Mazda MX-5 Cup drawing NASCAR crossover, interest

After practicing for his Rolex 24 in his Daytona debut, Chase Elliott decided to hang out at the Action Express timing booth to watch the 2021 Mazda MX-5 Cup season opener.

The four-time most popular driver in NASCAR was not disappointed by the action.

Racing in tight packs along the banks of Daytona International Speedway while slamming fenders through the infield of the track, the race came to an exciting finish with the top four separated by less than 0.2 seconds at the checkered flag.

“That was one of the best races I’ve ever seen, just as a fan sitting there,” Elliott said with a big smile as he recalled last weekend’s MX-5 Cup event (two days before he won at Nashville Superspeedway). “I thought it was really cool. And those guys put on a great show, but I think that track really suited the way these cars were set up and they could go, they were going slow enough when they were really drafting on the straights. And then they looked really fun to drive through the stretch of road. And it had this really great balance. I thought it was really fun.”

Elliott has become a casual fan who occasionally watches MX-5 Cup races and highlights — and plans to watch in person this weekend at Road America, when the sports car series will race twice as a side event to the Xfinity and Cup Series (while IMSA’s premier WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races in Canada).

Elliott has become one of NASCAR’s many ties to the Mazda MX-5 Cup. By virtue of last year’s sanctioning by IMSA (which is owned by NASCAR), there are already some natural cases of convergence, but the Road America entry list includes a few more connections. MX-5 Cup rookie Connor Zilisch is driven by Kevin Harvick Inc., and series title contender Chris Nunes hails from the same Southern California region as seven-time Series Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

But it’s the memorable race that has built even stronger bonds. MX-5 Cup racing has become a must-see for NASCAR Executive Vice President Mike Helton when he attends IMSA race weekends.

“It’s been fun to own the MX-5 Cup and bring it to our audience and the people of NASCAR,” IMSA president John Doonan told NBC Sports. “Mike definitely enjoys coming to IMSA races to watch the MX-5 Cup. Anyone who is a fan of racing, whether it’s stock car racing or road racing, wants to see a good show. And without a doubt, the MX-5 Cup puts on a great show every time they’re there.”

The Mazda MX-5 Cup opens its season at Daytona International Speedway (Mazda Motorsports/Ignite Media).

Parker Kligerman will get first-hand experience with a doubleheader on Saturday and Sunday (both races will be streamed at 10 a.m. ET on IMSA.com/tvlive), making his MX-5 Cup debut in the No. 75 Thunder Bunny Racing.

Kligerman, who competes part-time in NASCAR while also working as a reporter for NBC Sports, caught the attention of MX-5 Cup officials when he tweeted that the series consistently delivers outstanding racing. The post sparked talk of his entry into an MX-5 Cup race.

In his debut MX-5 Cup practice on Friday, Kligerman turned the ninth fastest lap.

“They looked at the schedule this year and Road America is the first NASCAR side event, they said it would be fun if someone from NASCAR came to the race,” Kligerman told NBC Sports. “And they asked me if I was interested and it was ‘100 percent.’

“It’s a cool thing. I’ve always wanted to experience this and I got to race a spec Miata at Lime Rock (a Connecticut track co-owned by Kligerman) last year and I had fun, and this is the highest level of it basically. So I was like, “Sign me up!” I’m excited because I think it just looks like some of the most fun, clean racing. As a kid, you grow up thinking that racing will be like this all the time. Groups of cars using aerodynamics, slingshot passes and that sort of thing. It doesn’t quite work out that way when you get to the top, but it looks like it will.”

Kligerman, who discussed Mazda’s racing history during his “In The Wall” video series this week, believes the quality of the racing can be traced back to the production-based MX-5 Cup formula, which shares some traits with the new NASCAR’s next-generation Cup car.

As a former Mazda executive, Doonan helped create the series more than 15 years ago. The MX-5 Cup moved to its current model in 2015. Cars are built at Mazda’s main plant in Hiroshima, Japan, and shipped to Florida, where they are transformed into race cars by Fils Performance in Daytona Beach.

More than 250 motorsport-specific parts have been added to the production car, along with a full roll cage and sealed engines, transmissions, shock absorbers and ECUs.

“In many ways, the philosophy of the MX-5 Cup car is in line with what the next generation car is all about,” said Doonan. “This cost-effective platform that sets the standard for any size team. There is a one-car team that has won the championship twice. This is the philosophy of the MX-5.

The Mazda MX-5 Cup features a production-based style of racing on road courses across the country (Mazda Motorsports/Ignite Media).

“It’s no secret that the races are some of the best in the world. Closing completes. The competitive craft that teaches. It is also very cost effective for competitors. The car is all about tuning and driving talent.”

Doonan hopes the “One NASCAR” philosophy will likely help encourage more crossover to the MX-5 Cup in the future. While manufacturers’ loyalties to Chevy, Ford and Toyota may limit opportunities for stars like Elliott, some other NASCAR veterans have expressed interest in racing in the series.

“The more NASCAR-owned properties that can work together, the better,” Doonan said. “And given the opportunities with a few more road courses on the (Cup) schedule, it opens up opportunities to bring a different look and ownership to the NASCAR audience.” And the MX-5 crowd and the IMSA crowd in general have a different perspective on NASCAR these days with the new car and more road courses. You see a lot of parallels.

Kligerman, who is pushing himself to drive the MX-5 Cup car between his NASCAR on NBC pits this weekend, said some drivers have told him they envy him at work this weekend.

“I hope I represent NASCAR well,” said Kligerman, a two-time truck series winner. “I hope Chase and everyone is proud of me. I jump in at the deep end with very little practice, but I go in with an open mind, knowing I can suck. I hope to be respectful and improve over the weekend.

“I can definitely see more NASCAR guys competing in the (MX-5 Cup) as long as they can get the manufacturer’s approval to do it. We are all competitors. We can appreciate the great races. And when we see something that looks like it would just be fun, it’s really tempting. I can imagine a bunch of guys wanting to do it.

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