Heather Hadley returns to the top-10 in Mazda MX-5 Cup at Road America
Having battled at the very top of the extraordinarily competitive Mazda MX-5 Cup field throughout the weekend at Road America, rookie Heather Hadley has made her second appearance in the top-10 with her best performance of the year to date.
The recipient of the Mazda Women Initiative scholarship winner, Heather Hadley, has returned to the top ten in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, equalling her best finish of the year after a truly spectacular weekend at Road America, Wisconsin.
"We had a great weekend overall at Road America thanks to the hard work and continued effort from everyone at Spark Performance!" - Hadley told us. "I was unsure coming into this weekend how the results would turn out since I had never been to this track and I figured there would be adversity to overcome with the new surface, but thankfully it turned out to be my best race weekend of the year to date!"
Hadley, 21, won the $75,000 scholarship for an outstanding female driver, selected via a shootout, and has since then impressed in her rookie campaign in the uber competitive Mazda MX-5 Cup, quickly adapting to the car and battling in the crowded midfield on some of the most legendary North American racing venues.
Heather - who previously raced in the Legend Cars - learned the machinery at Daytona, where she had a strong run in race 1 before an unavoidable accident took her out of contention in race 2. But just one round later, the young Californian would secure her first top ten with an outstanding eighth place on the streets of St Petersburg, in her first experience on such a track.
The driver of the #54 Spark Performance machine collected another top 20 finish in Long Beach - and two more at the fast Watkins Glen, where she was the protagonist of another highly positive double-header where she just missed out on another top ten in race 2, ultimately finishing P14.
Coming into the fast and technical Road America - a legendary 6.515 km course that features iconic corners but also rewards experience - Hadley was looking to carry momentum and continue her solid learning season. And the first sessions of the weekend were a big signal that Hadley had the speed to contend for another top ten, as she clocked the tenth fastest time in Practice 1, with a 2:35.208 that put her only 7 tenths off pace setter Gresham Wagner.
In a strong 28 car field, Hadley was the fourth fastest rookie in Thursday's practice.
A P18 in the second practice was then topped by a 2:35.306 in qualifying that gained Heather the 17th slot on the grid of the first race on Saturday morning.
Hixon Motor Sports' Jonathan Neudorf claimed pole position, ahead of Nate Cicero and Gresham Wagner. Having missed a round earlier in the season due to a medical issue, Hanna Zellers has had a challenging season so far in the Mazda MX-5 Cup, but a strong run at Long Beach seemed a great starting point for a recovery. An unfortunate weekend at Watkins Glen - when engine issues took her out of both races - meant that Zellers aimed to bounce back at Road America. She would qualify in P26 in the #74 Hixon Motor Sports machine.
At the green flag, Neudorf kept the lead, but Wagner managed to slot into second place ahead of Cicero. The latter fought back after the first lap and snatched the top spot, as Wagner and Noaker followed - before Jared Thomas took second place. Having dropped just outside the top five, Neudorf was out of the race with 37 minutes to go after a contact with Jeremy Fletcher into Canada Corner.
Heather Hadley, meanwhile, had a really strong start and, from 17th on the grid, she soon climbed the order, passing several cars in the early laps to move into P12.
Hadley drove smartly but aggressively and battled with drivers such as championship contender Selin Rollan on the doorsteps of the top ten.
When Thomas Annunziata hit the wall at turn 1, bringing out the caution with 35 minutes to go, Hadley had moved up to P11.
Heather managed to break into the top 10 once the race was back to green, as in the leading group front-runners were separated by hundredths of a second and running in slipstream. She passed Palermo with 25 minutes to go and kept following Rollan like his shadow - until a big off for Andrew Wilson triggered the second caution.
With only 10 minutes left on the clock, Opalski, Thomas and Noaker would emerge as the leading contenders for the win - but the battles were just as heated for the positions immediately behind: Hadley overtook Rollan for eighth and tried to find a way past Jodoin - while also keeping her rivals behind - in a performance worthy of a seasoned driver.
The race ended behind the pace car when an accident at the Kink, the fastest section of the track, took out the incredibly unfortunate Hanna Zellers and Joey Rainey, who had tagged her into a high speed spin. Prior to the accident, Zellers was having a really positive race, having recovered from P26 to P16.
The third caution handed the victory to Gresham Wagner, ahead of Thomas and Noaker. Hadley's sterling eighth place meant that the young Spark Performance driver equalled her best result of the season.
Later in the afternoon, Hadley had the chance to attempt another charge towards the top ten, having shown clear speed and racecraft to battle with the very top cars in the field.
An accident after turn 1 immediately brought out the first caution when Fletcher, and Rollan collided at the start. From 14th on the grid, Heather Hadley perfectly took evasive action and navigated through the chaos to slot into ninth place when the safety car was deployed.
Max Opalski had retained the top spot from Aaron Jeansonne and Robert Noaker - who would advance to second at the restart. Hadley had a great restart and kept the inside line at turn 1 to pass Palermo. It was a matter of tenths of a second between the front runners once again and Heather spent the whole first part of the race wheel to wheel with Palermo, Jodoin, Neudorf - trading positions from seventh to tenth, often one second away from the leader of the race.
With 25 minutes to go, Thomas, Noaker and Opalski were again fighting for the lead; the latter defended well but Thomas made a move stick five minutes later, when Wagner also joined the party.
Having lost the slipstream from the cars immediately ahead, Hadley kept tenth place but was drifting behind, unable to keep up with the first group of cars. Now six seconds behind, Heather was caught by an equally strong group of pursuers - which included Atwater, Heimann, McIntosh and Hansen, all targeting the final spot in the top ten. Hadley gave up the position for the first time with 18 minutes left on the clock, but remained in the mix until the very end.
Crossing the line in P13, Hadley just missed out on a consecutive top ten but comes home with her strongest weekend to date, having shown speed to battle up front all weekend and with pace to contest for a top five. Her ability in the close battles was particularly impressive, as she always moved forward from her starting position and never made mistakes on such a challenging track that can be unforgiving.
After a spectacular final lap, Jared Thomas held off the attacks of Wagner, Opalski and Noaker, taking his second win of the season - with championship rivals Aaron Jeansonne and Selin Rollan both out of the race.
"I am pleasantly surprised by how well things seemed to fall into place, and I'm very proud of the effort of the team and myself", Heather said. "We made a multitude of changes to the car and to my driving habits since Watkins Glen, and I have high hopes that those will transfer into the last two Mazda MX-5 Cup weekends at VIR and Road Atlanta as well."
"As happy as I am with my hard-fought finish coming from 17th to 8th, I am just as grateful for the team and for the support of Mazda because I know it wouldn't have been possible without them."
VIRginia International Raceway will host the sixth - and penultimate - round of the 2023 Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, on August 25–27.