Hinchcliffe Set for Series Debut as MX-5 Cup Returns to Watkins Glen to Turn Corner on 2023 Season
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – The Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires travels to the Finger Lakes region of New York and the historic Watkins Glen International circuit for Rounds 7 and 8 this weekend. While all eyes might be trained on IndyCar veteran and NBC Sports analyst James Hinchcliffe (No. 3 JTR Motorsports Engineering) making his series debut, the incredibly close championship points battle is the real headline.
From the high banks of Daytona International Speedway to the tight and narrow streets of St. Petersburg and through the Corkscrew at WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway, the 2023 Mazda MX-5 Cup schedule is once again packed with some of the best events on the continent. And at every track so far this season, the point leader has changed.
The third and latest driver to top the points is Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 JTR Motorsports Engineering), who raced his way to the top after finally earning his first MX-5 Cup race win at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca last month.
“It does feel different coming in after a race win,” Jeansonne said. “We’ve been focused on the championship and consistency from the beginning, but there is no better way to score points than winning. This is such a tough championship to even be in the mix, so I’m just keeping my head down and staying on the gas.”
The 2020 MX-5 Cup Shootout winner should have lots of confidence heading into the weekend considering his strong performance at Watkins Glen last season. Jeansonne finished fourth in Race 1 and started on pole for Race 2.
“I love Watkins Glen,” Jeansonne added. “This is such an iconic track and it produces exciting racing in this series. I felt strong there last year and I’m excited to be back. It is a lot different style than the previous two tracks on the schedule, though, so we need to be there at the end.”
Jeansonne will have heavy competition from a new teammate: Hinchcliffe. The former IndyCar and Mazda Prototype endurance race driver will make an appearance as an MX-5 Cup guest driver at Watkins Glen, running under the JTR Motorsports Engineering tent. Hinchcliffe is a longtime fan of MX-5 Cup and has voiced his desire to participate in the series.
It’s not the first time that MX-5 Cup has welcomed a high-profile guest driver. Last year at Road America, NASCAR driver Parker Kligerman joined the field and ran in podium contention in both races.
“Goals are hard to set because the drivers in this series are very capable and very experienced,” Hinchcliffe said. “I just want to go and learn and have fun and try to be competitive. I guess my yardstick is what Parker did last year. We’ll try to be on the same level as him.”
The Canadian will be creating special content for his social media channels all weekend, documenting his MX-5 Cup debut.
Flipping the championship points on its head is news that, due to schedule conflicts, Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) will be out of MX-5 Cup for the next six races. Zilisch, who was runner-up in the 2022 championship by just one point, is second in the points coming into Watkins Glen.
This leaves the door open for MX-5 Cup veterans Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports), Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) and Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) to challenge Jeansonne for the title. Of those three, Rollan is the only one yet to win an MX-5 Cup championship, despite having more experience. Rollan hasn’t won an MX-5 Cup race since St. Pete in 2022 but could consistent top-five finishes be the real key to winning the crown and $250,000 championship prize?
It’s not just the championship prize on drivers’ minds. A number of new drivers are thinking about the $80,000 that comes with rookie of the year honors. 2022 MX-5 Cup Shootout winner Nate Cicero (No. 83 McCumbee McAleer Racing) currently leads the rookies with 1,160 points, followed closely by Thomas Annunziata (No. 10 Hixon Motor Sports) with 1,090.
Beyond Hinchcliffe’s guest appearance, there are two drivers making their MX-5 Cup debuts this weekend: Clayton Ketcher (No. 19 Saito MotorSport Group) and Justin Brigandi (No. 88 Robert Noaker Racing).
Track action gets started on Thursday with two practice sessions. Qualifying will take place Friday morning, with Race 1 scheduled for 12:20 p.m. ET the same day. Race 2 will take place at 10:05 a.m. Saturday. Both races will stream live on IMSA.com/TVLive.