Mazda MX-5 Cup: best results of the season so far for Loni Unser & Savanna Little at Sebring
At the second round in Sebring, Hixon motor Sports' Loni Unser and Savanna Little claimed their best finishes to date in the Mazda MX-5 Cup, as the series provided again spectacular racing throughout the weekend.
Mazda MX-5 Cup keeps delivering.
The one-make series made its return on track after the stunning season opener at Daytona in late January, when a breath-taking finish gave Race 1 victory to Gresham Wagner, with ten cars finishing in a second gap.
The series was also a highlight in terms of women's presence: four female drivers lined up on the grid at Daytona – all from Hixon Motor Sports, a team now owned by Bryan Hixon and managed by former W Series racer Shea Holbrook. Sabré Cook made her debut in the series and was the highest finisher with a P12 and a P13; Hannah Grisham impressed with a solid debut in pro-racing and navigated between the top-15 and top-20. Loni Unser also returned to the series and drove the Swamp Dragon Hot Sauce car, but her weekend was hampered by engine troubles. Finally, it was Savanna Little's racing debut in the #63 machine: the 26-year old from Austin, Texas, is in fact the winner of the Mazda Women in Motorsport scholarship, an initiative that granted her $75,000 and the chance to enter such a competitive championship.
The Japanese manufacturer recognized the need for such programs and committed to keeping the scholarship in place for the foreseeable future.
“Earning the scholarship from Mazda Motorsports was the kick start I’ve been needing for years to begin my career in professional sports car racing.” – explained Little.
“Many aspiring pros know that it’s a game of hundreds of ‘noes’ trying to break into pro racing without being self-funded or coming from a racing family. Sometimes all it takes is one ‘yes’, or a few people believing in you."
“In my opinion, support in the grassroots to the semi-professional racing is vital for women to get to the next level,” added Hixon Motor Sports Team Manager Shea Holbrook.
“Mazda remains focused on fostering development, working with the driver, team, even providing mentorship, coaching and media. There’s been wonderful opportunities for women in racing but, the disconnect has also been, it stops where it started. Mazda furthering their support shows the commitment they have not just to women but to grow the industry.”
At the second double-header of the season Savanna Little and Loni Unser were back onto the grid with Hixon Motor Sports, while Sabré Cook will focus on her single-seater return with the all-female F3 championship W Series.
Unser – who comes from one of the most famous racing families in the United States – qualified 23rd on the grid for race 1, with Little just two grid slots behind.
Poleman Gresham Wagner led the field ahead of Sam Paley and Michael Carter, as the two ladies of the series made up some places in the opening laps.
The race was interrupted by a Full Course Yellow on Lap 7, when Lucas Mars and jenson Altzman collided and the former went hard into the tyre wall.
Meanwhile, Selin Rollan (Hixon Motor Sports) had made his way up from fifth to second and, when the race resumed, engaged in a tight battle with Wagner and Carter.
Loni Unser fell back at the restart after having worked her way up to P16; she continued her race battling around the top-20 with also her teammate Little following closely.
Rollan lost second to Carter when he failed his attack attempt for the lead, but everything was to play for on the last lap: Wagner made a mistake into Turn 1, handing the lead to Carter and dropping to third, before the top-3 made their way back to the Ullman Straight. Wagner sent it on the inside at the final corner – but it was a three-car run across the finish line. In a spectacular photo-finish, Hixon Motor Sports' Selin Rollan took victory for one thousandth of a second, ahead of Michael Carter and Gresham Wagner, in the second closest finish in the history of the series.
It was Shea Holbrook's first victory in the series as team manager.
Loni Unser was 18th, while Savanna Little took the chequered flag in P20 and thus conquered her first top-20.
"Put in work today, and made huge improvements in qualifying and race 1." – wrote Little. "Made some mistakes too, but it’s all about finding the limit and developing the pace to run at the top end of this incredibly tight and talented field."
The second race on Friday was just as entertaining and saw Paley starting from pole, alongside Piscitell (both for McCumbee McAleer Racing). But it was again Gresham Wagner to clinch the leadership of the race after a few corners, followed by Sam Paley, Aaron Jeansonne and Justin Piscitell.
From P21 and P25 respectively, Loni Unser and Savanna Little both gained one position at the race start.
The race was soon neutralized by a Full Course Yellow when the #55 car of Mosey Uretsky went off. At the green flag, the five front-runners managed to break away, with Wagner half a second clear of the competition. Race 1 winner Selin Rollan also caught up with the leading group but, on Lap 10, he slowed down and, as he was passed by the incoming pack, he was sent off into the grass by Piscitell.
The latter had also made contact with Jeansonne and left the #24 Provision Motorsports with significant damage. A second Full Course Yellow was deployed, with the race being resumed with 5 minutes left on the clock.
Rollan managed to get back to pit road and was sent out again by Hixon Motor Sports after repairs without losing a lap to the leader. He quickly climbed up the order and finished an outstanding tenth.
Michael Carter made the move for second on the battered car of Jeansonne and was the only driver to get close enough to Wagner on the final lap.
Following another breath-taking finale, Carter went too deep into Turn 17, allowing Wagner to take the chequered flag and secure the second victory of the season.
Bryan Ortiz was third, ahead of Aaron Jeansonne and Todd Buras.
Loni Unser had a very positive race in the midfield and finished P15 – her best result of the season.
"I never thought P15 would feel so good (don’t worry though, I’m not settling)", wrote Unser on her social media profiles.
"Thinking of all of the people who have believed in me and helped me to this point brought tears to my eyes. I really believe Mazda MX-5 Cup racing is some of the most competitive racing in the country right now."
Savanna Little was P19 and also topped her best finish.
"What an incredible race track, two cautions and a bit of carnage made for a very interesting Race 2 Today.", she wrote. "My very last laps were actually my fastest after a late caution and a restart. Stoked to keep challenging myself and carry that momentum onto St.Pete!"
The next round of the championship will in fact be on the streets of Saint Petersburg, on April 23-25.
You can learn more about Hixon Motor Sports, the team that broke the record for most women in the series, here!