Gonzalez, Fassnacht Wins Races
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – There were quite a few shakeups in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires this past weekend at Watkins Glen International. One thing that remained consistent, however, was Jared Thomas’ (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) hold on the championship lead.
Two top Mazda MX-5 Cup drivers had mechanical issues that prevented them from earning a strong grid spot for both races. That included reigning champion Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) and 2020 series champion Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises), who were both unable to turn a qualifying time and had to start at the back of both races.
Carrying the image of a recently lost friend on the hood of his Mazda MX-5 Cup car, Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 Copeland Motorsports) benefitted from good use of the draft and some good timing to win the Round 7 race on Friday.
The 45-minute race was slowed by four periods of full-course caution. This effectively broke the race into four mini sprints. Polesitter Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) led early but fell back after the first restart. Zilisch’s day went from bad to worse as contact with the wall ultimately brought out the final caution. The field took the checkered flag behind the pace car with Gonzalez in front of the field.
Fighting in podium position in the final stages of the race, the timing for the final caution was ideal for Gonzalez.
“The draft is huge,” said Gonzalez. “That’s practically how I won the race. I kept drafting forward. I saw the leaders in the pack ahead of me and the car felt amazing. I knew we had the speed. I knew we could do something with it. It was yellow after yellow, so I knew at that last restart I had to get up front because there was only five minutes left and that’s how it played out. Then, Joey (Atanasio) made a little mistake and I popped out at the last second and the train decided to push me because I was on the inside. It was a good race overall.”
Rookie Atanasio (No. 43 Formidable Racing Development) nearly had the win, but ultimately settled for second and was followed to the line by Aidan Fassnacht (No. 15 McCumbee McAleer Racing), who started the race from the back of the 29-car grid. All three podium finishers celebrated with new trophies and a celebratory spray of grape sparking juice, with none of the top three having hit legal drinking age.
Fassnacht also started at the back of the grid for Saturday’s race. His grid positions were the result of a post-qualifying technical infraction. After earning his first MX-5 Cup podium on Friday, the rookie drove through the field and into victory lane Saturday.
Fassnacht’s biggest competition was another rookie, Bruno Carneiro (No. 21 Hixon Motor Sports), who came up just 0.075 seconds short of taking his first win but did earn his first career Mazda MX-5 Cup podium.
On the first lap alone, Fassnacht picked up 17 positions. He was up to fifth place by Lap 4 and started to chase down the lead pack, but didn’t have any drafting partner or any full-course yellows to help close the gap.
“MMR just had this MX-5 Cup car just dialed in,” Fassnacht said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better weapon to get the job done. I just kept my head down. I was considering trying to drop back into the pack behind me and use them to try and catch the (lead) group. Lap after lap I just noticed that I was catching them. I just kept the foot down on the right and just kept going.”
For the final seven laps, the battle was on between Fassnacht and Carneiro; both rookies eager to get their first win. Carneiro got the better of Fassnacht on the penultimate lap, but Fassnacht retook the lead on the lap that mattered most and beat Carneiro to the checkered flag by just a few feet.
“I’ve only been here (Watkins Glen International) once before,” Fassnacht said. “It’s the first track that I have experience at on the schedule, though. This track is a very special place for me. I’ve watched my dad win here in several different championships. He’s come from the back in MX-5 Cup at Watkins Glen in the rain. It makes it that much more special that I get to share that with him. The rest of my family is here, it’s a really great day.”
The wise elder in comparison to his fellow podium finishers, third-place Thomas was hoping his experience would help him capitalize on any rookie mistakes, but by the middle of the race, he had to worry about traffic coming up behind him.
Ultimately, he was thankful for a caution-free race and to collect more valuable points. Thomas now leads the championship by 415 points over Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports). If he succeeds in leading the championship through the end of the season, the $250,000 payout from Mazda is his.
It’s a quick turnaround to Rounds 9 and 10 at Road America: cars are scheduled to be on track starting Thursday. Mazda MX-5 Cup will race alongside the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series for the first time. Races are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, both at 10:05 a.m. ET.