"We're trending in the right direction" – At her second weekend in the uber-competitive Mazda MX-5 Cup – and at her first race on a street circuit – Laura Hayes topped her best results to date and climbed the order until P15, fifth among the rookies.
St Petersburg, Florida, is always a greatly-anticipated appointment on the IndyCar schedule – as it has traditionally been the start of a new season since its return in 2011. However, the Florida seaside location also plays host to one of the most scenic rounds of the Mazda MX-5 Cup.
The championship – which usually supports IMSA sportscar series – shared the track with IndyCar in a spectacular weekend of racing on the 2.897km-long street circuit. The over 30-car field of Mazda MX-5 Cup is consistently synonym of high quality racing action, with a really competitive entry list of specialists of the series as well as up-and-coming talents that aim to climb the ladder of sports car racing; historically, the Mazda one-make series has also seen several female entries through the years and significantly invested in a program that assigns every year a scholarship to a female racer.
In 2021, Savanna Little was the recipient of the award, which went to Laura Hayes in 2022 after a shootout selection. Hayes, who therefore made her debut at the season opener at Daytona, is racing for Thunder Bunny Racing, a small yet very determined team that has big goals in its first Mazda MX-5 Cup season.
Hayes had a very strong first race in Daytona, when she claimed her first top-20 and kept it clean on really difficult mixed-weather conditions. She kept progressing session after session, but was unfortunately crashed out in Race 2 in a crash-filled second heat.
Nevertheless, Laura was satisfied by her debut and returned behind the wheel of the #22 Mazda for the St. Pete GP with the knowledge that she was on the right path having moved in the right direction in such a competitive environment.
"It's a tough series that we've stepped into", she told us after her first weekend. "Being a brand new team with a rookie driver, at a wild card of a track like Daytona, on top of with the drastic weather changes we kept experiencing, certainly made for a challenging debut" - she added.
"Although every session was cut short, we learned a tremendous amount, and I'd say we were meeting our expectations until the end there."
Hayes – a full time driving instructor in South Carolina and Shift Up Now athlete – had also revealed us she felt St Petersburg was probably among the most difficult rounds, as she was also moving her first steps on a street circuit; after quickly adapting to the challenge, though, she delivered two faultless races, constantly topping her best results.
Glenn McGee (JTR Motorsports Engineering) secured pole position for Friday’s race, ahead of Gresham Wagner (Spark Performance) and Tyler Gonzalez (Copeland Motorsports). Laura Hayes started from P30 and immediately started to move up the order.
McGee soon dropped back, while the battle for the lead between Jared Thomas, Gonzalez and Rollan continued after a few hectic laps until local driver Dante Tornello (Hixon Motor Sports) was hit by Matthew Dirks and made contact with the wall, bringing out a local yellow. Hayes was up to P28.
Rollan and Carter had a great fight and banged wheels throughout the first sector, as the Hixon Motor Sports racer moved into fourth place. The race was then neutralized when Bryce Cornell hit the barriers at the final corner, triggering the Full Course Yellow.
The race resumed on lap 12 and Wagner dived on the inside of Turn 1 – but was wide and opened the door to the battling pack behind him. Thomas and Gonzalez pulled away, as also Carter had lost momentum at the restart and dropped to 10th place.
Laura Hayes was on the move and passed Bachoura for P23.
There was drama on lap 16 for second-placed Gonzalez, who slowed down and came to a halt with transmission issues. Thomas, now over a second clear of Wagner and Rollan, saw his gap disappear at the second Full Course Yellow with 18 minutes left on the clock, as the marshalls recovered Gonzalez’s stricken car. Laura Hayes, meanwhile, had managed to recover to P21 thanks to a clean and consistent race, yet always in the pack.
Thomas had a great restart, while Wagner had to defend hard from Rollan. When the latter also came under pressure from Carneiro, second-placed Wagner caught up with Jared Thomas. But it wasn’t ultimately enough to catch the driver of the #96 JTR Motorsports Engineering machine, who won in dominant style by 1.5 seconds – a huge gap for Mazda MX-5 Cup’s standards.
