After a positive debut at Daytona, 20-year-old Heather Hadley gears up for the Mazda MX-5 Cup second round at St Petersburg. We caught up with the 2023 recipient of the Mazda Women Initiative scholarship winner.
Mazda MX-5 Cup is a worldwide synonym of pure racing spectacle, as the American championship consistently provides some of the most exciting and closely fought races in sports car competitions.
But the series is not just about breath-taking action – the Mazda one-make championship also offers one of the most propaedeutic racing opportunities for young drivers, learning on such a competitive platform and on the support schedule of North America's premier sports car series IMSA.
Graduates of the Mazda MX-5 Cup have in fact climbed the ranks of sports car racing – not only in North America, but all over the world – also supported by a forward-thinking scholarship program that really makes the Mazda operation stand out in terms of young driver development.
Created in 2008, the Mazda shootout awards funding for a full-season in the MX-5 Cup and is combined with prize money at each round. Additionally, Mazda Motorsport's Women Initiative includes a $75,000 scholarship for an outstanding female driver, selected via a shootout, to ensure female participation and proper support in each season.
Created in 2020, the Women Initiative has awarded the inaugural scholarship to Savanna Little – who raced at Hixon Motor Sports in 2021 – and to Laura Hayes, driver of the Thunder Bunny Racing Mazda last year.
With two new female drivers on the grid in 2023, we had the chance to see in action the latest recipient of the scholarship at the Daytona season opener: Heather Hadley.
Hadley, 20, began her racing career in karting aged nine.
"I discovered my passion for motorsports from indoor go-karting at the age of nine", she tells us. "It was just one of those sports that I couldn't let go of, so my dad and I continued to go to our local indoor go-karting facility for about a year until we bought my first go-kart."
Her passion continued to grow and brought her to race any kind of car she could get her hands on: a multiple championship winning driver, Heather has primarily focused on Legend Cars since 2019 – but her adaptability and ability to learn quickly played a big role in the Mazda shootout.
"The Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout is a two-day event hosted by individuals from Mazda Motorsports" – she recalls about the selection process. "Their comprehensive approach to choosing the scholarship winners includes consideration of personality, marketability, and public speaking abilities, as well as on-track capabilities such as keeping a consistent pace, putting down a quick lap time, and whether or not the driver is improving over the course of the two days."
The 2022 shootout, in fact, tested the drivers on several fronts, with challenging weather conditions forcing a few changes.
"The location was moved from Sebring International Raceway to Carolina Motorsports Park in South Carolina due to unforeseen weather complications", she continues. "On the first day, we dealt with rain moving all but one of our on-track sessions to the second day. Since the rain wouldn’t let up, they eventually decided to let us complete the first session while it was still raining."
"The second day exhibited beautiful weather and we were able to get more sessions in. The coaches at Mazda Motorsports were all super helpful and offered tons of advice, so I tried my best just to listen closely and ask a lot of questions. I was able to improve by several tenths during the last session, which I think was a huge contributor to winning the Women’s Initiative Scholarship."
Hadley, whose ambition is to compete in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship one day, is a very determined yet down-to-earth young woman.
"Outside the track I would describe myself as an introverted extrovert", she says. "I love spending time with my friends and boyfriend, but at times I do also love seclusion and keeping to myself."
"I spend the majority of my time focused on things related to racing, and don’t have many hobbies outside of iRacing and fitness. I’m also someone who loves learning and keeping myself busy, so I am double majoring in finance and accounting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte."
A hard worker, Hadley recognizes in her parents her biggest inspirations: "The two people I admire most are my parents", she says, asked about her role models. "There have been plenty of athletes who I can look at and admire for their skills and determination in their respective sport, but watching my parents work themselves tirelessly every day has been more personally impactful. They continue to inspire me to be the best version of myself I can be."
Strong of their support, once the visor goes down, Heather becomes the fierce racer fully focused on climbing the ranks of sports car racing.
"As a driver on track, I would describe myself as tenacious. I am always determined to win and never give up."
Coming from a rather different form of racing, learning a new set of skills became her main focus once secured the Mazda MX-5 Cup seat.
"The Legend Car has a motorcycle engine and a shorter wheelbase so the driving style is much different compared to the Mazda" – she explains. "The primary objective in the Mazda is maintaining momentum, which is the biggest difference I’ve noticed from the Legend Car."
"This challenge has presented itself mostly in the braking zones, where I am essentially learning the importance of not overslowing the car. As it is so early in the season I am still struggling with the transition from Legend Cars, but I intend to make great progress at the next few Mazda MX-5 Cup events."
The first round of the 2023 season was hosted, as per series' tradition, at one of the meccas of American motorsport: Daytona International Speedway.
"The opportunity to race at such a prominent and historic track like Daytona, especially for my first professional series debut, is one that I will forever be grateful for. Facing a huge learning curve coming into this series – my background being almost entirely in Legend Cars – I knew that the first few races were going to be the most difficult."
In a strong 30-car field, Hadley was put to the test, also facing for the first time a format of racing that includes longer 45-minute competitions. The Californian, though, took on the challenge and was rewarded with a very positive first race, where she battled elbows-out through the midfield and collected valuable experience finishing in P22.
The improvements continued during the second race, where the young driver brought herself up to a highly positive 17th place, but was unfortunately caught in a melee, having no chance to avoid a car out of control just ahead of her.
"I'm happy to say that although I didn't have the finishing results I wanted, I showed consistent pace and gradual improvement over the course of the two days", she says.
"With the help from everyone at Spark Performance and Mazda Motorsports, I was able to win the 'Top Finishing Female' award in the first race, and drive from 25th to 17th in the second race before getting caught up in an accident while avoiding a spin."
"I'm hoping that this progression will continue into St. Pete and beyond, and we will be fighting for a podium finish in no time!"
As per the Mazda prize fund, the highest placed female driver will receive $2,000 at each round, as a further support from the series.
"In my rookie season of MX-5 Cup, I really just want to learn as much as I can" – Hadley tells us, stressing her target for her rookie campaign. "I know how much advice people at Mazda Motorsports and Spark Performance have to offer, so whether it be bettering myself as an individual off-track or as a driver on-track, my main focus this year is on growth."
From the banked corners of Daytona to a street circuit at St Petersburg, Florida: new challenges await the drivers of the Mazda MX-5 Cup the upcoming weekend, in support of IndyCar at one of the trickiest circuits.
For Heather Hadley it will be another important learning opportunity, as she continues to climb the ranks in pursuit of her dream.
A dream that, one step at a time, could inspire the next generation of female racers.
"Speaking from personal experience, women competing at high levels of motorsport has always given me confidence and motivated me to want to succeed as well" – Heather says.
"I believe it’s very important to maintain women competing at high levels of motorsport because it allows for representation and paves the way for others".
The second round of the 2023 Mazda MX-5 Cup will get underway on March 3, with practice and qualifying. The two races are scheduled for Saturday March 4, at 7:55am ET and 4:45pm ET respectively.