Heather Hadley completes Mazda MX-5 Cup rookie season with Top-15 at Road Atlanta
Mazda Women Initiative scholarship winner and Shift Up Now sponsorship grant recipient Heather Hadley has completed her rookie season in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup by claiming another top-15 finish - the fifth of her impressive season - at the final round in Road Atlanta.
Mazda Women Initiative scholarship winner Heather Hadley has completed her rookie season in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup by claiming another top-15 finish - the fifth of her impressive season - at the final round in Road Atlanta, as the series supported the Motul Petit Le Mans event.
Hadley entered her first year in the highly competitive championship with support of the $75,000 scholarship from Mazda Women Initiative, which has been supporting one outstanding female selected via a shootout. Despite minimal experience of the car, tracks and road racing - she had mainly raced in Legend Cars - the 21 year old from California soon proved to be competitive among some of the most exciting prospects of sports car racing in the notoriously formative Mazda one make series.
Heather showed good speed at her debut at Daytona, then collected a spectacular eighth place finish at the St Petersburg Street Circuit, in only her second weekend in the championship. Her racecraft continued to improve significantly at Long Beach and Watkins Glen - where she would return to the top-15 with a great drive in race 2. But her strongest performance to date was arguably at another iconic North American track: Road America.
At the fifth round of the championship, Hadley was consistently battling among the top ten in a series that often features over 30 entries, separated by tenths of a second. After a sterling race 1, she topped her personal best and secured seventh, paired with another strong run in race 2, where she barely missed out on another top ten.
The series headed to VIRginia International Raceway and Hadley continued an unbroken streak of seven top-20 finishes, before the season finale at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
Before the season finale, Hadley was announced as one of the recipients of the first Shift Up Now Foundation sponsorship grants. The organization has been supporting a growing number of elite female racing drivers, mainly based in the United States, helping them to fund their seasons - and Hadley was the only non Shift Up Now affiliated driver to be included in the first seven sponsorship grants to help round out 2023 racing programmes.
The Shift Up Now logo therefore appeared for the first time on the #54 Spark Performance Mazda at Road Atlanta.
Hadley ran in the top-20 in the two practice sessions, then qualified P18 - just 0.079 of a second behind sports car star Ben Keating, making his first start in the championship.
As the cars lined up for the green flag, Hixon Motor Sports' Hodneland was tagged into a spin and dropped to the tail end of the field; while the race was temporarily started, the caution was soon out before drivers reached the end of the first lap. Aaron Jeansonne led the pack at the restart with 40 minutes to go - but it would be Selin Rollan to claim the top spot after a stellar double pass.
Jeansonne fought back a few corners later as the top 10 battled for the lead in typical Mazda MX5 fashion. Ben Keating went off at turn 5 but managed to rejoin; through the action-packed first laps, Heather Hadley held P18 but had a fast Max Opalski to keep behind; the latter set fastest sectors and eventually found a way past on lap 7. Heather, though, found some pace and climbed back to P18 one lap later, as she started to run her best laps.
Rookie championship leader Cicero spun on the kerb exiting turn 7, but incredibly managed to avoid hitting the wall and rejoined; in yet another dramatic moment, Selin Rollan and Gresham Wagner made contact and the latter spun across the track - without hitting anyone - and went off in the gravel, as the leading group went three wide for the lead. Connor Zilisch had grabbed the first place, ahead of Tyler Gonzalez and Jared Thomas.
Heather Hadley picked up one place in the process, but positions kept changing by the second in the midfield. Now 17th, Hadley chased McIntosh closely with 15 minutes left on the clock. Heather made a move stick for P16 on lap 18.
Ahead, the top-four had pulled away: Rollan, Thomas, Gonzalez and Zilisch traded positions throughout the second half of the race - but Rolland was handed a 10 second penalty for the contact with Wagner. West's #50 Spark Performance Mazda was off at turn 5 on lap 22, handing Hadley 15th with 7 minutes to go.
She would grab P14 after Gresham Wagner fell down to 16th. Heather held on masterfully for the whole race, enduring the pressure a couple of tenths ahead of McIntosh and eventually claiming another top-15 finish. In a very strong first race, she was fourth among the rookies.
With a spectacular finish, Connor Zilisch took victory for Hixon Motor Sports, ahead of Tyler Gonzalez and Jared Thomas, after Rollan served his 10 second penalty post race.
After a highly positive start of the weekend, Heather Hadley lined up in P18 for the final race of her rookie season, aiming to repeat her performance from the day before.
Gresham Wagner led Connor Zilisch after the first lap - Opalski, Jodoin and Annunziata followed. Hadley was right in the midst of big battles in the midfield and, as she tried to pass at the final corner, she went wide, sliding across the track and into the path of the incoming traffic.
Hadley was unfortunately collected by Hodneland after a big accident on the main straight and was out of the race. Luckily, both drivers were unhurt.
"I still have mixed feelings about Road Atlanta because with it being the season finale of my rookie season, I had set some expectations for myself to end it on a good note", Heather told us. "The weekend started out positively with another top-15 finish in race 1 but ended with a very unfortunate DNF in race 2", she continued.
"I had made an aggressive move to pass on the outside of Turn 12 and the driver on the inside of the track must not have known I was there. There was contact between the two of us, pushing me four tires onto the grass and causing an almost immediate spin. I am very apologetic to all of those involved in the incident and incredibly relieved that everyone was okay."
While it was not the end of the season that she was looking for nor deserved, Heather Hadley can take pride in her rookie season in Mazda MX5 Cup – one of the most competitive grassroots sports car series globally. With minimal experience, Hadley showed amazing progression and, with five top-15 finishes and two top-tens, she collected 1920 points to finish 16th in the drivers' championship. 47 drivers in total entered at least one round.
She was one of the most consistent drivers of the series, finishing all but two races in the top 20 when she took the chequered flag.
"I haven't let the incident in race 2 take anything away from the rest of the season and how I feel about my progression this year", said Hadley. "Stepping into this incredibly challenging series with essentially no experience in Miatas or on any of the tracks we visited, I'm very proud of my results and of the entire effort of Spark Performance. I can't thank everyone at Mazda Motorsports enough for taking a chance on me and for believing in me."
While plans are not yet in place for her 2024 season, Hadley aims to return to the championship for a second year, as tracks and car knowledge are most certainly going to prove instrumental for an even bigger progression.
"It was such an honor to be one of the first grant recipients from an organization like Shift Up Now, everyone there is so kind and encouraging and I hope more than anything that we can work together again in the future! We are still currently working on plans for 2024, but I would love to keep road racing and hope to be back in an MX-5 Cup car at Daytona in January!"