Towards the end of the race, Laura Hayes had to wrestle through the field having lost power-steering, but she still managed to grab a 22nd position after a hard-fought race. Hayes had recovered up to 17th just before the final lap, despite also suffering from other technical issues during the course of the earlier laps.
“We had some temperature related issues from the start, and lost power steering near the end” – explained Hayes, who still brought the car home intact on such a difficult track. “Not a great combination with my SpongeBob arms”, she joked on her social media post. “This place is a blast to drive! Progress is being made with every session, and hopefully we’ll move up a bit more tomorrow."
McGee shared the front row with Gonzalez for Race 2, while Hayes – who had made up 8 positions in race 1 – lined up in 25th position.
At lights out, the first major incident halted the action after Turn 1, as a 6-car crash saw Woody Heimann ending up on its roof. The safety team was quickly on the scene and everyone escaped unhurt.
Tyler Gonzalez had gained the lead, followed by McGee, Wagner and Race 1 winner Thomas. Laura Hayes successfully avoided the first lap mess and gained a few positions to slot into P18.
When the race resumed, Chris Nunes was eager to charge back, but ended up hitting McGee and receiving a drive through penalty.
Selin Rollan (Hixon Motor Sports) also started to move up the order and caught up with the leading duo of Gonzalez and Wagner, opening a gap to the pursuers.
The race was back under caution with 15 minutes to go, when Tornello and Fassnacht hit the wall at Turn 10. This would prove to be disastrous for Gonzalez, who went deep into the run-off area of Turn 10, paving the way to Rollan into the lead.
Hayes continued to battle steadily in the top-20 and increasingly towards the top-15. In the final laps, she reached P16 – fourth among the rookies – and kept a consistent pace.
Connor Zilisch climbed to second for a Hixon Motor Sports 1-2, while Sam Paley made a move for this on Chris Nunes. On the final lap, Selin Rollan had to keep his teammate at bay, but ultimately crossed the finish line 0.061 seconds ahead of Zilisch, sealing a memorable day for the team led by Shea Holbrook.
Third was Paley, while Piscitell inherited fourth after Nunes was handed the post-race penalty. Having finished 16th, Laura Hayes also gained one position and was classified 15th – topping her best result in the series to date. She was fifth among the rookies, another impressive result at only her second race weekend in the Mazda MX-5 Cup.
“Keeping it clean and being calculated is something I've learned throughout the years, so I was able to take advantage of others' mistakes” – Hayes told us, as her background in endurance races is certainly playing a role.
“Once we find a little more pace in the car and myself, that's going to be a good attribute to surviving these wild races, and I see some much better results in our future”, she added.
“Female drivers are naturally more patient which is an important skill, but I need to be more bold with my race craft, especially at the start to put myself in a better position early in the race. Also, these cars seem to like a particular driving style, and leaving this race, I'm more aware of some small adjustments I need to make. Once I fix those things, we'll be right there.”
But overall, her first time on a street circuit was certainly a very successful one.
“It was amazing for our little team to be in the same paddock as Indycar. The atmosphere was amazing, the weather was perfect, and St Pete is a wonderful city” – she continued.
“It was my first time on this type of circuit, and now, I wish we had more street races on the calendar! It takes a high level of precision and commitment to be fast at a place like this, with little room for error with concrete just inches away. I really enjoyed it. I got faster every session and moved forward so we're trending in the right direction.”
The Mazda MX-5 Cup will now have a long gap in its calendar before the next round at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in May, but Hayes is ready to work hard on a few areas to continue an already impressive progression, in one of the series’ most competitive seasons to date.
“We have over two months until our next race so I'm going to take advantage of the time to work on myself physically and mentally” – she said. “I’ve raced Mid Ohio several times and it's one of the places I'm looking forward to the most.”
“Now that we have a break, we'll get to comb through the car, make sure it's perfect, I'll be on the simulator a lot, and as a team, we'll be showing up stronger with more knowledge and confidence than the first two races. We're all excited for what's to come!”