When an early caution slowed the action on the streets of St. Petersburg, Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises) thought that his work to pull away from the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires field was all for naught. He didn’t need to worry; when racing resumed, he still could not be caught. Carter took the win by over two seconds, a mammoth margin in MX-5 Cup competition, and leaves St. Petersburg in the points lead following six races in the 14-race championship.
Starting from the pole, Carter held off Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) through the opening laps. Any mistake by Wagner meant he was pounced on by a train of cars behind him. This gave Carter the opportunity to build a comfortable gap, until 10 minutes into the race, the car of Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 Provision Motorsports) caught fire and brought out the race’s only full-course yellow. Jeansonne was able to pull off and exit the car.
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When the track was clear and green flag racing resumed, there was 26 minutes left on the race clock. This commenced a hectic battle for second through sixth positions, which enabled Carter to once again pull away.
The fight for the final two podium spots was intense. Eventually, Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) emerged as the breakaway driver to chase down Carter.
While scrapping for third, Wagner and Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) made contact in Turn Two. Thomas spun and was lucky to have not been hit by any of the cars packed up behind them. Wagner continued on, and Thomas dropped down the order. He eventually climbed back to 16th at the finish.
Race One winner Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) did not get a chance to challenge for the podium. Contact with the wall in Turn 10 damaged his car and he parked in pit lane with 10 minutes left.
Up front, Paley was ever so slightly chipping away at Carter’s lead, but eventually ran out of time. Carter took the win by 2.210 seconds over Paley.
“That was how you want them to go,” Carter said. “You want to sit on pole, lead every lap, and win the race. We didn’t get that done this morning, but it was great to do that in Race Two. I worked my tail off to get that gap before the yellow and then when the yellow came out, I radioed ‘I just did all that for nothing!’ But fortunately, when we restarted, they got to racing really hard and I was able to do it again. The last ten laps, I was just taking care of everything as much as I could.”
Carter’s two poles, two fast laps, runner-up finish in Race One and win in Race Two have propelled him into the MX-5 Cup Championship lead by 120 points over Wagner.
“Congrats to Sam (Paley), he drove his tail off and to Gresham (Wagner) as well after he had that problem in race one,” Carter added. “Also, a big thank you to everyone at Coaches Corner back in Savannah who watches us and supports us, a big thank you to them!”
Paley collected his second podium of his rookie season. His first top-three came in his Mazda MX-5 Cup debut at Daytona International Raceway in January.
“Honestly, that was probably the hardest race of my entire life,” a red-faced Paley said. “I’m not going to lie, I’m out of breath! I really gave it 110 percent the entire time. We were the fastest car on track, but unfortunately the gap was just too big and we just didn’t have enough laps. I had the car and gave it everything I had so I’m satisfied with second, especially after the DNF in race one. It was a good, tough race.”
Third was a satisfying finish for Wagner after a drivetrain issue in Race One forced him to retire. His relief was tempered with some regret for his contact with Thomas, though race officials deemed it to be a racing incident with no penalties issued.
“I am a bit relieved,” Wagner admitted. “I said after my Daytona win, that was the hardest race I had ever driven, but today has that one beat! The heat, the duration, just being so busy around here, it was ruthless.
“I feel good about the result, but I do feel bad about the contact I had with Jared Thomas,” he added. “Ultimately, I think it was more of a racing deal, and I guess race control agreed. All I know is he went around, and lost positions. And that’s just not how you want anything to go when you are racing someone. Everything aside, I’m glad to leave here with a podium, and ready to move on to the next one!”
Finishing fourth, 15 year-old Luca Mars (No. 41 Copeland Motorsports) had his best MX-5 Cup race weekend thus far. The rookie finished fifth in Race One.
Rookie drivers had a strong showing on the streets of St. Petersburg; five of them finished in the top 10 in Race Two. In addition to Paley and Mars, Chris Nunes (No. 32 JTR Motorsports Engineering) finished sixth, Juan Hernandez Leiva (No. 59 Team Guatamala) finished seventh and Daniel Williams (No. 38 Copeland Motorsports) finished eighth.
The 2019 Mazda MX-5 Cup Champion Bryan Ortiz (No. 4 Copeland Motorsports) completed the top five.
Alex Bachoura (No. 33 Slipstream Performance) earned the Hard Charger Award for advancing from 18th to 11th in the 45-minute race.
A recap of Rounds Five and Six at St. Petersburg will air on NBCSN, Wednesday, May 5, at 3pm ET.
Mazda MX-5 Cup Rounds Seven and Eight will take place May 14 – 16 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Both races will be streamed live on IMSA.com and NBC Sports Gold TrackPass.