Now that my first pro racing season is over, I thought I’d to reflect back on the first event this year at Sebring and what a great learning experience it was. My first professional race week in the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires was full of ups and downs, but overall, I think it was a successful weekend. Having clocked less than three hours behind the wheel of an MX–5 Cup car in dry conditions, I knew I was going to have my work cut out for me. Learning a track that gives you many opportunities to make a mistake or two also was a challenge.
The week started on Tuesday with two one–hour test sessions. I spent that day getting acclimated to the track and the MX-5 Cup car, which is completely different from a Spec Miata. Changing my driving style took a few practice sessions, and after struggling to run a low 2:32 lap time, I figured that the pole would be around a mid- to low-2.31. I turned to my more experienced teammates for some advice on how to better handle the car.
I learned the value of having a teammate and how important it is to push each other to go faster. That, combined with the team owner, Jason Hoover, making a few last-minute adjustments before qualifying, made the car come to life! I couldn’t believe that with such a small opportunity to practice, I was able to outperform several veterans of this track, qualifying fourth and fifth place for the first and second races. I was even able to overcome being penalized a lap and having to run with the slower qualifying group because we were late to grid. Luckily we learned from that mistake and we were never late again for the rest of the year.
Wednesday’s first race was a standing start, which I had never done. It’s hard to describe how bad-ass they are. Your heart’s beating like crazy waiting for those red lights to go out and you drop the clutch like a sledgehammer, all while trying not to spin the tires too much and nailing all your shifts. They’re pretty exciting. When the lights went out, I felt like I had a great launch, but I was at a disadvantage from starting on the outside line for the first turn, which made it difficult to maintain my starting position.
I dropped six positions on the first lap because I was driving like a puss, trying not to make any contact with anyone. I eventually started to climb the leader board. Three quarters of the way into the race, I was involved in an incident between two other cars and I was sideswiped by the front fender of another car as it recovered from a spin. The damage affected the handling of my car slightly and led me to drift too wide through Turn 17, and I clipped the tire wall, breaking my right-side tie rod. Although I was unable to finish the race, I am grateful that we sustained only minor mechanical damage.
Thursday’s second race was a traditional rolling start with me in fifth position. The top 10 bottlenecked into the first turn with a few close calls, but everyone made it through safely. I was performing better than the day before, but my lack of aggression again caused me to drop back after the first few laps. Once I got into my groove, I was completing laps faster than the front runners, but a late full-course yellow flag prevented any chance of finishing in the top–five.
Overall, I was pleased with my performance in my first pro weekend. Toward the end of the week I was able to run at pace and sometimes faster with racers that have four-plus years of experience in the series. I made a few mistakes, but what I learned was priceless.
Kyle Loustaunau is NASA’s 2014 Western States Champion in Spec Miata and the winner of the 2014 Mazda Club Racer Shootout. He was named Rookie of the Year in the 2015 Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup series.