There are several paths young karters can take to try to advance their racing careers, and nearly all of them require the guidance of a wise and usually financially supportive parent. There’s a great deal of financial planning involved, because even the first step outside karting is significantly more expensive than the higher levels of karting, which are not cheap by any standard.
Some choose formula cars, and others choose sports cars. It would be unfair to claim that the sports car alternative is affordable to all, but it is generally less expensive at most steps of the racing ladder when compared to its single-seater counterpart. Plus, for those who are thinking of a long career, the greater array of seats make the sports car route a better long-term plan for some drivers.
Setting the Stage
Mazda makes it clear that it wants its young sports car drivers to succeed long-term. To do this, a driver must have the skills needed to perform, the perseverance needed to deal with inevitable setbacks, and a network to offer direction. Through Teen Mazda Challenge, drivers draw from a deep well of intelligent, experienced industry insiders so they can forge a path for themselves and turn themselves into marketable professionals that enjoy long, fruitful, and lucrative racing careers.
Chris Nunes, a TMC alumnui and MX-5 Cup race winner, owes his career to the program. “TMC shaped my career. It introduced me to David Cook, it gave me a job, and it helped me win the scholarship Shootout,” he reflected.
In Teen Mazda Challenge, young, capable drivers between 13 and 20 years old are given a chance to advance their careers. Of course, they must have demonstrated some potential in karts or Spec Miata to award them the chance, but if they have, they’re given shots at various opportunities, such as a spot in Mazda’s annual MX-5 Cup Shootout. This prestigious event has a grand prize scholarship of $110,000 applicable to a season of racing in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich.
Karting experience alone is not enough to be eligible. Drivers also must acquire a NASA license and prove their ability to operate a full-size car at speed. That includes spatial awareness and proficiency with a non-sequential H-pattern manual transmission. Drivers also must demonstrate mature decision-making on the racetrack. Off the track, drivers must be well versed with NASA rules, flags, safety protocols, and sportsmanship as written in the NASA rulebook.
Testing That Theory
In August, Mazda offered a selection of talented karters and quarter midget drivers the chance to sample the powerful and sure-footed Spec MX-5. This two-day test took place at Carolina Motorsports Park, where some of Mazda’s most experienced MX-5 racers were responsible for teaching this collection of bright-eyed teenagers and 20-somethings the intricacies of the NC Miata-based racecar.
“The TMC test was the perfect introduction to the Teen Mazda Challenge experience, if you like. The drivers got to talk with the pro drivers, the engineers, and all the other Mazda personnel,” Nunes said.
It also offered an encouraging atmosphere for the sports car novice, who can be confused by the new environment they find themselves in. The TMC program gives these young racers the chance to bolster their confidence by giving them a reassuring metric. They can measure their performance against the other TMC drivers, all of whom have comparable amounts of seat time.
Along with Nunes, there was another TMC standout there coaching: Grant West. These two stood among some of the best to come through the Mazda system: Connor Zilisch, Westin Workman, Nate Cicero, Michael Borden and Andrew Carbonell were also there helping the new generation learn the intricacies of the Spec MX-5 car.
Many of these drivers had big plans for the near future: they wanted to win at Mazda’s annual scholarship Shootout. “I gave all my drivers all the information I felt would benefit them during their Shootout,” Nunes added.
The talented 30 assembled under the roof covering the pits at Carolina Motorsports Park and received the introductory spiel from David Cook and the rest of the Mazda brass that morning. This speech taught them what to expect, how to push intelligently, and what to strive for. In other words, they were encouraged to push as hard as they felt comfortable, and they were meant to get a feel for the car — not to set a qualifying time.
West had a full plate. Acting as a team manager and driving instructor, his team, W2 Motorsports, fielded several drivers that day of varying levels of experience. “Our aim was to give the drivers as much seat time as possible. This meant extra prepping, since the cars were nearly as stressed as they are during an enduro event,” West explained.
