed to pay off because, slowly but surely, I was able to make passes and fight my way up the field. I finished the race in 19th. It wasn’t where I wanted to be, but it put me in a better starting position for the second race.
After starting 21st in race two, I picked up my first top-ten finish! Overall, the weekend was one of my favorites of the year. There were so many excited fans, and the racetrack location was so beautiful and unique. I made lots of memories that I will cherish forever.
Ready to read more about the rest of my MX-5 Cup season? Stay tuned for Part II, coming