Laura Hayes close to the Top-10 in Mazda MX-5 Cup at VIR
Thunder Bunny Racing's Laura Hayes was so close to a Top-10 finish in both races at Virginia International Raceway: with a P11 in race 2, the only female driver in the series equalled her best result in Mazda MX-5 Cup, showing again promising pace in the second half of the season.
Mazda MX-5 Cup was at Virginia International Raceway after a five years hiatus at the track. The championship battle was wide open, with Jared Thomas (JTR Motorsports Engineering) ahead of Gresham Wagner (Spark Performance) and rookie Connor Zilisch (Hixon Motor Sports) all close together at the top of the standings. A driver that is showing huge improvements weekend after weekend is certainly Laura Hayes, who once again was showing great pace and equalled her best result of the season after a strong round, finishing twice just outside the top ten. Rookie and former race winner Aiden Fassnacht (McCumbee McAleer Racing) scored the first pole position of the weekend, ahead of Matthew Dirk (McCumbee McAleer Racing) and Gresham Wagner. Laura Hayes qualified in 21st place out of 28 drivers.
The race was heated from the start, as several cars made contact on the first lap – including championship contender Selin Rollan (Hixon Motor Sports), who had to come into the pits for repairs but managed to only lose one lap, as the full course yellow was out to recover the car of Bruno Carneiro (Hixon Motor Sports). Rollan wasn't the only championship contender to hit trouble, as Thomas also had to pit at the restart for some repairs, while seven cars in the leading group fought for first place, including Zilisch, Wagner and Fassnacht. Zilisch and Wagner pulled away soon, but Tyler Gonzales (Copeland Motorsports) caught up with them for a three-car battle. Gonzales passed Zilisch on the final lap for the lead, then dropped back again; he would still be able to beat Zilisch on the finish line, with a gap of 0,076 seconds. Wagner was third, as the latter aimed at the big picture and avoided trouble.
Laura Hayes made great progress and made her way up from P21 to P13: it was the third time in a row that the Thunder Bunny Racing driver was closing in on her first top ten in such a crowded and competitive field. "Clawed back from the typical VIR lap one, turn one chaos" – Hayes stated. "I fell back having to avoid the melee and moved up to P11 for a bit, but had to settle for P13." – she explained. Fassnacht was again on pole in Race 2, ahead of Zilisch and Wagner. Laura Hayes lined up in 17th place. Fassnacht and Zilisch led the field until the race was interrupted on lap 3, when the car of Joey Atanasio (Formidable Racing Development) had to be retrieved from the marshals. At the restart, Zilisch took over the lead, while Fassnacht dropped down and retired from the race with engine issues. Wagner, now on Zilisch's tail, pulled away from the rest of the pack before the two made contact: Zilisch hit the back of Wagner´s car, who could save from a spin in a spectacular move. Both continued, but Fassnacht and Paley joined the duo at the front of the pack.
After Fassnacht's retirement, it would be Zilisch, Wagner or Paley for the win: the 2021 Mazda Shootout Winner scored a remarkable win in his third race of the season and moved into first place in the Rookie Championship and third in the overall standings. Wagner was second, ahead of Sam Paley (McCumbee McAleer Racing). Laura Hayes had another impressive race, making it up to P8 at the last lap, only to drop down to P11 at the chequered flag – to finish even closer to the Top-10 ahead of the last race weekend of the season. "So close to that top 10" – Hayes commented. "I had it until the last lap but it'll be another P11." "All in all, I can’t complain about VIR" – she continued. "We started this season from scratch in the most competitive series you can jump into, and every weekend our progress is taking our little team towards the pointier end of the field and into the camera views on tv!" - Laura Hayes concluded. The final race weekend of the season will take place from 28th September to 1st October at Road Atlanta, to round out the 2022 season. With two heats to go, the championship is still open and promising.