Regular running for all involved meant some drivers needed extra assistance. Before drivers could start picking out braking points and getting better acquainted with the Spec MX-5, some of them had to learn how to shift it. The karters without much H-pattern shifting experience were given the first session. With a coach sitting alongside and guiding them through the tricky process of heel-toe, they could get up to pace much faster.
After a session defined by a few grinds and crunches, the rest of the Mazda karters were able to go and get their first impressions. To keep the learning curve achievable, all their in-car movements were being monitored. With onboard footage and data, their coaches provided catered analysis after every session — four the first day and five the second.
Dissecting Data with a Talented Hand
Among Nunes’ students was Corbin Collins, who joined TMC this season. Collins was already fairly experienced in the Spec MX-5, but he needed the keen eyes of a seasoned pro to help extract the last bits of performance.
Collins and his father Cory saw the promise in joining the Spec MX-5 ranks and bought a car last year. With it, they were able to get 13-year-old Corbin into a racing seat and acclimated with the challenges of sports car racing.
Since most sanctioning bodies require the driver to be at least 14, running the TMC/NASA program allowed him to bypass one year of stagnation. They kept the ball rolling with a half-dozen HPDE weekends, a couple races in the Spec MX-5, and this two-day test at CMP.
Nunes helped break down Collins’ driving into three sections: braking, steering and throttle application. Collins’ slightly snappy release of the brake was his first issue. His technique derived from years of karting did not transfer too well to the MX-5, which required a little more weight over the nose to facilitate turn-in. Nunes encouraged a slight touch of brake in some direction changes and slower corners to avoid understeer. Fortunately, Collins is as enthusiastic as he is analytically minded, and he had no problem combing through lots of data.
Rocco, Tom Pasquarella
Collins’ steering needed a little more oomph. Nunes found his student’s steering inputs to be smooth and accurate, but a little on a tentative side. Nunes suggested he try to ask more from the steering and use it to encourage a little more entry rotation. “‘Pitch’ is an extreme word, but that was the idea,” Collins said.
Quicker rotation opened up a new area of improvement. With the car straighter, Corbin could now apply the throttle sooner and more abruptly. No longer limited by as much cornering load for as long, the Spec MX-5 could take more throttle midcorner — something Nunes had to psych Collins into trying.
“Chris told me that I could get back on the throttle way harder,” Collins said. “I just needed to have more confidence in the gas pedal, but once I tried it, I could see how much faster I was going down the straights.” His coach’s pointers were corroborated by the data: Collins ended up going a full 3 seconds faster by the end of the second day.
“Good coaching is expensive, but totally worth it,” said Corbin’s father Cory. “Once I saw they were bringing coaches of this caliber, it was clear this was a cost-effective way to get Corbin up to speed. When you consider all it costs just to go out and just run lapping days without a coach, this weekend was relatively cheap.
“TMC and NASA gave us a supportive place for Corbin to find speed and find a path into racing,” he continued. “They’ve given us so much guidance and, although nobody truly knows the exact answer to ‘How do I move up in racing?’, they’ve all given us the best answer they know. They met us with arms wide open, ready to help us however they could.”
It’s this supportive system that made the overnight improvements possible. True, new tires and brakes helped everyone push a little harder, but having an answer to some of the harder-to-word questions made a real difference.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to rely on specific instruction. There’s a general change in approach that needs to be made. With the coaches learning the student’s personality and watching their driving develop within a short window, they could make the esoteric recommendations that allowed the students to try new things and understand not only the new challenges of the car, but the greater challenges of climbing the racing ladder.
Real talent finds a way to advance at a rate that satisfies the perfectionist as well as the providing parent. Mazda Motorsports’ people know the challenge of bringing all the right elements together to ensure success over the long term, and with their experience and foresight, they’ve been able to give a new generation of potential racecar drivers a chance at climbing the ladder.