Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires staged two thrilling races at Watkins Glen International on Saturday. With 15 lead changes among seven drivers, over 400 passes for position, some mid-race rain, two different race winners, and the crowning of a new champion, the penultimate weekend of the championship season was an unforgettable one.
Claiming his sixth Mazda MX-5 Cup race victory of the season in Race 1 and backing that up with a run to fifth in Race 2 allowed Patrick Gallagher (No. 29 McCumbee McAleer Racing) to clinch the 2017 Global Mazda MX-5 Cup championship and the $200,000 Mazda scholarship that accompanies it, with two races remaining.
"Ultimately, our goal when we started the year with this ModSpace crew was to go out and win a championship, and we secured that today," said Gallagher, who dedicated his race the win to his Aunt Mary Ellen Gallagher and friend Chris Patrick, both of whom he lost recently. "Thanks to ModSpace, Howard Concrete Pumping and Mazda for giving us a chance to win $200,000. On top of that we have the Global Challenge in October to win another $75,000. Mazda does so much for this sport and so much for guys like me. Half the guys in IndyCar or Indy Lights have won scholarships and wouldn't have gotten some opportunities if it hadn't been for Mazda. Hats off to John Doonan and everyone at Mazda."
After scoring six wins and not finishing off the podium all season long, the run to fifth place marked the worst result of the season for Gallagher, but he was more focused on the big picture.
"I'm thrilled to win the championship," said Gallagher. "The biggest relief is to know I'll be racing next year. The pressure is off going into Mazda Raceway, so I'll try to get some wins out there. I look forward to many more in the future. It comes down to Mazda giving guys like me the opportunity to win some races. Going all the way back, I have to thank CJ Wilson Racing, to Jason Hoover at AMG and the guys at McCumbee McAleer. ModSpace has been with me the whole time and hopefully we can keep that relationship in the future."
Gallagher's teammate Robert Stout (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) finished Race 1 in second place ahead of fellow rookie racer Robert Ortiz (No. 4 Copeland Motorsports). After getting spun off track early in the event, Ortiz had the drive of the race as he recovered from 17th in the order to take third at the finish.
"We're getting close to the end and every race gets tighter on points," said Ortiz. "In my mind was that ($50,000) prize at the end of the year. The car was good. It sucked being spun and having to come from the back. It was fun at least! I had to be very careful on corner entry. I'm happy though. We finished on the podium. We finished close to my main competitor for the rookie championship."
The second race of the day featured a fast start before rain briefly visited the area mid-race. The full field made the most of the grip on offer from the BFGoodrich g-Force Tires to run clean and green through the final 15 minutes of the race. Once again, the battling was intense all the way through the field as 2009 series champion Todd Lamb (No. 84 Atlanta Speedwerks) crossed the line just 0.0760-seconds ahead of Tyler Kicera.
"This is a completely different series from what I was used to," said Lamb of his return to Mazda competition. "It's fun though, it keeps the racing really tight. The fans love it and as drivers, we love it. I've got to thank Atlanta Speedwerks and BFGoodrich Tires. Tyler [Kicera] and I drafted around here quite a bit in Spec Miatas, so we thought we'd hook up sometime this weekend and we did for the last couple of laps. I've got to thank him and it was a lot of fun out there today. It was pretty exciting. Especially when it started to rain and you're sliding through the corners running nose-to-tail with everyone. It was a great run. I'm glad to make it to the top step because there's a lot of fast guys out there and they fight really hard."
Kicera impressed in his series debut with Flatout Motorsports, posting quick times in practice and then dueling for the lead. Despite the fact that it was his first start in the series, his familiarity with the 3.3-miles that make up Watkins Glen was put to great use as he transitioned from Spec Miata competition to Mazda MX-5 Cup.
"I feel like I had an advantage here at Watkins Glen," said Kicera. "That took one big variable out of it for me, so I just needed to get comfortable with the car. Aside from Todd (Lamb) and Dean (Copeland), I really don't know any of these guys. I had an unfortunate incident in that first race. I tried to concentrate on being smooth and patient. I think the slippery weather played into my favor. I really like the rain. Spec Miata driversâ€”this (Mazda MX-5 Cup) is where it's at! If you want parity and bragging rights to say you're on top, this is where you do it. I'd say the parity here is way better than Spec Miata. All these cars are so equal and a blast to drive!"
Lamb and Kicera were joined on the podium by Stout, who edged ahead of Ortiz in the rookie battle, which carries a $50,000 scholarship prize from Mazda for the winner.
"It was a really crazy day," said Stout of his double-podium Saturday. "I'm really happy to see us bring as many cars back in one piece as we did, because these were two of the most insane races I've been in. It was a ton of fun. We knew we wanted rookie points, but I can't help but to go for wins every time I'm on the track. I was trying to set myself up for a draft on the last lap. The car had the speed for second, if not first. I had the fastest car without a draft. To come away with two podiums is really good and to get points over Ortiz and maintain the rookie points lead is even better!"
Alex Bachoura (No. 33 Slipstream Performance) was the Battery Tender Hard Charger in Race One, with birthday boy Nick Evancich (No. 42 Sick Sideways Racing) claiming the Battery Tender prize in Race 2.
"I think being patient is key and hanging back, but at the same time being assertive when the opportunity arises," said Bachoura. "I think everybody up front is a good driver, I just took advantage of other people's mistakes. You can't be hanging back and waiting for the last minute. You have to be aggressive when you can. I passed two people right at the end and that's what earned me the Hard Charger Award."
"The guys gave me an awesome car today," said Evancich. "I seem to struggle in qualifying. I think I think too much, but when racing starts thinking goes out the window and you're just driving to the best of your abilities. I was really strong in the dry and when it started to get dicey I was running seventh or eighth. I figured I could go for it in the conditions or bag the position and stay in one piece and get the Hard Charger Award for the guys. I definitely went a little conservative in the conditions. I'm happy for the result."
The series will head "home" to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the final event of the season on September 22-24.
The post-season will include the MX-5 Cup Global Challenge, also at Mazda Raceway, on October 12-14.