Mazda MX-5 Cup: First top-10 for Heather Hadley at St Pete
At her first ever visit to a street circuit, Mazda Women Initiative winner Heather Hadley had a spectacular run in the highly competitive Mazda MX-5 Cup to claim her first top-ten in the series at St Petersburg.
Mazda MX-5 Cup headed to Saint Petersburg for its annual visit to the spectacular yet tricky street circuit in Florida, alongside the opening round of the IndyCar season.
One of the most spectacular and competitive grass-roots level sports car championships in the world, the one-make series features each season the winners of the Mazda scholarship, which award funding to talented drivers selected via shootouts.
Among them is Heather Hadley, 2022 winner of the Mazda Women Initiative. Mazda MX-5 Cup has in fact ensured the participation of the most exciting up-and-coming female talents with a $75,000 scholarship plus prize money at each round for the highest female entry.
At the Daytona opener, Hadley was joined on the grid by Hanna Zellers, who is set to compete in an all-season entry for Hixon Motor Sports.
While Zellers and Hadley shared the $2,000 check for best finishing woman in race 1 and race 2 at Daytona Motor Speedway, Zellers had to miss the second round at St Petersburg, as she recovers from health issues that required sinus surgery.
"My next round will be at Laguna and not St Pete", she wrote in the week leading up to the St.Pete GP. "I wish all my teammates good luck and will be rooting them on from home! I am taking the time to heal properly from surgery and will get the chance to get some testing in and get more comfortable in the car."
Coming from Legend Cars, Heather Hadley is focusing on a learning-oriented season in the crowded field of Mazda MX-5 Cup, but a highly positive debut at Daytona saw the 20-year-old Californian battling her way up the order and almost claiming her first top-20 in race 2, before being caught in an accident.
The second round, though, presented a big new challenge: her first street circuit, which proved to be extremely tricky throughout the categories, including the most experienced IndyCar drivers. Yet, Hadley approached the weekend with focus and wasn't intimidated, making outstanding improvements across the sessions and ending up claiming truly remarkable results.
Robert Noaker topped the qualifying session, ahead of championship contenders Connor Zilisch, Gresham Wagner and Sam Paley. After her first practice and qualifying sessions on a street circuit, Heather Hadley qualified in P25 in a very tight field.
While the first half of the pack was lined up, the second half was delayed as the green flag waved, resulting in two groups at the start. Noaker kept the lead over Wagner and Thomas Annunziata - the latter gaining a few positions - but the yellow flag was soon out one lap in, with Bruno Smielevski getting spun around at Turn 1.
Heather Hadley had gained a position before the caution was deployed, as she kept her cool throughout the action-packed restarts, aiming to better her personal best of P22 at Daytona.
The pack went back to green with 36 mins to go and Gresham Wagner attempted a move on the inside line but ultimately had to back off, as more cars tangled at the back. Hadley moved up to P21, taking impressive avoiding action when Jared Thomas spun in front of her.
Noaker meanwhile dropped from first to fifth, as Wagner, Zilisch and Annunziata moved into the top three positions on lap 8. The leading duo then pulled away - but Wagner was under heavy pressure from the fastest driver on track - Hixon Motor Sports' Connor Zilisch, who made it into the lead on lap 13 after a stunning pass at turn 10.
Heather Hadley had a spectacular charge up the order, logging great laps and passing four cars: the winner of the Women Initiative advanced to P17 on lap 14.
Anthony McIntosh hit the wall at Turn 10 soon later and Hadley gained one more place, while at the same time defending from the recovering Jared Thomas.
Zilisch and Wagner continued to further extend their gap to third-placed Thomas Annunziata - who was passed by Paley for third place; the driver of the #28 McCumbee McAleer Racing machine, though, had 6 seconds to make up to catch up with the leaders.
While Hadley continued to battle in the extremely tight midfield, she slightly dropped a few places, still steadily in the top-20.
