Jared Thomas Returns to Defend His 2022 Championship
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The highly anticipated Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires 2023 season opener has arrived. More than 30 cars will take to Daytona International Speedway this week and wow fans with some of the most intense racing of the week.
Coming into Rounds 1 and 2 as the reigning Mazda MX-5 Cup champion is Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering). Thomas’ team has expanded again this year, fielding eight cars, including his own. It’s a significant workload, but it can’t dampen Thomas’ enthusiasm for the start of another race season.
“I feel good,” Thomas said. “It feels like a fresh start. Coming into the season, especially after a very stressful points battle last year, it feels good. I enjoy the beginning of the year so much because you’re just out and going for podiums and race wins, you’re not being conservative. It gets stressful when you start thinking about points and you’re the guy everyone is after.”
Thomas kicked off his 2022 championship season with a win in Round 2 at Daytona. He knows all too well how important it is to start the year strong.
“It really sets the tone for the rest of the season,” Thomas said. “It’s always good to start the season well because it takes the pressure off.”
Experience at Daytona is something most of the 11 rookies entered are lacking. One who does have experience racing on the road course that encompasses most of the oval is the newest MX-5 Cup Shootout Scholarship winner, Nate Cicero (No. 83 McCumbee McAleer Racing). Cicero raced at Daytona last year in the Spec MX-5 Challenge. A few months later, he was invited to Mazda’s MX-5 Cup Shootout and came away with the big scholarship valued at $110,000. The rookie is under no illusions that his debut will be easy.
“I think a lot of it’s going to be the drafting game,” Cicero said. “I’m going to get acclimated to that and find my feet. I need to get these first two races down and gain experience. A top-five (finish) would be really nice.”
Taking home the Mazda runner-up shootout scholarship valued at $75,000 was Thomas Annunziata (No. 10 Hixon Motorsports). He dipped his toe in the MX-5 Cup pool last year, racing at VIRginia International Raceway, and showed impressive pace. He is part of Hixon Motorsports’ nine entries, which includes two former scholarship winners and rookie of the year recipients: Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motorsports) and Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motorsports).
Winner of Mazda’s Women’s Initiative Scholarship, also valued at $75,000, is Heather Hadley (No. 54 Spark Performance). Hadley’s background is quite different from her competitors. She comes to MX-5 Cup following success in Legends Racing. Hadley believes her experience has prepared her for most facets of MX-5 Cup racing, but there are some things she’s focused her offseason training on.
“I feel I’m somewhat prepared for aspects of MX-5 Cup racing,” Hadley said. “For the aspects I’m unfamiliar with, like the 45-minute-long races, I’m trying to prepare in other ways that I can’t do on track. For that example in particular, I’m training at the gym for at least an hour and building up my endurance and cardio levels.”
Hadley will have experienced teammates at Spark Performance to help her adapt, including 2021 champion Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance).
Something that will raise a few eyebrows around the paddock is the return of Robert Noaker (No. 13 Slipstream Performance). Noaker’s 2018 MX-5 Cup race win at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course set the Guinness World Record for youngest driver (age 14) to win what was then an IndyCar-sanctioned race. IMSA has sanctioned the series since 2021. Noaker finished runner-up in the 2020 championship by a scant four points. After building his racing resume in different categories, he returns to MX-5 Cup after a two-year absence.
If the drivers seem to be pushing extra hard for every single position at Daytona, it might be because of the new per-race payouts. Mazda announced that for 2023 it would pay prize money to the top 10 drivers for all 14 races. Race winners receive $6,000 and payouts decrease incrementally until $2,000 for sixth through 10th. Additionally, the highest finishing female driver will receive $2,000. This prize money is in addition to the year-end championship payouts ($250,000 for the series champion) and brings the total of prize money and scholarships offered by Mazda this season to more than $1 million.
All MX-5 Cup races are available to stream on IMSA.com/TVLive. Round 1 from Daytona is set for 5:25 p.m. ET Thursday and Round 2 at 10:10 a.m. Friday.