Top-20 Debut for Laura Hayes in Mazda MX-5 Cup at Daytona
Mazda MX-5 Cup kicked-off its 2022 season at Daytona in extremely tricky weather conditions for the strong field of 31 drivers. Among them, 2021 Shootout winner for the Women's Initiative Laura Hayes had a promising debut and her first Top-20 finish. Round 1 was all about gathering experience.
The 2021 Mazda Motorsport Shootout took place at Sebring in October, with the aim of discovering the most exciting newcomers for one of the most competitive grassroots sports car championships in the US: the Mazda MX-5 Cup. It includes the Women's Initiative Scholarship, a ground-breaking programme that provides female racers with an opportunity to move up the ladder of motorsport on the IMSA platform. Laura Hayes was the latest recipient of the prize and follows in Savannah Little's footsteps - who won in 2020.
Let's discover the only female racer on the grid at the Daytona season opener.
Laura Hayes started racing at the age of 8 and was quickly drawn into motorsport: she became the first female to win an IKF Shifter Kart National Championship.
Today she works at the BMW Performance Center as a full time driving instructor in South Carolina and she is a Shift Up Now athlete. She drives for Thunder Bunny Racing in this year's Mazda MX-5 Cup - both team and driver are new to the series and looking forward to learning as much as possible in the extremely competitive environment.
"It's a tough series that we've stepped into", she told us. "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 said.
"Although every session was cut short, we learned a tremendous amount, and I'd say we were meeting our expectations until the end there."
And it was really no easy start at the curtain-raiser, with tricky weather conditions in a tight field. The weekend started with wet sessions and the first race was met with rain and cold temperatures - not properly what we would expect from the Florida weather. And with a field of 31 cars, it was one of the biggest grids in the history of the series.
Pole-setter Sam Paley (McCumbee McAleer Racing) wasn't able to maintain the first place at the green flag and Connor Zilisch (Hixon MotorSports) moved from third to first after a great start, followed by Selin Rollan (Hixon MotorSports). But the duo was joined by more competitors into the leading group - above all Tyler Gonzales (COPELAND MOTORSPORTS) who charged from 12th to third and had Michael Carter (Carter Racing Enterprises), Jared Thomas (JTR Motorsports) and Chris Nunes (Formidable Racing) on his tail.
The leading group traded positions at nearly every corner, before a Full Course Yellow interrupted the action half way through the race. At the restart, it was Gresham Wagner (Spark Performance) to slide into the lead, but was held back as he received a drive through penalty for incident responsibility.
Rollan then moved into the lead, but Gonzalez, Zilisch and Nunes followed him closely - all of them in the position to win the first race of the season. As often is the case in Mazda MX-5 Cup, everything was down to the final turn, the very last second, as the leading pack crossed the chequered flag in a door-to-door photo finish ending.
Just 0,062 seconds ahead, Gonzalez took the win, ahead of Nunes and Rollan. The latter lost control of his car after contact and crashed into the wall heavily after the flag - luckily without injuries, but resulted in a long night for the team to repair the car in time for the second race of the weekend.
Laura Hayes had a big challenge ahead as a rookie in such conditions, but managed the situation perfectly and battled solidly in the midfield. She gained seven positions from her starting place and brought the car home in 20th place, in a very encouraging performance.
"Race one was treacherous in the wet and under the lights" - she commented. "It was fun and I moved up the pack. So I was really looking forward to the second race."
The second race of the weekend was the first on a drying track and with slick tires, Zilisch led the race from pole after the green flag. But Thomas was right there ready to snatch the lead, followed by Nunes. A first Full Course Yellow came out when Carter crashed into the wall. Wagner, the defending series champion, passed the cars ahead to move into P2 having started from 29th; he pulled away together with race leader Thomas. But it wasn't a long lasting green flag, as the next Full Course Yellow came out when three cars made contact. The race resumed just to go back to FCY again as two cars came together in Turn 3 - this time, unfortunately, with Laura Hayes involved in the crash. "The second race finally brought us the first dry track of the weekend" - she summed up. "I think everyone was a bit antsy and people were taking some high risk moves, resulting in a number of full course yellows, which caused even more urgency at the end." "Unfortunately we were in the way of someone who was a little optimistic with their brake point, and it didn't end well for me. That's the first time I've been involved in a good wreck like that" - continued Hayes. "Fortunately, the car is repairable and isn't quite as bad as it looked." There was not enough time to clear the track and restart the race, so the event finished behind the Safety Car: Jared Thomas claimed the victory ahead of Gresham Wagner and Joey Antanasio (Formidable Racing). For Laura Hayes it was a first race weekend with many challenges and new things to learn: "I honestly believe the biggest challenge for me as a rookie - and just knowing how I approach things in life - will be finding that inner switch to be very aggressive. Elbows out, take no prisoners, that's what it's going to take to be up front in this series. It's ruthless." "Coming out of endurance racing, my nature is to be more conservative with a 'save the car approach.' It's been a long time since I've had to race with the sprint mentality. This game is so mental, and learning to manage that side and flip that switch, I think will take a little time, but I know I can do it, and I'll get there." The second round of the Mazda MX-5 Cup is scheduled from 24th to 26th February at St. Petersburg, Florida, as a support event to the first IndyCar race of the year. "Daytona and St. Pete are going to be the tricky courses on the calendar" - Hayes told us. "Everything else after that, I'm really looking forward to, because I've been to all of those tracks. Probably the most excited for Road Atlanta." And with such a promising first race, Laura Hayes has the potential to progress quicker than anyone could expect.