The clock ticked down and Zilisch managed to put a few crucial tenths between his #72 machine and Wagner - but the latter made a spectacular pass for the lead into Turn 10 with 2 laps to go. Zilisch tried to respond on the following lap and found a gap on the final corner. Across the finish line, it would be Wagner again to prevail, taking victory by 0.021 of a second, in yet another jaw-dropping Mazda MX-5 finale.
Jeansonne launched a last minute assault for the podium, but Sam Paley came out on top of a three-car fight, preceding Jeansonne and Annunziata.
Heather Hadley crossed the finish line in P19, securing her first top-20 of the season.
"Racing on a street circuit for the first time was intimidating since they are notoriously unforgiving, but I tried not to focus on the walls and instead just on the racing line", she told us. "I struggled a bit in practice and qualifying, but after tons of data review and discussions with the team, I was able to pick up several seconds in the races! I moved up seven spots in the first race", Heather explained, climbing from 25th to 19th.
Having just taken the lead in the championship, Gresham Wagner lined up alongside Aaron Jeansonne, with Connor Zilisch and Sam Paley on the second row for Race 2 later on in the day. From 21st place on the grid, Heather Hadley targeted another strong comeback to build on the momentum.
The first lap was a rather chaotic one, with multiple cars colliding at Turn 1 and reigning champion Jared Thomas making contact with the tyre wall at turn 4. Aaron Jeansonne took the lead when Wagner also impacted with the wall at turn 3 on the second lap, dropping down the order. Tyler Gonzalez and Sam Paley followed, in a 8-car group trying to pull away.
Heather Hadley had a clean start and kept her nose clean, moving up from P21 to P19 showing great skills and patience.
Gonzalez made a move stick for the race lead on lap 3 - in a never ending battle for the top positions. Connor Zilisch traded paint with Paley, who slipped to seventh.
Hadley battled just as hard as she tried to defend another top-20: she put pressure on Hernan Palermo, who made a mistake and hit the wall on lap 10, handing 18th place to Hadley.
Zilisch managed to catch up with Jeansonne and Gonzalez - and then passed both to grab the lead in the #12 Hixon Motor Sports machine. Gonzalez tried to fight back and went side by side with Zilisch in the fast right hander of turn 3, but made heavy contact with the wall and brought out the first caution of the race.
Hedley had again stayed out of trouble and managed to climb up to P16, with 25 minutes left on the clock. Zilisch had a good restart, but Jeansonne was overtaken by Annunziata - who was then taken out by the out of control car of Gresham Wagner at turn 4, after a tag from Noaker. The accident brought out another full course yellow - with Heather Hadley in a spectacular P13.
The green flag waved again for the final 7 minutes of racing - but the action was short lived, as John Jodoin hit the wall, broke a suspension and slid across the track, igniting a multiple car crash that took Atwater, Dirks and Cicero out of the race.
Heather Hadley kept her cool and avoided the pile up, slotting into ninth position - and second among the rookies. The chequered flag was waved under yellow, handing victory to Connor Zilisch, followed by Aaron Jeansonne and Alex Bachoura on the podium.
With Robert Noaker ending up with a penalty for his contact with Wagner, Heather Hadley claimed a superb eighth place, securing her first top-10 of the season and a rookie class podium.
"It is incredible," said Hadley. "This blew past any of the expectations I had for this race. I had the goal of finishing in the top ten, so the fact that I was able to do that on a street circuit my first time it is just amazing. I'm proud of my effort and the team’s effort and so happy that this all came together today. I tried to be level-headed all the time and tried to be relaxed and it paid off today."
By finishing inside the top 10 and being the highest finishing female driver, Hadley took home a combined $3,000 from the Mazda prize money.
In her recovery drive, Hadley gained 13 positions. "I couldn’t be more proud of those results considering how difficult it is to pass on St. Pete." - she concluded.
The winner of the Women Initiative keeps setting the bar higher in her quest to become a consistent front runner in the championship. The Mazda MX-5 Cup will now return to the track at Laguna Seca, California, on May 12-14.