Mazda MX-5 Cup kicks off season at Daytona with Zellers and Hadley on the grid
The new season of the action-packed Mazda MX-5 Cup is upon us and with two female drivers among a 30-car field: Hanna Zellers and Heather Hadley had solid rookie debuts, with the Hixon Motor Sports driver collecting her first Top-20 on the banked corners of Daytona.
Hanna and Heather will both contest their rookie season in the Mazda one-make series, battling for points in the overall classification as well as for the highest-placed female competitor, which grants extra money prize at each race.
Hanna Zellers has several years of motor racing experience under her belt, including the IMSA Prototype Challenge in 2022, where she finished tenth. But, alongside LMP3 machinery, she also has experience in single-seaters, touring cars, GT cars: the American had in fact previously made appearances in TC America in 2019, World Racing League across 2020 and 2021, and Formula 4 US in 2018.
Heather Hadley is the latest recipient of the Mazda Women's Initiative Scholarship, a program that has ensured the presence of talented female racers in the last few years. She has raced from Legends Racing with success - but the 45 minute long Mazda MX-5 competitions will be something new and the Californian will surely make big improvements in her rookie season.
One of the most competitive environments to learn in sportscars, the Mazda MX-5 Cup also features a prize money format after each race that is very important for young drivers trying to make their way up the ladder. All drivers into the Top-10 will receive cash for all 14 races - with 6.000$ for the winner and decreasingly down to 2.000$ for the finishers between sixth and tenth place. Additionally, the highest finishing female driver will receive 2.000$.
The series champion will win a further 250.000$ prize at the end of the season.
The story of the race
Practice at Daytona had an early start in the week and saw Heather Hadley and Hanna Zellers making big progress in the lap times. Hadley was P28 and P24, improving by almost 2 seconds, while Zellers improved by 3 seconds, as the team promptly diagnosed and fixed a differential issue. The qualifying session on Thursday morning was cut short due a red flag after a crash of two cars at the Le Mans Chicance. Last year's runner-up and Rookie of the Year Connor Zilisch emerged as the fastest driver (#72 Hixon Motor Sports), who set a new lap record ahead of John Jodoin (#39 McCumbee McAleer Racing) and Maximilian Opalski (#2 Copeland Motorsports). Heather Hadley would start from P20 while Hanna Zellers would tackle the first race from the 28th grid slot. RACE 1 As always, the first of the season promised action until the chequered flag, as the pack 30 identically Mazda MX-5 Cup cars accelerated away on the banked corners of Daytona. The star of the race was Tyler Gonzales (#51 Copeland Motorsports), who started 19th on the grid after he couldn't set a fast lap in the shortened qualifying. At the start, Gonzales moved up to 11th in just one lap and joined the leading group early on. Hixon Motor Sports led with Connor Zilisch, who aimed not only at the race win but also to the additional 10 points for leading most laps, having already scored the extra points for pole position. But obviously it wasn't an easy task, as three-wide car trains made for continuous lead change - and with more drivers joining the front runners as laps went by. Just before the finish line, Zilisch dropped to fifth, but made a late move to finish second. As they took the chequered flag, just 0,015 seconds separated Gonzales to Zilisch - making it the fourth closest finish in the history of the series. Sam Paley (#28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) was third. Heather Hadley had a great first race of her Mazda MX-5 Cup rookie season as she battled through the midfield and tried to gain positions. She battled her way up towards the top-20 and eventually ended in P22. As the highest placed female driver, she won the initial 2.000$ of her campaign. Hanna Zellers had a more troubled race, but collected valuable experience and mileage, as she adapts to the new car and finished P28. RACE 2 The second race saw even more drama. Last year's champion Jared Thomas (#96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) bagged the win ahead of Gonzales and Gresham Wagner (#5 Spark Performance). There were also the first Safety Car interventions of the season and the restarts offered more nail-biting action. Especially after the second restart, Gonzales found himself in the lead - a place you don't want to have for the last lap at Daytona, where the slipstream makes such a big difference in the run to the finish line. But the Copeland Motorsport driver was able to pull away and ultimately made a podium position possible. Wagner made the most out of the second restart as he furiously drove from 10th to third - and then to lead a ten-car train to the finish line. Jared Thomas took the win by 0,078 seconds to beat Gonzales - in yet another close finish in the spectacular series. Heather Hadley had another great race, battled through the pack and brought herself in a highly positive 17th place, before a car ahead had a tyre blow and cut across the grass of the Le Mans chicane. In taking avoiding action, Hadley ended up into the wall, also hit by Jeremy Fletcher, as both the rookies had no way to avoid the accident. Despite the unfortunate DNF, Hadley had a very positive debut. From 29th on the grid, Hanna Zellers kept her nose clean and made her way up the order steadily, with a significantly improved pace. She finished in P20, scoring her first top-20 in her first weekend in the series. As she would later reveal, her performance was hampered by health problems that added a further difficulty to her adaptation to the new car. "Character building weekend for me and honestly a couple months", wrote Zellers after the weekend. "I have an infection in my sinuses and I’ll be having emergency sinus surgery Monday to restore normal function in my sinuses and get the infection out because the meds won’t work", she explained. "Had to also continue to work through a new car this weekend since we couldn’t go testing beforehand", Zellers added, mentioning a few technical hiccups that made her weekend a challenging one. "But I finished 20th and made up 9 positions in race 2 and was able to finish since we had a long yellow, I limped around in second gear until the race was checkered. The team did so great in the short amount of time we had to get the car ready through the race weekend, and also trying to get me comfortable in the car too. Lots of new foreign things for me, like shifting not in the wheel." The next race event will take place on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, from 3rd to 4th March. Heather Hadley and Hanna Zellers both showed potential to battle further up the order and have good room for improvement. "The plan is to continue the season but first I need to heal from surgery which should be around two weeks", Zellers concluded. "Really hoping it goes well and plan to be back in the car soon with good health!"